Enter "CivWorld," a social game based on the storied "Civilization" franchise. It's not exactly tearing up the charts, though. According to AppData, two weeks after its launch, "CivWorld" has a little under 300,000 active users -- not a small number of people, but it's just not in the same ballpark as Zynga's titles.
Why is that? Well, Firaxis has made a game that doesn't have a lot of potential to annoy your friends if you're a player -- there's no daily way to get an edge by inviting your friends in. Instead, there's a much more robust multiplayer element than anything Zynga has produced. Players, each of whom are responsible for an individual city, can form nations and compete against other player-created nations, to a final victory condition -- something completely absent from many social games, which tend to just go on and on without a set end point.
It's not quite fair to say that "CivWorld" is a flop -- it's still pretty fresh, and it's not the model many social gamers are used to. But part of the problem I see with the game is that it doesn't go quite far enough in upending the current paradigm of social games. The developers did away with the social spamming that can come along with these games, which was a good first step -- no longer are players encouraged to exploit their social networks for in-game benefits. And while they have taken steps to make the game a truly collaborative experience, there are still huge opportunities to increase the level of social play involved in these types of games.
A major reason why one player's impact on another's experience needs to be limited in online multiplayer games is the fear of "griefing" -- intentionally ruining another player's game experience. But social games have the perfect opportunity to sidestep that problem by allowing players to include or exclude people based on their social networking relationships, rather than allowing a completely open field. Currently, though, developers are taking the much easier route to growing their games' player base -- incentivizing players to recruit their friends through in-game benefits and creating noise in their newsfeeds. Until true collaboration is possible -- collective creation or competition like in games such as "Minecraft" or "Eve Online" --- social games are going to remain comparatively shallow and simplistic.