Six Reasons why (Most) Social Games are Awful

Social games are a popular topic within the games industry at the moment. The recent Game Developers Conference was dominated by the discussion of social games, with luminaries such as Satoru Iwata dedicating a large part of his keynote speech to the subject.

Rather than just read what people have to say on the subject I thought I’d share my own thoughts, especially as I now work in this sector.

Below are what I consider to be the six worst things about social games.

1. Social Games aren’t Social Games

In my opinion, most social games are inherently anti-social.

Social gaming in my mind means collaborative play, playing with or against someone in real time, whether locally or online.

One of the few games to attempt this was Holiday Village, a game in which you create a Christmas village collaboratively with friends. This had an all-time high of just 10,112 monthly active users (MAU). To put this into comparison, this is 0.01% of the all time high MAU of Cityville (101,231,340).

Even shameless, inferior copies of Zynga’s titles receive a far greater audience than this.

2. People Share Things Because They Want to, Not Because you Tell Them to

“You defeated a monster, share the news.” “You found a sheep, tell everyone.” “You levelled up, I bet your friends will be really impressed if you tell them.”

One of the most frustrating things about the majority of social games is that you are bombarded with pop-up messages telling you to tell people that you’re playing the game. Titles like Ravenwood Fair don’t even limit the pop-ups to significant achievements. I loaded up the game this morning after being away from it for only eighteen hours and received seven requests to share news or food. All I did was restock my buildings and chop down some trees. I didn’t do anything even mildly significant like level up or complete a quest.

Having the ability to instantly share information with your social network is brilliant, but I don’t want to have to stop what I was doing to close a massive pop-up box.

Include a share option by all means but please integrate it in a way that doesn’t intrude on the player.

3. Don’t Ever Tell a Player when to Stop Playing

A key ‘feature’ (read: irritation) of the most popular social games is an energy system. This is essentially a way to stop people playing your game, I’m sure the marketing department would word it differently but that’s how I see it.

Every action costs energy and once your energy reaches zero you have to wait for it to replenish over time, or buy more using real world money.

From a game design point of view I find this mind boggling. You’re deliberately turning players away from your game assuming they will come back in a couple of hours once their energy has replenished.


4. It’s a Game, Make Player Enjoyment Your Priority

“The GDC social games summit felt like a business summit.” So said Playdom’s Scott John Siegel at the recent Montreal International Games Summit.

People play games because they are fun, if you create a game that people enjoy playing they will be happy to put money into it. If you have to resort to thinking of ways to force the player to part with their money, you’ve got your priorities wrong and it’s no wonder that traditional gamers turn their noses up at the mere prospect of playing a Facebook game.

5. Stop Withholding Information

You’ve paid for your item, spent energy to construct it, now you have to collect fifty warlock nipples to finish it.

Not only is this a ridiculously drawn out process for buying an item but you’re not even told about the warlock nipples until after you’ve constructed it.

It’s akin to going to Ikea and handing over £100 for a chest of drawers. When you get home you put the chest of drawers together only to find that you have to buy the screws and glue separately. Screws and glue that you’ll only find one of every thirty days or which cost £500 each. So you’re left with a pile of MDF in your bedroom and you still have nowhere to put your socks. You cannot bear to live with such an eyesore and you can’t wait the five years it will take to collect enough screws, so you end up paying £10,000 for the remaining items so that you can finish your chest of drawers that day.

Final cost: £10,100 for a product which you thought was going to cost just £100

6. Bugs Should be Fixed, Not Ignored

It’s only a Facebook game, people won’t mind that it runs at 2 frames per second.

Having a background in QA, this final point really annoys me. Some of the most bug-riddled games I’ve had the displeasure of playing have been social games. Take for instance Music Tycoon, if you can even get past the loading screen (there’s about a 5% success rate) you are faced with a terrible UI, unresponsive controls and a terrible music search facility.

I’ve heard the excuse that it’s iterative, and that you’re constantly upgrading the game and ironing out the bugs but Music Tycoon was released eleven months ago.

These are the six things that annoy me most about the current state of social games, if you have more please drop them in the comments!

About Adam

Games designer, Newcastle fan and prolific tea drinker
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3 Responses to Six Reasons why (Most) Social Games are Awful

  1. develion says:

    Some interesting points and I quite agree. The “social gameplay” in the likes of CityVille is requiring numerous active friends on order to complete quests, unlock items and complete certain buildings. However this is merely about friend count and a means to get more players sucked in. No doubt the quantity of tasks requiring input from friends has improved the success of Zynga games. With their relatively high level of polish and masses of advertising they are very accessible but soon you are finding yourself limited in progression. The answer, get your friends on board. I completely agree that this isn’t really true social gaming, more viral advertising.

    Some games such as City of Wonder require your friends to help out in the construction of certain buildings, however it is still just a case of spamming out requests that are (hopefully) responded to. I suppose wishlists are a form of social gameplay when implemented well. In the (limited) Zynga games that I’ve played these systems take a back seat but I’ve encountered games where you feel as though you are helping friends and grateful for when they send you goodies. Perhaps part of this is because unlike CityVille etc requests aren’t quite as imposed on the player. It means more when a player chooses to send you one of THEIR items, rather than just going through the rote procedure of constantly sending out and responsing to requests.

    Final thing. Aside from FarmVille, have you encountered many Facebook games that aren’t currently labelled as Beta?

    Meh, that was a little tl;dr.

    • Adam says:

      Good point about the Beta label – I can’t recall any that aren’t marked as this. The skeptic in me assumes this is so they can say “we’re still working on it” as a default response to any complaints.

      The wishlist is something that could be implemented better I think, it’s not very clear in Cityville and I agree that sending your own items to friends is a lot more engaging than selecting from a list of items. If you can gift these so easily, why can’t you get them for yourself when you need them?!

  2. Pingback: Previous Post Featured on Gamasutra | Adam Russell, Games Designer

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