By David Radd
Up until recently, I was under the impression that game developers more-or-less got along, regardless of their discipline. The games business is a small, intimate industry that doesn’t have quite the level of brazen egocentricity that, say, Hollywood often displays. Gamers themselves are another matter – they love dividing themselves into polemic groups: Sony vs. Microsoft, Motion Control vs. Standard Control, Japanese Games vs. Western Games, etc. Gamers shout themselves horse , as if fighting over these distinctions makes a difference, but at least it shows that they do care about the industry.
It didn’t surprise me then that most of the hardcore gamers I knew actively hated “social games.” After all, most of these games aren’t designed for “gamers” – they’re designed (quite literally) for their mothers. Much more passive, less skill intensive and sometimes designed by web companies instead of game designers, social titles are often publicly put down in online forums. Business practices have come under scrutiny too; in fact, Zynga’s way of doing business has been roundly blasted by former employees.
Regardless, I figured the industry in general was, if not “for” social games, at least not “against” them… that was until GDC 11. One of the more heated debates at the conference took place over social games, with Margaret Robertson asking if social games were “evil.” Ian Bogost argued they are damaging the way we relate to people and Daniel James compared many social games to slot machines that exploited people – all things that Zynga’s Nabeel Hyatt hit back against, decrying the violence in many “traditional” games. Despite the contentious nature of the debate (which never really reached much common ground) it was comments by Nintendo CEO and president Satoru Iwata that really caught my attention.
Iwata aimed his sights on social (and mobile) games as potential quality threats to the industry. He said that the rising platforms had no incentive to maintain a high level of quality and that game development was “drowning.” He even accused social network games of not being particularly social and that the social game industry is backed by quantity. Iwata tacitly threw his lot in with Sony and Microsoft, saying that the value the industry offers should not be undersold and said in dire terms, “I fear our business is dividing in a way that threatens the continued employment of many of us.”
Whoa. That’s a pretty clear line in the sand – social games might cost you your job. Anyone who has lost their job, felt the fear of cutbacks or seen their job go overseas can tell you it’s no fun. Considering that the AAA games industry is very high-risk/high-reward, people are probably feeling a little edgy right now about their own standing.
Let’s take a step back, though, and consider what’s being said and the circumstances in which they are said. For Iwata, he has vowed that no Nintendo games will ever release on a non-Nintendo hardware platform so long as he is running the company, so his cards are clearly on the table. It’s a stance not atypical to what Nintendo has done in the past: if they’re not doing something, they tear it down verbally (see the mid-’90s when the Kyoto-giant said the loading times of CDs made them impractical or that gamers were getting bored with games that merely looked better not five years ago.)
On the other hand, when it gets right down to it, Facebook is just a platform like any other. People attach significance to transistors and circuits, but there’s no reason that Facebook should not be as viable as any other platform. It’s perhaps an anathema to many gamers because it is so mainstream – there’s still a lingering “punk rock” attitude in gaming that tends to separate it from other hobbies. Still, as my compatriot James Brightman argued, Facebook is gaining new capabilities all the time (like movie renting) and shouldn’t be ignored by the heavy hitters in the gaming industry. Facebook has 600 million active users worldwide, and by comparison, Steam has about 30 million; that’s like the difference of breadth between an ocean and a lake.
Some developers have already seen the opportunities on Facebook and squarely turned their focus towards that platform. Rebellion opened up a division solely for social games and Doomdesigner John Romero has set his sights on the social sphere with Loot Drop, saying, “Our opportunity is to teach the rest of the world how to play games.” He’s not alone, with notable industry veterans Richard Garriott (Origins Systems, NCsoft), Brian Reynolds (Firaxis), Raph Koster (Origins Systems, SOE) – to name just a few – also going over to the social side.
So clearly Facebook does not close off opportunities for industry veterans – it might even empower them to found new companies and create new titles with control that’s hard to get elsewhere. Embracing Facebook as a platform does not mean accepting the Zynga model of doing things – it’s understandable if anyone would cringe at the thought of making the nextFarmVille. But quality isn’t going to change unless industry veterans keep getting involved with the platform; simply ignoring Facebook because it’s unfamiliar is about as stupid a business tactic as I can think of. We have to remain at least open minded, because one of the oldest tenants of business is “go where your customers are” and they are most certainly on Facebook. It’s something that those in the industry denounce at their own peril.