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Do Facebook games need scored reviews?
Do Facebook games need scored reviews? Exclusive
January 13, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

January 13, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

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 or Zelda 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.

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Spencer Brooks
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Obviously I'm a proponent of giving FB games a numeric rating. Few other points I want to put out there:

1. As a producer, I'm charged with creating a commercial as well as critical success. Right or wrong, numeric reviews provide a metric for executives to measure critical success. In my experience, review scores can be an effective tool to validate and "sell" innovation up the chain of command.

2. Yes, I believe that numeric review scores can act as a shopping list (or a "play list" in the case of FB games). This will act to positively reinforce FB games that take creative chances.

3. On some level, I think the media loses a bit of credibility when they say things like "There are no real games on Facebook" and but aren't willing draw a line in the sand and rate a game.

Philosophically, I understand the hesitancy of not giving a numeric rating. However, media needs to understand it's an effective tool to spur innovation.

Great debate. Hope it this discussion continues.

Darcy Nelson
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"On some level, I think the media loses a bit of credibility when they say things like "There are no real games on Facebook" and but aren't willing draw a line in the sand and rate a game."

Well said!

Ken Barnes
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Honestly? It seems a bit beside the point.

In terms of the purpose of a review as a guide to making purchases - well, a lot of these games don't require a purchase as such. They're risk-free to try out, and not to take away from the hard work that social games developers put forth, the entertainment value of any given FB game in great degree rests simply with whether or not your friends are playing it. As long as FB has ways to drive users to game content such as banner ads and gaming-dedicated pages, combined with word-of-mouth advertising from friends (channeled through the games' own messaging systems in most cases), where's the need for anything more? I have my doubts as to whether or not the majority of game players on FB will bother to look up a review of their favorite FB games on an external site. They don't need to. For many of them, Facebook IS the internet.

That leaves the critique angle. But, again looking at the incentives that drive people to play these games, I'm not sure that the bulk of the audience cares whether the games are critically acclaimed, as long as they find the games enjoyable to play with friends.

So, as a consumer tool, reviews seem a bit pointless when a hefty economic transaction is not required. A system of FB user-facing tools to upvote games, post their own blurbs or reviews, and some metrics displaying which ones are most popular, complemented with advertising on FB, seems like all that is really needed here. Are executives, then, the only remaining audience for these reviews, and that just because they want to see the metacritic score rather than actually read? Maybe I'm looking at this too narrowly, I'm sympathetic to the problem after all, but that seems like slim justification.

Aaron McPherson
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I disagree with the idea that the entertainment value of a Facebook game depends "in great degree" on whether or not your friends are playing it. There is no real interaction with your friends, besides clicking on links, so the value derives much more from whether the game has a compelling theme, artwork, storyline, etc. I suspect that many players spend a lot more time tweaking and customizing their farms, castles, towns, etc. than actually interacting with friends. You have only to play one of these games, and see the number of inactive "friends" or "neighbors" to realize that it is largely a solo experience.

Also, they are not "risk-free" to try out. They can require a substantial investment of time and money if you want to get the full experience, and indeed are designed to be sticky, so that once you get committed to a game, you are actually reluctant to spread yourself thin by trying a bunch of others. Also, as many iPhone users have learned, this sort of game, in the hands of a child, can be extremely expensive (see, for example, the recent Daily Show feature on Tap Fish and one child's ability to rack up $1,500 in in-app purchases:

So, I actually do think that critical attention is warranted and necessary. These games are multiplying at an astounding rate, and public education is lagging far behind. It is no longer possible to ignore them.

Craig Timpany
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Even free-to-play games have barriers to entry. There's the time investment to go through the tutorial, incurring the risk that you're granting facebook permissions to an organisation that you really shouldn't, and once you're out of the tutorial, you still have to either pay for the game with RMT items or viral invites, or come back later once your energy has recharged.

Right now, the vast majority of the games at the end of this process are so disappointing that it's just too much work. I would dearly love game reviewers to put in those hours instead to find the diamonds in the rough.

Edit: And when I say "review", one paragraph would suffice.

Ken Barnes
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Well-stated! And thanks for the food for thought. Let me clarify a few points:

* I absolutely do thing social gaming is not only worthy of but absolutely requires critical attention, because it's obviously catalyzing a lot of changes in the way people think about and interact with games. What I am hesitant about is the notion that this attention must be in the form of a "review" of the same type as reviews of on-the-shelf products.

* Let me be clear about risk-free, too - obviously FB games require investment to be played in the long term. What they do not require is $60 up front, which is a substantial investment to a lot of people, and if they make a mistake, they're out that money and probably have a substantial amount of buyer's regret. The purpose of reviews in large part is to allow people to educate themselves about the choices available in order to minimize that probability of regret. While FB games can run up costs in money and time that are in excess of $60, these are gradual expenses that people are more comfortable parting with - and they can walk away when they tire of the experience, without feeling that they have lost something.

* The gameplay for FB games is a solo experience in and of itself, yes - I didn't mean to imply otherwise. And sticky gameplay is what keeps people invested in the moment that they are playing. However, I think that the social component - the messaging, the reminders to help your friends' crops or whatever, the status and twitter updates - these are what keep people tied in for the long haul, and in large part this can be attributed to how much of your social network is playing that game. There is a large segment of "gamers" whose interest is not really in games "qua," but in amusing themselves on Facebook. Those people will pick a crappy game that everyone is playing over a great game that no one is playing. I won't speculate as to how much of the general audience is like this, but I suspect that it is a non-negligible number.

* Finally - something I didn't touch on earlier: This is just a thought, and I'm prepared to get flamed for it. But it occurs to me that, in critical or analytic terms, a lot of FB games don't look so benign. When you focus attention on their actual components and makeup, you begin to reveal a lot of ways in which they are "attention parasites," designed to be everywhere that you are, demanding your investment at odd moments throughout the day. I don't have anything against FB games, but it's early yet - a lot of them are still pretty ugly babies. When you push for them to be reviewed just like other games are, you open them up to be criticized on the same level that deeper game experiences are - and that MAY NOT BE to their advantage.

If somebody sends me an update to check out Mobsters because they're playing it, then I might just do that - and I might keep it up if all my friends dig it. I might do the same just from seeing a banner ad for it. But if I look up a review on it, and that review blasts it for being shallow and derivative and whatever other pimples it might have, then there's a good chance I'll refuse to play it, even though under other circumstances I might have played it and had fun. Starting off, most reviewers will fall back on the criteria by which they judge larger games - and FB games will look to be lacking, as a result. FB games have different virtues than console experiences. And maybe that's all good and part of the process... just, you know, be careful what you wish for.

Jeremie Sinic
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I totally agree with Craig Timpany and Aaron McPherson.

Time is money. My time spent/wasted on a dumb farming clone of a dumber farming clone means money to the publisher who gets one more DAU and MAU for their stats, even if I don't purchase anything in the game. It also means I wasted maybe half an hour or more of my precious time instead of playing a nice, clever, original title.

So yes, reviews will only benefit to both users and creative FB games developers by putting these on a level with the big publishers who currently compete rather with cash than creativity.

Ted Brown
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Games that are "live" (such as MMOs & Facebook games) do deserve "launch" reviews, but should recognize that those are moments frozen in time. Unlike traditional retail games, online games are evolving over time, and the complex machinations of millions of people playing in the same system generates a new continuum every week.

I'd suggest that major online games need an "embedded" reporter, who can surface the latest newsworthy bits of information from the game, community, and devs on a regular basis. Did pricing get nerfed? What's the impact of that new feature? Why did all enemies suddenly get tougher? etc.

This could stand with a standard, up-to-date review of the early-game content, and overviews of what appear to be the game's marketbase. (not the intended audience, the actual audience) Throw in some talking heads who are seasoned industry veterans, sprinkle with factoids, and make money in step 3.

Anyways, if I was neck deep in a game (I'm not at the moment), I would lovely a weekly digest giving me insight to the latest stuff, especially if it was professionally curated.

I think I've ventured off topic. Sorry!

Terry Colgate
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I like the reporter idea. For the review aspect, they could just sort the reviews by version like the iTunes App Store does.

Gary LaRochelle
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Most game review sites require the reviewer to play all the way through the game before writing their review. But when do you review a game that never ends? After 10 levels? 25 levels? 100 levels? You also have the problem of reviewing the game as a P2P (Pay-to-Play) game or as a F2P (Free-to-Play) game. The reviewer would have to play the game in both modes to give an informative review. There's also the problem of playing with friends. Is the reviewer going to have to hassle their friends to play the game so the reviewer can get an accurate feel of the game play?

Most of the reviews would probably go like: "Aside from the graphics/storyline, Game A is just like Game B but adds the X feature from Game C".

Marc Schaerer
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For zynga style and generally energy type games such a review would be easy, play till level 2 and you have seen the whole mechanic and gameplay: Monkey macro clicking, spaming the web legally, annoying friends and testing the FB block app mechanisms while doing so, unsatisfying experience as it consists of 'macro clicking and waiting', frustrating experience if you are soloing, ...

Otherwise I agree, its hard to review open ended games as its hard to impossible to review sandbox games, none the less minecraft, sim city and many other sandbox games were reviewed too. Ongoing development is out of my view less of a 'changing' factor than thats hard to tackle than sandbox games, all you need to do is 'date' the review and update it once every 6 months (I don't think doing it after each larger update justifies it as that overweights updates the same way the original iOS 'new' listing did it by declaring updated apps as new - to give comparable reviews for different games they need to be measured with the same scale)

Kevin Reilly
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I don't buy the "we can't review FB games b/c they change too much" excuse. Traditional journalism and media outlets cover numerous topics and industries that change on a daily basis. For example sports writers cover evolving teams, players, leagues etc. on a daily basis and give readers an feedback on what is happening. Stock analysts give buy, sell, and hold ratings for stock of public companies based on information that comes out on a constant basis. What needs to change is the method of analyzing and rating games based on the reviewers pre-set biases and preferences. I can see what my friends are playing, but sometimes you need an objective POV to determine if you want to dive into the fray.

Aaron McPherson
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As a "traditional" PC gamer who recently started experimenting with some Facebook games such as Castleville, Ravenskye City, etc., I think there is definitely room for critical analysis of the offerings out there. While I recognize that the genre has a long way to go, I do not agree that it is inherently unworthy of critical scrutiny. Even in the short time I have been playing, I see many differences between the different games that could form the basis for a critical evaluation. For example:

1. Flexibility: does the game provide multiple paths to reach its goals, or does it essentially force the player into (a) spending real money to unlock upgrades); (b) spend substantial amounts of time grinding; or (c) recruit substantial numbers of friends (more than one or two)?

2. Strategy: related to the first topic, does the game provide opportunities to maximize efficiency through the construction of resource generation engines, placement of buildings, or conversion of one sort of resource into another? For example, Ravenwood Fair, currently in beta, allows the player to purchase additional energy by expending food, which can be gathered in-game. I'm not aware of another game that does this, so this might be considered an innovation worthy of note.

3. Social interaction: does the game promote genuine social interaction, such as role-playing, trading, cooperation, competition, or conflict? I would be particularly interested in learning about games that allow trading between players, as this would create an economy where the grinders could fund their activities by selling rare items to the players who have more money than time, and would allow for greater flexibility in game mechanics.

4. Storyline: does the game provide some sort of storyline, and how compelling is this element? Do the players' actions have any effect on the outcome, or are the story elements just another form of reward, like special items? Can players contribute their own story elements?

5. Art, music, and presentation: is the gameworld beautiful or stylish? Does the music effectively create a mood? Does the game provoke an emotional response? Again, do the players have any way to influence what they experience, such as the ability to decorate or recolor items, supply their own music, or craft unique items?

6. Ecosystem: does the game exist as part of a broader ecosystem of other activities, or is it an island unto itself? For example, all of the games I have played so far have proprietary virtual currencies, preventing the player who has invested real money into the game from carrying that value into other games. Zynga's Adventure World has experimented with licensing the Indiana Jones IP and with story-based gameplay, but (to date) there is no link to either the movies, or the TV series, or any other uses of the license. This is an obvious area for development.

I could go on, but I think these six topics are more than sufficient to justify comparative reviews. Contrary to what some commenters have suggested, the fact that these games do not cost money to try does not mean that they are "free". They all require time, and the willingness to persuade one's friends to participate, not to mention actual monetary investment to get the most out of the game. I would really like some independent, educated opinion on whether a game is worth my time and effort before I click on that link someone sent me.

Critical commentary is also badly needed to drive innovation and growth in the genre. The current business model is unsustainable, because the number of games available far exceeds the available time of those willing to play them. Innovative developers willing to take risks with the basic model need the boost that a favorable review would give them.

I object to the view that somehow these are not true games, any more than SimCity or The Sims are not true games. They are more like "software toys," but just as The Sims long ago became accepted as a classic, despite the negative opinions of many hobby gamers, so some of these software toys will eventually be regarded as classics, warts and all. For those of us who no longer have the time to spend on deep, competitive games, social games can be an enjoyable way to spend 15-30 minutes on our lunch hour. Can they be dramatically improved? Absolutely; just try to play a legendary game like Ultima IV today and see how it stacks up against something like Skyrim (or even Baldur's Gate). I think the genre has near infinite potential, and we all have the chance to influence where it goes.

Charles Battersby
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I've never been a fan of numeric review scores in general, and like to hear about the reviewer's personal experience with the game rather than an objective analysis of why Skyrim is half a point better than Oblivion.

With Facebook/casual game, they'd need to be reviewed relative to each other in the respect that "Zooville is much better than Smurfwars" even though both games are terrible when compared to Oblivion.

Joe McGinn
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Seems kind of pointless until the games evolve out of their energy/spamming-addicted infancy. It would be like giving ratings to slot machines.

David Holmin
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Jeremie Sinic
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The lower half of the 100% rating system will finally serve some purpose, so yes, let's give FB games a rating by all means!

David Padron
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Sure, 0.

David Holmin
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A score doesn't really say anything. What says something are the reviewer's arguments and reasoning. A game review is always subjective, and thus needs an analysis to mean something. Just a score can't be analysed. I've had a few occasions where I went "Oh, this reviewer hates this game because of it's long learning curve and difficulty. I will probably find it interesting, then," or, "The reviewer gave this game a low score because it's too repetitive, and lacks the features of modern FPS. Great. I love old school FPS games with no bullshit."

That said, since the Facebook games I've seen are more of addiction time wasters than games, I could do without reviews of them cluttering various websites.

Darcy Nelson
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Before everyone paid for cable/satellite TV service, television shows were 'free' entertainment. They were reviewed in TV Guide, which basically served as a guidepost for consumers exposed to a variety of programming. I mean, I guess we're in a different landscape now what with everyone and their mom posing as a blogger or otherwise legit source of information, but I think there could definitely be an audience for browser-based game reviews. Anyone who thinks these games aren't legit is going to be really surprised in the next 5 years. I felt the same way about handheld games for a long time, and I've been pleasantly surprised to find some real gems on the PSP and DS. I don't think there is anything to be gained by NOT talking about this budding genre.

Darcy Nelson
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Also, is anyone else cautiously optimistic that browser-based game reviews could help cut down on the number of clones we're seeing?

John Flush
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I a distribution model where you never know the state of a game, what good is a numerical score at all? I think it is the same way with released games anymore - it is a 7.0 at release, but after a few patches, maybe some free DLC the game has little to resemble the problems that came with a 7.0 score.

Now with a game that is always online, always available for changes and new content, how is one to ever correctly score said game? Honestly, before facebook games get a score I would prefer the industry to drop the score altogether. But too many bonuses and payouts are tied to it aren't they...

Patricia Schorsch
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I came across this article a year and a half too late to reply in a timely manner. But, I was searching on "does anyone review Facebook games" and found it. It is still relevant.

I agree wholeheartedly that Facebook games should be reviewed. Yes, they change but so do MMO's. We never think starting an MMO that in one year or two or five the game will be the same. We know that many times large chunks of features and content are coming. We also know that the basics of the game are usually pretty solid - just as they are in Facebook games. Many Facebook games will be a constant evolution but that doesn't make them unreviewable. Maybe as others suggested, the review model should be different. But so should MMO's. How many comments of MMO's say that the review is no longer relevant because of the all the patches and added features?

I consider myself mainly a PC gamer but I have played a few Facebook games. My favorite - Dungeon Overlord soon felt like it was too demanding and too much like work but I played for 5 months and did invest a bit of money into it. It was almost what I wanted but contained that Facebook element of having to constantly log in that eventually pushed me away.

I look for Facebook game reviews every once in a while to see if there is anything out there that might be worth my time. I almost never find one. The most I find is something obviously written by the game publisher which helps me not at all. It is like a car salesman's telling me about a car.

Without reviews I know nothing about gameplay, story (if there is one), how demanding it is or sometimes even what type of game it is. I don't even know they exist because it all becomes spam after a while.

My impression is that Facebook games are all written around the same model as Farmville. If this has changed, I will never know. Without reviews, I know nothing about the game unless I give them all my private information and friends information and invest time.

I know the market is huge already for Facebook games and maybe the publishers don't think they need or would benefit from reviews. From a gamer's standpoint, I need reviews. I know what I like and what I am interested in putting time into.