Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
The existence of a book in the near-ubiquitous "for Dummies" series called "Farmville for Dummies" isn't exactly news, nor is it actually all that surprising given the game's enormous popularity with an audience that isn't remotely familiar with videogames or their conventions. Neither of these factors, however, prevented the re-emergence of this tome in a handful of blog posts this week from being greeted with howls and snorts of derision across the internet.
I have never seen a copy of Farmville for Dummies, let alone read one, and I have no idea whether its content is full of sparkling insights and strategies for one of the world's most popular online games, or genuinely in the realms of the banal cash-in book. Then again, I'll wager that none of the book's detractors actually have that insight either. What they're attacking and deriding, after all, isn't the book - it's the game it's based on, and more importantly, it's the players who choose to spend their time (and in many cases, money) on that game.
The chain of logic is simple - Farmville, as a casual, social game with its roots in Facebook, is below the attention of the "true" gamer. Thus, by extension, it must be utterly facile, to the point of being insultingly simple - and anyone who needs to buy a book explaining how to play such a simple game is clearly an idiot. Although, of course, they're already idiots for playing Farmville in the first place, so the so-called logic contains a fairly glaring truism.
If this were merely the viewpoint of a handful of internet forum "usual suspects", it would be easy to dismiss. The internet is the most wonderful communication tool mankind has ever developed, but its regular users are familiar with its unfortunate side effects of acting as an echo chamber for unpleasantness, and of providing idiots who would once have individually blighted a village somewhere with a community of like-minded fools who embrace and share their daft ideas.
The reason that the aggressive reaction to Farmville for Dummies has stayed in my mind, however, is because it echoes - albeit in a rather less civilised way - a cognitive bias which I've come across not just in gamers, but in a great many people working in the games industry as well. It's a bias rooted in two basic ideas - firstly, that social games, since they run largely on web platforms and boast no complex graphics or sound, are simple. Secondly, that the largely non-gamer audience who plays these games are, perhaps through inexperience, easy to satisfy.
Neither of these (rather fundamentally connected) assumptions could be further from the truth. They are founded, presumably, in the same logical fallacy which leads many people to defend the complexity of their own field of expertise while deriding those of others as being "simple" - the fallacy that arises from the fact that the further you stand from something, the less detail you see and the less easily you comprehend its complexity. Those who have never made a successful social game look at Farmville and think, "I could have done that," just as those who have never made a successful FPS game can't see how making a 3D shooting gallery can be all that hard.
In reality, successful social games offer complexity on a number of levels. The complexity of their development process is extraordinary - an iterative process based on multiple feedback loops and constant live testing, quite unlike anything else the games industry does, with intensely fine-grained attention being paid to the most fundamental aspects of interface design and game balance throughout the process. It's an entirely different skillset from that which is required to make console games, or indeed any other kind of games.
Moreover, the complexity and depth on offer to players of these games far exceeds that which more traditional developers - or more traditional gamers - might expect. Speaking personally, I don't claim to be any great shakes as a gamer, but I've been playing for almost 25 years, and my own brief dalliance with Farmville last summer found me not only rather hooked on the game, but also forced to turn to Google to explain the details of many of the surprisingly complex systems which the game opened up as I progressed.
It may have a cute exterior - but like all successful games of its ilk, within the chest of Farmville lies a convoluted and finely balanced set of organs which rival the cold combination of mathematics, game theory and psychology underlying almost any successful modern game, from World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons through to Call of Duty or Mario Galaxy.
It could not be any other way, because far from being an easily appeased audience, unfamiliar with the conventions of gaming and thus willing to swallow just about any old thing which Zynga chooses to throw at them, the social/casual gaming audience is actually extremely picky and hard to satisfy. In fact, they're much harder to keep happy than traditional gaming audiences, because they're not wed to the pastime in the same way.
If a social game doesn't capture their attention immediately, they'll dump it and find something better to do. If it ever allows their attention to wander - if it fails to strike a perfect balance of effort to reward, bores them with too much repetition or confuses them with an interface that doesn't seem to do exactly what they'd expect it to do - the same result will be forthcoming. A customer is lost, and they'll probably never come back.
Unlike the gamers currently making a huge fuss about problems with the PS3 version of Call of Duty Black Ops, social game players don't sign petitions or make vocal complaints - they just take their time, money and custom elsewhere, and that's a vastly more terrifying prospect for any company than an angry petition from customers who can mostly be relied upon to buy the next game in the series regardless.
Far from being cynically exploited fools who don't know any better, as more vocal traditional gamers (and some within the industry) seem to believe, casual gamers are savvy, tough consumers. They may not read specialist websites or spend vast amounts of time debating minor changes in Farmville's balance on obscure forums, but they know what they enjoy, and when they stop enjoying something, they abandon it without hesitation.
So while Farmville for Dummies may raise a wry smile, it's worth recalling that the audience for the game itself is by no means made up of dummies. If anything, the sophistication of that audience has forced social game companies to learn lessons about quality control and ongoing testing which the traditional games industry has always struggled with - and meanwhile, all of the lessons traditional game designers have learned in over three decades of building compelling, engrossing experiences are being boiled down to their core elements and most effective rules by the new wave of social game designers.
Today's social games aren't to the tastes of core gamers - and there's nothing wrong with that. If anything, it's the blossoming of variety within the games business that proves its advancing maturity, and the lesson of all of this is certainly not that every gamer should be giving Farmville a chance. Either milking virtual cows grabs you or it doesn't, and there's no shame in falling on either side of that fence.
However, gamers and industry people alike shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. One of the most exciting looming developments in videogames is the potential for the lessons of social gaming to feed back into traditional games, taking the ideas and strategies which have brought gaming to a wider audience and using them to improve games for the loyal core audience. Next time anyone feels like sneering at Farmville or its players, stop to wonder if perhaps, in some small but important ways, they're already touching a future which the rest of us have yet to grasp.
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