It’s the Small Things: The Facebook Ticker

I’ve been on Facebook for a long time. I’ve seen countless changes to its design, some good and some not-as-good. I’m sure I’ll get used to this one in time as well, but the ticker has to go.

If you haven’t noticed it, the ticker is this mini-Facebook feed in the upper-right corner of your Facebook window. It displays real-time activities of your friends – when they comment on something, when they like something, when they join something, when they are joined to something (even private groups), etc. I’m sure some people really love it, and in fact, I’ve seen some of my own friends say how nice it is. The majority of my friends though have been posting links on how to get rid of it since it first appeared. And if they’re not posting links to extensions that hide it (like this one), they’re posting the following:

Some say it’s the lastest in a history of invasions of privacy. More

Social Games and the Pastoral

When I hear the term “pastoral”, my mind immediately jumps to Vergil’s Georgics or maybe Daphnis and Chloe. It’s a peaceful, idyllic setting where the concerns of politics and the city are far away. The music of shepherds’ lutes and birds’ chatter fills the air while a soft breeze carries the scent of wildflowers from the nearby meadow. The sun reflects off the glass surface of the lake and sheep pasture closeby.

Our modern time may be quite different than it was then but there is still the keen desire to escape the concerns of the “real world”. Our Rome is just as busy, just as stressful, just as demanding as ever it was. Peace is not as distant as it was perhaps, but rarely does it stay long in our souls.

Out of all the many games on the Facebook platform, Farmville alone has claimed numbers reaching above 70 million. It is not a pretty game by any definition I don’t think, nor is it complex. Its mechanics are accessible and its ideas common. In the US where agriculture as a profession has fallen ~70% in the last 140 years, is it no wonder that so many idealize the life of their forebears? Surely, one may think, it was better in those times when one simply hoed, and planted, and watered, and harvested. Tend the animals, weed the crops, prune the vines. No hustling and bustling, just the sweet rhythm of hoe/plant/water.

Most of us realize that life, in fact, wasn’t just a peaceful utopia then. It was hard. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and thinking I would never want to be her. Thank you very much for my computer and A/C , I’d like to keep them. Even so, the thought of no deadlines, no emails, and no facebook sounds just a tad enticing…for a moment.

Metaplace’s My Vineyard I think does an even better job of creating a pastoral setting. Even the music in that game is relaxing. Sadly, it hasn’t had the time or marketing that Farmville has had, and I’m not sure it actually is different enough to be a success, yet it illustrates the same thematic concerns.  Other games have recently also tried to capture this peaceful kind of utopia, but through a desert island.

A desert island is quite similar to the pastoral setting of agriculture. It isn’t actually all peace and pretty. If you were actually alone on a desert island, not getting killed by raptors and perhaps finding some food would be your main concern, not completing a collection of Renaissance paintings. (I here reference Zynga’s Treasure Isle). And yet, suspension of disbelief is no struggle in this game either. Millions again are happy to click around, digging up treasure and decorating their personal island with seashells and baby (vegetarian) jaguars.

It doesn’t really make me happy that Zynga is our culture’s Vergil, but perhaps it’s telling. Actually, I’d more like to compare Zynga to Cicero’s failed attempts at poetry since they are equally as artful.

It’s also somewhat ironic that our window to the ideal is through that very thing we are trying to escape – modern technology. Just as the readers/listeners of Vergil’s Georgics were going to be elites far from the world of shepherds and sheep, so are the people playing Farmville likely quite far from the world of the constant woes of real farmlife.

This ideal is just one of many which games help us to realize, if only temporarily, a wish we have that our modern society and/or lifestyle is unable to fulfill. I also think that many fantasy MMOs play off another such wish, the need and desire for prestige and honor among modern people who live in a world with few opportunities to be heroic. They also provide opportunities to be useful to a community by plying a trade, opportunities to be a social leader, build/decorate dream houses, have a beautiful face, fantastic wardrobes, etc. The pastoral is really just another manifestation of fantasy where people can create something they wish they had in real life – quotidian peace. I sincerely hope the next iteration of the pastoral is closer to Vergil than Cicero’s poetic drivel.

Social Games: MMO?

This is another entry in my series on social games – a nice, sterile term for those annoying applications that spam your Facebook News Feed. You know the kind – someone’s farm needs fertilizer, someone’s dog needs a treat, someone’s restaurant needs spices.

In the series, I will be looking at questions of endgame, reward/punishment, society, and narrative, from the perspective of a “traditional” gamer, meaning someone who primarily plays non-casual video. (Yes, that term is heavily loaded and ill-defined, but for now, going to use it.) Today, I want to look at the question of social versus MMO.  I see similar things like levels, social interaction, personalization, avatars, and economy in both the social games on Facebook and the more hardcore MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Aion. What is similar about these different kinds of games or are these just similar kinds of concepts being used in completely different ways in completely different games?

I’m not the first to have addressed this question, but hopefully my answer will provide something new to the discourse of just what an MMO really is and why social games feel different.

First of all, let’s just look at their very names – massively multiplayer and social. Although it may seem that these two things are the same, they aren’t necessarily so. Considering the current trend to make MMO play, at least the leveling part, a potentially fully solo experience, one can perhaps see how despite a world populated by thousands, one can have an entirely asocial experience. Look at the recent revamp of the “epic” questline in Lord of the Rings Online. What used to take a full party of six members can now be done on your own. Regardless,  I am going to stick to my old-fashioned understanding and experience of MMOs and say social is part of the game. Most people still interact with other players to some extent during their playtime and the vast majority join guilds or clans so they can feel like part of a group.

In a “social game”, however, other players add substantively to player experience although its possible to play purely on one’s own. Playfish says, “Social games are games designed to be played together with friends.” (I tend to play MMOs with my friends too).  In these social games, not only do you reap concrete benefits like experience or currency, you also can individualize, compete, and share. Wait, how is this different from an MMO? Sure, you can play solo, but it’s much better to play with others. You get more experience and loot when playing in a group and joining a guild or clan often makes many parts of the game, if not easier, more accessible. It seems then that both MMOs and social games both offer the same benefits of group play while still allowing the player to solo if he desires.

If it is not the social aspect, perhaps it is the very mechanics of gameplay. Most MMOs have a leveling system that guides character development and governs one’s access to areas in the game. Interestingly enough, social games have these too. Almost all of them have levels one earns, and as one gains levels, one also gains skills and access to new items, equipment, or actions. Not only Farmville behaves in this manner, but most ZyngaPlayfish, and other game companies’ offerings.

Perhaps an MMO feels different because  one’s character is part of an overarching narrative. I’m not just some avatar, I’m a particular elf helping other elves take care of corrupt trees. Although Farmville’s “narrative” is a very poor excuse for one, it is still there. The new co-op play has you and your friends plant flowers for someone’s wedding, for example. If you do so fast enough, they’ll give you a wedding gazebo gift. Sounds like a quest to me. The new Sony social game, “The Agency: Covert Ops” has a very detailed narrative outlining the actions one takes. Other games, of course, have almost nothing one could call a narrative. Yet, even in those games, you can typically find some kind of NPC who guides your experience with (meaningless) narrative. For example, another Zynga game Cafe World has you cook dishes and serve them to customers. You don’t know why you’re doing this, you simply run a cafe and cook. However, there is this overarching figure named “Amelia” who occasionally tells you things like, “this bride needs help with a wedding cake!”. So, although the narrative is pathetic and barely existent, it is there.

The one thing perhaps you’re all screaming at your screen right now is persistent world. This was the big thing about MMOs in the early days and perhaps still – the world goes on existing even when you’re not there. Things are happening, people are questing, boars are dying. Are the worlds of Facebook not persistent? I think that they actually are. In My Vineyard, for example, a game put out by Metaplace, one’s vineyard is a potential gathering place for all of your friends, even when you are not online. They can all visit your vineyard, sit on your benches, look at your pond, and talk to each other when you are not there. In most games, one has some kind of “home” whether a restaurant, a farm, or an HQ, that one decorates as desired and exists at all times for people to visit. In Café World, while you are offline, your friends can come to your café and spice your dishes, providing you with benefits or saving food you’ve left to spoil. On your return, you will see who has visited and what they’ve done.

These worlds of social games, though persistent, are not free for their players to explore. One cannot take one’s avatar outside, down the street, to another farm or vineyard. The interface is much more mechanical and governed by addons and loading screens. I do recall the day though when zones in Everquest were bordered by zone walls and traversing passes between them brought on a loading screen.

Rather than any difference in quality between MMOs and social games, there seems rather to be simply a difference of scale. MMOs have much more depth, more players, more geography, etc. But why is it valuable to even come to this conclusion?

If many social games are just mini MMOs, we can judge them on the same principles. Are the quests interesting? Are the themes innovative? Are the narratives engaging?

Further, if many social games are just mini MMOs, perhaps they can inspire each other to go in new directions. Since they are on such different platforms and appeal to different markets, yet share the same concepts and base mechanics, looking at social games could help us understand the motivations of players in MMOs as well as vice versa or at least provide a testing ground for hypotheses. Communities and their interests, differences in features and expectations, as well as design goals and philosophies can all be compared. Traditional definitions of game genre can be explored and evolved  – for example, there are not just simulation games of farms and restaurants on Facebook, but also city-building games, civilization games, card-collecting games, secret agent games, etc. What defines and separates these genres and how do motivations and interests of players change across those genre lines?

As you can see, there is much to think about beyond just how much money Zynga is lining their velvet cushions with.

Social Games: The Agency

I’m going to be doing a few posts on social games – mostly covering their aspects in relation to more familiar MMO games. To start out with though, I’d just like to talk a little bit about Sony’s new Facebook game, The Agency: Covert Ops.

It’s brand new so it is hard to judge right now just how successful it is going to be compared to other games on the Facebook platform. From personal experience, I’ve noticed it’s actually only more hardcore gamers who have been captured by it. I don’t know if this will hold up, but considering the ease with which my own app buddies typically latch on to new games, I’m surprised that they haven’t with this one.

The game itself is rather basic and many of its features would be familiar to anyone who has played other social games on facebook. It has the familiar line of friends at the bottom whom you can visit each day to help out for a small Influence (xp) bonus. Also, the basic mechanic that allows one to complete actions in the game will be familiar to many app users. It works off a kind of energy bar system which is depleted by a certain amount on completing an action and is restored as time passes. I was happy to see that the restoration pace is actually quite swift compared in particular to Zynga’s new Treasure Isle treasure-hunting game. There is also the typical personal decoration part of a Facebook game. Here, you have an HQ that you can decorate and organize as you wish as well as an avatar you can dress and equip as you choose. These two staples of Facebook games are present in the Agency but take a backseat to the actual gameplay. I realize this may be a problematic statement as decoration and personalization are certainly forms of gameplay. In the Agency, however, there is an obvious difference between more traditional forms of gameplay (like questing) and those more associated with social games.

Yes, this Facebook game has quests. It isn’t the first, but it is one of the most narrative-heavy games on the platform I’ve seen so far. One takes on the role of a special agent in Amsterdam who is tasked with finding out how and why people are dying. One does this by completing various missions that are assigned.  Some are completed with a simple click of the button, others by completing minigames, one of which is combat. This addition of minigames internalized in the app itself is one of its best features in my opinion. There are a few different minigames, a seek-and-find, a matching, the combat one I mentioned, a platformer, and likely others I’m forgetting or haven’t run into. Not only do they offer variation in gameplay, they provide a sense of excitement, as most are timed, and even an option of failure. Yes, one can lose a minigame, and one can lose in combat. The possibility of failure in a Facebook game? Amazing, I know, but yes.

There is also a crafting aspect to the game, and one can even farm mats if they so desire. Some missions have the chance to “drop” a component – perhaps a weapon or armor piece or some kind of gadget. Components can be taken to the lab technician who has 40+ different items he can make for you if you acquire the necessary ingredients. These items are either weapons, armor, or gadgets which help you do your job. Components are also acquired from him once every 12 hours if you check-in, and from visiting new friends who play the game.

Another option that is discretely very similar to other facebook app features is that of the Group Missions feature. Basically, you choose a time frame (30 mins, 1 hr, 4 hr, 1 day, etc.) and must return after it in order to collect cash and influence. This feature however is buried in the tutorial, loosely based in the narrative, and not front-and-center in the interface as it is in other apps. I at first, when going through the tutorial, did not even realize that this feature actually was just a simple do X, wait Y hours, return and collect. But it is.

Lastly, one earns achievements/badges from various activities in the game, as one does in most apps. All missions can be repeated and there are multiple mastery levels for each one. I have not actually done this as repeating missions requires Cover (energy) and I have not completed the main narrative yet (though I am level 17 already). I assume there is a level cap since most apps have them, but I do not know what it is yet and the narrative, though making definitive progress, does not seem to be running out of steam yet.

Overall, I highly recommend that people try it, either those who are more familiar with social games or those more familiar with RPGs/MMOs. (Your avatar also has skills and you acquire skill points to spend at each level). It bridges the gap nicely, though I think it is much easier for traditional gamers to pick it up than it is for social gamers. The tutorial is very good I think, but somewhat long compared to other Facebook app tutorials and the interface is not as clear as pure Facebook-gamers would be accustomed to. I hope though that this app will encourage other developers for the platform to do more with their games. Some of the latest offerings are so lacking in creativity and originality, it makes me sad for humanity.

“Co-op” and Social Games: Squashed

This is not a post about how social games are changing the meaning of games nor about how simple and capitalist they are. Rather, it is a post about how one new feature added to an already existent and stable game can dramatically affect if not completely change the way its players…play.

Last week, Zynga introduced a new feature into Farmville, that little darling of Facebook investors everywhere. This new feature is called “Co-op Farming”.

Oh, how fun! I get to farm things with my friends!

Or that’s what everyone thought.

In reality, yes, you do farm things with your friends. You have a “work order” that says someone (someone who is randomly disconnected from any narrative or persistent world) needs 1600 pattypan squash pronto. You and whoever you can spam into joining you plant those 1600 pattypan squash just as fast as you can for a bonus in coins and XP. If you harvest them fast enough, you get *ding* *ding* *ding* a GOLD MEDAL!!!!! (A medal = a very small bonus in coins and XP, neither of which are hard to come by.)

Now, that sounds fine right? And not too game-changing. You plant crops, you harvest them, you get coins and you get XP.

Sure, it’s exactly the same game except that players used to farm things based on other criteria. The game hasn’t changed – the play has. A week ago, a player’s decisions were based on personal priority. Either they like planting flowers because they can decorate with them, or perhaps they like planting vegetables so they can earn mastery signs. Maybe they want to plant 2-hour crops or maybe they want to plant 2-day crops because they won’t be back to a computer for awhile.

Decision-making in the game has been completely changed by this new “Co-op” feature. Now, all planting decisions are dictated by the arbitrary needs of your work order (there are only four different work orders in the game). Instead of making designs in fields with different crops and colors, all one can see now is row upon row of pattypan squash.

Why does this feature, which is strikingly familiar to a very basic quest, change so much about how players play? Why does this change what is fun? It is as if a dictated goal automatically trumps anything else that used to be enjoyable. Ooo, red tulips. NOOOOO. YOU MUST PLANT PATTYPAN SQUASH. Instead of farms in revolution crying out for tulips, we have fields and fields and fields of squash.

They’re not revolting because they are still free. They could plant all the red tulips they want if they wanted to. But they don’t.

The squash has conquered. Tulip season is over.

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