Monday, October 26, 2009

Facebook games: Scam or useful tool?

While I am present on Facebook as Tobold Stoutfoot, I wasn't actually using Facebook all that much up to about a week ago. Then I read somebody claiming that the future of gaming was Facebook apps, some of which already have millions of players, and I decided to see for myself what the fuzz was about. I tried out several different Facebook games, and quickly realized certain commonalities. These games all work along the same simple lines:

1) Gameplay is extremely simple, and does not require a whole lot of tactical or strategic thought. Basically you click on something, and you get a reward. The next reward is never more than a few clicks away. And it is very obvious what to do to get the next reward, so your chance of failure is small. Facebook games are simple Skinner boxes.

2) All these apps have some important elements based on real time. As you are rewarded for a few simple clicks, the game basically needs to stop you from doing those simple clicks for hours repeatedly and rise to the top too fast. Real time elements are the answer to that, in different forms. Either your click starts a process for which you can gather the reward only hours later, or you have a maximum number of activity you can do before your pool of energy / stamina / whatever runs out, and you need to wait hours for it to refill. In consequence you are encouraged to play Facebook games in short spurts, not taking more than a few minutes, but to come back every day, or even several times per day.

3) With the real time elements braking you out, it is likely that you feel an urge to advance faster than the game will let you. But, lo and behold, the Facebook app also offers a way out from that dilemma: Microtransactions. You can buy yourself more clicks, leading to more rewards per time unit. Or you can even buy the rewards themselves, for cash. I begin to see why some people are so rabidly opposed to microtransactions, because with Facebook apps you really see just the worst kind of them. For those who don't want to spend money on game advantages directly, there are also lots of indirect ways: The game company has commercial partners, who will give you whatever reward points the game uses in exchange for you signing up for something like ring-tones, or at least for agreeing to be bombarded with advertising.

4) Facebook apps are using the power of social networks. If you and your friends are playing the same game, you can help each other, even if you aren't online at the same time. There is always some mechanism which allows you to recruit your friends, and get some in-game advantage from that. The further you advance in the game, the more often you will actually *need* friends to do certain things. The Facebook app will also encourage you to plaster your "wall" with announcements of your progress, and even offer your friends rewards if they click on those announcements to join the game.

And that is it, the general principle of Facebook games. The purpose is rather obvious: Get people hooked with easy rewards, then block them from gaining those rewards as fast as they want, make them pay you money directly or via another company, and encourage them to invite all their friends to participate. It is an extremely effective way to make money with games, because much of the game is in the interaction of the players with his friends, and doesn't cost the game company anything to produce.

My apologies to those of you who have me as friend of Facebook, and who had to endure a lot of Facebook spam being caused by me trying out the various functionalities of different Facebook games!

Now we could just judge this to be an elaborate scam, and be done with it. But I'm not in the business of judging games, I'm in the business of analyzing them. While I find these Facebook apps to be somewhat distasteful, I do recognize that they "work". Which makes me think that instead of using the working part to squeeze out the maximum amount of money from players, and entice them to get their friends hooked as well, for a minimum amount of game actually delivered, we could use the same principles to make good games even better.

One thing these Facebook games do really well is to allow players to cooperate even if they are not online at the same time. That is an element which is often missing in MMORPGs. The requirement to be online at the same time, and in some cases the additional requirement to stay online together for consecutive blocks of hours, is a strong limitation to classic MMORPGs. Even communication in-game between friends and guild-mates is often quite limited, which is why pretty much every guild in every game has a website *outside* the game. MMORPGs could learn a lot here from Facebook apps: Guilds could have cooperative in-game projects to which every guild member can contribute at his own pace and timing. MMORPGs could be integrated with social network websites, where your character info would always automatically be up to date, and you'd automatically be part of the social group representing your guild. Guild forums and raid calendars could be part of that social network group functionality, and be accessible both from inside the game and from outside, via a browser or even via a smart phone.

In short, Facebook apps are using some quite powerful social engineering tools. And just like most tools, they can be used for different purposes, good or bad. Just like a hammer can be used for bashing somebody's head in, or for something constructive, these social engineering tools can be used for fleecing suckers on Facebook, or to create the next generation of MMORPGs.

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