Reposted on new blog at http://dynamitochondria.blogspot.com/2010/01/january-challenge-11-powerful-alchemy.html.
I socialize mainly with other game developers, people who speak the common lingo of games; genres and 3D art and gameplay and revenue models and playstyles and and and...
So for the most part, when I refer to a game as casual, social, or viral, I have a reasonable expectation that the listener knows what I mean. The game industry is in its infancy, relative to comparable disciplines, but our jargon is coming along nicely, thank you.
It's easy to forget that not everyone has an easy referent to derive meaning from our funny little words.
Except in the case of casual games, social games, and viral games. The gaming press seems to have no idea what these words mean, so every time I see an article with one of these in the title, I know the actual topic is going to be a crap shoot.
Casual games are misinterpreted the least. That makes sense, given that they spent quite a bit of time in the headlines before social games and viral games made their combined splash. Casual games are typified more often by their contrast with video games as they are more generally understood. They require less commitment to play successfully. It's easy to get there from the word casual.
Casual games can be played for a few minutes as often as you like, whether killing time between tasks at work or each night before dinner. They don't require you to plan your level progression or study a strategy guide or drill your hand-eye coordination. Not that these activities aren't useful or won't lead to improved performance. But a casual game won't feel like it's punishing you for not engaging in them.
It's worth noting that in gaming, the word casual is heavily contextual. Though some would disagree vehemently, World of Warcraft is commonly described as “casual friendly.” You heard me. The intent of the statement is that it's possible to play intermittently for short periods of time, without grinding for elite gear or waiting around for 2 hours for a raid to get started, and still have a good time.
Sure, it's possible to play the game that way, but be aware that the common denizens of World of Warcraft will treat you like a second-class citizen for not having the best available gear for your level or not tolerating the mind-numbing boredom of getting a raid going. If you can find or make a group of casual players who like to play together, choosing gear for a cool look over uber stats, not sticking to over-analyzed optimal builds in order to play an interesting combination, and frequently having to fight green mobs at higher levels because of it but not really caring because less XP means experiencing more content before out-leveling it, treasure them.
Social games are actually exactly what they sound like, a game which features social interaction with other humans. No matter how intuitive this sounds, it is the most frequently misused genre name in the industry. World of Warcraft is a social game, but you'll rarely hear it described as such. Mafia Wars is not, and neither are its gajillion skinned clones, but the gaming press persistently calls them social games.
And you can't just throw a chat client on your game and call it social. If the gameplay does not feature meaningful interaction with another human, then it's not a social game.
Traditional board games and card games are nearly all social games, and not just because you usually play them face to face with your opponent. Every action you take within these games affects efforts of your fellow players. That's what I mean by meaningful interaction. On the other hand, eight people each playing their own game of solitaire around the same table might be socializing while they do it, but they're not playing a social game.
Viral games are sort of a misnomer. Usually the game itself isn't viral, but the marketing efforts are. The term viral comes from epidemiology, referring to person-to-person spread, or cell-to-cell within a single organism. It thus has to due more with vector of transmission than with symptoms, that is more to do with marketing than with game design.
Viral marketing campaigns aim to encourage players to recruit their friends, who recruit their friends, who recruit their friends, etc. This is typically encouraged with in-game advantages and abilities that can only be earned by recruiting other players.
If an adoption rate significantly greater than the departure rate can be sustained, the player base expands extremely rapidly. Of course, much like a good restaurant might lose its charm and quality of food or service in the face of extreme popularity due to scaling problems, an otherwise good game might lose its appeal as the servers bog down with the load, or the enemy spawn rate can't keep up, or any of the woes of overcrowding become more annoying. These things increase the departure rate, which will directly decrease the adoption rate, and both will negatively impact the growth rate. The game has hit its peak and will steadily decline into obscurity.
That's OK with the typical viral game studio. They're already onto the next five or six games. A demonstrably successful business model is to madly throw lightly developed games at the target demographic until something sticks and devote resources to further developing that game, but still keeping throwing games at the target in the hopes that the next winner will be found before the last one dies.
Occasionally, the game itself goes viral by its own merit. I've heard marketeers say things like “Let's make that go viral!” Rubbish. In my opinion, there's only one thing you can do to spontaneously “go viral”: make an awesome game. Simple phrase, not so simple execution. Playing your game must make the player want share it with their friends. Seeing your game being played or trying it out must make the friends want it more than they want the money it costs, a lot more. You can't measure that sort of thing, except maybe in couch multiplayer high-fives per unit time.
Think about the things I've said about casual, social, and viral games. Now think about this: these descriptors are not mutually exclusive. Let that sink in a moment. There are a lot of very smart developers thinking hard about this very fact. A great deal of creative energy is working toward a game that can be played a few minutes at a time as often as you care to participate, features meaningful interaction with your fellow players and tools to facilitate various channels of communication with friends, has gameplay that encourages you to bring your friends along for the ride, and just might be totally awesome.
That's a powerful alchemy.