Adventures in Social Network Gaming
Social Network gaming is a strange and frightening world, a world of simple browser-based games which thrive on ease of use, micro-transactions and repetition. I’d never played one until a few weeks ago, but they are games, they’re (mostly) free and they’re easy to play quickly, so it seemed odd not to try them, as a gamer. Saying that, many gamers hate these games, seeing them as representative as a ‘dumbing down’ of the medium. There’s an argument there, and while I don’t believe these games are ever going to outright replace ‘normal’ gaming, they certainly are popular, and are drawing people to games who would never otherwise try them. Surely they can’t be as bad as their often poor reputation. I rolled up my sleeves and tried some out on Facebook.
My first game was ‘Pool Master 2’ – a pool sim, unsurprisingly. It reminded me of much older pool games, pre-3D, with an overhead viewpoint and simple controls – no spin control or other complex aspects of the game. The basic premise was to pot the balls by holding left click after taking aim, moving the mouse away from the ball, and letting go. It was decent, for what it is, though the power is a little extreme, every shot seemed to go off like a cannon, making mistakes too frequent. I assume with practice I could have improved, but this is an instant satisfaction experience, and I wasn’t instantly satisfied. I could see myself killing an hour, tops, on this game. An uninspiring start, but the game was far from awful so my hopes were raised ever so slightly.
Next up – PuzzleShare, a game that played like Marble Madness crossed with Chu Chu Rocket. The object of the game is to guide a ball around a block track, hitting all the blocks of a certain colour. Laying arrows directs the ball, and speed of completion, number of arrows used and deviation from the intended solution lead to a score based on intelligence level, which can be compared to friends. This is an interesting addition, like a high-score table, but the intelligence factor is something extra to brag about. The game itself is fun, surprisingly so. It has the same kind of appeal that Echochrome on the PSP does, a gently addictive nature that draws you back for more of its focused bursts of thought. The levels get progressively trickier, and while it does begin easily, the game becomes challenging enough for gamers used to Tetris and its ilk, rather than the more casual player. It bridges a gap in that sense.
I then tried the facebook version of Bejewelled, called Blitz, thinking that puzzle games are the perfect balance of challenge and accessibility. With over 11 million monthly players, it would seem that many agree. The game isn’t unique to facebook, but with its simple gameplay it works perfectly. Games like this are ideal for social networks, easy to run in a browser and open to short gaming sessions. The most enjoyable element is the addition of interaction. A bar on the right of the screen shows friend’s scores, encouraging attempts to outdo them. This is a great example of what could make social gaming work for console or PC gamers – challenge and competition. Reminiscent of the days when gamers would compete to write S.E.X. beside their score on arcade machines, social gaming which includes leaderboards and a fun game to play offer an innovative, yet simple experience.
Feeling confident that facebook games could actually provide a genuinely enjoyable experience, I ventured onward, to Mafia Wars. What a mistake that turned out to be. Mafia Wars, unless I’m somehow missing some sort of big secret (damned omerta) is Football Manager, without matches, tactics, transfers and all the other things that make it worth playing. It’s a text based RPG, though I’d say all of three people who actually play it know what that means. For my first few minutes with the game, I repeatedly clicked ‘Do This Job’ in order to gain experience points and increase my stats. I then clicked ‘fight’ and immediately won ‘fights’ with other facebook users. Then after doing some more jobs, I ran out of energy, got bored and gave up. All I had done was click repeatedly.
I can see where the addictive nature of these games stems from, I play Football Manager and obsess over improving my team the way some people seem to obsess over building their mafia standing, or whatever it is that drives Mafia Wars, I got too fed up to figure it out. The problem is, there’s no game, no challenge and nothing to really enjoy. It’s vacuous to an incredible degree – it might as well be a button that says ‘click to be a better mobster’ with occasional pop-ups saying that you’ve improved your skills thanks to some excellent clicking. Actually, that is Mafia Wars, that’s the entire game. Sure there are slight variations, but ultimately it’s a button that rewards clicking, stats awarded like cheese for lab rats in a maze.
Finally, I tried the king of facebook gaming, Farmville. Created by Zynga, who also made Mafia Wars, the game is a wholesome slice of farm life, in a focus-group tested for cutsey charm kind of way. There are now multiple ‘Ville’ games, all similar, so I thought it best to just stick with the classic. Farmville is like Mafia Wars, but with a little more to offer. There is a character to control and an actual farm in which to plant crops and keep animals. So I did just that, I planted some crops. Then began the waiting game. I watched a percentage bar slowly rise after running out of money to buy seeds, hoping to harvest my crops and buy more. I waited, and waited, and then left it for a week. Upon returning I was able to harvest my various plants and make money to buy more and improve my farm, but it seemed pointless.
Maybe I just don’t get it and these games are something I can’t understand, but why on Earth would I want to wait so long for crops to grow, in order to repeat that pattern over and over. For a cow or a shed? All I could do in Farmville was slowly, very, very slowly build a virtual farm. Technically the only challenge was my own lack of patience, but that could be alleviated by just buying whatever I wanted through micro-transactions. People, astonishingly, do this in their droves – they spend real money to maintain their virtual farm. It’s even worse than buying the horse armour in Oblivion. It’s their money of course, but it just seems incredibly odd to spend it on a poorly animated and utterly dull game which encourages such strange purchases by putting anything remotely interesting so far out of reach that it might take months to earn enough coins to buy – assuming the item can even be bought with the in game currency of coins, rather than the real money-fuelled ‘Farm Cash’.
Zynga have, to their credit, tapped into an enormous market of people who want to play simple, forgiving games, often without discernible challenge. Nothing really wrong with that, but their games are entirely based on hooking players on a never-ending series of in-game purchases and stat-building clicks – nothing more. Farmville in particular is little more than a game of waiting, listening to the mind-numbingly irritating music, and hoping to earn enough for that fence. The items are the bell, the player the dog. Needless to say, I didn’t much care for Zynga’s games. The other offerings on facebook however, were perfectly enjoyable, although mostly limited experiences. They offered games with some challenge, leaderboards and a genuine social aspect in some cases. In fact, if not for the overwhelmingly force that is Zynga, facebook games may have become as fun a distraction from more traditional gaming as iPhone apps. Pity then, that the incredible proliferation of vapid ‘Ville’ and ‘Wars’ games have ostensibly killed off, for now at least, any chance that social gaming could bring gaming to a wider audience.