I told you those stories so that I could tell you this one.
Alright, no more putting off the point or setting the stage. This point that I'm about to make is the crux of what this whole week is based upon, so let me say it again in case it wasn't clear enough at the end of the last article:
I do not believe that the kinds of things that Zynga and other companies like EA have been releasing are games. At the very least they are not games under my definition of what a game should be. Now I know that this is quite a statement to make and that there's bound to be disagreement with my stance. That's fine, I'm not expecting to convince everyone or even anyone that I'm correct, but this is honestly how I feel, and I need to put it out there for people to look at and think about. I'm not some zealot trying to convert everyone, I'd rather be the gadfly that makes you think -- if only for a couple of minutes even -- about the state of things.
I'm also not just saying this to be a troll or to be shocking. Yesterday I was very clear in outlining the basic criteria that I believe not only makes games good, but makes them games to begin with: games need to have a goal in mind that represents completion or at the very least a pinnacle, games should ask for your time and be good enough to make the investment of it a worthwhile process, and finally, above all else games should be fulfilling. These are aspects that I believe that products like Farmville, Mafia Wars, The Sims Social, and the like are not games. They are game-like things that want to fool you into thinking they are the genuine article, but they aren't. Even at the best of times I'd say that although they may come close, they still cannot provide the criteria that a thing should in order to be called a game proper.
Let's examine them on the basis of the criteria that I've set out. The first one is perhaps the point that products like Farmville do come closest to attaining: an end goal. However, that in and of itself isn't quite true, I've found. Certainly there are some people that set out to do things like make designs with their crops, or get a stock of all one animal, or something of that nature. Once they achieve that goal, then certainly they've gotten what they wanted from the game. What they haven't done, though, is actually completed the game, because there is no end point. Specifically there isn't an endpoint because an endpoint would hurt potential profits.
I talked a little in the past about how sometimes games that have a pay-to-win mentality can result in arms races to see who can throw the most money and come out ahead. Well, I believe that Farmville and its ilk employ a permutation of that. With no specific end goal in mind, the goal eventually becomes "be better than x" but unlike a competitive game where who wins or loses is easily discernible, in these games it's just a race to see who can get the most shiny objects, which often times means spending the time or even the money to acquire them.
This leads me back to the second point: investment of time. A lot of the Facebook crowd seems to like to play dirty pool with this one. For example, I can tell you that one time I completely wasted a day playing Chrono Trigger; seriously, like 12 or 14 hours. But you know what, I didn't mind, and if I had that kind of time to burn now I might not even care if I did it again because Chrono Trigger is a damn good game that makes it an easy investment of my time. However, what if Chrono Trigger told that that in order to get something done I had to literally stand in one spot in game for a half hour, doing nothing?
That sounds like a pretty cheap way to inflate the time spent "playing" at best, and at worst it's just a garbage tactic. And yet this is what games like Farmville do with their crops. Once you've planted the crops you have to just wait until they've grown before you can harvest them. But if you come back too late, then oops! they've spoilt. It's a thing that says "Here, you can play me for a minute or two, but then you have to come back in 20 minutes. And god help you if you don't, because then your work will have been for nothing." That's not a game asking for time, that's a game demanding your time just to get your foot in the door on the most basic level. Basically, I look at a part of this article (which in part inspired this week) and see the following:
“You teach the player how to play the game in one minute. Within that one minute, you give them in-game money. You make them spend all of that money to buy an investment that will begin to earn them profit. They build a thing. It says: this thing will be finished in five minutes. Spend one premium currency unit to have it now. You happen to have one free premium currency unit. The game makes you use it now. Now you have a thing. Now it says to wait three minutes to collect from that thing. So they have a reason to stick around for three minutes. When those three minutes are up, you tell them to come back in a half an hour. You say, ‘You’re done for now. Come back in a half an hour.’ The phone sends them a push notification in a half an hour. Right here, you’re telling them to wait. You’re expressing to them the importance of patience. They’re never going to forget the way it feels to wait a half an hour after playing a game for one minute. They’re going to forget the second time they wait for a half an hour, and the third time, and they’ll then not forget the first time they have to wait for four hours, then twenty-four hours. This is why they’ll start to pay to Have Things Right Now."
You see the insidious progression there? If you're willing to put up with waiting one minute, how long is it going to be before you're willing to wait ten minutes, an hour, a day? I know that it might suffer a little from the slippery slope argument, but by spoon feeding you a longer waiting time bit by bit, these things have managed to ensnare a hell of a lot of people.
This brings me to my last point: fulfillment. When you beat a game there's a real sense of accomplishment if it was a challenge, or even a sense of sadness if it was a good game that you didn't want to end. Still, there is fulfillment. With things like Farmville though, there might be fulfillment at having the biggest, shiniest stuff, but I would counter that sort of fulfillment is both false and fleeting. The product punishes you for not playing it by making your work null and void, and yet gives you no incentive to actively use it aside from the lure of "more". More crops, more profits, more fancy items. It never stops. Some people think that things like achievement farming in WoW or the like are bad, but at least there can come a point where you're done that, or where you've gotten the achievements you set out to get. In the case of more, there's never an end point, because you can always fit a little more, spend a little more time/money/effort, get a little more than the other guy. Just one more hit and you'll be fine, right?
Perhaps I've exaggerated a little, but I honestly believe that if I have that I haven't by much. What these things provide is an empty shell of a gameplay experience, the bare bones that need the flesh wrapped around them in order to become something more. And yet, this is what they give you, an unfinished product by design. Right now the problem is mostly on Facebook in the form of the game apps I've mentioned, but I'm beginning to worry that soon it might become a case of industry see, industry do.