Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Whiny post day: Facebook, facebook everywhere

Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.

The games industry's infatuation with Facebook hit new heights this week, with Raph Koster interviewing Gary Gannon on why hard core gamers should be excited about Facebook games.

We shouldn't.

Here's why:

- Facebook is a terrible platform for complex games. It's fine for simple games but core gamers have traditionally relied on every ounce of system performance for a game experience with great graphics, connectivity and performance. Playing a hardcore game on Facebook is like running a sprint with one of your shoes off.

- Facebook games are well known for having relied on psychological tricks. Core gamers know this and we're going to assume that if you're on facebook you're trying to scam us. If we don't see an obvious scam it means we'll assume you're doing it subtly. Even if an ethical game designer doesn't scam us someone will copy them and produce a similar game that harvests our friends for marketing data and attempts to get our mobile numbers so they can bill us for unwanted sms services.

- The bottom is about to drop out of the Facebook games industry. Traditionally it's been propped up by three things. Advertisers who think spamming millions of email addresses makes them money, numpties who give out their mobile numbers on the internet, and venture capitalists who fall for convincing 1999 dot com style patter about how wonderful this business model is. All of these things will decline at the same time as the number of developers entering the industry grows. More competition for less money.

- Pretty soon everyone who uses the internet is going to have a real email/facebook account and a dummy one for receiving all their spam or playing games. This will really hurt the facebook business model.

- Facebook works because it's free. Players don't see value in these games they see value for money. Free is not in the medium term a sustainable business model. You can't go on forever expecting people who aren't the player to pay for players to play your game.

- Game designers like Facebook games because they are cheap to make while the rest of the industry is making very expensive games. It's good for the designers. However the decision rests with the players, we decide what we will be doing with our money and it won't be paying top prices for cheaply made games. Even if we were willing to pay a lot we wouldn't have to - the 20 000 other guys trying to make the same game as you will be undercutting you.

- At their best Facebook games are just recycling really old ideas. I played Populous 20 years ago, I don't want to play it again just because a clone released on Facebook. Are there any Facebook games at all with genuinely innovative gameplay?

- Hardcore gamers are very comfortable with running multiple applications. We don't need a Facebook game to socialise with our friends and guildies. It's normal for PC MMO gamers to have some kind of IM service as well as voice comms from third parties. Even in games where the integrated voice software is excellent (Eve, DDO) people generally prefer to use third party apps.

- Gamers find out about games from other gamers. Gamers sustain interest in a game because of other gamers. No gamers have been posting to say how excited we are about playing our MMOs on Facebook. Developers are excited about this because it makes it much cheaper to produce games but players aren't. That's crucial - attempts to lead players where they don't want to go fail as soon as players have an alternative (eg forced grouping).

- MMOs won't stay expensive to produce. A lot of the current cost is because every MMO-maker starts from scratch. At some point in the next ten years people will be making MMO engines and art available for fans to mod and build themselves and there will be an explosion of MMO creativity.


  1. Agreed.


    - Minus

  2. You sound scared.

    - Flash is a simpler framework, yes. But are 16-bit SNES games less "complex games" because they aren't on today's greatest hardware?

    - Blizzard's games don't rely on high end hardware.

    - All games rely on psychological tricks to keep you entertained. Any MMORPG is just as notorious for this behavior as a game on Facebook.

    - Playfish (EA's $400m acquisition) became the 2nd largest Facebook games company without spending any money on advertising.

    - Facebook realizes the spam tactics of some of these companies and is making platform changes accordingly. E.g. the new Dashboard, and disabling Application Notifications.

    - Many games are F2P. League of Legends and DDO seem to be doing pretty well with this business model.

    - There has been little competition (and thus little innovation) because everyone else in the industry wrote off Facebook games (just like you). Now big players are trying to jump in. Once they realize the players don't want Yet Another FarmVille, innovation will begin.

    - Who is saying you can't run third-party programs?

    - Word of mouth is an important advertising strategy, not only in hardcore gaming, but in any industry. Facebook and Twitter allow information to spread faster than ever before. If someone you trusted sent you a message, sharing an in-game story with you, what does it matter if that message came over IRC or a Facebook wall?

    - What do hypothetical MMO engines have to do with Facebook games? And just because we have middleware engines doesn't mean we will get innovation. Console games are buying the same FPS over and over again, all built on top of CryEngine or Unreal.

  3. @most

    exactly... facebook games at their best can be about as complex as an SNES game... at the very best, facebook is going to turn into basically an emulator for SNES games... but we've been there and done that before... the problem is, are you really going to pay for these games when you can already download an emulator and play them for free?

    personally i'm just as scared as Stabs... games are already becoming way to easy, uninteresting, and have less and less depth every year.... facebook is just going to accelerate that trend and give developers an excuse to make craptastic games... or re-hash old games and try to con you into paying for them... or steal your identity...

    "Once they realize the players don't want Yet Another FarmVille, innovation will begin."

    - the problem is that the people that play facebook games don't want anything more complex than farmville!!... they don't want anything more challenging than that, they will shun anything with depth or complexity... they just want their rewards and dopamine fix and that's it... they don't care about REAL games... they're like addicts, they just want their next dopamine fix, the only innovation they want is for the dopamine to come faster and harder... and this is NOT what games are about...

    once you've introduced a person to these dopamine exploding games, why would they want to work for their dopamine fix ever again? they can just play a little farmville and will never have to think about doing anything more complex.

    facebook games make you stupid, lazy, and an addict... which just so happens to be the same road WoW is heading down... and why i got off that train a long time ago.

    - i know the above statement is very strong... but when you consider that cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates all operate by increasing the flow of dopamine in some way (just like these reward driven games), then you can begin to understand just how detrimental the effects of these types of games can be.

    i want more complex games, more challenging games, games that make you think, games that can hold my interest for more than 5 minutes.

    facebook games and everything they stand for are the exact opposite of why i play games.

    so yes there is a reason for players like myself and stabs to be worried... i'm sure you're familiar with Hecker's Nightmare scenario... facebook games are only going to bring that nightmare closer to reality.

  4. You didn't think that 3+ closed-door years, $50m investments were a sustainable business model, did you? There is so much risk involved with those AAA titles, that you see little innovation on those platforms at all. Sure, every once in awhile a genuine good and engaging game will come along, but most of the time they are crap.

    The hardcore studios under publishers aren't the Golden Children of Gaming to begin with. EA and now Activision try to cut as many corners as possible, sacrificing gameplay and rushing titles to squeeze out a few more bucks. Blizzard's WoW and SC2 shenanigans and Valve's L4D2 remind us that even the revered studios are businesses.

    Players have turned to mods and other indie games for years, trying to sate their gaming desires. You will still find your DotA and Counter-Strike in the hands of passionate innovators, not AAA studios. App stores, XNA, and Steam are where you will find great games; not on shelves.

    Facebook is just a distribution platform. It also has new ways for these games to engage the player. Just because the first generation games happen to be plagued with nefarious devices which exploit the subconscious of players, does not mean that future titles will also contain these gimmicks. And as I said above, games we already enjoy allow us to give gifts, make promises to come back, externally reward us, have leaderboards, and anything else you can find on FarmVille.

    There will be engaging and genuinely good games on Facebook, just like there are on any platform. Will we have to wade through the junk to find them? You betcha. But we already do that.

  5. "And as I said above, games we already enjoy allow us to give gifts, make promises to come back, externally reward us, have leaderboards, and anything else you can find on FarmVille."

    yes... but farmville is NOTHING BUT a system that rewards you for mindless clicking, and ways to annoy your friends with more rewards for mindless clicking.... other games have more going for them than just their rewards system... they have what's called "gameplay" something that i have yet to find in any successful facebook game.

    the problem is that players that like farmville type games... don't want the same type of things that appeal to the rest of us "gamers"... my gf plays farmville... she even enjoys watching me play games like God of War and Bayonetta occasionally... but i hate to think of the state of the industry when all the money is going to fund games that are trying to appeal to her.

    it's not facebook as a platform that i have a problem with.. it's the way almost all facebook games thus far have operated... it's their reward structure and the way their designed to do nothing but fill us with dopamine as quickly and easily as possible... once people get hooked on this type of "gameplay" it's going to be very, very difficult to get them off of it... they're going to want more and more of the same... and true GAMEPLAY innovation isn't going to happen... the only innovation we'll see is in the form of how rewards and dopamine rushes are handed out to the player.

    you're right, facebook as a platform is a good thing.. it could be the casual player's version of Steam.. and has the potential to support some really innovative games... but like i said before, the types of people that like farmville, are not the types of people that would be interested in innovative and creative games... unless they can offer more dopamine than the other games available.

    maybe there can be some good games come out for facebook, but in order for them to be financially successful, they're going to have to be loaded to the brim with rewards and dopamine fixes to satisfy the masses... which is going to diminish the value of the actual gameplay.

    i don't have a problem with facebook itself... i have a problem with the type of games that the people who are on it encourage developers to make.

    basically you will never see complexity, challenge, or depth in a SUCCESSFUL facebook game.... you might see it in a few niche games, but those games won't be successful because the vast majority of facebook users are not interested in that type of game.

    i hope that makes sense.

  6. FarmVille is actually an optimization problem in the form of a Knapsack problem. It degenerates very quickly since the number of best-fit items are infinite. But the point is that any resource or inventory management game is a Knapsack problem.

    Seasoned gamers like you and me need a little more than a single optimization problem to hold our interest, but players who are new to games do not. Zynga pulls every trick in the book to convince these players to stick around. I am not condoning Zynga's decisions (I, too, think they are cheap tricks), but the self-expression in FarmVille is also a powerful force, and it deserves as much recognition as talent trees.

    Housing systems in MMORPGs are essentially FarmVille.

    Why do niche games on Facebook need millions of users to be successful? Isn't Flash already a cheaper technology to develop for? Isn't Facebook a viral distribution strategy that requires little marketing budget? If anything, Facebook games need LESS players than native Desktop apps to be successful.

  7. the only way farmville makes any money is because it has a huge number of players... zynga makes a very very small profit per player... but since they have a zillion players, that profit adds up... a niche title wouldn't have that many players, so they'd either have to raise the price or appeal to more players (which involves making it more like the rest of the facebook rubbish, and less of a niche title).

    a higher price is perfectly fine for most of us gamers... but the average facebook user is going to scorn anything that charges more than farmville or its knock-offs.

    in that case the game might as well just be released on Steam or PSN where there is a community that would actually be receptive to a decent game... and they could charge a higher price and it wouldn't be scoffed at.

    here's a story for you that i think illustrates my point really well, and is kind of what started me thinking about how facebook games are really not good for the industry...

    i'm sure you've heard of Fat Princess... an awesome PSN game, at first i thought it would make an excellent facebook game.. it's simple, accessible, cute, pretty easy, but it still has some surprising depth and strategy involved... now my gf is actually more of a gamer than the average facebook user, as in she can play games like spore and zoo tycoon and the like for hours on end.... however, when i showed her fat princess she played for about 5 minutes, died 4-5 times, and handed me the controller and said, and i'm quoting here, "i think i'll stick with farmville"..

    if the average facebook user can't even play more than 5 minutes of Fat Princess... then how do you expect them to play ANYTHING that even remotely resembles a well designed game?

    more importantly, how do you expect to get the average facebook user to PAY for a game that doesn't give them the same kind of dopamine fix that they can get with a "game" like farmville?

  8. i think maybe you're overestimating the average facebook user... you have to understand that you and i are a very, very small minority... i'm not talking 10%, i'm not even talking 1%... i'm talking fractions of a % here...

    and almost all those "real" gamers are also going to be on Steam, PSN, xbox live, etc:... and what "real" gamer is going to actually spend money on a facebook game? a "real" gamer is much more likely to purchase a game from steam than from facebook.

    there is a reason facebook games are the way they are... there's a reason games like farmville are successful.. it's because THAT'S WHAT THE FACEBOOK USERS WANT!! you can't put yourself in the average facebook user's shoes and say that they're going to like the same things you do... they simply don't... while it's nice to think that facebook games can get gaming out to the masses, this simply isn't going to happen because the masses don't want "real" games...

    in the end, there will be a market for facebook games, and we'll see a lot of new and interesting things done with facebook... but because of the preferences of facebook users, facebook will never be the place to go for "real" games... luckily for the rest of us, there's always Steam, PSN, Xbox Live, etc:..

    now if they combine Steam and Facebook... and have different categories for gamers and non-gamers that allow people to find the type of games they want without having to sift through all the crap that's made for the "other" players... then maybe that could work...

    basically facebook users want exactly what they have, with maybe a facelift and even more rewards for pointless stuff.... i mean mafia wars, farmville, the island, etc:.. are all pretty much the same beneath the skin... there is a reason they've done well... facebook users don't want anything more complex, and those few that do, won't even think to look for it on facebook.

    wow that was even longer and more meandering and pointlessly wordy than usual... sorry about that.

  9. No need to apologise. The discussion is more interesting than the post that sparked it.

  10. Just because these games don't stimulate us mentally does not mean that they don't have value. I never found farming in any MMORPG to be fun or challenging. However, I do find it meditative and a distraction while I socialize with people inside and outside of the game. Perhaps the rhythmic cycle of FarmVille clicking is all these players are looking for.

    And once again, that does not mean that they will always be looking for meditative play. Some will, and others will "level up", so to speak.

    But back to revenue. Yes, currently Zynga sees less than 1% of their DAU and MAU monetizing, but we've already established that these are weak games. What if a F2P game with higher monetization numbers jumped into Facebook? Browser-based MMORPGs see ARPU numbers around $1 (on average). With only 1 million MAU, that's $1 million per month. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

  11. This is an excellent (and slightly dated: 12/2009) article about Zynga and "social" gaming:

    Viral gaming’s success is much easier to explain:

    It's new.

    What Facebook enables is the introduction of web gaming to normal people for the first time. This is why relatively ordinary game concepts like poker, virtual pet simulators, farming games and simple role-playing games have managed to penetrate so far. Taken in context, they're all as brand new as the equally simple Wii Sports was when Wii first launched. In any completely new game environment, unsophisticated games tend to rule the roost because players spend time being delighted by the strangeness of it all.

    The problem is that delight fades, and nothing stays new forever. Novice players start to develop expectations, and become veterans. This effect applies equally to hardcore gamers, poker players, casual gaming housewives or any segment of game players except young children.


    the number of novices who are impressed by very simple applications is going to fall and the number of expectant veterans will rise. The veteran mindset is more demanding, sophisticated and selective.

  12. so basically the argument is that i don't think that facebook users want anything more complex than what they're currently being offered... while you think that facebook users can be converted into "gamers"

    there really isn't much more either one of us can say... there isn't any concrete evidence on either side... and we can both make plausible, logic based arguments to support our argument...

    i don't really know what else to add... i guess we'll just have to see how it all shakes out in a few years.

    if facebook can turn my gf on to games like Starcraft, God of War, or hell, even something simple like Fat Princess or Lego Star Wars... then more power to it.

    i just think that the rewards driven structure of current facebook games is going to make it very difficult for "real" games to take root.

    the enjoyment of a game should come from PLAYING the game... not solely from getting the reward at the end.... but i think if you asked the average facebook user, they wouldn't care about PLAYING... all they'd care about is the reward and being able to show off that reward to their friends...

    i'm fairly certain a game where players pick up dog poop could be successful on facebook... as long as you get rewarded for doing it, and you can show off those rewards to your friends... i mean that's basically the extent of gameplay in current facebook games... are the people that play these games really the types of people that are going to appreciate a well designed, "real" game?... or do they just want their daily dopamine fix and they'd pick up virtual dog poo to get it?

    maybe i'm just being pessimistic, but i don't have a lot of faith in the mental capacity of the paying farmville customer.

  13. We live in exciting times! :D

  14. haha... i'm not sure exciting is how i'd describe it... scary, i think is a better word.

  15. came across an article by Raph Koster today... here is the link:

    here's what stuck out at me most.

    "No, social games won’t turn into core games. This is one of the misconceptions that AAA developers often have as they try to establish themselves in the market. It is absolutely true that social games are going to grow more sophisticated over time. But they will do so by growing further along the direction they have already been going."

    ... "In many ways, the features that were seen as oddest or least “gamer-like” in the worldy MMOs are going to be among core features in the social games: housebuilding, shopkeeping, farming, dancing, dress-up, even hairdressing."

    Raph is a big proponent of social games... but even he realizes that the direction of social games is not going to converge with "real" games... there are going to be 2 completely separate markets with completely separate consumers, and completely different tastes... which is exactly what i've been trying to say (i probably didn't do a very good job of it though)... the only real difference between Raph's view and my own, is that i don't think that these social games are good for the industry... i think they're going to bog it down and do nothing but scam money from people who get addicted to the dopamine rush that they get by picking up virtual dog poo and being rewarded for it... then again if they're weak minded enough to pay money for a "game" like that, then i guess they deserve it.

    anyway.. i just thought raph's article was interesting, and i was genuinely surprised when i found out i agree with him on quite a few points.

  16. Yes between Raph, Scott and what we've talked about here I think we're at a consensus where we agree that some facebook games will make some developers a lot of money but that not every gamer will be required to play their games on Facebook.