Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Social Games and Such

It's getting popular to talk about social games again!

Of course, as should be clear, we're not talking about social games. We're talking about social NETWORK games. Games which leverage your existing social networks, usually through existing software. Usually through Facebook, to be precise.

I admit that I like the idea of social network games. But I don't much care for what people are actually talking about. When you actually look at a social game social network game design by one of these people, it's either completely pie-in-the-sky impossible or a standard game. It's sad when an ancient game like Parking Wars actually leverages your social network better than any modern design.

Another thing I don't like about social network games is Facebook. I'd like to pretend I can be neutral, but being Facebook-centered makes me angry. I hate Facebook too much to give a Facebook-centric game the clear look it may deserve. So, I'm biased.

I'd like to talk about what a social network game might be. I'd also like to talk about how we might make a cool social network game, but I won't have the space in this post.

A social game - no network - commonly refers to social play, such as children playing house or tag together. I think this is a fine place to start. If we want to make a social computer game (no network), we can think in those terms.

A social computer game has a fairly major flaw in that the social bandwidth is pretty restricted. Even with voice chat, you're missing out on about 90% of the depth you get from face-to-face interactions. Much of the struggle for realism seems to be the pursuit of that 90%, making the characters seem more like people standing near you and interacting socially. Of course, the characters aren't people, so they have bigger problems than low social bandwidth.

Anyhow, once we acknowledge our limited bandwidth, we can try to leverage our advantages.

One major advantage we have is virtual worlds. Using virtual worlds, we can allow players to express themselves and have shared experiences. While not as tangible and highly social as playing tag or house, they are more rigorously shared and have easier-to-see fantastical elements. IE, the world can be anything we want it to be, and the other players will all be in the same world.

Correctly constructed, the world can create shared emotional experiences. Right now, these are largely limited to big experiences, such as when someone builds a lava fountain and fires magma two hundred feet into the sky. That's an impressive shared experience, but it's not exactly a subtle one and it's somewhat limited in terms of emotional range. It's more difficult to share something like a personal story, because such things tend to develop at a particular player's speed and in his screen. From other points of view, it is very hard to see what's happening or it feels distressingly like it's on rails.

There may be many solutions for that, and one obvious solution is asynchronicity. Two players can go through the same world, but sharded such that they do not directly influence each other: each one gets their own version of that world. You don't need to completely block communication. This is a social game, and allowing the players to chat with each other can be extremely valuable, as long as it doesn't break their immersion. Which it shouldn't, if the other player is in the same world, even if it is a different version of the same world.

Actually, this is a good time to talk about "legendizing", which is a word I made up that has nothing to do with marking up a map.

A legend is a story that gets told and re-told. It's not always precisely the same. In fact, it can vary quite wildly. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about the wicked step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit into the fur glass slipper: legends are adapted to suit whatever audience they fit.

A modern legend would be Superman, or any other old superhero. Their stories have become hopelessly complex. The idea of a "canon" storyline is the major problem. Superheroes don't have a canon storyline, they are legends. They star in whatever stories suit them and their audience. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about how much of a total dick Superman was in the beginning, coming from a culture where such actions were not really considered unusually dickish. Actually, a modern-style Superman would probably come off as a real pansy to the early 20-th century culture that spawned him.

To me, the key to making a real social game is "legendizing" our content. World 3-B always has a zombie horde and a scared child and maybe even a specific protagonist. However, each player is welcome to unfold the story as they see fit, either through play or through fiat. Sharing it with other players is a key: once the story is told, others can see it and interact with it. Over time, certain "grooves" are worn in the world, where specific storylines are the most popular and fun. This isn't one story that someone told, or one playthrough: it's fragments of dozens of people and dozens of runs, the best from each, assembled by thinking players.

Because this is a computer game rather than a freeform story, there are limits to how creative you can be. But that makes sense: if you're telling a story about Loki and a tank shows up to shoot Odin, that makes no sense and will probably be judged pretty stupid. The limited capabilities of the world are not necessarily a disadvantage, especially if you allow players to build new worlds and the seeds of new legends.

A major advantage of this structured world is that players can be at any point in the story they like. Their friends can also be whenever they like. In fact, they can be where they are and where you are, criss-crossing the story, looking from any angles they please, exploring and creating variants.

And they can be talking. "Did you ever try going through the fireplace? Try it!" "Hey, this princess is kind of a jerk..." "I beat that dragon with a fork!" "I made a version where the princess is a prince, try it..."

We can also modulate this sharing to keep our immersion and pacing strong. If our environment would suffer from another player distracting you, we might actually reduce the bandwidth even more. Perhaps to simple ghostly lights hovering near things other people have found interesting. Even then, the "social" is there, it's just included gently so it doesn't distract.

Exploring the world together, that's social. Revisiting an old story with the advice of a friend. Seeing tags left by your friends (perhaps only on repeat playthroughs), adding new content to existing worlds.

I'm talking about "stories", but that's also needlessly restrictive. Simply building and exploring a world together is enough. It's just less easy to talk about.

So, a social computer game has the problem that the social bandwidth is very low. However, it has the advantages of virtual worlds which can be viewed from any direction and explored together, manipulated together, either at the same time or asynchronously. This does require that the virtual worlds be legendary worlds.


I was going to talk about social network games next. But I think I've already gone on too long.

What do you think?

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