[Continuing his eccentric series on social games, game designer Patrick Dugan explains how a "solipsocial" game -- "the greatest invention since the Shake Weight" -- acts as a circuit breaker with no guilt. Here's "Socially Awkward IX".
When I was 7 years old, I reached what the Catholic Church called "the age of reason", not to be confused with the era that gave birth to the Freemasons and saw the erosion of ecclesiastical power.
No, this age of reason was in name only, kind of like "social games" -- just one calorie, not even enough. But that one calorie of reason allowed me to consider that maybe everything was an elaborate farce constructed by angels forever beyond my view, and that everyone else was an automaton rigged to respond to my thoughts indirectly, in a way that always allowed plausible deniability.
I had my first solipsism phase, the counter-point to my first communion. After about a month, I decided I would be happier assuming people are as real as I am and I couldn't really be sure of my own existence anymore than I could theirs; after all, I was a pretty biased observer. Then I got fat eating Wendy's hamburgers and playing JRPGs.
Fast forward almost 20 years later, and I can actually impress girls by saying that I work on social games. Who could have predicted that? It's amazing how the criteria or reproductive fitness warps depending on where you are in timespace -- in Korea, these guys
are considered top stock. Too bad when I say "social game" I'm not laying down anything as electric as live music; the appeal rather comes from comfy memories of clicking on their little x.
It doesn't matter what that x is so much as that, when they touched it, it expressed appreciation, it did not talk back, demand sex, yell at them, leave them or judge them. It just grew, it received their life through the trivia of a petty click, and it grew, with nobody there to ruin it. After about a month, they all decided they would be happier assuming people are as real as they are, and they moved on.
Richard Garriott once said that single-player games are like masturbation and MMOs are like group sex. If that's true, then social games are the female-friendly version of Chat Roulette.
For years, game designers have been railing against social games not being so social, while game designers employed by social game developers, like Aki here
, tend to take a dim view on the dim view taken on these games viewed as dim. Somewhere in the comments of the Greg Costikyan article linked in that blog post is a link to a blog that will link to this article, creating the game design rant equivalent of a #Ref error.
Maybe it would profit us to examine the psychology behind social games that aren't so social, understand why it works, and then we can get some practical footing for the next steps.
There are a number of reasons why ghosting the actions and presence of other player characters from the perspective of a given player makes sense. A ghost can wait around indefinitely for a response, allowing everything to be made asynchronous and thus radically simpler for balance, interface, server throughput, practically every level you could think of.
That's cool for developers, but surely the audience is eating that up or competition would drive adoption of heavier, synchronous multiplayer. So, what gives? Do people really like being alone together? Do we prefer the illusion of social interaction to the real deal?
In my adulthood, I manifested a more, shall we say, mature form of solipsism. I recognize that other people exist, but I'd just prefer not to deal with that reality too much, other than picking up delivery (and I do tip). So, I left the hive, where meeting people was easy, I went back to the bottom of the world, got kicked out of my mother-in-law's apartment in less than a week, and made a deal to rent a penthouse on a four-story building, so it's kind of a vertically challenged penthouse. I'm going to get plants put up on the terrace so the residents of a newly constructed and much taller building cannot see me.
And then when I got what I thought I wanted, I realized I had created a very posh hell for myself. Google Plus isn't enough; the little numbers just aren't hacking it for me. Sure, I acknowledge that somebody else made a choice to +1 me, but I crave real connection.
Maybe I'm not the best case study.
Most people live in the real world, they have kids they see everyday, or they work side-by-side with people they may not particularly like, because they have to. The world is rude to them because the world is chaos, and chaos only says please in tail probability scenarios where the pattern happens to self-organize.
I submit that perhaps many people, with a female skew, suffer from too much social interaction, too many demands and third party considerations. A solipsocial game then acts as a circuit breaker with no guilt. It's the greatest invention since the Shake Weight. It will never be violent. It will never put you down. It is friendly. It is safe.
I think women in particular, statistically, not stereotypically, tend to prefer a sense of safety. Society is predicated on it. I once wanted to make a Civ
-type social game called Women Are Society
where the only harvest cycle is pregnancy and the frequency of the pregnancies determines if you have a less dense but more advanced culture or a horde of barbarians.
Chasing boars can be kind of dangerous, but hanging out taking care of the kids and picking berries seems safe most of the time, until the other tribe's raiding party shows up. In both cases where my relationship with the mothers of my children ended, I was told they did not feel safe with me. You can take it from me that safety is the premium paid into solipsocial entertainment, because I am an authentic source of danger (dealing 0 blows and receiving about 12, but this is a perception game).
Now let's take one step forward.
After banging my head against the Wailing/Berlin Wall/Vietnam Memorial of interactive storytelling for some years, suitably dizzy from self-induced concussion, I considered one method that may well apply here. Player A experiences the game through the agency lens of the protagonist, and encounters player B. Player B is also experiencing the game as the protagonist. They both see each other as just some bum, an extra in their grand narrative.
Unlike society, where this happens frequently on a metaphorical level, in a solipsocial game where actions are ghosted to be asynchronous, it can be the literal default experience. I get to be Mickey Mouse, inviting my quirky friend to be Goofy, my head-strong friend to be Donald and my girlfriend to be Minnie, but she experiences her game as Mickey if she so chooses (though the odds of her identifying in-turn as Minnie may be above average - this has economy balancing implications), and the friend I invited to be Goofy has himself chosen to be Mickey for his own game.
But he's ok accepting my invite to be Goofy in my little solipsocial fantasy because he gets a FREE gift in exchange for the transient humiliation. Fortunately, I haven't signed a confidentiality agreement with Playdom, or I may have just counter-factually broken it.
We'll always be Mickey to ourselves and Goofy to somebody else. Which is why we may prefer, in the vector cloud of n-dimensional odds weighting that we call makin' munny in da social gamez biz, to spend more time in our heroic cocoons than we do actually facing our differences.
I'm going to take another step forward while making apparent to you that you are in fact the one taking the step.
Some of the most successful instances of mainstream entertainment in other media -- I'm particularly thinking of TV series as there you find audience metrics on scope with CityVille
and its ilk -- are basically recordings of a game played over and over with different archetypes interacting based on rules. Let's consider Friends, or its less generic and infinitely superior predecessor, Seinfeld. I also want to talk about Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm as these are currently my two favorite shows.
Friends hinged its success on an ensemble cast of characters that you can almost smell fresh from the recombinant oven of a handful of parameters hashed out over a cross-thatched table. Male/Female, Serious/Quirky, Sensitive/Sensual. I'll spare you the trip to Google Spreadsheets by saying that the generation of these characters is almost as formulaic as pairing a mage, cleric, and paladin, except you have one of each gender and there's some sexual tension. Their interactions almost write themselves.
Pop-up scenario X, oh Joey is auditioning for a movie and Ross has a new girlfriend. It's like level designs; how would Chandler and Rachel respectively react to each situation? Now how would Monica and Phoebe react to their reactions? By feigning to answer that question, you just wrote an episode of Friends.
Seinfeld by contrast, was more like Jagged Alliance
. The inter-locking of each class was not so clean, there were multi-angular combinations, multiple solutions that never quite panned out. Kramer was demolitions, Elaine was hacking and subterfuge, George was the foil and an occasional sniper, and Jerry was the CO and everyman that allows some bastion of normalcy for the audience to identify a protagonist. The weird people who shuffled in and out of the show were the 60 hire-able mercenaries.
Since I'm on a roll with classic tactical games, Mad Men is like X-Com
. Mm... that's good. I'm just going to leave it at that as I don't think a clause can be more perfect.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is almost quintessentially solipsocial but from not such a... such a... female... friendly perspective? Here you've got this guy walking around, he's worth a billion dollars for making the Jagged Alliance
of situational comedy, he runs into a domestic violence victim crying in the Whole Foods, and it's inconceivable for him to not try and reach around to the pint of Chubby Hubby ice cream sitting in the freezer directly behind her. The humor of the show is predicated on a combination of his unrelenting bluntness, probable crucifixion, and certain invincibility. It's like a perverse extension of the pleasures offered by the first generation of social games.
In the Friends example, you've got level classes with no clear central figure, kind of a something for everyone approach that has served the genre-kings of both subscription MMOs and Facebook games. Seinfeld offers a twist on that similar to the Disney character example above. Most guys would want to play Jerry or Kramer, and most women would want to play Elaine or Kramer.
The character class of George is significant precisely because people are so unlikely to want to play it in their own games but nonetheless need others to fill the role. "Really, you invited me to play George instead of Kramer?" That's an interesting dynamic, while still being kinda safe, the social risk involved is within the realm of being laughed off. I think that's much more interesting. It's like playing Chess versus Checkers.
So, go forth, leverage those social graphs to a new exponent without unleashing horrid torrents of unpredictable interactions where real hurt is at stake, and make yourself a million bucks. The cash will only be real to you. It's a game about nothing.
[You can also read the rest of Dugan's series about Metal Gear Solid 2 predicting Facebook, the industry's Wall Street envy, the joy of vector meme, peripheral visions and dreams, metrics, F*book, mobile social local games, and the return of skill games.