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: 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.