In a recent piece at Gamasutra, Nicholas Lovell analyzes social games and console games through the metaphor of the television and film industries. He definitely makes some valid points, and I thought I would throw my two cents into the analysis and comparison by discussing the analogy.
Lovell approaches the issue first from the point of developers, who are surprisingly dismissive of console games (this could explain why the non-EA players are so late to even approach the industry). Typically, they look at Facebook games as simple and dismiss them because they don’t push the boundaries on graphical and interactive complexity. This is similar to how the big budget films viewed the low production values of early television, certainly. However, the counter point here is that the simplicity is what really makes the first generation of social games unique and fun, just like early television relied on slapstick humor.
A difference in the analogy appears when you see that a third of social game players have never played a console game, and this means social games are succeeding even where the Wii has failed! Television was an invention that was geared towards those who had the means to purchase it at first, and these were likely people who also had frequented movie theatres. Social games are free and are meant to be distributed to the masses.
With regards to the developers’ dismissal of social games, the point is, they may not be breaking barriers in terms of complexity, but the challenge is boiling gameplay down to its core, fun elements. Not every game has to be an epic quest that requires intricate gameplay mechanics, sometimes you can pair the story with more simple gameplay to achieve great results. Not to mention that developers should know that optimizing Flash games to be as quick and light as possible is no easy feat. This is probably akin to what long format film developers had to overcome when thirty minute comedy shows began to gain popularity.
Another parallel that can be drawn between the industries is the advent of special effects. When special effects really began to become readily available in Hollywood (following the success of films like Star Wars and Jaws), the 80s hit with a plethora of films that had far too much graphical pop and not enough substance. This is probably epitomized by the Howard the Duck movie, which relied on animatronics and advanced effects, but failed to deliver that ‘x’ factor that audiences were looking for, and is now considered one of the greatest failures of Hollywood history. Certainly, the big budget console game industry is facing similar situations. 2008’s Spore, for all its incredible hype and technology, was meant to be a revolution in the way that we observed and raised small virtual creatures, but somehow ended up falling flat. Only shortly after that did the Facebook revolution occur, and people were playing games very similar to Spore and having a lot more fun. Games like Pet Society, (Lil) Green Patch, Farmville and others rely completely on the fun of raising animals and creatures, but somehow boiled the experience down to the fun, addictive elements. This could be similar to the wave of deeper, engaging movies through the 90s and early 2000s, but I fear we may see another resurgence of the 80s with the new 3D technology.
In any case, we’re in the early days of social games, and it’s exploding fast. Using parallels like this one may help us understand where the industry is headed, and hopefully help us as gamers and game developers in keeping the games as they should be: fun.