02 Dec
December 2, 2011

If you’d allow me, I’d like to take a moment to wave my fist angrily.

First, some context. There is this interesting site created by Mike Acton called altdevblogaday. Basically, a diverse bunch of game developers on twitter have pitched in to contribute their insight, experience and anecdotes in a blog-like format, one per day. It started out small but it’s grown in popularity quickly, posts are regularly reposted on sites like Gamasutra and the Escapist and it’s recently seen John Carmack become a contributor. All-in-all, it’s a great site, tons of interesting articles for devs and people who are interested in the industry alike. I highly recommend it.

But there was an article on Game Monetization recently that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It summarizes everything I find distasteful about the misleadingly-named ‘social game’ genre*.

The article starts off ok by claiming that the most important thing is player engagement. That’s sort of a synonym for ‘fun’, isn’t it? Well, no. The dictionary says :

Engage : To attract and hold the attention of; engross

You’d think that if something holds your attention it must be because you enjoy it, but that isn’t necessarily true. There are other things that try to attract and hold your attention. Adverts, for example. I’d not call advertising ‘evil’, per se, but let’s be honest : you’re not consuming media for the ads (with the possible exception of industry folk). At best they are neutral, at worst they are an annoyance to be tolerated grudgingly, avoided where possible. While some adverts stand out as clever or amusing, as someone who hasn’t watched TV in years, trust me, you don’t miss them at all.

So engagement doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with ‘fun’. And moving through the rest of the article, that difference starts to become more apparent as social game design strategy is discussed. Let’s talk about ‘fun pain’.

One of Roger’s most interesting points was that “fun pain” was the key to social games’ success. Think about how a player needed to click each square to plant or harvest their crops in Farmville. This is a perfect example of “fun pain”, something that is simultaneously entertaining and a little bit annoying. This also gave Zynga the opportunity to upsell the player on pain-reducing items, such as a tractor that clicked four fields at once. These items were extremely popular among players, even though they only existed because it was painful to play the game in the first place!

This is where I start to lose my calm. Needing to click each square is “simultaneously entertaining and a little bit annoying”, is it? On what planet? It’s not entertaining, it’s just straight-forward tedium. There is no ambiguity here. But that isn’t the part that offends me. What offends me is that upon realizing that this tedium exists in the game, where a normal game developer might take the time and effort to make the player’s life easier by streamlining the tedium out of the interface so that all crops can be planted at once, a ‘social game designer’ gleefully pounces on it as an opportunity to sell the player an escape from the tedium their own design imposes in the first place.

And you’ll see this repeatedly in the piece. The classification of some distinctly un-fun or tedious aspect of the game design not as a flaw to fix but as an opportunity to get people to pay to have an experience that doesn’t suck.

Typically, you can earn the parts for the special item in three ways:

1. Grind for them over a long period of time
2. Spam your friends to have the send you the pieces you need
3. Pay for the parts that you are missing

Players almost always start with Grind or Spam to kick off their pursuit of the item. However, as the player grows weary of grinding and doesn’t see the response he was hoping for from his friends, he is left with a partially completed item and no use for the parts. Now, the user is willing to pay for the item to be completed.

The player growing weary is actually a design goal. It bears repeating, gradually increasing boredom is actually a design goal for a game here.

It sticks in my craw, this kind of thinking. There is no love for the art and craft of game design. The player having fun is actually an obstacle. A continuous cycle of dissatisfaction must be built into the system or the player can’t be convinced to give up money. Now, some might be about to say “but Gareth, surely they are entitled to receive money? These games aren’t cheap to develop and they give them away for free!”.

I’d suggest imagining it in another context. Imagine you open a restaurant, and your strategy to make money is to create purposefully bland food so that you can ‘upsell customers on condiments!’. Does this strike anyone as a good strategy? It may work in the short run, but I’d argue that only lasts until someone comes along and offers a superior product. Zynga made a bucketload of cash but it didn’t have much competition there for a while, and what competition it did have engages in the same practices as it does.

And regardless of whether it works financially or not, doesn’t that just strike you as an utterly sleazy business practice? Yeah, it’s Zynga, no surprise. But seriously, people are touting these mechanics all over the place, it’s the F2P revolution, dont’cha know?

Most of the list of ‘things that people pay for’ are more of the same thinking, features designed not for how fun they are but how much pressure they put on people to pay you :

Identity expression
Players will pay for anything that is socially surfaced in the game because you’re presenting your farm, city, or avatar to your friends.

Social pressure.

This drives demand for exclusive items: people will pay more when there is only a limited number of an item available, or to get things before other players.

Social pressure, prestige, not missing out.

Items that make the game more convenient and tip the “fun pain” scale more towards fun are worth a lot to a wide variety of players.

Surely ‘fun’ must be ok to pay for, right? Except it’s based on ‘fun pain’ in this context, ie the intentional inclusion of tedium to encourage the player to pay to escape said tedium.

Exclusive features
Having certain features or aspects of gameplay only become available for a fee can be an effective monetization model, as we see often with freemium software.

I’m ok with this. Little difference from a ‘demo’ or freeware strategy.

Hardcore players, especially males, will pay to get a competitive advantage against their opponents.

And there is a reason people find steroid use distasteful in sports, even if we know that it happens and that people will pay for it. Encouraging it is just another tick in the ‘don’t really give a fuck about gameplay, whatever makes us money’ check sheet.

Social value
Your players want their friends to play and by helping them, they increase their friend’s chance of sticking with the game. Once power becomes social, it becomes much more valuable and people pay for it.

Building social relationships, making new friends, creating community…wait, no, it’s about getting your existing friends to play to increase your social standing and power. How glorious, this ‘social value’ thing.

Roger found that random chance was a huge incentive for people to buy. We wrote a blog post that highlights the power of the Mystery Box that covers this in more detail.

Roger appears to have discovered the power of gambling. You’re only a couple of thousand years late to that realization, Roger. I’m not sure I want my games to become thinly veiled casinos, thanks.

Stat Progress
Players will pay for progress or temporary power in a game, especially a competitive one.

Already talked about my distaste for paid advantages in competitive games. Paying for progress…to me this implies that you’ve built your game so that gameplay isn’t that fun in and of itself, it’s just something people want to level through to get to a more exciting ‘endgame’. Lots of MMOs are like this, which is why services to buy fully-leveled characters exist. Imagine your favourite single-player game. Now imagine paying someone to give you a save game from the end of the game, so you can just skip all the rest. Yeah, would be pointless, wouldn’t it? if someone is paying to skip your game, what does that mean for your gameplay?

Surprisingly, people pay very well to advance the story. They feel a sense of progress when completing quests and will pay to overcome roadblocks in that progression.

I’d be happily on board with this except that the ‘roadblock’ phrasing implies that he’s not just talking about a model of creating and releasing expansion story so much as going in and chopping up what is already there for sale in pieces. Ugh.

I’ll end with 2 final lines from Roger’s Master Plan for Monetization that really summarize what I dislike about this whole design philosophy.

Negative reinforcement

Your obligation to your creations is a real driver of engagement. You don’t want your fish to die and float to the top of your tank, looking ugly and showing your neglect for all your friends to see.

Collection completion

This means mechanics like ‘do this 10 times and master it’ in Mafia Wars. “It’s kind of funny sitting there as a game designer and being like ‘our game is already kind of mundane… what if we make everyone do things 10 times?’ Well, it can work.”

What more can I say about a philosophy of game design based around obligation, social pressure and creating tedium so that your player pays you to alleviate it? Other than : I want no part in it, thanks. As a player, as a developer. Truly, the internet has a term for this :


*Misleading because ‘social games’ aren’t particularly ‘social’. They aren’t really about fostering a sense of community, forming new relationships or creating a space for engaging, dynamic shared experiences. Existing forms of multiplayer games are already vastly better at creating that shared social experience and connection than this new ‘social game’ genre. No, social games are simply about exploiting your existing social networks and relationships to get you to pay money. They’re not about creating social relationships, they’re about exploiting them. I guess ‘social exploitation games’ isn’t good PR copy.

12 replies
  1. Martin says:

    I would refer to Zynga as the Sith of the gaming world, except that any true Sith would take a step back and say ‘woah, hang on, what did I do to you?’ at the comparison.

    Still, they are a darkness upon the Earth… and what is more, they’re a darkness that is not excitingly evil, with stylishness and dynamic movement, they are instead a darkness that is dull, and grinding, and creeps in like the futility of rising damp.

    The problem with the ‘fun pain’ mechanic is that it’s relatively integral to the achievement-reward mechanic that is core in most game designs. For the achievement to be pleasing to the player, it must be difficult to attain… I don’t want to say that the player must feel he ‘earned’ it, since I don’t believe that that’s an accurate description of the psychology, but there must be a challenge to surmount.

    Unfortunately not all players are created equal, so it’s much safer to create a challenge that requires effort rather than skill. If the effort is too much fun, it’s no longer effort, and the goal loses value. Eventually the effort stops becoming fun, but the player has already devalued the goal and the game is discarded.

    This is actually an ideal model for a short-term game, but the industry drive is currently towards long-term games.

  2. gareth says:

    Agreed. Fun Pain and negative reinforcement are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, it’s when they are tied to tedium rather than challenge. Dark Souls, from what I understand, embodies this. The frequent player deaths can be incredibly frustrating, but the emotional payoff when you overcome some tough fight is massive.

    The same cannot be said of successfully planting each crop individually in Farmville. 😛

    I’m hoping it’s something that will be remedied when ‘real’ game developers start shifting more into the social game space. Zynga is wildly successful but it doesn’t have much competition from people who actually care about the experience of playing a game, I feel. As more devs start to experiment, I’ve no doubt a lot will try to emulate Zynga’s success. But hopefully a couple will try new things. One break-away success might be enough to encourage others to do better.

    I’ve got no actual problem with selling things like decorative items or constantly expanding content. See Echo Bazaar, eseentually a social game cum text adventure, where the devs are constantly adding new story. The mechanics are a little dull (just there to keep the writing going), but essentially what they’re offering players is their writing skills, not some sort of psychological thumbscrew.

  3. Konrad says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Infuriating.

  4. Scott says:

    Zygna and folks like them aren’t game developers in the sense you mean. ‘Art and craft’ aren’t their intention. Raging against them is like raging against a bank for charging people to use ATMs when the ATM itself is a money-saving goldmine for the bank itself. They’re ripping people off because ripping people off is their business.

    • gareth says:

      Well, that’s a bit of a simplification, there isn’t ‘passionate game developers’ on the one side of a line and ‘vampiric corporate suits’ on the other. There’s a range of people in-between. I see developers who are otherwise decent and passionate buying into these concepts, the ‘gamification’ debates have convinced a lot of people that this is actually what people enjoy, along with Achievements.

      When the guy wrote about ‘fun pain’ I don’t think he was purposefully being deceitful, I think he’d managed to convince himself that it was actually a ‘fun’ pain. They put a lot of faith in metrics, like showing where the player spends time or money is a proper measure of what they find the most fun in your game. Which is obviously false in many cases, such as the planting crops in Farmville.

      In other news : EA has begun a $29.99 annual subscription for its Tetris iPhone App. It will feature discounted DLC. For Tetris. The future looks bright!

  5. Llewdor says:

    As a player, though, thouse featuers are all avoidable. You can avoid having your friends see your game content by not sharing your game content (or by playing the game with a dummy account that has no friends).

    These social pressure features can’t work on someone who has given them even a moment’s thought.

    • Evan says:

      I don’t know if you’re bing sincere or playing the Devil’s advocate?

      That’s kind of like the online gambling debate. It’s not exactly “evil” that companies let players spend their life saving for no reward, but it’s still a foul practice that ruins lives.

      There’s a great word missing from this debate, that is “compulsion”. Engagement can mean a lot of things, and a lot of good things, but for the most part Zynga’s games aren’t that engaging, they’re kind of mindless.

      But Zynga are incredibly good at compulsion.

  6. Kris says:

    “I guess ‘social exploitation games’ isn’t good PR copy”

    Not true! I always give props for honesty in advertizing. It’s just that I see so very little of it.

  7. Alrik Fassbauer says:

    This reminds me of some sports journalist writing in the newspaper one day that the only way to get sports competition participants into more efforts is to induce some sort of angst/fear of death into them – because this special kind of angst/fear induces a chain-reaction of body chemisty that allows them to run faster, jump further etc. …

    • gareth says:

      Hmmm, I wonder if we could induce similarly increased performance in sports journalists using the same technique? I say it’s worth a try. 😉

  8. Woe says:

    Wow, it’s like the Machiavelli of video games.

    Surprised your ok with “Exclusive features.” Sounds like DLC for a +1 Sword of pretty colours or that tractor monstrosity.


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