It usually goes something like this. I log into one of my social network websites and see the request ‘Elmo M wants to connect’. I see Elmo M is connected to a few of my friends already, so I click on ‘connect’, then refresh the site, where I see:
Elmo M just grew angry beets in Mafia Farm
Elmo M just built an armored outhouse in Frontier Wars
Elmo M just liked ‘How to get 500 dollars free on Mafia Farm’
Elmo M just completed the mission ‘Buy a Chicken’ on ‘Robot Madness’
And so on…
Social network games are the joy and obsession of millions of social network users and the bane of existence for the rest. Social games can be fun and even exciting for a player who enjoys steady progress and achievement, but for players who crave a deeper experience these games can be seen as shallow and pointless ‘click-fests’.
Choosing a social network game isn’t difficult, since if you have more people on your friends list than ‘Tom from MySpace’ there’s a strong chance you’re going to see requests and game updates very regularly. Unlike standard MMO games, however, where solo play and informal pick up groups are usually an adequate and accepted way of [singlepic id=3426 w=320 h=240 float=right]playing the game, the key to playing or, more appropriately, advancing in a social game is that you have a lot of friends to connect with, as most of these games rely heavily on social interactions to gain experience, trade resources, and even defend yourself from other player attacks. For maximum playability, you’re going to want to play a game a number of your friends already play, or if you find a really great social game, you’re going to have to spam your friends list begging people to join your clan/flock/team/whatever, so that you can advance and fully experience the game.
As far as what kinds of games there are to play, the themes of these games seems limitless when you look at the lists. From building your town to building your farm to building your medieval society to building your mafia family to building your bakery to building your… well, you get the picture; let’s just say there’s a lot of building and growing involved in most of these games.
While the themes of these games are extremely diverse, the actual game play for the majority of the most popular games fall into a couple types that are almost cookie cutter. First there is the ‘Something-ville’ model, where you create buildings and gather or farm resources and, in some cases, defend your land from invaders or other players. These include Farmville, YoVille, Kingdoms of Camelot, Backyard Monsters, and other similar games. Then there is the ‘Whatever-wars’ style of game, where you connect to other players and form a group of some sort, do strategic missions to earn cash and upgrade your equipment, and have ‘gang wars’ against other players to earn experience and gain virtual fame and fortune. These include titles like Mafia Wars, Robot Wars, Planetary Wars, School of Wizardy, and others.
Yes, there are a number of games that fall outside this model, like ‘WarStorm’ and ‘Combat Arms’ to name a few, and I’m not counting the countless puzzle games like ‘Bejewled’ that don’t have an RPG or persistent world type component to them, but the most popular games do seem to follow these models and enjoy a high degree of success. In 2010, the total community of FarmVille was estimated at over 80 million players and their follow on game, FrontierVille, reached 5 million active daily players only two weeks after launch.
[singlepic id=3428 w=320 h=240 float=left]So I have found my ideal game, ‘SquirrelVille’, and signed up. I spam all my friends and beg them to join me, then I start to play. Like the majority of games, there is a simple tutorial level that explains the basic concepts of the game; I need to collect acorns and either use them to grow more trees, which will eventually produce more acorns, or I can set them aside for food. More food, it is explained, will allow me to have more squirrels, which can in turn collect more nuts, but more food also attracts more predators, like weasels and fruit bats, so it’s a delicate balancing act. I collect some acorns, plant some trees, and as I start having fun and really getting into it I hit a stopping point – I run out of squirrels – which introduces me to the final piece of the social game puzzle; limited play time, also known as ‘How we get paid’.
Most of these games have a very limited amount of play time, be that ‘energy’ to perform actions in the game, or ‘workers’ which enable you to build structures or harvest resources. You can wait a set amount of time for the energy to refill or the workers to finish what they’re doing, but this is usually a very lengthy process and increases somewhat exponentially as you progress in levels. What these game companies really want you to do is spend real money to buy whatever in-game special currency they sell, which will enable you to instantly reset your points or workers and will allow you to keep playing and, since progress in the game is dependent on these actions, allow you to progress much more quickly, limited only by your bank account.
Now it’s not so hard to understand why we see stories of people spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on games like Farmville.
I’d like to wrap up by talking about some common courtesy for social gamers and social game haters. First – gamers, you do NOT have to spam every single achievement you ever get in your games. Your friends don’t care if you had a new cow delivered or if you completed the ‘Bought new shoes’ quest again. If you want to share highlights, go for it, but be considerate to your friends list. Also, if you must spam your friends list for people to join you, just do it ONCE – sending a request every day won’t win you any new friends, I promise!
Now, to all my ‘Ville’ hating fans – yes, it’s annoying and yes, it can clog up your whole news stream with cartoonish icons and silly messages, but there is a simple and non-violent solution that I strongly recommend – just click ignore. In most, if not all, of the major social networking sites, you can very easily ignore every bit of social game spam that’s thrown at you, without flames or cursing or insults – it’s a lot more social that way,don’t you think?