Controversies Swirl Over Purity Of Social Games, Microsoft's Jab At 'Nerds'
The message Microsoft wanted to send was that Kinect was for the cool kids, and decidedly not its core gamer audience. AtomicPC was at the event, and reported that Microsoft's director of entertainment and devices, David McLean, quipped to his audience "Gaming's not just for sweaty thirty year olds in Metallica t-shirts," among other digs at "basement-dwelling nerds" and "impenetrable control schemes."
The core gamer community's reaction has been extremely negative. Atomic PC's writer on the scene said "It's a doubly galling revelation. For one, it takes the scales from one's eyes in regards to how Microsoft regards the gaming audience, and secondly it seems to give a flying middle finger to our community's ongoing effort to improve game ratings and censorship. There's a huge movement desperately trying to educate government and society at large that gamers are, in a very real sense, everyone; while Microsoft at least gets the age thing right, reducing gamers to the image of barely socialised troglodytes doesn't do anyone any favours."
Another, separate row blew up this week over an exposé of casual game giant Zynga in the SF Weekly, going into the usual sordid business about copying gameplay features, unethical business practices, stifling innovation, and other grim charges.
It's nothing about Zynga that hasn't been said before, but this time, Gamasutra's Nicholas Lovell laid into the exposé's author, accusing him of elitism. "You know what I think. I think that making incredibly expensive, hard-to-play games that require proprietary hardware and prior experience to enjoy is a dumb way of providing gaming entertainment to a global audience," he wrote. "Zynga (and Playfish and Playdom and 6Waves and Crowdstar) have found ways to make games that appeal to a broader cross-section of society than traditional approaches have ever done." He concluded by noting "They have made gaming something for everyone. Isn't it time we applauded that?"
More recently, game developer and researcher Charles J Pratt added this sentiment via Twitter: "Maybe social games are feared and hated because they make it obvious that the console/PC culture has lost control of the word 'game.'"
There certainly are elements of "elitism," as Lovell says, in criticisms of social games like "Farmville" -- core gamers are invested in their identities as gamers, and whenever a cult phenomenon enters the mainstream, you get people who liked it before it was cool, and denigrate the new, more mainstream versions of their beloved hobby. And although you have to respect Zynga's success at bringing gaming to a much, much broader audience, the fact remains -- as a game, "Farmville" is somewhat lacking.
The fundamental gameplay process in "Farmville" -- and indeed in most social games out there -- is the "grind," which is familiar for anyone who's ever played an MMO. You need to get from point A to point B, and to get there, you need to do the same thing 50 times. Every time you do it, there's a small random chance something great might happen. The slow, regular progression towards a distant goal combined with the chance of a random payoff tickles the right spots in your brain, and you happily do the same thing 50 times. Once you're at point B, you need to go to point C, and to get there you need to do a slightly different thing 100 times. Enjoy.
Plenty of smart folks have made this point. Ian Bogost created "Cow Clicker" last month, which distills the current state of Facebook games down to their essence. Jakob Skjerning did the same with "Progress Wars," which you can play if you feel like taking a break from your other social games.
So while these games are wildly successful in getting people hooked, they're not great as games. And when you really think about it, they're not especially social, either -- the generally available form of interaction in most social games is to ask your friends to help you out by clicking on something, or by pitting your character against another player's character in a battle resolved by random number generators. There's very little of the collaboration, teamwork, or real competition you find in core games.
The bottom line is this: while it's impossible to deny that social game developers have gotten a lot of things right in the eyes of the consumers, it's clear they're working with an audience unaware of the wider world of gaming, and the conventions that social games have borrowed and ignored thus far. As gaming moves further into the mainstream, those consumers will undoubtedly demand better gaming experiences. There's even evidence this may already be happening, as Zynga's premiere title, "Farmville," hemorrhages users.
So although there may be some "elitism" at play in this month's criticism of social games, there's a strong foundation behind it. We can't mistake financially successful games for good ones, and unless today's social games can adapt some of the successful traits of core games, any financial success will be short-term.