Is there an easy way to explain what makes games fun? Is it even possible to explain what fun is? At the Social Gaming Summit, a panel featuring Persuasive Games' Ian Bogost and XEODesign president Nicole Lazzaro discussed what fun is in the context of social gaming, using Facebook gaming to argue that social context is key.
Lazzaro began the panel by stating, "The most important quadrant for this conference is what we call social fun - people will play games they hate just to hang out with their friends. In social games, amusement and social bonding are the emotions that you are going for."
Facebook And Social Gaming
Claimed Bogost, "Parking Wars
is definitely the best game on Facebook. Why is that? You're playing as yourself, but a different version of yourself. When we play as ourselves in a game like Parking Wars
, it's us, but it's also slightly not us. We get to suspend the normal roles of our social life and try new roles. Also, it's about something. The something is parking, which sounds boring, but it's meaningful - it's a context.
He expanded on the importance of meaning rather than simple addictive qualities. "By taking advantage of knowledge you pull from Facebook, like other's schedule, you're leveraging your knowledge of your network of friends and exploiting it in ways you might not usually do," he continued. "I know there's a great obsession to hook people and get them back as soon as possible, but it can reduce the meaning of a game to ask for that kind of regularity. You want a meaning behind the time between each session, which Parking Wars
has. Another example of that is Animal Crossing
CEO of ShuffleBrain Amy Jo Kim in turn explained game mechanics that she felt "are accessible to every web designer or social game designer" - collecting, points, feedback ("realtime and non-real time"), social exchanges and customization. "We humans are wired in certain ways," she argued. "An exchange is like a conversation. Some games have the feeling of a conversation; some games are more like a monologue. Is there a pause when it's my turn, and then the other person's turn? Is that meaningful? This is one of the most important things to make the game social."
"We certainly think about a lot of these issues," said John Welch, President and CEO of PlayFirst. "It costs a lot of money to make good games… Diner Dash
is one of the most successful games on Facebook. From what perspective? Making money. It's terrible at being viral. But we need to make games not just around social models - we need a business model to tap into. Casual gamers don't have a budget of time to play games. By and large, people like to pop in an out with no dependability. People have more money than time, especially the older gamers."
What Does Fun Mean?
"Fun can be amusement, but fun can also be a lot of hard work," said Lazzaro. "The emotions that you experience while you play are coming up and going through your body as you play. If you look deeper into the mechanics of Parking Wars
there are a lot of missed opportunities. In Parking Wars
, the winning strategy of the game - where emotion and game design are right together - is to go to the bottom of the list and find someone who's played the game once and never played it again. From an emotional design standpoint, that's kind of a disaster. You want the mechanic to be the other way, to really reward the interactions that will create more emotion."
"One of the things that makes games fun is feeling like you're on a level playing field," expanded Kim. "So as designers when you begin to consider ideas like players being able to purchase upgrades... it gets tricky. The takeaway is when thinking about business models and features and all that, make sure sure that people who play your game perceive they're on a level playing field"
"They're buying convenience," explained Welch. "You're selling something they can get for free anyway if they just spent time on the treadmill."
Lazzaro offered an alternative sell other than "convenience" - customization. "People will pay! That's how the ringtone market came out of nowhere. The YouTube video that gets pushed back and forth is fun and amusing, but what's really important is the social context - the meaning and joke embedded in the video as it gets passed around. In Maple Story
, they can sell colored contact lenses, because it means something in the system of social design.It's a very fuzzy, very amorphous thing that is going to generate more value, but social context is the important thing."
Bogost returned the discussion to Facebook games. "Packrat
is basically completely compulsive, as there's a point when you play that you realize that if you keep clicking, you'll keep clicking more. But you get this leveling mechanic that is actually meaningless. Compulsion looks good for business in the short term but is very bad in the medium and long term. It's not addiction so much as 'I feel compelled.'"
He continued: "Diner Dash
and Parking Wars
are about having experiences, not just collecting stuff. That experience may be of running a diner or being a meter maid, but you can make a game about anything! Generally people are interested in having experiences that are different than their own no matter how mundane those experiences might be. Playing games with a social context is interesting because it gives us a perspective on our relationships with people. We see traces of this in normal social networking. But it's hard to mention this when you want to get as many daily views or players as possible, but I think we need to let go of our control a bit."
Kim concluded: "One example would be the issue of points and leveling, and what's going on psychologically. Someone at eBay wanted to put in levels, as they began to see people get excited as they got close to the next level. They began to see sellers get really excited about getting to the next level, and it was just like a game! But when you're in a game you're in a micro world, and you should know what the rules are. You should be able to play in that world without dealing with the complexities of the real world."