08 January 2010

January Challenge #8:

Reposted on new blog at http://dynamitochondria.blogspot.com/2010/01/january-challenge-8-burbs.html.

Last year, casual games were all the buzz. Everyone was talking about getting into the casual market. Casual this, casual that.

Now casual is last year's news.

Social games are the new casual games. Social this, social that.

Except, upon examination, there's not a lot of social to be found in the social games. They are, for the most part, single-player games with a few features to aid viral marketing. They mostly live on social network sites, but that doesn't make them social any more than Darksiders is a retail chain game because I bought it at Game Stop.

So how do you make an actual social game? I've been thinking about that for a bit. What is a social game? By definition, it needs to involve more than one player, or there's no social. Duh. They also seem to be an outgrowth of casual games, that is, not aimed at the hardcore gamers. Play for a few minutes, that was fun, done now. Importantly, I think there needs to be meaningful interaction between players of some sort. One-on-one basketball is a real world social game. Two people shooting hoops on opposite baskets on the same court is social, but not much of a game.

Multiplayer. Casual. Meaningful interaction. Doesn't sound too hard until you start thinking about how to be casual and still have meaningful interaction. Are we still casual if we have to arrange a time in advance to play online? Maybe for two or three or even four people, but how about twenty? Forty? Somewhere in there, it stops being casual and turns into planning a WoW raid.

So let me toss one more descriptor into the mix: asynchronous.

Most if not all social games live on social networking sites, such as Facebook. Facebook is an asynchronous social platform. It allows users to interact at different times, spread out as they are across the global village. It's an amazingly successful model, so why not build on that idea? What kind of game can be created to allow players to interact meaningfully within the context of the game and yet not need to be playing at the same time?

To serve as an example, I present to you Burbs. Think of it as collaborative SimCity. Each player takes control of a neighborhood, zone, borough, suburb (see what I did there), or whatever within a larger municipal entity. Players make decisions about how their burb is developed, such as zoning and density, public works, schools, markets, police funding, community support, etc... These decision directly and immediately affect primary metrics concerning their burb's pollution, happiness, and crime rate.

The meaningful interaction comes when other players are making their decisions. A given burb can be connected to other burbs in a number of different ways. The most intuitive, and most tightly bound together, is geographic connection. The two burbs are directly adjacent; citizens can freely walk from one burb to the next, and so can police, criminals, traffic, pollution, community organizations, etc...

So if you build a library, nearby burbs will also reap a somewhat reduced benefit from it. It works in reverse as well. If you make a bad decision that increases the crime in your burb, surrounding burbs will also suffer. Or it can be somewhat more complex. Building a police station will reduce crime in your burb but may drive criminals into neighboring burbs.

The game population could occupy a single massive game universe, a megapolis of gigantic proportions, or be split into smaller game worlds representing smaller cities, but aside from technical restrictions, this isn't really all that important, as the "map" of the city would be completely abstracted, allowing for any number of burbs to participate and potentially neighbor any other.

There are plenty of other ways for burbs to be connected. A burb zoned residential can be a bedroom community for burb zoned industrial. If the player of the industrial burb does a good job of attracting good employers, the player of the residential burb will benefit from high housing demand. If the residential burb can't build housing fast enough, the industrial burb may suffer a labor shortage.

Two burbs can decide to link by rail, enabling easy transportation of people but not pollution or other largely stationary features. Two or more burbs can cooperate on a highway project, or jointly fund a homeless outreach program.

The players need to have a lot of interesting choices. Making some choices of more benefit to the individual player and other choices of more benefit to the larger community unless a threshold number of players participate introduces a flavor of the prisoner's dilemma. As in any good game design, optimal strategies should be avoided. Collaborative and competitive playstyles should be supported, and maybe even griefers can be made useful as a part of the landscape. The real world has crooked politicians and other malevolent actors, why not here?

So that's the multiplayer part. How about the asynchronous part?

When a player takes an action, there are immediate first order effects on their burb. A player has a limited number of actions that can be taken in a period of time. This number might be affected by development choices, such as building an extensive bureaucracy, or by buying action tokens at the micropay store. (Hey, social games are already doing some things right. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.)

Once every predefined period of time, say 24 hours (or 25 hours or some other odd time so that everyone around the world is periodically inconvenienced rather than players in one region all the time), the game will "tick". That is, all relevant game variables are accounted, all second order effects of player choices calculated, and a new game state created.

This allows all participants to spend their actions at their own pace throughout the day and deal with the impact of other player actions on the next. Rinse and repeat.

Obviously, there are a huge number of additional considerations to be made before this could form even the most rudimentary game design document, but I think the seeds of an actual social game have been sewn here. What do you think?


  1. My name is Mickey Kawick - mickey.kawick@gmail.com

    I wonder how you think a turn-based stragey game might work on a social networking site. It seems to fit fairly well. Also, some of the online games like Castles have a common enemy that everyone can join in to attack. These seem like a foundation for a strongly interactive socail-gaming environment.


  2. Welcome, Mickey. I think that turn-based strategy games would do as well on social networking sites as they do in the general market. That is, I think they would have a string appeal to a limited demographic, but maybe not much appeal to a broader audience.

    Interestingly, I think it might be for different reasons. Deserved or not, turn-based strategy games have a reputation for being very deep and involving lots of micromanagement of resources. I suspect the primarily casual demographic on social sites wouldn't be overly inclined to even try it.

    This sort of preconception can be undone with skillful marketing, and if the game design itself was suitably casual, the popularity of it could skyrocket.

    Worth thinking about: Fans of turn-based strategy feel rather neglected by today's game studios. A solid TBS with appeal to casual players but enough depth to attract TBS fans might drive a new demographic to adopt social networking sites.