Unless you’ve just awoken from a 3 year coma to a nurse handing you an intertubes device with express instructions to read this blog, you’ve probably heard about social gaming. Social gaming refers to games on platforms such as flash (“facebook games”) and mobile operating systems (“iphone app games”) and some of the more basic games on the Nintendo Wii. They are usually simple affairs, with basic game mechanics, cartoony (if charming) graphics, are often free and supported by micro-transactions or a cheap initial outlay and often have a multiplayer element allowing you to easily play with people you know. What you’ve also likely figured out is that they’ve been wildly successful. The Wii has sold tens of millions of units and Zynga (responsible for behemoths like Farmville and Words with Friends) recently announced a public float expected to generate more than 1 Billion dollars. These companies have somehow managed to corner a share of the market that game developers and publishers had given up on in days of yore.
I like games that challenge me mentally and physically, so to me these simplistic casual games are an anathema. An enormous portion of the people pouring their hard earned into these games are not people that were riding the wave of digital entertainment when it was in it’s relative infancy. They are the girl that you lied to in high school when she asked you why you looked so tired (Don’t tell her you were playing games, don’t tell her you were playing games “Ummmm… I was masturbating all night.” Well played!!!), they are the teacher that told you you needed to grow up and do something productive (WTF learning how to fast expand while fending off Demon Hunter + Huntress harass isn’t productive?!?!?! I hope you don’t mark my English assignment that nastily), they are the parents that set limits on the games you could play, and when you could play them (Mmmmmmmm, forbidden video game….). Now the folks that looked down upon your chosen hobby are responsible for the biggest boom the industry has seen since the 80s. It’d be easy to look at the whole situation and see another example of this world really not giving a shit about what’s fair.
To ensure the contents of your stomach remain settled, I’ll refrain from regaling you with other reasons life isn’t fair. Instead I’d prefer to talk about what this means for that somewhat intangible concept, “the future”. In particular what it holds for those of us who fear a future Civilization 4 being stripped bare because this new generation of gamers don’t want to learn how to play it.
This influx of potential customers means that companies have an absolutely gargantuan potential market to develop for and while development costs tend to rise, distribution costs have never been lower thanks to the prevalance of digital downloading. Even cornering a small fraction of the market means a financially viable product at the very least. In short, there’s way more money to be made in the game industry as a whole than there has been at any point in the past. The trouble is that at this point, gamers as a group resemble an onion more than they do an amorphous blob. They have layers and each layer is a different size and shape. They also prefer cool dark areas, and taste great when chopped up and cooked into italian food (wait WHAT?!).
This difference in preference is at the core of the pretty well reasoned argument against this expansion of the market being a good thing for games as a whole. The market is dominated by people that aren’t interested in games that stretch them mentally. They enjoy (and pay for) simple games with basic mechanics. If a game publisher has missed this trend it’s pretty safe to say that they’re being run by a pack of faeces flinging baboons at best, that congealed amorphous blob I mentioned earlier at worst. These companies, being professional organisations whose primary purpose is to generate money, are (rightly in some ways) creating games to appeal to this changing market. Combined with the inherent higher development costs associated with big budget game productions, the result is a tendancy to go for the simpler option, a “streamlined” design direction, relentless exploitation of franchises and of course everybody’s favorite, shiny new graphics. Sound like the course of any other big entertainment medium?
So the next great innovation in gameplay doesn’t get made because all the money in the industry gets poured down the throat of noughts-and-crosses rather than chess. Sounds like the death of creativity in the medium right?
The argument against this horrifying scenario occuring is that gamers that enjoy more complicated interesting games didn’t just suddenly disappear overnight. Actually quite often they used their critical thinking and reasoning to work their way up the corporate food chain and start earning some handy moolah. They have money and they are willing to part with large amounts of it for their chosen personal interest. In other words they’re a market. They’re not the biggest player in the gaming world anymore at the moment, but they are substantial, and “social gaming” won’t scratch their itch. If a substantial market in any industry is not having their needs serviced that represents an opportunity. If history has taught us anything it’s that where there is an opportunity, there WILL be a wily customer that takes advantage of it.
The other factor to consider is what will happen to the mass of social gamers that now accept gaming as a form of personal entertainment. As I mentioned in my MATT DAMON post, much of why we enjoy games stems from enjoyment in learning about abstract concepts, and applying those concepts in different situations. When we have no more to learn about the application of the game’s concepts we get bored, and maybe declare the game shallow depending on how quickly we outgrew it. We declare a game “deep” when there are enough applications of the game’s mechanics for nearly limitless variations (See Starcraft, Warcraft 3, Civilization 4 etc…). Social games generally don’t have that level of depth.
Contrary to what you may have gotten from my ravings, I don’t see casual gamers as stupid. They’re such a ridiculously broad spectrum of people that any comment of that nature would be rightly rubbished as absurd in the extreme. Smart, stupid, brawny, scrawny, friendly, quiet, prudish, slutty, fruity, you name it, it’ll be represented in this demographic, and hey I’m sure plenty of dedicated gamers have a Zynga game or two on their phone. “Casual gamers” purely refers to gamers with an aversion to learning more complicated game mechanics, but without a shadow of a doubt there are people in this group that have the fervent gaming zealot gene lying dormant within them. Now ask yourself this question, are the people in that subset currently playing social games more or less likely to go looking for a more enriching experience when they realize CityVille, FarmVille and Smurfs Village are 54 flavors of vanilla? If you answered “more likely” you’re in agreement with this humble individual.
I’m not naive about this. That girl from high school isn’t going to start throwing herself at your feet (or any other of your extremeties) because you went 20-0 on Kalimdor with your off-race and a 400ms ping. But the beauty is that you don’t have to have 1 in 2 outgrowing Mafia Wars and getting wanderlust for greener pastures for there to be an appreciable increase in demand for the next level of gaming. You don’t need 1 in 10 or even 1 in 50. Even 1 in 100 would result in the market growing by millions. Growth in demand means more games being made, and that’s before we take into account a likely improvement in quality and reduction in cost of development tools making the creation of games an easier and cheaper process.
In other words, like most forms of hysteria, the world’s not going to end and the industry is not going to cave in on itself creatively. Games will continue to come in all manner of shapes, sizes, perversions and depth levels because they’re just a reflection on what we the people want. As long as there are many of us craving and subsequently shelling out money for more nuanced experiences those games will be created and thrive. The only thing we can do from down here is spread the message to those outside our caves and bunkers. You might find the great unwashed more receptive than they’ve ever been previously.