Every “social game” ever

FarmVille, CityVille, MiniKings, TradeNations… If you’ve ever played any of these, tell me if the following sounds familiar to you:

  • Begin by completing a simple tutorial that teaches you how to place and obtain Resources from Harvesters.
  • Learn how to place other flavours of Harvesters, which allow you to obtain more/different Resources.
  • As you complete tasks and gather from Harvesters, you earn experience.
  • Earn enough experience and you level up, which grants you access to more Harvesters and decorations.
  • Visit your friends’ areas and perform tasks there, which grant you even more Resources and Experience.
  • Give your friends gifts, and receive gifts in return.
  • Repeat ad nauseum.

This is the basic formula for a “social game”. Occasionally, games innovate with a new mechanic, such as:

  • Energy – Consumed by performing actions, and refilled by either waiting or buying more.
  • Quests – A never-ending series of tasks completing by building/harvesting/buying ever more stuff.
  • Maintenance – Either your avatar or NPCs must empty Resource dumps, operate or maintain Harvesters, etc.

However, such innovations are rarely rare for long, as every new game incorporates them immediately. Eventually, the only real difference between the games is theme. Pirates, cities, farms, kingdoms – these are the only things differentiating many, many games. Further, many of these innovations aren’t for the sake of fun, they’re for the sake of retention and conversion. Practically all social games will send you daily emails (if you authorize them) with free stuff in them – more energy, or rare resources. This regular reminder gets you back in the game more frequently, ensuring you don’t forget to play.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Many of these games are genuinely fun to play, with charming graphics and pleasing reward structures. They’re not bad games per se. They’re just very samey. If you’ve already played TradeNations, MiniKings, and Ravenwood Fair, CityVille probably won’t hold much new for you.

In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. These progression games often hit a natural limit (maximum level, most optimal layout, etc), or players get bored of the theme and move on. Going from FarmVille to CityVille is comfortable, since the interface and mechanics are very similar. Fans of the genre will happily hop from one to another, or play multiple games at the same time, and the fact that each new game works very similar to the last is reassuring, rather than boring.

If anything, all we need to do is look to the history of the 3D shooter. In between the breakout hits like Wolfenstein, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D, there were dozens of other totally forgettable titles that were “Like Wolfenstein, but in Hirohito’s castle”, or “Doom, but with aliens instead of demons”. Previous to that, everyone was making a platformer knockoff of Mario. Before that, maze games like Pacman.

Then there were games like Strife and System Shock. Sure, they were both 3D shooters made back when everyone was making a 3D shooter, but they were different. Story; moral choices; expansive, themed levels. Neither was hugely popular in its time, but their influence can be seen in the wide variety of modern titles we enjoy today.

I’m comfortably certain that we’re just in the copycat phase with social games right now. Given time, the weird little titles will surface and spread their influence across the industry, and eventually we’ll enjoy a wide selection of social games with a wide variety of themes and mechanics.

On a more personal note, rather than simply pontificate about the future, I’m doing something about it. On Monday, I’ll be starting at HitGrab, a wonderful little social games shop in Oakville. I’m truly excited to be joining the team, and to contribute to the further growth and diversification of the social gaming space.

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  • Chel



    on your subject…
    I was listening to a spark show and one of the main draws for a lot of people that play these games are the competition with other persons that they know who are also playing. As well as keeping up appearances… no one wants to have a dead farm which all their friends can go look at or dead fish in an aquarium.

    I agree with you though they are all the same with different themes….
    you get a couple new concepts every once and a while but mostly they are the same…

    here is a tidbit for you though….
    “Gamification of our lives”