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Up until a few years ago, the potential of social network games seemed limitless. Now that reality has sunk in, game designers who were once proponents of social games acknowledge that the space may never live up to its potential.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

November 4, 2013

20 Min Read

It all started with some fairly harmless logic: As a form of play, digital games should be shared with as many people as possible. They should live on the platforms where users already work and socialize, and should have something to add to interactions in those places. They should take every opportunity to reach entirely-new audiences, maybe even those who would never have thought games could be for them.

In the age of metrics, game designers suddenly came into an unprecedented opportunity to gather reams of information about users -- the users they had, as well as the users they wanted. It still sounds like harmless logic, the concept of an organic product that grows and responds to what players do there, designed and tuned for optimal engagement. Features that nobody likes can be adjusted or removed. Popular elements flourish.

It starts to seem less harmless when you realize games can be made to hook players into mundane cycles of reward-oriented clicking. And that designers can use information about engagement to ensure players spend money. Free-to-play social games promised light, friendly distractions from one's workday where spending money was only an optional enhancement, but the reality of social game design on Facebook favored gradually-escalating pinch points, the careful use of friction, a slow, insidious ramp-up where players became accustomed to ease and plentitude that the game gradually pulled away from them.

"If a player repeats something, it's fun," said Zynga's Mark Skaggs in 2010. At DICE that year, Jesse Schell now-infamously made a doomsday prophecy about players desiring rewards for every behavior, a consequence of a design trend that favored Skinner Box mechanics, where users receive gratification, then are forced to wait a requisite amount of time before doing it again.

By the time 2010's Game Developers Conference came around, the spiritual anxiety around social games was palpable. Ian Bogost released Cow Clicker, a satire of hollow social game mechanics that, to his consternation, became his most popular work.

In "Fear and loathing in FarmVille," Soren Johnson  delineated the tension: Veteran designers took center stage, excited about a new frontier for games, joining burgeoning social game companies like Zynga and Playdom. Meanwhile, a moral disgust for Zynga and its model for Facebook games radiated from the gaming world's corners.

It seems hard to believe that only two years later the roar of battle has all but died. Most of the designers who left their traditional paths to join social gaming firms --  Frank Lantz, Brian Reynolds, Raph Koster, Brenda Brathwaite, Soren Johnson -- are no longer in Facebook games, casualties of Zynga's shrinking business or other diminishing social opportunities, not long after publicly celebrating the opportunity to make a game their way, outside the traditional grinder of triple-A.

Whatever happened to Facebook as a game platform? Where are the storied designers who believed so much in Facebook now?  Even supposing it was the economic-treadmill model of design that was poorly-considered and not the idea of social gaming itself -- a moderate stance endorsed by many who thought there had to be something useful that game design could do with Facebook's nigh-billion eyeballs -- why has "social" itself gone from watchword to bad-word in so little time?

"I saw a lot of creative potential"

Scott Jon Siegel has spent virtually his entire career in social games, joining Zynga in 2008 when there were just 80 employees. By 2009, he was at Playdom during its acquisition by Disney, urging independent game designers to disrupt the rigid business logic of social games with genuinely-playful works.

It was Area/code's successful 2008 Parking Wars Facebook game that jump-started Siegel's faith in the idea that games on Facebook didn't have to be "evil."

"From that game I saw a ton of creative potential," he says. "Here was a platform that allowed its games to tap into the social graph, and games that could do this well could allow us to think differently about our connections to other people. It was a platform of play built upon the connections shared with friends and family. That should have been huge. And it was huge. It was just huge in a 'business, exploitation' sort of way, rather than a 'setting new creative benchmarks' sort of way."

"When we made [Parking Wars], our first Facebook game, the platform seemed like a genuinely interesting new way to make games," says Kevin Cancienne, formerly Area/code's director of game development. "We were always interested in games as social interaction -- that games are almost always more interesting when there are other real people involved."

Parking Wars

Working on the asynchronous Facebook platform seemed like a rich vein of potential for multiplayer games that bypassed the significant tech and design challenges of realtime multiplayer, Cancienne says. "In many ways for us, back in the beginning, Facebook was simply an amazing, enormous lobby for asynchronous multiplayer games."

In general, Area/code did work-for-hire development projects for companies looking to use games for promotion, focusing on bypassing the usual cynicism of tie-in projects in favor of making honest games. Parking Wars itself was promotion for the A&E television show of the same name; Cancienne says Area/code won the contract versus a few non-digital game projects on "purely creative terms."

Parking Wars had the fortune of hitting the market before microtransactions became essential to Facebook game design, and of only having to satisfy the goal of "getting a lot of eyeballs on a thing." In that regard it could be seen as "pure," but it's often hard to discover where the line between the sheer possibility in connected play and shrewd business interest lies.

Area/code was co-founded by Frank Lantz, a close friend of Ian Bogost's. The company was bought by Zynga in 2011, right as Cow Clicker's popularity reached neurotic proportions. Bogost often drew controversy for publicly questioning whether social game designers felt honest about their philosophy or were swallowing greater concerns in favor of business opportunity.

"I think a great many social game developers are mistaking the success of their games for positive contributions to humanity," Bogost told me in 2010. By then, the growth of popular games was already beginning to slow down, but it didn't stop Disney from acquiring Playdom for $563 million -- not long after Electronic Arts spent $300 million up-front for Playfish.

"My guess would be that lots of those people were either talking nice and/or wearing extremely rose-colored glasses when they spoke about the great potential made possible by the Zyngas and the Lolappses of the world," says Cancienne. "We used to joke about it, back at Area/code (before we ourselves gave into the dark side) that it was awfully convenient that the place all these veteran game designers said was super-promising also happened to be the places that were suddenly offering huge compensation packages."

"It's not hard to see how the bubble burst"

Veteran designer Raph Koster, known for his leading work on Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, as well as his influential book A Theory of Fun, had been committed to the utopic goal of user-led social game design since founding the Metaplace platform in 2007. Metaplace aimed to democratize virtual worlds development by letting players make and own their own spaces, and part of that vision of ownership involved showing and sharing on social networks like MySpace and Facebook.

"That didn’t click, and then we also tried putting a social world on Facebook," Koster recalls. "At that point, it was becoming clear that we needed to pivot away from our original goals, because we simply weren’t getting traction with virtual worlds. It was a very painful decision, but we decided to instead use the technology to make social games. We were running out of money and had to find an approach that would work."

In that respect, Koster's embrace of the supposed social potential on Facebook was partially a business necessity, although the company had been exploring social network integration since long before the boom. While Koster and his company focused on their own site, Facebook games marched ahead. Zynga bought one of Metaplace's competitors, MyMiniLife, and integrated its technology ("their tech became a foundational part of Zynga's success," Koster says).

Metaplace closed in 2010, and Koster joined Disney's Playdom shortly thereafter. "One of the things that was attractive about Playdom was that they had made a point of bringing on a lot of creative talent from the traditional games industry, and tried to find a balance between those approaches," he says.

Even before that, Koster had tried to bridge the philosophical anxiety between triple-A and social games, and the rampant cynicism about Facebook. "There was a lot of lack of understanding on both sides, I thought," he says. "Over in the MMO community, I had people calling me a sell-out for doing Facebook games. I also saw plenty of social game people come at things from what I would term an arrogant place, saying that they had solved all aspects of the game business."

Part of his mission became evangelizing the genuine joy and potential in this opportunity to reach a brand-new audience. Many game designers, like Infocom veteran-turned Playdom VP Steve Meretzky, talked about the beauty in games for everyone ("people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age"). Others, like Bogost, worried about assigning an inherent moral supremacy to something just because "your mom likes it."

"I suppose the one true value of the whole 'social gaming' thing is that it really expanded the audience for games in a big way," says Siegel. "I've always loved the ability to put something out there and have millions of people try it and see it."

"Speaking personally, at the height of the bubble, all the talk about 'games for moms' began to grate a bit," recalls Area/code's Cancienne. "After a while, it was hard for me not to hear 'but a middle-aged woman in Ohio won't understand that' as a dismissive, reductive, and small-minded excuse to dumb down gameplay and hew to established conventions."

In Cancienne's view, in fact, the laser-focus on an imagined, mass-market "moms and middle-aged women" demographic might have been where the Facebook boom began to waver: "You had a huge population of product managers, game designers, and developers making games that they themselves didn't like," he says.

"What's worse, they were supposedly making them for this cohort that existed as a cartoon -- the middle aged mom sitting at home, bored with her life," he adds. "Given this mostly male, mostly disinterested group of people cynically making games for this other group that existed primarily as a stereotype, it's not hard to see how the bubble burst."

"The weakness of the Facebook games platform is a direct result of Zynga's 'design' decisions"

"I was torn, because I did, and still do, believe in that opportunity," says Koster. "But I also really loved what we were doing with Metaplace.com and really believed in it. The message of accessibility and games for everyone is something I have been speaking out about for a really long time... there’s a big canvas there, though it isn’t just about the mass market accessibility, but also about the affordances of the platform – meaning, there are kinds of games that can only be made on top of something like Facebook. The million-player game, the game that exploits the social network, the game that relies on collective action… so it wasn’t just the idea of 'games for mom.'"

Was Facebook a good platform for that vision? A considerably more moderate Scott Jon Siegel suggests that Facebook as a platform for games might have suffered from knitting itself too closely to the needs of its most powerful developers. Zynga's repetitive, metrics-driven design may not just have created audience fatigue and damaged the perceived opportunity, but permanently impacted Facebook's suitability.

"I feel that the weakness of the Facebook games platform is a direct result of Zynga's 'design' decisions over the years," says Siegel. "It's led to a samey-ness across the Facebook charts, and a platform that's become increasingly cumbersome to developers, in part as a reaction to years of developer exploitation of that platform's communication channels."

Five years ago things were different, Siegel says, recalling a platform-holder eager to court strong developers as well as underdogs that would benefit from extra nurturance. "But Facebook has historically catered the most to developers who provide the most financial incentive for doing so. I'm not sure we'll ever know exactly how cozy Zynga and Facebook got with each other, or how much it negatively impacted other developers, or the platform. But I'm fairly certain that relationship helped sour the platform for a lot of people -- both developers and players."

Woodland Heroes

Ian Cummings left EA's Tiburon studio and its Madden NFL franchise to help found Row Sham Bow, whose Woodland Heroes was a widely-recognized success on Facebook. Ian Bogost spent some time on the company's board of advisors ("Developing for the Facebook Platform is picking out the wallpaper for one's own death row holding cell, the cleaver for one's own blood sacrifice," he once effused in unsurprising dramatic fashion).

Cummings remembers Bogost "wondering aloud whether Zynga had simultaneously created and destroyed the entire Facebook game industry," he says, a statement that seemed shocking to Cummings at the time but now seems less so. "I think the unfortunate thing about the immediate turnaround times, along with the gold rush of every developer jumping onto Facebook, meant there was a massive flood of copycat ideas and techniques."

"Zynga [was] dominating the pack by such a wide margin in terms of daily and monthly users, then every single development studio just started accepting a lot of their design practices as the gold standard," says Cummings. He recalls he kept expecting a more traditional, core-friendly game to arrive on the Facebook platform and transform the landscape (and its traditional, dubiously-ethical business model of only monetizing 1 percent of users, or 'whales.') 

"It never happened," says Cummings, who now works at Zynga. "I start to think it probably won't."

"It favored the most ruthless, basically"

Koster says that neither blame nor credit can be laid solely at Zynga's door. "The fact is that it was a wide open new market, with virtually no controls on it. It was a gold rush scenario with no regulation," he says. "And what happens in those situations is that those who are the most clever with their tactics can build a massive lead based on practices that don’t work very well in a more mature market, that are often outright unethical."

"Eventually, Facebook started clamping down on those practices, but it nonetheless established the tone of the market in a way that powerfully shaped the platform and developers on it," he says. Even though exploitive practices had been stamped out by the time Koster joined Playdom, the business infrastructure was irrevocably changed: Metrics were emphasized over design, development relied on split testing over relatively-short time frames, and data was tracked to the minute, rather than a broader look at customer lifecycles, Koster adds.

"It was a situation where, if you didn’t engage in those practices, you were going to struggle," he says. "It favored the most ruthless, basically. And once limits started being imposed, there was still left a culture of optimization based on fairly short-term incentive structures."

The result from a design standpoint was pure conservativism: "Rather than pursuing what could be done on the platform, in the way that new platforms usually encourage, it all instead converged very quickly into just a very few game types that could be proven to work, because there was measurable success in doing so," says Koster. "The period of fertile experimentation was cut short, to my mind, and the winners ended up being those who innovated on business practices, not game designs."

He also thinks the sudden gold rush surprised Facebook, leading to a platform where APIs weren't usefully-specific for game making, constant changes made extra work for developers, dashboards were unsuited to administration and community management facilities were limited.

The risk-taking and invention designers like Siegel hoped to see from smaller companies in the social games space was nearly impossible within those kinds of constraints in both business and design: "[In] various ways... the platform was rigged toward favoring larger companies," says Cancienne. "The platform API itself was a continuously moving target, with features changing or being removed on a continual basis. If you were a small shop, it was very, very difficult to stay on top of this and keep your game using the platform optimally -- or even working at all."

"F2P energy mechanics became a one-size fits all solution, and no one we spoke to was interested in hearing about other options," he says.

"By the time we were acquired by Zynga I think we mostly had a grin-and-bear it attitude," says Cancienne. "We hoped against hope that we'd be able to get something interesting done on this platform that had been churning out garbage for so long, at this company that clearly had its heart in the wrong place, but for most of us, our guts told us our odds of making something we'd be proud of were very, very small."

Friend Game, designed by the Area/code team after acquisition by Zynga, was innovative, but the company didn't seem to commit to the title long-term alongside noise from EA's Sims Social, and it quickly faded from visibility. Zynga closed the Area/code office at the beginning of this year as part of larger cutbacks that included the closure of fellow acquisition Newtoy.

Abstractly, then, the potential for innovation and meaningful social game design on Facebook was there, but the platform came unprepared to host games in the first place, and quickly hewed to what metrics-obsessed giant companies wanted. It seems that as went Zynga, so went the platform all along: Headlines about MAUs, DAUs, concurrent users in the millions and massive revenues have been replaced with ones about layoffs, executive exodus, falling revenues and studio closures.

Zynga seriously considered entering the gambling arena (that idea was tabled by Xbox head-turned-Zynga CEO Don Mattrick), as Candy Crush Saga maker King.com, now also a mobile games giant, usurped Zynga on Facebook charts. The free-to-play mobile market seems to have risen from the smoldering ashes of Facebook, but the games themselves leave little legacy.

"The numbers have dropped from completely insane to garden-variety insane"

That shift toward mobile makes Facebook itself less relevant as a web presence, suggests Koster, who left Disney Playdom over a year ago. "I spent my time in Facebook development mostly trying to create new kinds of social experiences. I think I wasn’t the only one trying things along those lines," he says. "It doesn’t seem to me that most of those experiments worked – not just mine, but those of other people as well."

Broader audiences don't seem as interested in more synchronous interaction, which was a big push many designers thought could 'legitimize' Facebook games. The shift toward mobile will allow Koster to revisit other design interests, like puzzle-making. Meanwhile, "I haven’t found myself wanting to play a Facebook game since I stopped working on them," he says.

There are still millions of people playing Facebook games where most of the design community no longer has to see them seeking White Mystery Eggs in their newsfeeds. Thanks to platform changes, most users opt out of seeing social game notifications.

"The numbers have clearly dropped off from the completely insane levels they were at a couple of years ago, but they've really only dropped from completely insane to garden-variety insane," Cancienne says. "We're still talking about millions and millions of people playing games on Facebook every day. What's definitely changed is the rhetoric around them and the amount of mind share they command within the industry."

"There's never been a better time for gamers and developers to start working with Facebook," said the company in its recent Q3 earnings release, claiming there are now more than 260 million people playing games on Facebook every month. The company says its users spent more than $1.5 billion in games in the first half of the year.

But Siegel sees a perfect storm of disinterest keeping developers at bay: "The platform has become more difficult and more costly to develop for, at the same time that the perceived opportunity has waned," he says. "At the same time, I think that trust in the Facebook platform from a user perspective is probably at an all-time low."

Even though he once believed in a wide array of opportunity and possibility on the Facebook platform, Siegel himself has run out of motivation to try any games on the platform, assuming any Facebook game he tries will be poorly designed, lack invention, try to trick him into spending money and spamming friends, and start emailing him regularly without permission. With those assumptions in place, it's hard to imagine developers would see the value in putting time and energy into Facebook games anymore.

"A lot of people now equate 'game on Facebook' to 'spammy piece of shit,' which I don't think is an unfair or inaccurate estimation of the situation," he says. "To what do I credit this? Zynga, of course."

The end of the Facebook boom might even mean that "social" itself -- once such a broad trend embraced by designers and triple-A publishers alike as bigger than Facebook and Zynga, and full of potential -- is no longer a lustrous buzzword.

"To most developers, 'social' is a means to an end"

"I've heard Facebook wants to start reaching out to indies, but I'm pretty skeptical," says Cancienne. "And as a full time indie, I've basically left behind pitching games to people, so while I have no doubt that 'social' is now a bit toxic, it doesn't really affect me."

"I would not be surprised if 'social,' in the sense of the social network games we have seen until now, is a bit tainted," says Koster. "Everyone thinks they know what it means. But to me that means that actual social-ness has a huge amount of design space left in it. We shouldn’t give up on it."

Since starting his games career with Zynga, Siegel says his experience in the social space has been so demoralizing that there've been consequences to his mental health. He expects his current job will be his last in the game industry, and even if it were possible for the concept of 'social games' he once believed so strongly in to see a renaissaince, he won't be participating.

"'Social' has always been a red herring," he says. "To most developers, 'social' is a means to an end. It's an advertising opportunity, a re-engagement tactic, a viral hook. Games still thrive broadly on Facebook. Millions of people play games on Facebook every day. But they're playing in spite of the shortcomings of the platform...  If we can flush out a lot of the bad choices made over the last five years, I see no reason why games on social networks can't have a renaissance at some point."

"But I don't know how possible that is, or how soon it could happen, or whether it's even possible for it to happen on Facebook anymore," he adds. "All I know is I'm done trying."

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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