A little while ago a few friends from the game dev community were all sending out invites to a new(ish) Zynga game, FrontierVille. I jumped into the game to see how it played versus other social games I’ve tried, and immediately I thought about other game experiences I had growing up.
First of all, I think it’s important to say that have a love-hate relationship with “get more stuff” (aka simulation) games. I was all about Animal Crossing. I played the hell out of Harvest Moon. I had a long stint with the Sims. I even recently played through Kingdom for Keflings. These types of games are appealing to me because they’re pretty mindless and relaxing, and make you feel a sense of accomplishment over and over while still not giving you a huge payoff. That lack of payoff is the same reason why there’s the “hate” part of the love-hate statement. I usually lose interest in these games after about 10-20 hours of play, because they just don’t ever end. There’s no way I can win– and if I’m not winning I like to be roleplaying or engaging emotionally, and there isn’t any way to do that, either.
The social games phenomenon has just repackaged those exact same games and added the caveat of friends playing alongside you and sometimes leaderboards as replacements for the gamist “I can win” motivation. I doubt the sustainability of this type of experience. Here’s why.
The Harvest Moon Cycle
When I played Harvest Moon- which holds the record for the longest time I’ve played any sim game- I was working toward a very tangible goal. Harvest Moon is uncannily similar to FarmVille, et al.– you use sparse resources and energy to build up your awesome homestead. Here’s the motivation trick: Every winter, a pixelated spirit appeared and assessed how I’d done as a farmer in the previous year. It usually went like this:
Spirit: “You didn’t do very well.”
Me: “WTF ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT SPIRIT!? I have like 1 million cows and chickens and moneys! I hate you!”
Then I’d go back to working harder to please the damn spirit, until I finally gave up because I figured that I’d never win.
The Facebook Game Cycle
So imagine all the same elements of Harvest Moon, but your friends are playing in their own homesteads and you can give them presents or help them out, hopefully garnering favor and reciprocity. In some games you are also ranked in various areas against everyone else who plays. There’s also the monetization factor. If you don’t want to wait to build up your character over time, you can throw money at the game and it will enable you to get a lot of cool stuff very fast. Last I saw, about 2-3% of players monetize in games of this type.
Here’s why I don’t think the model is sustainable: it relies on guilt as a central motivator. If your friends are playing and ask you to play, you may join up. If they ask you for a virtual item, you might be able to give it to them. There’s a heavy guilt factor if you don’t send your friends gifts when they send them to you. Quite frankly, guilt is a crappy motivator.
Extrinsic Vs. Intrinsic Motivation
Truly excellent motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic (thanks Daniel Pink). Guilt is an extrinsic motivator. I don’t want to play because it’s fun, but because I feel bad if I don’t play.
Game designs sometimes forget that player motivation is central to the playability, success and sustainability of a game. If a game is not making the player happy, it is a failure.
In games, engagement may equal monetization, but engagement does not equal good design.