What Games Are: What Became Of Social Games?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

A couple of days ago I read the news about Mark Pincus stepping down as chief product officer at Zynga. It’s not surprising given that the company continues to lose money and players hand over fist and hasn’t really been able to muster the same energy behind products that it used to. Perhaps there’s a lesson for all of us there in the perils of building entirely on metrics and fast-following/cloning. There comes, as I wrote before, a time when the ease of replicating runs out. And the time when the resulting culture can’t innovate.

Concurrent to that news was this week’s Games for Change festival. Primarily a gathering of academic, educational and associated game developers, the festival is about the influential potential of games. It tends to be the place where think-tank educational games, games made to teach people, games about health and so on all mingle. And it features talks by avant garde game makers and awards for games based on innovation or social impact. Where name-designers like Jenova Chen can be heard to talk about how “social” should really be about emotions rather than numbers.

As I found myself thinking about those two poles, about the mechanized model social-as-in-leveraging-Facebook versus the social-as-in-community-building, I found myself thinking how long it had been since either really felt relevant any more. And, Carrie Bradshaw style, I started to wonder:

Whatever happened to social games?

Story A

One of the things you realize about the games industry after mooching around it for a few years is that there’s a consistently high degree of cognitive dissonance. Even at the highest levels people tend to harbor convictions about what their business is or could do that have entirely nothing to do with what it actually is or does. From the outside looking in this often looks like a sales line, but actually it’s usually not. Those people who say that games are the future of this or the enabling tool for that tend to believe it. But while this is what they espouse, the products they turn out are often the opposite of that. They’re often small, grubby and under-executed.

The more I think on it the more I think that “dissonance” describes the social games movement to a tee. Because ultimately what it was trying to sell was the ideals of Greenpeace powered by the economics of Vegas, a package of a future of play and yet the sold on a bed of weak product designed to do little more than manipulate attention.

Social game companies told two stories at once. The first story was the high minded bringing of players together, the world built on play, play for the common good, for everyone, even in some cases for the advancement of humanity. The sea change in how users seemed to be playing inspired a lot of people across the spectrum. People started to think and talk about how games could connect and help bridge gaps. Jane McGonigal told stories of how mothers and daughters reconnected over games of Lexulous, and Raph Koster gave talks about the potential of asynchronous play.

It was a bit fuzzy, something about the spirit of board and party games, about the joy of playing together and the potential of collaborative play, but it was big. Social gaming brought many outsiders into the industry interested in doing things with games. There were companies with games designed to help depression for example, and companies with games focused on trying to encourage environmentalism. Social seemed to have a lot of potential for games and games for social likewise.

Story B

The second story was about getting as many bums on seats as possible and finding high rollers. Some of this you could understand. When Facebook opened up the user pipe and a few one-man developers created quick apps that somehow got a million users in a day, it caught many of us by surprise. However a few people, such as Pincus and Shervin Pishevar, foresaw the opportunity and set up companies to explore it, and quickly realized that it would be a race. Early developers scrambled to get on there as fast as possible. Quality didn’t matter nearly as much as responsiveness, and speed was all.

At the same time the business case was compelling because of the fairy dust of virtual goods. There was a lot of speculation on how the Asian model of monetizing games would eventually tip over into the West (which it did) and some form of long-tail/freemium/Chris-Anderson zeitgeist would happen. Everybody who was anybody saw the potential of connecting the free marketing of Facebook viral channels to the whale-inducing graph and it all sounded like kerching!

Social game makers talked very enthusiastically about pinch points and delayed gratification, about the value of reward cycles and so on. They got very squee about diagrams of user funnels and Andrew Chen’s virality spreadsheets and Eric Ries’s lean startup movement. It was all “minimum viable product” this and “customer validation” that. As contract development became a part of the scene and various larger companies wanted to get into the space, the language of MVPs it became like a sales script. Don’t worry, the developers would say, we can build a small version and then iterate.

There were also the many rather rangy promises of A/B testing. Social game makers used to boast about how responsive their games were compared to fuddy duddy old videogame studios, about how easy it was to put Christmas trees in their games and sell $2m of them. Everybody involved was convinced that they had solved the problem of games for all time, whether for raw commerce or more high minded ideals. They honestly thought they were geniuses, that the shape of the industry had changed forever.

When in fact all that was going on was a user gold rush, one that was going to soon stop.

 Turning Off The Tap

While the pitch of social games may have been lean companies creating MVPs to verify markets, using metrics to evolve, monetizing like Vegas and yet claim that this was all for the betterment of mankind, there was one continuing problem. The games were free, and people like to play free things for a while, and some of the games got very good at figuring out best to hold onto those people. Yet the games were also basically dreadful.

When all was said and done, the actual value of social games to users was that they were free cloud-hosted games that maintained save states. Unlike web casual games, for example, which tended to be single-state affairs, social games maintained your farm/city/character/whatever. They were roleplaying games that people could bounce into a play a few turns before going away again.

Whereas most of the other traits of social games, the user graphs and friend comparison charts, the gifting and the sharing? Most of it was just a novelty for users at first and then a massive annoyance and then literally the thing they hated most in all the world. They were valuable to the game maker, but not to the user. The users just sort of hated them after a while.

Then there was the content. There had to that point likely never been a market so inclined to crib and copy from one another as social games (an instinct we still see with Flappy Bird and Threes clones, and no doubt soon, Piano Lines). Oodles of games thoroughly copied each other from head to toe under the self-justification of fast-following, but only a lawyer would claim that they were innovating. For example poor user interface conventions were often copied from one game to the next entirely uncritically, often in the mistaken belief that the source game in question had worked out some “secret sauce” formula for success.

Tons of barely disguised cheesy tactics comprised the sum total of all the learning in the social games space. Widespread adoption of dark patterns were justified on pretty dubious pretexts. Those in the industry talked endlessly of their playbooks, as though they were alchemists holding onto some deep magic of games that nobody could quite name, but they were just scouring the charts of AppData to see what new thing was rising and then jumping all over it. Everyone could, for example, talk up the ideas of MVPs and metrics and A/B tests, but few actually knew how to do those things and even then they didn’t lead to innovation.

Social games also compromise the Facebook experience itself, and so the company eventually toned down their access. That was the moment when social games started to turn sour. In essence Facebook moved from the stance of opt-out social to opt-in, which killed all the cheap and easy virality, and many of the more aspirational ideals associated. As it became more apparent that marketing costs were going to be a factor (and an escalating one at that) social game makers pivoted toward safe-ground ideas and figuring out to get into iPhone. Or made smart exits for fat paychecks.


The word that springs to mind most when I think of “social games” is confluence. The platform that powered it came along at a time when other technology (such as cloud services) were in a good-enough shape to run big games, and at the same time as lean, gamification and similar ideas were gaining currency. It sang a song that sounded great to everyone, but it all turned out to be a bit one-note. A confluence of events that appeared to be something bigger than they actually proved to be.

It’s notable how the social gaming idea itself just started to fade away. The talk of giant board games and communities failed to turn into anything real. The numbers started to level off and then turn tail while advertising costs skyrocketed. Alternative venues for social games kind of kicked around for a while, such as the open web or Google+, but none of it really came to anything. And all that social-impact stuff? Well it turns out nobody really cares about what a videogame has to teach them about upcycling, or solar energy, or green living or social issues.

We used to talk about social games all the time with verve and brio and watch figures like Ian Bogost rightly satirize it with Cow Clicker. We used to create very exciting-sounding social gaming businesses based on exploding market opportunities and run hell-for-leather to VCs to fund them. We used to rage and stare agog at the great mass of users playing terribly shallow games.

Now we just… don’t. Some social games are still there, chugging away as is their wont and likely for a long time to come. Many games integrate sharing and social comparison, for boasting about high scores, but in that sense “social” has largely just devolved into a function.

For Better Or Worse?

Was social gaming all just hot air? Maybe. Facebook has long stopped being seen as a killer destination, replaced by mobile and tablet platforms able to offer richer experiences. Other social networks such as Google+ and Hi5 never really got anywhere with trying to make a better case for social games (and therefore for users to translate over) and much of what’s happening in the instant messenger space likely takes over whatever’s remaining of the novelty-viral effect. Don Mattrick continues to reshape Zynga into a regular gaming company and is bringing in talent to refocus products, but it’s six to one and pick’em whether that will really go anywhere.

Mostly what I’m saying is the buzz has largely moved on from social, and that’s a good thing. No doubt the same high ideals will return in time, perhaps powered by some new innovation or device. Will we even call it “social” then? Likely not.