Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ethics of Social Game Design

I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to make a social game fun, viral, non-predatory and liability-free. Here are a few of the things that got me headed down this path:

First was this article about Farmville. In it the author (A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz) talks about why 73 million people play Farmville (An outdated statistic - today Farmville has 80 million monthly active users). The gist of it is that we play Farmville because people we know play Farmville, and the social pressure of our peers compels us to.

Second was the Southpark Facebook episode. I know what you're thinking: Really, Jeremy? But it's true! The reason the episode and its mocking of all things Facebook (including veiled references to Farmville) resonates so well with the audience is that it connects on a very honest and emotional level.

Third was the latest round of Facebook policy changes that will shift more responsibility for maintaining user privacy to game developers. Whereas before Facebook had very strict rules about maintaining user data, those rules have relaxed. As a developer the change is monumental because for the first time users can be accurately profiled over time based on their Facebook demographic data - legitimately and with less effort on the developer's behalf.

Fourth was Facebook's less-recent policy change on notifications. Now developers have to work a lot harder to engage and maintain their Facebook audience.

Finally, I've noticed (very anecdotal) evidence of my peers losing interest in social grind games, like Farmville. It may still have 80 million active users, more than double Canada's population, but as the game becomes more complex, and is forced to reach out to users via email, will new users be lured in as easily?

Developers are finding the Facebook platform increasingly difficult to penetrate, with its higher cost of entry and restrictions on viral growth. Facebook cannot be the be-all and end-all destination for social games. Regardless of its huge user base, users do not seek it out primarily for games. These days, I imagine many Facebook users are unsure why they sought it out in the first place, as it has evolved from a simple place to stay in touch with friends into something greater and pervasive on the Web.

So how can a new game succeed in this rapidly evolving social landscape?

Developers hoping to maintain an active, growing audience for their games will have to balance social responsibility and ethics with viral growth and social marketing. For me, the solution to overcoming game growth problems continues to focus on providing real value for users. The value proposition for any game should be entertainment for time spent. In other words, fun.

So long as there exists a mechanism to reward people for bringing their friends to a game, and that game is fun, the game will virally increase its numbers over time. Perhaps not with the speed nor the extent with which it could be done on the Facebook of old, but it will occur.

NOTE: In the time it took me to finish this piece (about a week), Farmville dropped two million users and sits at 78 million monthly active users.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies (www.roguetendencies.com) 2010.

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