This article was first posted on the Simple Lifeforms blog on March 20th. In the wake of GDC and much talk about social gaming, I felt it was worth a reprint to the Gamaustra readership.
This article describes 8 kinds of social game operating today (mostly on Facebook) and provides many examples. We hope it does a better job of explaining what is going on in social games and why we’re so very excited by social games in general.
Social games as an industry is about the conversation. We realised recently that the conversation about social games is still waiting to be had but it can’t be forced. Social games are still very unfamiliar terrain to most, and so this article is all about grounding that conversation so that it can begin.
Social RPGs borrow a lot from regular video game RPGs (role playing games).There are quite a few of these kinds of games and they all followmore-or-less the same formula: Players collect money to buy items byperforming ‘Jobs’ or ‘Quests’, assign bought items to members of theirteam or party, and do so in the confines of an energy statistic thatprevents the player from doing too much too soon.
Zynga (the most successful social game developer on Facebook according to AppData)has a suite of RPGs which are built from a template they havedeveloped. The games are the same but use different images and logos.Other RPG makers use very similar formulae. Mobsters, Mafia Wars, Mob Wars and other hoodlum-based games are the most popular of the social RPGs. Some others like Vampire Wars, Street Racing, World War and Fashion Wars also do pretty well. Dungeons and Dragons: Tiny Adventureswas also an attempt to bring some old-school tabletop role playing toFacebook but has apparently ceased development. Other notables include Battle Stations, Knighthood and Might of Many.
Sport RPG games do not generally feature in the top 50 applications,but some of them are interesting games with a decent-sized audience.They are very similar to social RPGs in many respects, but the focustends to be more competition-oriented. Sports RPGs are oftenreminiscent of Football Manager, Fantasy Football and so forth, with the added feature of using your friends as players in your team. One example of this is Premier Football, a game in which you manage a team of players made up of your friends.
One Sports RPG that stands out is Tennis Mania.Tennis Mania uses many of the same management mechanics of other sportsRPGs and mixes them with an actual tennis game. It is, as far as weknow, unique in doing so and remains one of the most interesting sportsRPG games on Facebook.
UK social developer Playfishhas made quite a strong play for casual games in social networks.Unlike most other social game developers, Playfish uses Flash heavilyand has a very high standard of graphics and sound compared to everyother developer. Some of their games have clearly drawn theirinspiration from the success stories of the Nintendo DS and Wii, with Who Has the Biggest Brain? clearly belonging to the Brain Training school of thought, and Bowling Buddies, Geo Challenge and Minigolf Party very reminiscent of the sorts of games you’d see on Wii.
Another approach is the casual portal, such as MindJolt Games,which is an application that acts as a portal to over 500 casual games(mostly simple ones). This is a good strategy given Facebook’s inherentlimitations on numbers of bookmarks that users can have. Other gamesportal services such as Kongregatehave also created a presence on social networks, although this tends toamount to a redirecting index back to the portal service, which mayexplain why they haven’t really taken off to any extent.
Word games are best viewed as a special subset of casual gamesbecause they tend to attract a particular kind of player who oftenshows no interest in other casual games and vice versa. The first (andin some cases only) social game that most people have ever heard of wasScrabulous (now defunct), but there are several other word games that have arisen in its place.
Playfish’s Word Challengeis the most popular at the moment and also the best. It comprisesseveral game modes. In the basic one you are given a set of letters andmust find as many words from those letters in a set period of time,with a visual table on-screen giving you a means to deduce missingwords. Being social, the game also shows you your performance againstother friends who have played the game.
Other notable word games include Scramble (a Zynga game in which you make words out of letter patterns), Word Twist (similar to Word Challenge, but more of a versus-game) PathWords and a couple of official Scrabblegames (Scrabble seems to have complicated licensing arrangements, whichhave resulted in different versions for different geographicalreasons). Lastly, the original inventors of Scrabulous came back with adifferent game called Wordscraper which allows a customisable kind of Scrabble game rather than the official version.
A number of social games operate on the ideas of creating a presencein a defined area, giving gifts to your friends and essentially hangingout. They are among the most popular social games and function purelyon their social interaction mixed with a creative mentality. They tendto form communities as a result, whether explicitly represented by thegame, or implicitly in the form of a club or association.
First is Lil Green Patch. The idea behind Lil Green Patch (and its sister application Lil Blue Cove)is that the player has a garden in which they plant flowers. They giveplants to each other and the application promises that the gifting ofplants to others helps save actual rainforest in the real world.Players tend their gardens, de-weeding and looking after them. Anotherapplication in the same vein is myFarm.
Pet Societyis another. In this game, the player has a Pet. They can take care ofit, seeing to its needs, dressing it, petting it etc. They can taketheir pet out into town and meet other pets, arranged in a kind ofvillage structure. There’s a whole community, the opportunity to visitother players pet homes, and generally interact. Pet Society is aPlayfish game and as such is very animated and vivid.
Yovillealso follows the little town structure motif, but instead of pets theplayer has a personal avatar. Yoville is essentially a combinationisometric town and chat application. You can kit your character andyour apartment with various nice objects, there are speciallycollectible objects and coins which can be earned or bought, and youcan meet many other players in the game and talk to them and otherwisejust generally hang out.
Perhaps the most geeky virtual village game is My City. This SimCitystyle game allows players to create their own functioning city andinvite their friends to contribute to it. My City is also unusual as asocial game in that it uses Microsoft’s Silverlight as a viewer rather than Adobe’s Flash.
The main difference between social network Poker and sites such as 888.comis that they are for-points games rather than gambling games played forreal money. The most popular social Poker game is Zynga’s Texas Hold ‘Em.It’s a competent if visually unexciting version of the game in whichplayers can buy or earn chips. The game is very good at making it easyfor you to jump in and out of a hand as required and also featuresvirtual gifts, which you can buy with your excess game chips if youhave any.
Zynga’s game is the most popular of all the games on Facebook at the moment. However Playdom (who claim to be the number one social game developer on Myspace) recently announced that they are making a move into Facebook with the Poker Palacegame. This will likely see a lot of competition between the two gamesand Playdom bring with them a sizeable war chest of investment.
For those who have no interest in Poker, there’s always Blackjack.
Just for Laughs
In the early days of Facebook Platform the first applications thatreally broke out of the gate were just-for-laughs games. These sorts ofgames are essentially a virtual joke that invites users to get theirfriends in for a few goes before they move on. Just-for-laughs gamestend to rise and fall quickly in popularity. In the first few monthsevery Facebook user was swamped with messages such as “you have justbeen bitten” by games like Vampires vs Werewolves.Users actually became quite annoyed at the level of noisy traffic thatthese games generated to the point that Facebook stepped in and clampeddown on them.
Today the just for laughs games still exist and thrive but they arenot as annoying as they once were. A good example is the game KickMania.The game is simple enough: You choose to place one of your friends’photos on the head of a dummy model, which you then proceed to kick ashard as you can and score some points. Your friend then receives amessage that they have been kicked.
Kidnapis an evolution of the just for laughs game. It uses a combination oflight RPG with a social mechanic which involves essentially‘kidnapping’ your friends and showing them different cities around theworld. The game is a promotional vehicle for the Travel Channel and hasbeen very successful to date, building a loyal fan base.
Compare People(and a variety of similar friend rating games) would also count as ajust for laughs game. The game invites you to complete questions aboutwhich of your friends is smartest, funniest, sexiest and so on. Yourfriends then get notified that they have been compared and either foundstrong or wanting. This game and similar ones of its type are reallyjust a social giggle. Other examples are is cool, Water Gun Fight and Pillow Fight.
An ownership game is one in which players establish ownership overeach other in complicated networks, and gift and otherwise generallylook after their new-found charges. Ownership games have their originin the just for laughs style of game but tend to establish longer termsof ownership and build much more resilient communities as a result.These communities are examples of social networking and gaming behavingsynonymously.
The most popular and well known of these games is Friends For Sale.Friends for Sale allows you to buy your friends, treat them well, givethem gifts, make them do amusing things and other light-heartedactivities. There’s an element of gamesmanship in it in that theobjective of the game is to profit on the buying and selling of yourfriends.
Slightly more on the fringe is another game called Human Pets.Like Friends For Sale, the goal is to establish patterns of ownershipwith your friends and make new friends, but unlike Friends For Sale thegifting system is creative. Players upload their own pictures, add taglines to them, create their own little shops and so on. This featuregot Human Pets into some trouble with Facebook (and prompted anoff-platform move to its own dotcom destination site)because the game attracted a much more adult audience than Friends ForSale as a result, beyond the point of risqué and into erotica.
Ownership games are on some level essentially dating games. Thecompulsion behind them is popularity to an extent, but they’re moreabout meeting people and creating social structures as a game itself.They are in many ways quite fringe compared to what most people regardas gaming, but their appearance and has made social games undeniablymore interesting in many ways.
Some of these categories are heavily over-subscribed, especially theRPG, and it would be difficult to achieve any traction with a new RPGwithout a serious advertising push. As Facebook itself grows rapidlycannibalisation probably isn’t a major issue for the RPG just yet, butit likely will be.
Highly casual games (including word games) have questions over themas regards their economics. Users love them (Playfish’s games are amongthe stickiest on Facebook) but they are difficult to monetiseindirectly. If you’re giving a casual game away for free, whatincentive is there for players to pay? Virtual property in a game likethis is meaningless, advertising tends to be irrelevant to the gamecontent (and thus ignored), and the only sort of investment thatplayers have in them are high score sharing and other viral activities,which are socially uninteresting. Playfish are trying to monetise theircasual games with a traditional upgrade model (get the first levelsfree, pay for the pro version). This has always been a difficultbusiness model for users to accept because there are so many other freegames available.
Some categories are under-subscribed, such as Casino, Sports RPG andOwnership games. While each has established one or two majorproponents, this really does not exclude others from making a go of it.The history of games markets has always been one of newcomers andsurprise challengers, so it would be premature to regard any of them aslocked up and untouchable. The low barriers to entry of social gameespecially make this likely. Of course, some categories do not yetexist. Nobody’s thought of them or nobody’s done a good enough jobexecuting on one of them yet to make any impact. We at Simple Lifeformslike to think that our forthcoming game (Spell Souls) is just such a game. Stay tuned.
While it’s an exciting time to be a social game developer, the scenehas developed such that the initial rush is now over and now is thetime for more focused strategies, better targeted games and a drive toimprove quality. Social games have crossed the threshold into aproperly-developing sector of the games industry now, and it’s a greattime to get into it. This is not a complete list of games or gametypes. It is, like all such articles, open to questions of whether aparticular games really belongs in one category or another, whethercategories run the risk of shoe-horning content and whether it is agood idea to categorise games in genres in the first place. However itis useful to be able to explain social games in an imperfect contextthan no context at all. That’s how the conversation starts.
Thanks are due to AppData.com for providing useful data for all of the example games in this article.
You can follow many of my more instant thoughts @tadhgk on Twitter.