(Cross-posted from Metafilter)
I've played a hell of a lot of social games. I started with Farmville and managed to achieve my goal of beating 90% of my friends through sheer bloody-minded stamina and min/maxing, at no small annoyance to my girlfriend who had to put up with me returning to the computer every few hours.
Then I moved onto Frontierville because it was supposedly 'better' and likewise got pretty far in it, to the point where I succeeded in my personal goal of getting rid of all the trees and weeds (which is kind of a clever if evil tactic on the designers' part to keep people like me playing). But I recall thinking that Frontierville, despite its incredible shininess and points and such flying everything, was oddly unsatisfying and bizarrely complicated. So off I went to...
Cityville. Perhaps one of the more interesting Zynga games (relatively speaking), since it had a bit of genuine strategy baked into it in terms of how you laid out your city to maximise the benefits of things like parks and other city improvements, plus it had one of the better difficulty curves that hey've made. I made a pretty damn big city and of course did optimal packing, and I have to admit that it was fun to see how my friends had laid out their cities. Indeed, one of the attractions of Farmville was how it allowed people to be surprisingly creative with their farm layout, even though - or perhaps despite - layout had no gameplay meaning in the game.
Around the time I was hitting the wall with Cityville (i.e. it was taking more than a 3-4 days to level up), Empires and Allies came out. This was touted as being Zynga's first 'proper game' and I think Brian Reynolds had also joined Zynga around then - Brian being the designer of Civ 2 and SMAC, two of my favorite games of all time. So I thought, hey, maybe they've cracked it - a Zynga game with real gameplay.
Two minutes after I started playing, Empires and Allies told me to place a barracks here and hit it five times with my hammer to construct it. Then I would have to wait until my action points replenished. It was exactly like Cityville, and at that moment, if I had more money and someone from Zynga was watching, I would have hurled my computer out of my window. As it was, I just vowed never to play a Zynga game again because I was sick of their bullshit 'gameplay' and sick of their manipulation.
More importantly, I was disgusted that I had wasted so much time - dozens if not hundreds of hours - on an experience that was almost entirely worthless. Worthless from an artistic perspective, worthless from an educational perspective, and worthless from a social perspective. I would never recommend to anyone to play a Zynga game because I don't want them to hate themselves like I did after playing one.
A while ago, I read an essay by Ronald Dworkin about what makes for a good life. He said something that I found very affecting:
"We value great art most fundamentally not because the art as product enhances our lives but because it embodies a performance, a rising to artistic challenge. We value human lives well lived not for the completed narrative, as if fiction would do as well, but because they too embody a performance: a rising to the challenge of having a life to lead."
It reminded me of another view from people like Philip Pullman, that a good life is being able to tell a good story of your life afterwards. Now, social games are thankfully only a comparatively small part of people's lives right now, certainly compared to TV. But they are a small part of a hell of a lot of people's lives, and I submit that they do not rise to any performance. They are not part of a good life.
Most business people don't give a shit about a good life. They just want to make money. Maybe you didn't start out like that but that's how you end up, especially if you take VC money or go public. So I don't expect them to be swayed by this argument.
However, I do expect that game designers would listen, because crucially, the creation of most social games is also not a performance. It is not daring, it is not rising to any challenge. It's dull. Anyone playing a Zynga game or the hundreds of copycats could tell that. And I think game designers really do care about this. We want to make art.
I can't come up with a definitive list of what makes a game 'good'. Just as it's foolish to fill out a list of 'graphics', 'sound', 'story', and 'gameplay' and then average the numbers to come out with some definitive judgement of how good it is, I can't do that on a more abstract level. Only an individual can. So here are some questions you might want to ask yourself about the games you make:
- Would you play it? And would you buy it?
- Would you be proud to tell your (hypothetical) grandchildren about it?
- Will its players feel that playing it was a worthwhile use of their time?
- Will its players remember it in a month? A year? Ten years? And what will they think about it?
Not all of my games pass this test. In fact, very, very few do. But I'm trying.