Apocalypse now: The future of social gaming

It’s national day today where I live, which means fireworks, bonfires and barbecuing – if only it wasn’t around 35 degrees Celsius outside, so I guess we won’t get much of that until way late into the night. Exactly 721 years ago, according to legend, did the three founding factions (today cantons) of this country get together and swear a sacred oath to stick together and join forces against their ever-warring neighbours. A confederation was born that has maintained much of its sovereignty up to this day, and has since served as direct rolemodel to other nations, the United States of America among them. Or in much less solemn words – 721 years ago a couple of swashbucklers shared beers on a meadow and decided it was time to kick some ass together and cooperate. Time for a new era, time for change. How romantic.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with topics of change lately (again), and much doomsaying has gone around about the future of pretty much anything: the MMO genre, online gaming, social games and cooperation. Some wonder if this MMO era is finally over, while many others ask what GW2 and MoP can still do for the genre? It’s a complex question, one that at its core encompasses a much greater issue and development currently touching the entire online and gaming market. If Facebook games are in decline that doesn’t mean MMOs are doomed, but it means that everyone is currently affected from the same intangible shift, maybe towards a next generation of social games, online games, multiplayer games. Somewhere there is a common denominator beyond just overfed customers, classic concepts beaten to death and cows milked into oblivion.

In this context I feel compelled to promote one article that stands apart and that I’ve just come across (also because just retweeting it isn’t enough). Tadgh Kelly, probably known for writing on Gamasutra or WGA, recently went to elaborate on the downfall of Zynga but didn’t stop there; in what’s one of the most well-argued and insightful articles I’ve read on the subject, he analyzes the future of social gaming, what motivates players to cooperate and the next generation of social games that may be at our doorstep. He takes a look at the past and beyond that considers other media who have gone through a similar process and progress. It’s must-read material if you’re in any way interested in social mechanics and online, multiplayer games and crosses paths with many MMO-relevant issues. Really, you don’t wanna miss that one!

To tease you with just a few paragraphs –

“Social games do not bring people together. Most players in fact play them in a largely single-player fashion, making contact purely for reasons of necessity like trading, earning Energy and so on. Many have tried large multiplayer designs, and failed because the players were just not there.
“Players play to achieve, to do, to build, to create, to explore, to destroy and to win. They need the game to provide them with a fascinating system which enables them to do all of those things, and usually for the game to also provide an absorbing fiction. This is as true for The Sims as for Skyrim. […]….You build to have something better to win with.”  
“Aside from being free to play, the answer is advancement. Social contact in the context of games provides real value to players when it substantively helps them to win without tying that up in synchronous loops. In other words, to be worth it the contact needs to get me where I’m going, but without obliging me to turn up to do likewise.                             […] So play Journey. Play Realm of the Mad God. Get into a multiplayer server on Minecraft. Notice how they are about cooperation toward advancement? Notice the lack of obligation? Study that.”
“For G2 to be about true value, the game graph also has to be valuable. Connecting interested strangers produces much more game interaction than limiting it to just friends (such as Monstermind, which doubled its engagement rate in a day by connecting strangers). Players don’t really care about whether they are playing with their friends. They care about playing with others who can help them, and if that happens to be a friend then so much the better.”
“If Yahoo was “Search, Generation One” then Google was “Search, Generation Two”. The first generation was the one which became cluttered with all manner of complicated ambitions, poor performance and a whole load of “conventional wisdom” which often proved contradictory. Generation Two, on other hand, realised what mattered and delivered just that. A similar shift is what will make “Social Games, Generation Two” real.”

Of course, Tadgh doesn’t just drop the big, vague words such as “depth” to contemplate for the reader, but tackles what exactly constituted depth in the past, where contradictions lie and how future games may outgrow the formula – and really need to throw some of the classic tropes overboard. Needless to add how much of this resonates with me personally, namely that we shouldn’t cling to old formulas especially when they make no sense, or why I believe that more open, free-for-all and automated forms of cooperation are the way to go for future MMOs. Not because they’re meaningless but because they create opportunities for more without detriment to more casual cooperation.

In any case, it’s interesting times. While I agree the traditional AAA+ MMO is a dying breed already for financial reasons, I am not too worried about the future of (massive) multiplayer online gaming; it will continue to prosper, there will be variety and there will always be cooperation among players in some shape or form. The quality of community and cooperation has never been about server sizes and subscription numbers, either. There’s plenty more ahead, maybe in a different way, but I will always find games to play and enjoy myself with together with others. And that is all that counts.


  1. Hmmm… Lots to think about on all those posts and yours. Yes, I do agree that the MMORPG genre or any other form of gaming, really, is dying. Instead I think we are more in a evolutionary crossroads with more traditional games reaching a dead end while others trying to explore new paths to see where it goes.

    So I am not worried about the future. I know I like Guild Wars 2 and what they are trying to do. Will it be enough to make significant changes to the genre moving forward? I have no idea. All I know is that at least for the next few years I will have a game I will be enjoying which is more than I optimism for the genre than I had a few years back.

    1. Correction: I meant, “Yes, I do agree that the MMORPG genre or any other form of gaming, really, is *not* dying.

      That is the kind of mistakes I get for reading too many good food for thought in a short amount of time, trying to remember everything, making a comment and not revisiting it before hitting the “publish” button. Apologies to Syl and to everyone who read the previous comment already. *sigh*

    2. No apologies required 🙂 I figured as much, anyway.
      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      I’m on the same line, I’m very happy to ‘have’ GW2 to play in the near future. I don’t know how long it will last me, but then I am not the hardcore player I was back in WoW; I expect to enjoy GW2 more casually and for quite a while at least, there’s plenty to do.
      there are of course other games on my Steam library etc. but I need at least one MMO to play at any given time for my soul’s content. ^^

  2. I would love to see an ‘outsiders’ views on the state of mmos as I feel we often view various situations different as jaded MMO gamers.

    If nothing else it will be interesting to see what the future holds. Hell perhaps blizzards project Titan will be a game changer.

    Like rakuno above however I’m just glad I have and enjoy gw2 for the foreseeable future

    1. Myeah…I personally do not quite understand some of the negativity around, especially towards MMOs like GW2 or TSW trying something a little different than WoW. in any case, the state of online games isn’t nearly as dark as some are painting it – but then fear of change has always been a major blindfold.

      I used to be more conservative myself before I questioned many of the aspects that are supposedly given or needed in MMO design; I’ve found many of the current answers out there lacking and started to allow myself to see potential in different solutions. so, I am fairly openminded these days, and simply way too old a gamer to fear I’ll ever be out of games to play. 🙂

  3. Sigh. No healers, automated social interaction — frankly more and more I think that MMOs are no longer something I want to play.

    1. Okay, that was probably needlessly sulky. I don’t like free to play, and I am feeling cranky about the state of the industry today. 😛 Ignore me!

    2. Heh….okay.
      I guess I don’t need to clarify then what I meant with automated forms of cooperation (not automated social interaction). am not referring to people acting like robots. we had that in WoW already 😉

      out of interest though and because I am confused here and there, I would really like to read sometime what it is exactly that players like yourself (who are obviously not very happy about this year’s MMO releases) would actually like to see produced by the market. where do you want to see future MMOs go, and in which aspects would you welcome innovation (or what kind of innovation do you want to see)?

      I understand there’s frustration but I find very little in terms of concrete ideas and alternatives. or is there none and you would rather just err…continue most of WoW’s formula forever? well, maybe something to tackle sometime – I would certainly like to hear more on this. 🙂

  4. Big budget MMOs are dying. That’s good. Like dinosaurs, they need to die out and make room for a more vibrant, varied, modestly sized MMO gaming scene.

    1. I think we’re getting there. Pirate 101 is following on the heels of Wizard 101. Both are modestly scoped, well-designed games with flexible business models. There will be others, eventually.

    2. Oh, and there’s Puzzle Pirates, too, though that’s a very different sort of gaming experience. They did have to condense servers, but they *have* been around for seven years or so. These games don’t last forever.

  5. I reall don’t care about SWTOR going F2P. GW2 is B2P.

    Anyway, I have a very important question… where William Tell enter at the history of your country independence?

    Fianlly, tomorrow, 2nd october, GW2 will have otehr stress test.

    1. Umm, Tell is really more of a mythological figure than a historical one. his story about the apple shot, where he opposed the Austrian oppressor, reached cult status much later via literary adaption.
      but yeah, depending on versions and what you like to believe, he was more or less involved in the declaration of independence. it’s mostly a nice and symbolic story here.

  6. I learned a little something today, although that wasn’t hard, given that most of what I know about Swiss history is from reading “Asterix in Switzerland” at high school.

    1. Haha, I love Asterix, I got all the comics! they were in fact incredibly well-researched in places too.

      I think you’re not alone with that, btw….at least my generation of people all have their very own Asterix references ready about the French, Italians, Spanish etc. 😉

  7. Yup! People to people interactions are the long-term draw for any multiplayer game. Perhaps as a society of gamers, we’re getting better at distinguishing extrinsic rewards and gamification, from intrinsic rewards and fun.

    The best is yet to come. Well, that is if the world doesn’t end in December 😀

  8. Yes the end is nigh!

    This article and the one you linked at T’s are great reads. I like his dissection of the problems with Zynga’s model and social games in general. I think he’s on to something for sure. He had me thinking about writing a response article on the ways in which I agree with his assessment.

    When you look at the future of social gaming from the perspective he gives on it, it seems we won’t really see the second generation coming. In fact, it’s likely to happen just as the first generation of MMOs did: completely by happy accident. Though, a second happy accident would generally suck as it would show designers really have no clue what works socially but can somehow stumble upon greatness by throwing enough spaghetti at the wall. I hope the second generation of social gaming is a wiser generation of designers.

    Also, art and profit are really quite irreconcilable in my opinion. To sum up one of the points in my own words: developers can’t hear the art and creativity of their ambitious designers over the loud clanging of coins into the bank vault. When the money spigot is dry, everyone is all ears and until that point, no one can hear a thing at all.

    1. “I hope the second generation of social gaming is a wiser generation of designers.”

      well, they have to be – or they won’t be G2, that simple.

      unfortunately art and commercial exploit will always have to try find a place to co-exist in this industry; videogames are about making money, there’s no helping that. the best one can hope for is a wise team of designers with a certain amount of freedom and autonomy, like Notch for example. it’s not all just money upfront and payment model wars out there.

  9. For the past few years mainstream MMO design has been moving forward via modest evolutionary steps. I know that I’m in the minority, but I think even SWTOR pushed big budget theme park design forward in a several logical ways. It also seems to have demonstrated that the big budget MMO is an evolutionary dead end. There just aren’t enough customers to support more than a few.

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