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Analysis: Anti-Social Game Design And  The Sims Social
Analysis: Anti-Social Game Design And The Sims Social Exclusive
August 22, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

[Some "best practices" are undermining the evolution of Facebook game design -- Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander looks at the worst carryover adopted in The Sims Social.]

Games on Facebook are often subject to a breed of blanket disdain, a sort of universal condescension which was several years ago reserved for so-called "casual" games. These days, people closely entrenched in the gaming universe generally agree there's no inherent quality compromise necessary in the casual space -- most of us even feel that "casual" isn't a relevant term anymore in the modern landscape.

Will the word "social" follow the same arc? It seems likely, given the explosion of networking tools and advanced social features around popular core franchises. When everything's online and requires multiplayer functionality, what does "social" even mean when used to qualify games?

For the moment, though, games referred to as "social games" are mostly Facebook titles -- and for the most part, they sit largely in a cultural ghetto. At best, they're perceived to be too shallow and simple to be respectable entertainment, and at worst, they can be seen as deceptive, insidious, not much better than computer viruses.

But when Electronic Arts announced it would bring an edition of its beloved The Sims brand to Facebook, it seemed to suggest some promise for social games.

Here was a popular brand with a history of respect among an unusually wide audience, and moreover, it appeared a perfect fit: The Sims as a game relies on a number of traits quintessential to Facebook gaming: Expressing individual identity, visiting and socializing with other characters, managing daily tasks and earning rewards for attentive upkeep.

Armed with those common factors and with its proven appeal, The Sims Social should be expected to raise the Facebook gaming bar at least a little -- and it does, clearly developed with a hand and eye toward subtle, tough-to-define elements of user experience that feel more welcoming, more polished, even if (gasp!) those elements appear unlikely to immediately affect virality.

And it helps that more of one's friends are likely to be attracted to the game: It's new and it's a well-liked brand, versus if you're into FarmVille or something that carries a higher degree of negative stigma.

But EA's The Sims Social on Facebook seems to have taken a surprising number of design lessons from Zynga, the mother of negative stigma on Facebook. To some extent it's all best practices as established by the market leader: Zynga's shown that having rewards springing out of every action, scattering everywhere to be clicked -- an alluring "pop" that draws players' attention even in spite of themselves -- is strangely compelling, and Sims Social uses this tactic.

So is the "energy" principle, used to limit the amount of actions a player can accomplish in one play session. It seems the thinking is that a user frustrated by the need to manage time and resources in order to keep having fun would be more willing to impose on friends with irritant notifications, or to buy points, to alleviate the frustration.

But unfortunately, The Sims Social takes the absolute worst trait of Zynga's established games and emulates it -- even though it's not obvious that it needs to.

One of the common social mechanics on Facebook is to create tasks that have multiple parts, and require participation from friends to complete each step. For example, if a player wants a certain kind of building in their city, or decorative item in their home, a player will have to ask friends for items, parts or labor. These generally don't rely on actual inventory; whether a friend "has" said item or not, they need only to receive and accept a "help" request from their friend in order to complete it. What's required isn't actually an object, it's an interaction.

This creates conditions where many game objectives -- often those framed as "key" -- aren't achievable without sending notifications to friends or making advertisement-style wall posts about what they need. And generally, as a game progresses, achievements and objectives that rely on asking for help multiply. This seems designed to keep players reliant on one another, employing them to keep one another active, once players have invested enough time to care about the game world but after the novelty has begun fading.

Designers of these games may argue that the standard "ask for help" mechanic helps games be more "social," encouraging people to play together, but they actually limit socialization somewhat. Because generally the number of wall posts and notification messages required to achieve important objectives increases, any socially-conscious player will begin to become mindful of the number of requests they're sending. Some games limit the number of requests you can send to a single person per day, but rather than preventing the types of missives that could be perceived as "spam", it probably increases them.

This is because players generally feel comfortable messaging others who also message them often -- but when those are exhausted and the game still forces them to ask for resources, players often find themselves sending notifications to people they aren't so sure will appreciate or answer them.

The end result is negative reinforcement. In order to progress in the game, players need to shout simplistic requests into the aether, and eventually will need to impose on those who aren't guaranteed to be equally invested in progressing. It's better just to stick with the small handful of players who are equally as active as you; it feels embarrassing, to be that person sending daily requests.

And in the case of Zynga's games, it's even more embarrassing -- the child-like, cartoonish art and the basic tasks demanded by Cityville can make things downright awkward. Can you imagine going to an adult's Facebook page and seeing post after post about how your friend needs extra Fairy Wands to make magic on their farm? Respected Colleague needs more seashells to complete his aquarium! Admired Employer is helping a skunk get his stink back! Prospective Partner has extra fertilizer to share!! I mean, honestly?

When people say that Facebook games aren't actually social, these antisocial mechanics are precisely what they're referring to. They trivialize engagement and discourage further networking through play. But The Sims Social shouldn't need to rely on them; after all, visiting friends' houses is core to the mechanics of the original game. Half the fun of making your own little person and building them a little life is who they get to talk to and share it with -- the idea of being able to play with your friends using comical, familiar fantasy avatars is compelling enough by itself.

And since every action one can undertake in The Sims Social yields a reward, it seems possible that players will be already encouraged to invite their friends, seek out neighbors and interact with as many people as possible. Even sharing, via Wall posts, funny occurrences among Sims in the game seems a lot more interesting than just declaring that you have Mystery Eggs to offer. It doesn't seem that the game should have to force players to advertise for simple objects on their personal walls or to send notifications to their friends.

That players can earn points by socializing and then later use them to buy decorations to their houses (versus real money transaction, or even versus in-game currency) is a cool touch. And yet, like in all The Sims Social's irritating, embarrassing predecessors, that players have to solicit assistance every time they want to add a room or purchase certain types of household items seems like backward logic in a game like this one.

If gaming on Facebook is ever going to escape its cumbersome reputation, it needs to stop forcing players to beg in public. At early blush, The Sims Social seems promisingly fun, exciting and actually social relative to other choices. But the multi-stage "help" projects are not a welcome carryover from other games.

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Krishna Pediredla
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I agree with the whole "spamming" your friends walls thing. I quit almost all facebook games because i just hated the fact that i had to keep spamming people about teenie weenie information which makes no sense sharing. Tried Sims Social, and was surprised with the same concept of having to ask your friends for help to even build an extra room and similar actions.

I think there should be a notification system built into the app itself, so that when i start my sims social, i get updates regarding sims social from my friends. This way none of my friends spam my wall with stuff and vice versa. It keeps the game related stuff in the game itself.

It is anyways pointless to share the fact that i need help building my new room on friends wall, if the said friend is not interested in games or sims social. I'd rather let only friends who play sims know that i need some help and that would avoid irritating my other friends and get my room built too.

Joey Lapegna
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Although Zynga has found a great deal of success on Facebook. I strongly feel that we should not be looking at them for "best practices". We should definitely be considering some of their techniques. But, they create a large divide. Some players love them, some player hate them. The goal here is to make a game that everyone loves to play. And we're not going to get there by copying the techniques Zynga has created. We need to examine the reasons why they work and find alternatives that can present an engaging and fun experience without annoying half of the audience.

We might get tired of hearing about Rovio, and the constant barrage of Amgry Birds merchandise. But, I feel like a higher percentage of their millions of players would recommend the game because of it's fun play than the Farmville audience.

Marc Schaerer
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I fully agree. Sims social could have been a great game. But basically losing friendship cause they choose to doom and punish the game and players with the energy system is totally non-understandable. The brand definitely does not deserve such a great example of crap thats not even worth the bytes it wastes on disk and traffic damaging the great thing Sims is ...

I expected it to be definitely quite a bit more like Sims Online with the "pay" factor coming in for better places to life and better looking furniture etc. After all sims players are to a large degree female and all about aestethics and they would have invested enough along that path without surely pissing away every player that could ever have been interested in playing it.

Bjoern Loesing
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I enjoy the G+ solution for this very much. All broadcasts by friends, or game-related messages directed at me are only shown after I clicked on the "Game"-button.

It makes me feel less silly when begging for help in Dragon Age, for example, because I know that anyone who reads this is also interested in games in general, so I don't feel bad about it!

Martain Chandler
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Social gaming is a bubble. I look forward to a slew of Gamasutra posts in three years that explore "what we did wrong with social gaming." Hopefully the next generation of social games will be more engaging and less greedy.

Rodolfo Rosini
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Atari was a bubble.

E Zachary Knight
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I don't think it is wise to say that social gaming is a bubble. I would say it is more of a trend and the positive aspects of the trend will be integrated with other games (as it is now) and the chaff will be swept out of existence.

"Social" gaming when defined in terms of games on Social Networks will continue to thrive as a valid means of distribution.

Rey Samonte
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@Ephriam, I agree, I wouldn't write off social gaming either. It's true, "social gaming" is a new trend and a new market. There's so much money being invested into it right now because there's a great potential to market through these types of games. There will be bumps but it will only continue to evolve around those problems.

Personally, I'm not a fan of social games. When I think about playing games, logging into Facebook isn't the first thought in my mind. The ironic thing is, I work for a company that is focused on these social/tournament style games. I've witnessed the demand for these types of games because there's a lot of money and a growing audience for these types of games...mainly, housewives.

Martain Chandler
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Fair enough. I maintain it is "bubbling" then. ;) Just by scanning Gamasutra headlines over the past six months I've noticed a metric ton of social media startups being eaten by the Major Players.

I'll go back to my "bubble" stance in three years when the news of bitter layoffs exceed the number of M&A press releases!

@Rodolfo Rosini - Funny thing, Atari has been a bubble more than once! Some things never change. :)

Keith Nemitz
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"Prospective Partner has extra fertilizer to share!!"

Works on so many levels, it might be all that needs be said.

Tora Teig
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Oh wow! Yes, definitely! I've done my share of experimentation with games on facebook out of sheer curiosity. A ton of the most popular titles were clean built from the Zynga blueprint. And while there are, like a lot have stated above, much to be learnt, I totally agree that the forced socialization entirely clashes with respect to fellow humans.

Spot on! Spot on! Thank you!

Ian Bogost
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It's worth noting that "best practices" is corporate slang for "whatever will build perceived value the most rapidly," particularly in this sector.

Rey Samonte
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From my experience, "best practices" also means develop a game that is accessible to all types of players that will make them feel good about themselves. One of the things in our "best practices" guidelines is to never make the player feel bad. Even when the player fails miserably, we have to encourage them to keep on playing. Our best practices defines how we can gain and keep a player's attention for as long as possible.

Melissa Hadley
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There have been games by Zynga that I have stopped playing because they were so popular but far too spammy for me to play. Although there was one in particular that was fun to play, I simply couldn't keep up with them, even with the ease of in-game notifications.

Being overwhelming and spammy killed the game for me.

What would have been nice for the Sims Social would be the ability for friends who visit to click on the object that needs help, just out of their own visitation. "Oh look, you have a room that needs built. Here, let me lend a hand." It wouldn't require the spam, would promote in-game interaction, and do it on a more personal level. Kinda along the same lines as you can help clean a sink or fix a computer at a friend's place.

Joseph Amper
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Wall/Feed spamming doesn't really have much to do with being social. It keeps people revisiting the game and gets friends to play it. It's more of a viral feature.

Energy is a revisit/revenue function.

Christopher Enderle
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Exactly, it doesn't matter if someone quits because of the spam as long as the spam they generated enticed more people to check out the game. It's too much about numbers game, not about any "experience" at the moment, but hopefully someone sticks their neck out and show a better balance can be more profitable.

Bart Stewart
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This aspect of social game design reminds me of DOOM.

The initial release of DOOM broadcast player information to every station on the local area network, perhaps in the belief that only people with small LANs for a few of their friends would be playing. Instead, many LANs -- notably including LANs being used for business -- were brought to their metaphorical knees by the flood of status packets being broadcast to all users whether they were playing or not.

Life got better when DOOM's network code was revised to use a form of peer-to-peer communication. As Bjoern points out, Google+ is doing something similar by setting up interactions as an opt-in design.

Perhaps this pattern should be considered a "best practice" for all multiplayer games.

The downside, of course, is that you then lose the means of attracting new players through "viral" channels. (Although it's debatable now whether getting spammed with unwanted beg-o-grams turns off as many or more people as are attracted to try the game.)

Facebook says it's looking at providing a new form of virality to replace the much-abused previous version. Maybe this will be considered effective enough for developers of social games to switch to an opt-in model as the new standard practice.

E Zachary Knight
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I was under the impression that Facebook was planning to add a separate apps feed to their main feed so that all game spam went there, but that never materialized. Not sure what happened. It would have went far in helping out those who did not want to be spammed to death.

Kenneth Holm
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About 2 years back I made a statement to many people regarding the future of social games and sadly I quit playing these FB games because they did exactly what I knew could be their downfall.

I made the statement after reading an article about how on average social gaming companies were making about $1.50 per user based on in game purchases. The article then went on to talk about ways to get more users and I realized what the future was going to be. That future was to nag users into nagging their friends more often in order to increase the number of users. The real solution then, and it should be evaluated by all of these companies is to get the end user to spend more money.

Simply put if you make the game better and make spending money in the game more beneficial you will receive more money from in app purchasing and by doing this you will also have a better game that by simple, non nagging word of mouth you will get more players.

Daniel Stahl
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14m DAU today in CityVille

4.6m DAU today in Sims Social

higher DAU = revenue

In my option, the Sims Social was smart to have quests that bring in friends because that drives engagement in your installed base and helps bring others into the game. If you want to play the sims where you don't need friends to help, then I'd point you to the retail Sim3 which allows you to play solo.

So to suggest that EA/Playfish should not use social quests in their playbook seems odd to me. How else would you drive DAU (any other suggestions?)

Your opinion that social games need to escape "social begging" does not jive with the results these games are having.