Tuesday, June 15, 2010

. . . Social Gaming

When you see a game identified as an MMO, that means it is a "Massive, Multi-Player, Online" game. If it is identified as an MMORPG that means that it is a "massive, Multi-Player, Online Role-Playing Game" with the latter being a very different gaming experience than the former by far. For one thing, any game that has some sort of multi-player element that is online is technically an MMO, whereas MMORPG's are almost always huge persistent worlds in which you not only play with other real people, but often play *against* them!

My history in online gaming and MMO's of all types has its roots in a game called Ultima Online (UO), which I began playing as part of its Beta release in 1996. The public release of UO in the Fall of 1997 naturally resulted in many late night gaming sessions, and the creation of a small group of friends who formed a guild and, no surprise here, played together regularly. In fact most of us played together daily!

UO was something different - it was a new concept in gaming, really, though in reality it did not create anything new, it just combined a large number of gaming aspects into one packag (for example online gaming was not invented with UO, it existed for over a decade prior to the game's release. Multi-Player gaming was also nothing new, the long and colorful history of the Net MUDs is evidence of that).

No, what UO did was create a new way of gaming that including a key and critical component to the process: social connectivity. And make no mistake, the social bonding that UO promoted was a major and important aspect of the whole experience. All of the people I was gaming with were people I knew in real life before we started playing UO, but most of them were people I had not seen in real life for years!

The group of people that became my gaming family were literally scattered all over the world, with some in New England, some in Australia, some in the Netherlands, and others scattered all over the USA. We had a member serving in the US Air Force and stationed in Japan, and another member who worked for Pitney Bowes in Alaska! It was an eclectic group who really only had three things in common - (1) we knew each other in real life, either from school, the SCA, or work; (2) we were all serious about gaming; and (3) we all embraced the Internet as both a communications tool and the primary source for our careers (in one way or another).

The Intangible

One of the most often heard criticisms of 'net gaming was that it required the devotion of lots of time and effort, and strictly from the casual view of a non-gaming observer, offered very little (if any) reward for that sacrifice.

At the time I was working a contract for a telecommunications company that took me away from home for weeks at a time. Every evening after work, and after eating dinner with the team that I was working with at our hotel, I retired to my room where I logged in to play UO for a few hours before hitting the sack. I was sharing that room with another engineer, and their take on the whole thing was not just skeptical but hostile!

"Look at that! You spend three hours every night playing a game in which you kill imaginary monsters, complete quests for pixel treasure, and then grudgingly sleep for 6 hours before going to work -- where your efforts actually result in you being paid real money for your 9 hours of work!

"Why can't you see the problem?!" he demanded.

This was not a single conversation -- it was an event that repeated itself every few days. My roommate simply could not wrap his mind around the idea that I enjoyed playing the game, and more to the point, that I enjoyed playing the game with my friends, with whom otherwise I would have a hard time maintaining a daily relationship beyond email and the occasional phone call.

"I like it," I invariably began my explanation - and failed miserably because no matter how many different ways I found to rephrase the same answers, the bottom line was this: I was giving that game hours of my life and, as far as he could see, not receiving anything tangible as a result.

Yes, he had a point... I was not receiving a paycheck for playing the game... But how do you put a value on friendship, and hanging out with your mates -- on victory in an epic struggle to defeat a powerful enemy, and ride off into the virtual sunset, your best mates by your side, and carry back a trophy of that accomplishment with which to decorate your virtual home?

I read this quote once -- I do not know who actually originally said it -- but it goes something like this: "For those who understand, no explanation is necessary - for those who do not understand, no explanation is possible."

That pretty much sums up the entire issue...

This New Thing

I was recently sucked in to a new game - well, a new game to me anyway - called FarmVille. I may have mentioned this before, and if you are one of my mates, well, you already know about it because you are playing it with me! I mention that so that what follows has some grounding...

Every day I exchange email with a lot of my mates - and there is a list serv we use to chat with each other in a general fashion (we have been using that list serv since February of 1994 when it was originally created). Lately one frequently mentioned topic on the list is FarmVille - which a lot of us are playing. One of my best mates, Jim, has been drowning in a complex project and had dropped out of sight for nearly 8 months, and was only recently coming up for air now that his project has completed the Beta phase and is ready to release.

One of the first things that he did was announce his return on the list, and then spend a few hours reading the digests for the list to catch up on what he had missed thanks to his employer and its unnatural need to make gobs of money off of the brain sweat of the engineers it employs. That being the case, I was not at all surprised to see a post from Jim, on the list, asking the question: "What is this FarmVille thing??"

The easy answer is that it is a cartoon-like simulation of small farming -- a game in which each player develops their farm, starting small, and by planting crops, raising farm animals, and upgrading the size and capacity of your farm, create a successful farming empire!

Along the way -- once you attain Level 20 -- you can join with other farmers and grow crops under a co-operative scheme, earning money and winning prizes, including limited edition and rare content. In addition to the above, you are able to customize your farm, adding character and flavor to it and stamping it with your personality and interests.

In the traditional sense of the word, FarmVille is not really a multi-player game, but considering that its home is perhaps the largest social networking site on the Internet, and the amount of communication - through IM and wall postings - makes it a social activity in its own right, it certainly qualifies.

Another aspect of the game is the near-instant gratification that if offers, keying into more than one powerful motivator, and providing bragging rights to the players. Having rare animals, or buildings, exclusive content, and even collections of special items that can only be obtained through luck, and what you have is a powerful draw for a game that is technically free to play. But is is really free?

According to recent news, FarmVille -- which is just one of many games that is hosted by Facebook and developed by an independent game company called Zynga -- actually had higher profits than Facebook! The revenue stream comes not from subscription fees, but from what amounts to voluntary content fees in the form of in-game money purchases, which can be used for obtaining rare and limited edition items in the game.

The concept of value-added content and pay-as-you-go transactions is the backbone of this type of game, which is growing in popularity in the past few years. LucasArts is preparing to launch a new free-to-play MMO based upon the Clone Wars part of the Star Wars stories, which should tell you that this model is more than viable.

What do You Gain?

Take a step back and replay the previous conversation and, once again, we are facing the same question - what do you gain from spending your time and effort playing these games? In this case though, there is the added question of rationalizing spending real world money to purchase in-game money, which you then use to purchase in-game content -- digital goods that you do not really own and cannot take home with you if you one day decide to stop playing the game.

Does it make sense to spend money on games like this? Well... No, not if the tangible is a critical component of your thought-process. On the other hand, there is great fun to be had in playing these games, and most of my friends - and myself - genuinely enjoy playing them -- so in that respect, yeah, they are worth playing.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to show Jim how to leverage his in-game coins to generate experience points -- he needs to get to Level 20 sooner rather than later, because he wants to start doing the Co-Op challenges with us!

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