Facebook games stand at an interesting crossroads as they approach the initial business and cultural plateau that comes with maturation. Success in the space depends on rapid, massive user acquisition, and this has been the primary driver of design.
As in any gaming arena where participation is costly, imitation of what works is far less risky than innovating, so most successful games are constrained by the same mechanics.
Examples include the common 'energy' system that makes playtime a precious (and monetizable) resource, and notification systems require friends to repeatedly demand one another's clicks in order to complete quests, in an effort to keep active user numbers constant. Eventually, most Facebook games force players to start urging the participation of other friends who aren't playing yet.
This sort of gameplay frequently feels to more traditional gamers less like a game and more like one Excel spreadsheet warring with another. Yet a number of veteran game designers have migrated into social games and continue to evangelize for the potential of gaming on Facebook, urging patience as the form develops.
Dissatisfaction with metrics-driven design sees constant tension with the hope of some nebulous 'more'
in the platform's future -- games that are more interesting, more genuine somehow, perhaps more appealing to people who'd call themselves "gamers."
Those who have contributed to the development of the Facebook space as it currently exists can't be assumed to be content, if reports of life on a stressful knife's edge at Zynga are to be believed, or if any evidence is to be gleaned in the wake of the company's whisper-not-a-bang IPO
But what would it take to create an environment that allowed more innovation in the Facebook space, and more of the kind of experimentation that would help social games discover new and effective design forms and methods of welcoming different audiences?
Facebook Games On Metacritic?
Gamasutra recently spoke to Electronic Arts' Spencer Brooks
, who's heading the publisher's launch of RISK: Factions
on Facebook following the game's success on Xbox Live Arcade, and in our conversation he raised an interesting issue: It's a fact that console publishers take review scores and Metacritic performance seriously when deciding which projects to greenlight. What could it do for the art and business of Facebook games if they were part of that system like more traditional games?
Those traditional game designers aiming to pioneer newer, better Facebook games might have a better leg to stand on when trying to innovate if they had some kind of media response to bring to their higher-ups that could help make a case for audience desire for specific features, styles or kinds of games on the platform. Yet the games press generally ignores Facebook games, and the idea of giving them scored reviews hardly seems to've crossed anyone's mind.
Kotaku is one of the largest gaming blogs serving largely what one would call the traditional game consumer, and it's long had a policy of not scoring its reviews -- less because of some kind of explicit aversion to scoring, but more "because we wanted to make sure people read them," according to Stephen Totilo, the site's editor-in-chief.
Since last year, in addition to reviews, Kotaku has also published "Gut Check" features that are designed to give a few editors' off-the-cuff impressions of games that the site isn't traditionally reviewing. And it also does a "Gaming App of the Day" feature to recognize mobile games that seem worth getting after a few subway or bus rides' worth of examination.
What's A Review For?
"There are two main things you can do with a review: provide critical analysis or provide shopping advice," explains Totilo. "We've recognized that we can give shopping advice outside the parameters of what you'd think of as a review... We also listen to our readership about what they want to see reviewed and try to factor that in as well."
"Facebook games are an interesting type of game that we're still figuring out how to best cover," he continues. Although Kotaku has posted "many" written and video responses to Facebook games in the last year, the site doesn't review Facebook games in the sense that Brooks would like to see, and Totilo concedes that the traditional press still has learning to do on how to best analyze and cover them -- and that it could be doing a better job.
But there are some factors that complicate the possibility of Facebook games being part of the review ecosystem in the eyes of the traditional games press: First is the Facebook business model. "In the sense of providing shopping advice, which I mentioned is one possible reason to write a review, there's not much shopping advice that needs to be given for a free game," Totilo notes. "In a world of finite editorial resources, we may risk assuming that our readers most want to be told about games they can't try out themselves at no cost."
Further, Facebook games escalate the challenge of reviewing always-on, continually-evolving products that the core press faces in reviewing MMOs -- they regularly launch in early states and their development model relies on near-constant updates and tweaks. When it covers MMOs, Kotaku runs four weekly post-launch "diaries" followed by a review, but hasn't yet tried ("we may!" he says) applying that model to Facebook games, which often run at a more capricious pace.
Even then, the model of the scored review may not be necessary or useful for Facebook games: "Since the other goal in reviewing games is to provide a critical analysis, we can just as easily do that without calling such content a review. We do this for non-Facebook games and we will in the future for both Facebook and non-Facebook games," explains Totilo.
Who Plays Facebook Games?
And then there's the larger question, one that's difficult to answer beyond empirical guess: Does the kind of gamer that reads reviews play or care about the Facebook space? The cultural divide persists, and it's difficult for anyone to gauge how much overlap there is between, say, the Facebook gamer and the console gamer.
"Kotaku's most vocal audience, our commenters, is skeptical about Facebook games," says Totilo. He says that vocal readership is "wary" of games outside the traditional model: "They see in Facebook games, rightly or wrongly, a regression in game design... others see Facebook games as scams, a valid view if your only exposure to them is the Zynga model of [getting] people to lure their friends to do minimally interesting things in a video game."
"I can't blame them if they still mistake Zynga games and other Facebook games as glorified chain letters, and it's our job to show them if that impression is right or wrong, a job we're continuing to do," he adds.
Ultimately, "I think our readers are still way more excited about the next Elder Scrolls
than they are about the next 'Ville or Bejeweled Blitz
," he opines.
Still, We Can Do Better
The onus may still remain on the publishers to better explore and iterate before they ask for the same kind of qualitative assessments from the gamer audience that better-established design forms receive. "Any executive who needs to be convinced that Facebook games can be more interesting isn't playing many Facebook games," he says bluntly.
And supposing executives care more about games monetizing than games being interesting? "Surely they care if [Zynga's] billion dollar IPO is close to being half that," says Totilo. "Something didn't add up."
Yet the problem remains that Facebook games have welcomed millions of participants -- and millions of dollars -- and have not yet garnered a critical establishment that can speak to the games' quality or offer feedback on their evolution, leaving players to fend for themselves and select what thrives and what doesn't. The role of the games media is to assist them with this process, and even if neither Metacritic nor scored reviews are the ideal route, all of us should endeavor to do it better.