Friday, February 12, 2010

Can Real Games Exist On The Facebook?

Can you remember a time before Facebook?  I’ve been struggling lately to envision what life was like before Mark Zuckerberg got his Harvard-honed hands around America’s – and by extension, the Internet’s – throat.  How did I ever get my friends’ thoughts on movies or snowstorms before The Zuck kindly invented the News Feed?  How did I simultaneously view my pal’s profile, chat with him through instant messages, and email him goofy links all while navigated the sponsored pages of a million tech-savvy corporations? (I think that was called AOL 3.0.)

Now that the majority of us have succumbed to the blue-and-white monster’s allure, it’s time to consider the fringe benefits to handing over our entire lives to the beast.  Unlimited photo storage (if you don’t mind that Facebook owns them).  An easy way to reach most of your friends (and for people who aren’t your friends in real life to reach you).  Grassroots organizing for various causes, platforms, and movements (assuming anyone in a position of authority even knows what Facebook is).  Oh yeah, and games.

Lots and lots of games.

Betting the Farm

Facebook’s most popular games capitalize on the site’s interconnectedness.  Early titles were essentially rip-offs of 8-bit- and Atari-era classics, some of which featured online leaderboards.  The appeal being, if your friend got a high score on Bejeweled Blitz, Facebook would tell you, affording you the opportunity to best it and commence some Wall-to-Wall smack talking

However, the games that have come to epitomize Facebook gaming are what Facebook dubs Virtual World Games.  You may have heard of one – or read about it so much you broke your mouse trying to hide all the News Feed announcements – called FarmVille.  It’s about, get this, running a farm.  Crops grow in compressed real-time (i.e. raspberries take two real world hours to grow), meaning that players must visit the game regularly to succeed.  It’s Animal Crossing-meets-Harvest Moon-meets-Sim City.  Doesn’t sound terribly original, does it?

What is (sort of) original about it is how the game leverages a player’s friend list to impact gameplay.  Inviting Facebook friends to be your ‘neighbors’ grants in-game rewards such as currency or experience.  You can help your friend harvest some pumpkins, find their lost cow, or give them a cute duck for their birthday.  All in the name of good, clean, time-wasting fun.

This collectivist gameplay model is not unique to FarmVille.  Armchair mobsters can recruit their friends in Mafia Wars.  I’ve witnessed people cleaning their friends’ fish tanks in Happy Aquarium.  The spirit of collaboration runs deep in Facebook gaming (not surprising when you consider the site seized the word ‘friend’ when it launched in 2004).  If only people cooperated this well in the workplace.

The relative simplicity of these titles is meant to attract the ever-elusive, always finicky ‘casual gamer.’  Your Aunt Sally, the dude who drove your school bus, your best friend’s mom.  All those people whose friend requests you just couldn’t turn down are now planting crops, raising fish, and stabbing uppity Italians in the back.  And industry giants have trained their crosshairs on this massive, click-happy install base.

Tapping into a Connected Civilization

On the list of people I didn’t expect to make a Facebook game but are now well on the road to doing so, Sid Meier resides near the top.  Meier’s been simulating life for years now with games in the Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Sid Meier’s Pirates! franchises.  It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s now tackling Facebook given his history of reducing the real-world to tile sets and tech trees. 

Civilization Network, Meier’s forthcoming Facebook game, purports to be a socially networked version of his popular Civilization series.  According to the game’s Facebook page (how meta can we get?) Players will “join together with [their] friends to create the world’s most powerful, richest, smartest, or just plain coolest civilization.”  This doesn’t sound like the worst idea, given the proliferation of you-help-me-I-help-you faction-building games on Facebook.  But I do worry about how persistence will affect some of Civilization’s hallmark systems. 

Sessions of Civilization, as any strategy buff will tell you, hinge on the proper allocation of resources toward a specific method of victory.  Research new weaponry, conquer your foes.  Construct space-faring vessels, be the first to Alpha Centauri.  Develop a culture so sophisticated it dominates the world.  The challenge is balancing your goals with the immediate demands of combat, diplomacy, etc.  It’s also what makes Civ fun.

How do you translate a concept like victory to a persistent platform like Facebook?  As far as anyone knows, FarmVille doesn’t end.  Its developer, Zynga, gains nothing by allowing FarmVille to reach any sort of conventional conclusion.  An ad-supported business model (or the shady advertising scams in which these games often participate) requires constant, unending play for there to be any sort of meaningful revenue stream.  What will happen in Civilization Network when you max out your space research?  Or when you and your friends sign disarmament treaties and the world’s finally at peace?  I don’t know.  I hope Sid Meier does.

Playfish and Pigskin

A few months ago, two contradictory reports came out of Electronic Arts.  If you were looking for bad news, you could read about how EA laid off employees at a number of its studios and promised restructuring of countless others.  If you were in the mood for head-scratching, I-guess-that’s-good news, you could read about EA’s purchase of Playfish, a social gaming startup responsible for much of Zynga’s direct competition/inspiration: Pet Society, Restaurant City, and Who Has The Biggest Brain? 

EA’s since announced that their new social gaming studio will be contributing to the development of a Facebook version of Madden football.  Madden?!  I mean, I guess it makes sense.  Despite being perennially the same damn game (though I suppose you could apply that criticism to most popular franchises), Madden sells well every year.  It probably helps that it’s, you know, football, the last fertile patch of common ground in an increasingly divided country. 

Like Sid Meier, EA’s been coy about what how its Facebook title will actually play.  Will it be a licensed version of 10-Yard Fight?  A friend-vs-friend emulation of a SNES Madden game?  Or will it be rosters, trades, and simulated plays in which case why don’t we just go play Fantasy bro I mean right?

There will surely be some appeal to whatever EA decides to stamp the Madden name on.  I imagine that leagues will be incredibly easy to organize, making beating your friends a season-long endeavor.  But in the move to the social networking landscape, key aspects of the franchise will assuredly be lost or left behind, scattered along the information superhighway.  What of rich character customization?  Or the unique thrill of acquiring all of your favorite players (through game-breaking trades) for your home team?  Or the franchise’s penchant for bleeding edge realism(which always takes a solid right to the cheek when a glitch accidentally sends the ball through a player’s dietary tract)?  I can’t imagine they’ll be able to fit all this into a browser window.

Preceding the watershed successes of Mafia Wars and FarmVille, Facebook gaming always existed on the periphery.  An organized, cleaned-up version of the vast subterranean Flash game network.  Not anymore.  The average user spends nearly five solid hours on the site a month (they must have missed the many Facebook addicts I know).  And since these games only require moments of your time, it’s easy to lose track of how many moments minutes hours you’ve squandered.  It’s no wonder companies like EA and Sid Meier’s Firaxis want in on that pie.  If only there were a way to ensure their confections won’t be half-baked.