It is chilling to think that ours may be the last generation to consider the term “social” as primarily being outgoing. With the deluge of so called social apps flooding the market, I can only expect, in somewhat hyperbole, that the definition of “social” will soon change. Maybe, it will become something like “the act of sharing your location, pictures, videos, thoughts and activities (in 140 characters or less) leveraging one of these apps”.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the emergence of a new generation of social games. This new generation is legion, climbing out of (the) Facebook onto PCs and mobile devices independent of any one client. At its worst, this generation bears cookie cutter copies of the villes, Mafia Wars and even StarCraft. There is a glimmer of hope, however, as some developers are pushing the social platform forward through innovation and creativity.
Earlier this week, SweetLabs, Inc. and Kabam announced that they have brought the first line of “hardcore” social games to the PC. Leveraging SweetLabs’ Pokki platform, gamers can download four Kabam titles, namely Dragons of Atlantis, Edgeworld, The Godfather: Five Families and Thirst of Night. Despite the delivery being free from the totalitarian chains of Facebook, there isn’t much else innovative or exciting about this announcement.
“Innovative” and “exciting” can be subjective terms. However, if we focus objectively on the games themselves, they are no different than the ones on Facebook. Take The Godfather: Five Families for example. Look passed the trademark and the flashy interface, it’s just MafiaWars in a new suit. Edgeworld is another example. The blue woman image alone indicates that the game borrows from iconic titles like Halo. The gameplay, it turns out, is a watered down version of StarCraft.
This sort of borrowing and copying is more prevalent in social games than one may think. Back in February, at the San Francisco Game Developer’s Workshop, John Romero and Brenda Brathwaite of Loot Drop explained that this is a go-to strategy for many social game developers. The reasoning behind it goes something like this — the average Facebook user plays x amount of games. They play, maybe, for five to ten minutes each game. If a game does not fit with the feel and gameplay of the other games, it will be skipped over. The idea is to copy other games in order to fit in the average Facebook-er’s library. For obvious reasons, while this may help gain an audience, it is not conducive to innovation.
It also explains Kabam’s mission to emulate, “Our goal? We are working to achieve in social gaming what Blizzard has achieved in PC games. We know that’s a high bar to clear, but we’re up for it. Besides, why would anyone want to aim to be mediocre?”. Ironically, mediocrity may be the end result if borrowing and copying is all a game company does. One may call this the reasoning behind the old generation of social games. Enter the new generation.
Sure, Idle Games’ upcoming Idle Worship picks up on the already explored theme of player-as-god. A key difference is that it’s not trying to be anything like the recent From Dust or the more dated Black & White. They are treading new ground in the social gaming space, given the player-as-god concept has not been tried to any avail with social channels built in. Indeed, Idle Worship can be seen as innovative as it takes a new look at what it means to be a social game.
Take your pick of any existing social game out there, and the main thing that makes it social is the ability to share gifts/resources or contribute to someone else’s iteration of the game. It’s a gameplay element that exists even though the game itself does not tie it in logically. For example, you may share some wood with a friend on Frontierville or tend to a friend’s lot in Ravenwood Fair, letting them know on their feed. After all is said and done, nothing is gained. It is just a cunning dynamic that encourages your friends to log on and do the same somewhat mindlessly, like pulling a slot machine lever.
Instead, Idle Worship takes special care to incorporate social in a way that makes sense for the gameplay, rather than conforming to what is in the player’s comfort zone. Case in point is the vast amount of things you can do to affect a friend’s game. Each player gets an island where they are tasked to build and rule over a civilization of mudlings. With faith as the game’s currency, you must make sure they are properly worshiping you. This is done by benevolently showering them with gifts like fluffy, pink bunnies, or malevolently striking them down with lighting and tossing them into volcanoes. It is in this way you get more power and more opportunity rule over your realm the way you please.
Friends can wreak havoc as they visit your island to turn your mudlings into theirs. This sparks friendly competition as to who is the better god. The game then takes a surprising turn as one power allows you to flick a mudling into the stratosphere, only to have it land on a random person’s island. This makes a social connection with a gamer you potentially haven’t even met before, expanding your network and opening up new avenues to flex your god power. Idle Worship essentially introduces a new type of contextual social competition that has never been seen before.
Notice not once has there been a description of the game pausing to ask you if you want to share resources with a friend, or so you can broadcast your accomplishments.The game would instead let you know that someone messed with your island so you can log in to do damage control and maybe exact revenge. This definitely has more meaning as something you built, something you care about, is being threatened. It starts to sound more like game design 101, rather than the slot machine, k-factor mess of the older generation of social games.
Idle Worship offers a sensible goal, namely building your faith base while protecting it from others. This is vastly different from the villes — and in fact almost all other social games out there — where there is no clear goal, but only an endless amount of vapid mini-quests aimed at getting you to pull that proverbial slot machine lever.
Bear in mind that bucking the old trends has it’s inherent risks for the new generation of social games. As mentioned before, the Facebook gamer has a short supply of attention while logged onto the social network. Call it Social Network Onset ADD (my made up term). This is why those meaningless mini-quests have been recycled game after game — they are quick enough to make the player feel like there was something accomplished in that short amount of time. Idle Worship exposes that these are mostly empty accomplishments. At the same time, it introduces an alternative that may try to slow the player down, spend some more time on building something with more meaning.
Yes, it’s a risk. But, if the game is high in quality, it bears a much sweeter reward, namely more players playing for longer periods of time. Indeed, high quality is what this new generation of social game is bringing to the table. Many a Facebook gamer will see this quality once Idle Worship is released; and hopefully it is the start of a positive new trend.