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Failbetter Games and the war on unethical social games
Failbetter Games and the war on unethical social games Exclusive
March 30, 2012 | By Mike Rose

March 30, 2012 | By Mike Rose
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    2 comments
More: Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing



Echo Bazaar, a browser-based adventure game set in an alternate world called Fallen London, originally launched at the start of 2009. The game sees players fulfilling mission-based requirements in a free-to-play environment, and has a userbase of around 120,000 installed players.

UK-based developer Failbetter Games this week rebooted the game with a new name and a new "ethical social gaming" message, which it hopes more developers will follow.

Now known as Fallen London, the game no longer requires players sign-up using a Facebook or Twitter account, but now offers a separate sign-up using just a player's email address if a player so wishes to register this way.

Failbetter's Alexis Kennedy explained to Gamasutra that when it comes to social gaming, users should "know up-front where the boundaries are, and where the developer doesn't obfuscate that."

"I want to be super-clear about this: social gaming is not evil," he added, before further explaining the types of situations he's referring to.

"I Twitter-authorized an ordinary-looking social grind RPG, played a few turns and never went back. The game then unexpectedly DMed half my follow list to say 'come play!' Some of my followers were board-level contacts at my then-employer!"

He admitted that most social games are "nothing like that bad," but said that it can be very difficult to know exactly what you're letting something in for when you connect a social networking account to a social game.

"The boundaries aren't clear," he continued. "I keep clicking on links to interesting-sounding games and they want Facebook authentication before I can even see an FAQ. A non-social signup is a clear signal, a line in the sand: you know you can see what we have to offer before you decide to hand over the keys to Facebook or Twitter. It forces us to be ethical, because any shady practice will be scorchingly visible."

Some users, of course, find signing up to social games using Facebook or Twitter preferable, allowing them to have a single account for everyone rather than having to keep track of game accounts all over the place.

Kennedy said that those people active on social media will be fine with this, but that "not everyone swims in that sea." Indeed, he noted that his company receives comments from users frequently saying they are sick of invites from the game on Facebook, or that they don't use social media and therefore can't play.

"Let's be frank about this - the reason that devs want social media access is primarily so they, we, can leverage it for recruitment," he added. "If Zynga had used Facebook authorization solely to reduce signup friction, they wouldn't be a multi-billion-dollar business. People know that."

Kennedy's other big issue with current social games is that a lot of them can be seen by some players as shallow experiences, marred by in-game purchases and dead-end gameplay. His answer to this is simply for developers to "make better experiences."

"Lots of very talented developers are doing that right now," he noted. "But it's about transparency too. If you don't play social games, and all you ever see of them is a Notifications stream full of invites, then naturally you'll think that's all there is to those games. There should be a way to engage without giving away the farm."

However, he doesn't believe some of the bigger social developers will do this. "Why would they?" he questioned. "Why would you give up that weapon when you have tens of millions of players who are cool about it?"

As for indies, he believes this is where the change can occur. "We'd like to see more indie devs taking a limited-engagement approach to attract more cautious or thoughtful players, and to put creative game design, not effective recruitment, front and center. If we're really lucky, maybe that will feed back into a more respectful attitude to players," he said.


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Comments


Sean Boococok
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How can we have a serious discussion about the ethics of social games without addressing the business model? While Fallen London may break from social game norms by allowing for alternate sign-on and having a clear, opt-in policy for posting to your friends/followers, it adopts an industry standard monetization strategy that forces game designers to pit the players' interest against business ones.

Fallen London rations the player experience via an artificially scarce economy of actions. Failbetter has an economic incentive to leverage that and other gameplay mechanisms as much as possible to increase retention rate, average revenue per user, daily revenue per user, etc. The subtle and constant manipulation of the user that is typical of "free-to-play" social games strikes me at best as dubious and in many instances as deeply problematic.

How will Failbetter address the issues of transparency and conflict of interest inherent to their game and not the just marketing of it (via social networks)?

E McNeill
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Fallen London was the only game that showed me how "Social RPGs" could be done well. The writing is spectacular, and the game features actually interesting choices. I haven't kept playing (the grind was too much for me), but it's a true proof-of-concept of how this style of game could be done right.

I'm glad they're cognizant of the costs of social media integration as well. I have my gripes about the game, but this is a case where I believe the developers are ultimately the good guys.


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