Facebook Game Design is an embarrassment

by Dirk Knemeyer

After a conversation on The Digital Life with Brenda Brathwaite and Soren Johnson about "Social Game Design", it became clear that I needed to get to know Facebook Games better and see if there was more there than I thought. So right after the show I signed up for about a dozen Facebook Games. I played all of them for at least an hour. Two of them, Millionaire City and City of Wonder, I liked better than the rest and played them for a week or more. Then I decided that I liked City of Wonder best of all and have been playing it ever since. I even recruited my wife, my family and my friends to play it. And what I noticed early on, and what become glaringly obvious now the longer we play it, is the entire balance and conception of this game is seriously flawed. So, here it is in a nutshell: the design of Facebook Games has abandoned the old-school approach of trying to design a great game experience for players and instead is trying to design an engine to optimize revenues from the players. It is a huge difference in philosophy, where the marketers who are paid to make money have taken over from the engineers who are paid to make great experiences and in the process are reducing video game design from a deep and joyous hobby to a prettied-up form of interactive advertising. It is ironic, because we are at a moment where these games can be made much more cheaply than before, and there is plenty of money to be made even if the outcome is a great experience not a cash optimization engine. But these designers just can't help themselves. Either through corporate mandate or their own misguided design philosophy, they are focused on taking more money from the player while giving them far, far less.

Now, let's talk specifics. City of Wonder is a very simplified Civlization-style game, where the objective is to grow from a tiny, primitive encampment into a large, powerful modern - or even slightly futuristic - city. It has all the usual goodies, sometimes highly simplified or abstracted - such as buildings, citizens, exploration, technology, allies, enemies...it's really all there in one form or another. Now, in City of Wonder the designers are pulling the strings on a few different things. First of all, at the highest level, the designers are making decisions around crafting the game around our time, our relationships and our money. The game doesn't cost anything to start playing, so those are the levers they are pulling to get us to "pay" for our play. Let's talk about each of those separately, and how they represent failures in game design.

First, time. All of the Facebook Games I tried are centered around our time. City of Wonder compels you to come back again and again to take action on the game. For example, you add more population by buying residential structures and clicking on them every so often. Early residences require frequent clicking, even every few minutes. You click, you get a tiny increase of population. A few minutes later you do it again. Then, at later levels, you can buy residences that only require you to click once or twice a day. You've essentially advanced to the point where you are enabled to spend less time coming back and clicking. Now, traditional Civ-style games also use the passage and investment of time as a lever to increase population and accomplish other things. Here's the problem: in games like Rise of Nations or Civilization, while you are "waiting" for your growth there is a lot else to do. The game is rich and lush and dynamic. You aren't sitting around waiting to click because you've got a whole bunch more to think about. Not so in City of Wonder. The basic pattern is click, wait, click, wait, click wait. It isn't fun. Now, you can say it is more simple because it is a "casual game", but shouldn't it still be fun? Also - unlike traditional games - Facebook Games control your time, not vice-versa. Yes, technically you can log into and out of these games whenever you want. But they are structured to pull you in at inconvenient times. I remember when I was first playing City of Wonder, when the clicking and checking in is most frequent, and I was firing it up on and off all during the workday. I didn't want to be doing that; I felt like I had to. That, frankly, sucked. At least with a traditional game, I am in control of the time. I might need to be in the game for the game to make progress, but it is up to me when, where and how that is going to be. Other than being a great game and, as such, somewhat addictive, it is not prescribing that I need to be around to click at such-and-such a time.

Now let's talk about our relationships. One of the things that makes Facebook Games so profitable is their ability to get each player to suck in a bunch of their friends, creating network effects as more and more players stream into the game. That is lovely and a major win-win. That should create an opportunity for the developer to be more profitable, and for the player to have a better experience. Unfortunately, in the game design of all the games I played, the focus is only on the profitability of the developer and not on the joy of the player. Let's talk about that. First of all, we've all seen the spammy wall posts of some friend having accomplished something, or needing help, in Mafia Wars or FarmVille or FrontierVille. It is an industry standard. City of Wonder is no different. This is a terrible practice. I don't know anyone in the tech intelligentsia who likes to get bombarded with these things. Maybe there are other demographics that don't have a problem with it, but it irritates me to get hit with them, and it mortifies me to think I could be irritating others by my playing a game. Well, City of Wonder does everything possible to get you to spam people with this garbage. Certain buildings either will cost you cash money to build, or you need to post an invitation to help you on the walls of a bunch of people. For many of the little things you achieve in the game, they are always pressing you to post it on your wall. The pressure is constant. Then, they are trying to get you to invite more people into the game. All of these games follow a design pattern, where there is a generous rectangle-shaped portion of the screen - usually in the lower left - going thru a slideshow of your friends at all times when you are playing, trying to coax you into inviting them. Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. It's all built from the perspective of, "We want to suck as many people into spending as much of their time in this game as we can." It is literally parasitic. I can't opt out of it - I will NEVER post anything on my wall, or invite any friends to play other than who I have. Yet they are going to keep bludgeoning me with it. Terrible. Not user-friendly. Clumsy, blunt, just a total failure of design.

But here's the tragic part: let's for a moment stipulate that whatever they need to do to bring in more players is necessary for their viability. It's not, but let's stipulate it. Well, at least let us really make the most of our friends playing. Let the shared nature really enhance our experience. It doesn't. For example, one of the problems with City of Wonder is that the tuning is off. You reach a point when you hit a level in the mid-teens where you start getting far, far more money than you can possibly spend, while everything else is capped out below where you want it to be. The problem just keeps growing and growing and growing. At the same time, you have old obsolete buildings that you can either sell for 20% of their purchase price or store away. On the other hand, as you invite in new friends, or friends who join and passively connect with you, as they are starting out they have very limited means. Well, let me trade with them. I understand the designers can't let me give them things that are unbalanced and beyond their level - which would destabilize other game systems - but I've got plenty of low level decorations that they would appreciate if only largely for aesthetic reasons that are wasting away in my stockpile. It would make them happy, create a nice connection between us, and even improve their game. But no. Can't do that. Why? They want that person's time and money. My giving them things for free would take away from the forced nature of their continuing to click, click, click thru the system. Forget the fact that if I gave 60 plots of flowers to a new player they could create something really lovely that made them happy yet which was relatively powerless. No, the game is too laser-focused on maximizing their money machine to the detriment of the players. Player interaction is limited at best and rarely rewarding. That is in stark contrast to the frenzied ways by which the game tries to get us to make our friends involved. It is, at the risk of hyperbole, tragic.

The third lever is the most contentious of all, and that is money. The basic line of Facebook Game apologists is, "Look, they offer these games for free, they need to build in ways to make money on them." Yes, yes they do. I do not begrudge them that, certainly. If I'm going to play I am happy to pay. The question is, what should the game cost? In the old days you pay $40, $60 for a game and you get unlimited use. More recently you have alternate models that get more money out of players. World of Warcraft has the subscription model, along with their expansions. For an ongoing World of Warcraft player, someone who plays year-round and buys all of the expansions, you are looking at a yearly investment of about $200. This can be even higher if you buy gold in the game to get better gear. So it is a significant investment. However, what you get for that investment is also significant: it is an immersive world, one where you can join your friends in a virtual reality and go on quests, fight monsters, have relationships...it is like bringing a great movie or fantasy franchise right into your living room. While it is personally not a game that I play - the core "hack n slash dungeon crawl" tradition that it extends remains too much on the fighting side and too little on the relationships and true character development side - it is really the pinnacle of what a game like that can be for its players. $200 sounds like a lot of money, but the value is good. It is what I would call a "fair" price.

By contrast you have City of Wonder. Now, this is a little bit nuanced to explain over the radio but I'm going to try. To thrive in City of Wonder you need to be continually increasing your in-game money (which is called Silver), your Happiness, your Culture, your Trade and your Military. Those are the assets which enable you to grow. Especially in the early game, you are always butting up against your limits, needing more of those to do anything. Now, there is another mechanic which falls outside of those called Gold. It actually functions as another lever just like those, but the big difference is that to get it in any meaningful quantity it costs you real money. The sweet spot for buying gold is $50 for 240 gold. So, that is the cost of a typical shrinkwrapped game, or 25% the cost of a year of World of Warcraft. What can you buy with 240 gold? Well, you could start by expanding your core lands a bit. In the early going this is pretty cheap, so let's say you expand out five sizes and it will cost you maybe 20 or 30 of that gold. Not bad. That will sustain you for a few weeks. Now, from there you have lots of cool things to choose from. Each category of building in City of Wonder - residential, goods, markets, culture, military, wonders and decorations - has options to buy that can only be had with gold that are significantly better than anything you can acquire without gold. They also have seasonal or "limited edition" choices to compel the completist. They cover a wide range of prices, but in general are between 25 and 50 gold each. They give you a quick and powerful shot in the arm for whatever area you are struggling with. West Point for 39 gold is a wicked powerful military building. I bought it. Gold Walls only cost $1 each but are super powerful military buildings in the early game. I bought 21 of them. The Pyramids is a great early cultural wonder for about 30 gold. I bought it. A Skyscraper is a neat, powerful market building that is especially fun in the early game when your structures are very primitive. Bought it. The Christmas Tree is super cute and provides culture, too. Bought it. Oh, and as you continue playing, those handful of levels you made your land larger aren't enough. You need to keep growing. And growing. And growing. Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy. Each time you grow it becomes more expensive; if I want to grow again it will cost me 50 gold. Not. Buying. Yet.

In total I've spent over 1,000 gold in about six weeks of playing. Horrified? Yeah, me too. Thankfully I haven't spent the $200 that is seemingly necessary. I had $75 sitting dormant in a PayPal account, so the first $50 I spent was real money. My justification? Very sensible: "I buy games all the time. They typically cost around $50. I will put enough time into this game to justify that. I will never buy gold for it again." Great. The problem is, that really only satisfied me for a week or two. Already I needed more happiness, my military was starting to get underpowered, and there were all these other neat things I wish I could buy. So where did I get all of the extra gold?

City of Wonder allows you to buy things from other companies in exchange for gold. The process of combing these deals looking for a good one and then doing what is required to complete it is a dulling, even soul crushing, activity. It reminds me of when I was 19, going thru the coupons every Sunday, or buying the Entertainment Book and only eating at the restaurants that gave the deals in it. There are a ton of these services-for-gold deals, and most of them are actually losing propositions in terms of how much money you spend compared to the amount of gold you get. But I've found some good ones, and shamelessly exploited them. I applied for a Discover card. It got me 280 gold. They happily approved me and I happily cancelled the card as soon as it arrived. Buying URLs through GoDaddy got me 80 gold. I had URL's I wanted to buy anyway, so that wasn't bad. Signing up for a Gamefly membership got me a bunch of gold. We needed to get a new game for my stepson to play when he was visiting, so I used the account to do that and then canceled it after a month. And onward. It is a slimy business. Take the Discover card example. I lost, wasting time and accepting the ping on my credit. Discover lost, wasting cycles making me a customer only to get an immediate cancellation. Only Playdom, the maker of City of Wonder, won as they scooped the referral fee from Discover. It is another parasitic case.

The problem with the revenue model for most popular Facebook Games is that they compel the player to spend more, FAR more, than much better games would cost in order to play an inferior experience. Because the problem with City of Wonder at the end of the day is that it isn't a whole lot of fun. You do a lot of clicking. And a lot of waiting. There is not much joy or feeling of accomplishment. For me, the potentially fun part of City of Wonder is building a really cool, well designed and conceived, city. But the game tries to prevent - not encourage - you to do this. How? You have to move buildings around one at a time. At this point I have around 500 different structures in my city, and hundreds more in my storehouse. To move each of them requires three clicks. Thus to move everything once - and re-arranging a city requires moving most things more than once, just thanks to the geographical limitations - is some 1,500 clicks. There is nothing fun about that degree of micro-management. It would be easy to have a single command to put away all of your buildings so you can build form scratch - which would be easy and fun - but the game doesn't allow this. Why? They want you to pay gold to do it! The only way to "put away" all of your buildings at once is to spend a significant amount of gold, somewhere in the neighbourhood of $10 in real money worth. That, in a nutshell, is everything that is wrong about these games. Rather than thoughtfully identifying the ways in which they can make the game truly joyous - which may, in turn, make the investments in gold and real money more palatable - they continue to look for nooks and crannies out of which to squeeze more of our money. The only thing they are really squeezing is the fun, right out of the game.

Now, we shouldn't be terribly surprised about this. People are flocking to these games. There is seemingly no incentive for them to change what they are doing because this is a money machine. Well, I have two points to make on that. First, this is going to change. The market will stop responding to these black holes of suckdom. It may not be today, or tomorrow, but it will change. There will be a demand for the experience-to-investment ratio to get substantially better. And then the games will dutifully shift to meet the market. But my second point is the more immediate one. Remember the Golden Rule? Treat others as you would like them to treat you. I can assure you that the designers of these games are not designing experiences they want to play. They are designing business-driven income generators. We live in a capitalist society, and a game development company needs to make money to stay in business. What we have instead are games that are generating massive profits while being true embarrassments of experience design. The design decisions are shameful, and I can assure you if the designers were creating something they wanted to play they would craft things that were far different. Well, take the first step Facebook game designers. Create something you want to play. The great computer games of the past came from the minds of gamers, people who thought, "Wow, I would LOVE to play this!" and had a vision and made that vision real. This generation of Facebook games are coming right from the minds of marketers: What theme can we copy that is popular? How can we get people to add more friends? How can we get people to keep spending money? How can we force people to spend time in the game whether they want to or not? Starcraft 2 is $60 to play for a year. World of Warcraft, $200. City of Wonder? Hundreds if not thousands of dollars - for weeks at times, not even a year! The sweet stench you smell is Playdom and Zynga and companies like them that are pursuing an empty, profit-centric strategy of game design. Better would be to call it "cash engineering" with game themes, because I'm not seeing very much in it that reflects game design as the remarkable creative craft that it is.

Yes, I still play City of Wonder. I log in once, sometimes twice, a day and click, click, click. Whatever enjoyment I once had from it is long gone, and I really only continue because of my investment to date and people I know are still doing it too. But one of these days I will simply stop. What was an experiment, turned into actually playing, quickly becoming the cold realization that the design of the game was all about Playdom, the developer of City of Wonder, and not at all about me. This generation of Facebook Games will go down as one of the most profitable, but least inspired and interesting periods in the history of game design. All the money it has sucked into it has, in the process, drawn many of the best game designers in the world down into this particular crevice. Here's hoping that accumulation of talent serves to create a more humane and gamer-driven approach to Facebook Game design sooner rather than later. Designers, we're counting on you.

This is a transcript of "The Rant" segment from Episode 9 of The Digital Life.

Topics: Design, Analysis, Blog