social games

Social games were a phenomenon that transformed the way we looked at games, firstly with Facebook, but later also on mobile.  They provided a way for companies like Zynga and OpenFeint to burst onto the scene. But as we know, in recent months Zynga’s share price tumbled, and now Gree has announced that they are turning off the servers for the mobile social game network OpenFeint (which Gree paid $104 million for last year) in mid-December. Does this mean that social gaming has failed? Was this an experiment that went too far?

For a gaming social network to succeed, you need a platform that people would return to anyway; obviously this is where Facebook came in. Instead of having to be online together to share experiences, we can now see updates that have happened while we were offline.  This was combined with server-side stored game data which allowed for new types of ‘asynchronous play’ both on PC and subsequently on mobile. I could perform an action and this could affect your game when you returned to play. This expanded our opportunity scale friendships and to create acquaintance-bonds through play that would be otherwise unsustainable.

To isolate what’s happening with asynchronous play, let’s isolate its simplest form. The Facebook Poke. Its pretty simple when I visit your page I can select the option to “poke” you and this means you get a message saying that I “poked” you.  “So what,” you ask.  Well that “poke” is a transfer of information; it says I thought about you today.  It doesn’t require reciprocation, it’s not demanding, but by responding you are inviting further interactions. But, more profoundly, its meaning is completely independent of the action itself. The meaning of a “poke” is entirely subjective to the basis of the relationship of the two parties.  When I poke my wife or daughter it’s an act of love; when I poke my friend it might be a reminder that we had agreed to go to the pub; when I poke someone who owes me money…

Obviously a poke doesn’t have much longevity or intrinsic value and instead we now have games which can provide context and entertainment.  Visiting my friend’s farm and acting to recover their plants has a beneficial effect on the engagement of both players; as long as that action retains some meaning and mutual value.

So why do these relationships and mechanisms fail to last?

Well, of course, as humans we crave change to retain our interest, but more than that there is something about the relationship between players that we need to take into account.

I find it useful to use interdependence theory to help explain this; the concept was first introduced by Harold Kelley and John Thibaut in 1959 in their book, The Social Psychology of Groups.  It looks at why relationships can have positive outcomes and yet be unstable, while others can be stable despite the unhappiness of its participants.

What does this have to do with social games? Every interaction with other people has an outcome, expectation and a comparison. In a social game, we have an expected outcome for what we get out of playing with those other players, and playing the game reveals whether that is delivered or not.  There are many kinds of outcomes, such as emotional, social, instrumental and opportunity; each of which can have a positive or negative impact on the person affected.

My experience doesn’t just have to be overall positive, it has to exceed my expectations for me to be happy.  However, the stability of the relationship is dependent on my expectations of the alternative options where I might also be happy – such as other games my friends play.

Continuing to play a social game requires that it is both meaningful and beneficial, not just to me as a player, but which I perceive to be better than the alternatives. Players expectations and needs evolve and the game has to adjust or we will lose interest and look elsewhere to satisfy our social needs. When the effort to continue exceeds the perceived outcome, then it’s no surprise we stop playing when something new arrives to tempt us away.

From my experience working on British Telecom’s Wireplay, PlayStation Home and Papaya Mobile, I know that maintaining a social service is a hard thing to do and it is dependent on the lure of the content that it serves.  It’s no surprise to me that many companies have come and gone in the social games space, but there still remains huge potential for when it work. I believe that relying just on content to maintain interest in a social platforms isn’t sustainable and we need to other reasons for our audience to want to return to us.

oscar clarkIf we can find those additional reasons players’ expectations will more readily be bested by the ‘outcome’ of using the platform.  More than that if we can achieve a scale of users (like Facebook has) the expectations offered by other platforms will be less appealing and that will bring greater stability.

To find those reasons we need to look at socialization differently.  We need to look at people and their desires and willingness to participate not just raw numbers. We need to look their willingness to engage and how we can turn that into a reason for other players to stay and share experiences. Only then can the platform become as valuable to the developer as the content is to the platform. The trouble is that I don’t think any platform is there yet.

Are we at the end of the line for socialized games?  No, I think we have only just started.

Oscar Clark (@Athanateus) is the evangelist for Everyplay from Applifier.  He has been a project strategist and designer on mobile, online and on console since 1998 with British Telecom’s Wireplay, 3UK and as Home Architect for Sony’s PlayStationHome. Additionally, he has acted as a spokesperson for RealNetworks, Nvidia and Papaya Mobile.

[Image credit: PictureYouth, Flickr]