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The social destiny of  Infinity Blade II
The social destiny of Infinity Blade II Exclusive
April 17, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

April 17, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Exclusive, Design

"It's time for us as game designers to find new ways, new genres, new methodologies, and this is an attempt at looking at the way we interact with these powerful devices that we're carrying around in our pockets," says Donald Mustard, co-founder of Infinity Blade creators Chair Entertainment.

Last week, the developer updated Infinity Blade II with Clashmobs -- social small-bite challenges which give players around the world collective goals, such as bosses to defeat. Each player may only be able to deal a fraction of the damage that the boss can take -- but each player can contribute to the overall success of the mission and reap the reward.

Social Gaming Comes to Chair

The inspiration for this feature is clear. In 30 seconds, says Mustard, "I could open up a Clashmob, participate with millions of other people around the world, and actually get a meaningful, progressive experience that quickly."

"You look at the success of a lot of the more social games, your Villes and your With Friends... They are tapping into some really unique social consciousness, even beyond the game itself," he says.

The difference between those games and Infinity Blade II's Clashmobs is that "we're trying to look at a way to say how can we wrap more of a game around that, as opposed to it just being a social system." This is not a surprising statement from the man who made his name with the Metroid-influenced Shadow Complex for Xbox Live Arcade before turning his hand to iOS, but it will be a challenge.

Can he really make social gameplay as rich and rewarding to players as traditional single play? "To me, that's why this is a big experiment. We'll see," says Mustard. Still, he says, Clashmob is "really just the tip of the iceberg."

There is an advantage of launching this new content into Infinity Blade II, he says. "Updating the game allows us to experiment with a lot of that stuff that's a little more risky," by overlaying it on "a framework that we know is successful."

The Responsibility of a Game Designer

"Our philosophy is that we need to create great games, and if we're going to be on the bleeding edge a little bit, it's our responsibility to look forward and come up with new stuff," says Mustard.

"For all game designers, our responsibility is to make new, interesting experiences."

While he doesn't think this means designers need to continually reinvent the wheel, he says that "we need to be constantly looking at the wheel and saying, 'Is it a wheel yet?'"

He's set himself a complex task with Infinity Blade II. "I want you to feel like you're playing a game with a million people, but at the same time are still really connected to your friends, and at the same time are intrinsically rewarded for what you bring to the table," he says.

The Drive to Progress

Typical social game nudges won't do that. Neither will games that players inevitably progress in. "To me, the best kinds of games are games that you are drawn to because the gameplay is truly fun," says Mustard. "We're trying to make things that are actually engaging, where there's a mechanic that is skill-based, beyond just a dice roll or a button click. It's something that you can become better at."

This concept -- of the player getting better -- is core to the appeal of the Infinity Blade series, he argues. In the first game, players would die in their early encounter with the God King -- but what they may not have realized is that when they beat him later, it was more about their own skill increasing, and less about stat boosts.

"We didn't pull any tricks," says Mustard. "It wasn't that we forced him to kill you."

"Your skill wasn't to the point you can beat him. But it was possible. By the time I was done making Infinity Blade, I could beat the God King on my first try, because I had the skill to do it."

"The numbers that we actually allowed you to increase were much smaller than what was actually happening, which is that your skill was exponentially increasing," says Mustard. "That's why when people finally stab the Infinity Blade through the God King's chest, it felt so empowering."

"They actually did it."

The Right Mixture

But to him, it's not just that skill-based gameplay that is a recipe for success, though he believes it's now coming back into its own again. It's the total blend of what games can do.

"Inherently, as human beings, we are two things: we are inherently social, and we inherently want to progress," says Mustard.

"If you have an engaging core mechanic and you start to layer on top of it these other things we're talking about, like these social features, and these RPG mechanics where your player can grow over time, then you start to get it."

"The best games allow you to achieve true progression," says Mustard. "Social with progression starts, to me, to be what we want to achieve as human beings."

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Last week, the developer updated Infinity Blade II with Clashmobs -- social small-bite challenges which give players around the world collective goals, such as bosses to defeat. Each player may only be able to deal a fraction of the damage that the boss can take -- but each player can contribute to the overall success of the mission and reap the reward."

How is this different from any other raid in an MMO?

How is this "social"?

Christian Nutt
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It's a fair point -- this is at the very least highly suggestive of MMO play.

In the end a lot of the design tropes in social games either draw direct inspiration from, or evolved in parallel to, existing MMO design idioms. But I think given the inspiration stated by Mustard ("your Villes and your With Friends") it's fair to call it social. It's pitched at getting the IB2 audience to enjoy social play as typified by games on the iOS platform.

If your point is that MMOs are the originators of what's commonly accepted as "social" play, well, I'm sure Raph Koster would agree with you, so you're in good company there.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I'm more in the camp of "social" being a (mostly) empty corporate buzzword.

Playing with people is not necessarily social, being social with other people is social.

I've never been as lonely as playing any current-gen MMO/Farmville.

Christian Nutt
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Well, that's more of a philosophical argument, and it's a valid one. In the specific case in this article it was used more in the jargon sense than in the sense of a judgment.

Here are some interesting quotes from Mustard I didn't include in this writeup originally:

"I had to rely on the community to do really good also, or otherwise I wouldn't get the reward for my endeavors."

"I was honestly a little surprised at how engaging it was to me! Like, 'come on guys, come on!' ... and even though I have no idea who those 20,000 or so people were, I was like, 'We did it! We did this thing, and good job.'"

That sounds legitimately social to me. And he's legitimately excited about the social possibilities he describes for play.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Its more a linguistic argument, because the jargon is using established words and applying them in a completely different sense.

This is a systemic problem of the industry in general.

Its confusing for everyone. I'd go as far as to say 99% of all internet arguments I've seen about games revolve around misunderstandings created by the unclear jargon of the video-games industry.

I understand that language is malleable and constantly evolving, but there is a confusion in the customer base that leads to false divides and creates problems where none exist.

Just as an example, the whole stigma of "social games" in "core gaming circles" comes from the word "social" being distorted by terms like "social networks" (Facebook) where they first originated. Currently "social games" are synonymous with "casual games" (or Facebook games) and are not necessarily having any relation to actually being social.
This creates a wrong expectation in customers (and developers) of what a "social game" is and what making a game "social" actually means.
As an example stands Battlefield 3 that has purportedly a "social element" with the Battlelog, which is a separate Facebook-like web-interface, which has nothing to do with being social.

And I just tend to point these things out when I see them perpetuated in articles because I believe that this is getting worse and worse recently.