Why Facebook Games Fail: A Lack of Fun
Scientists who study slot machines have determined that they’re designed to be incredibly addictive in every aspect of their operation.
The machines are flashy and constantly bombarding the senses with lights and music, even when they’re not necessary — almost all slot machines in the modern casino are computerized, and yet mechanical elements like rotating reels and pull levers still exist. They’re designed to suck you in, and they give just a little reward very often to keep players playing them, which actually trigger pleasure responses in your brain. Statistically, slot machines only pay out about 75 percent of the money they take in, and yet they’re hugely popular and profitable in any casino because of all these factors. Wander through any gaming floor, and you’ll always find someone pumping quarters into a machine.
Facebook games are a lot like slot machines. They don’t give you money, but they are designed with a similar form and function in mind. Repetitive tasks; lots of color and motion; rewards divvied out over time, in small doses, to keep you playing. And as has been seen and remarked upon with hugely popular games like FarmVille, they seem to engender addictive behavior in a lot of the same ways that casinos have been capitalizing on for decades.
In just the last month, Facebook games have gotten a lot of attention as the massive purveyor of such titles, Zynga, has started sinking under its habit of buying game studios in search of The Next Big Thing and the waning of its player base for titles like FarmVille and Mafia Wars. The resultant attitude from much of the gaming community has been, “Well, of course. Casual Facebook games were propped up on non-true-gamers like soccer moms, and of course that well would eventually run dry.” Or, “Facebook is a terrible platform for games and of course people are going to realize that.”
I’d argue that neither of those assertions is true: There’s not some sort of inherent lack of value in the casual game or the casual gamer, be they grandpa or soccer mom; nor is Facebook somehow an inferior platform for gaming. The trouble is and has been that Facebook games as we know them are barely games at all — they’re slot machines. Except they don’t pay you anything, and they’re not fun.
Take a look at the recently released Outernauts. Here’s a game that has a great pedigree, developed by Insomniac, the studio behind the Ratchet and Clank and Resistance series. It’s known for making great triple-A hits. And in a fascinating interview with Kotaku, Insomniac Chief Creative Officer Brian Hastings details how, in making a Facebook title, the developer pushed back against making a Zynga-like game — a game dependent on hassling friends and limiting players’ ability to play in order to encourage them to buy things within the game.
But by the time it was released, Outernauts was basically a Zynga clone, with all the same issues. It’s a game dependent on “energy,” a currency which every player action depletes and which is only restored by either waiting, inviting friends to play the game, or paying. It’s a game built around bugging friends to play. And it contains an in-game currency you earn through playing to use on things you need to advance in the game, as well as a parallel economy that’s almost impossible to come by without paying money into the game, and which hamstrings your play if you don’t.
So Outernauts, a game made by what could be argued as a “real” video game developer, falls into the same awful traps as Zynga and its army of ‘Ville clones. And while Outernauts is engaging for a bit, it suffers from the same issues as those ‘Ville games: it’s not really that fun.
The true trouble with Facebook games has nothing to do with the kind of players they attract or don’t, or the platform itself. The irritating things about Facebook games — the constant need to spread the word to others, the energy systems that limit your ability to actually enjoy playing the game — aren’t native to the platform, they’re just bad ideas that keep getting propagated. You see these same ideas migrating to the mobile space. They’re not even inherent issues with the free-to-play model. They are, in my view, born of a single fundamental issue: the people making these games are making them to try to get you addicted. They’re not trying to make games at all.