I recently attended a Games Gone Wild schmoozing and discussion panel event headed up by Nicholas Lovell, the lovable scamp running Gamesbrief. The theme was, as always, social games and the discussion was … general, to the point of being People Saying Things despite featuring a fairly varied and interesting cross-section of the online games biz.
Might have been too varied, as practically every company represented was in different businesses despite all falling under the “online” and “game” umbrellas. In any case, Lovell got to plug his book and I asked a question about middleware, which provoked a bit of chitchat and turned out to be a good way to cast myself in a role so people would later assume I was a Middleware Guy.
I don’t know any Middleware Guys personally, but I assume the term holds ample connotations and implications for certain people. God knows if I’m one of them.
In any case, the question “what is a social game?” arose, an instant flabbergaster because it’s so bleeding obvious to the people on the panel but at the same time the intersection between “social” and “game” is different to each of them because they’re in different businesses.
Since a discussion panel is supposed to yield semi-bitesize-ish thought fodder, everyone acts serious and pro and avoids hogging the mic, giving relatively brief and well-measured opinions without providing any real insight. They’re pretty good at it. The question “what is a social game” leads, of course, to the much larger and sillier question “what is a game?”
This is, of course, different for everyone enjoying videogames. For me, it’s somewhere between the pleasure of the impact and the weird hands-off tangibility of cybernetics. The sense of mental control over a system and all its mechanisms, all its variables.
The moment-to-moment enjoyment of involvement, the zen of motion; the sense of taming/experiencing interacting dynamics where each action ripples across a focused, controlled zero-flub environment that amplifies rather than dampens player agency. Instead of pushing against springs, the player is handed a loud hailer.
In a way, the freeze-frame impact amplifier employed so well in Street Fighter 2 and beyond is a spatio-temporal compression of pushing a wave in a DOTA-alike. The amount of compression of that moment of impact could be said to be inversely proportional of how many agents need opportunity to make a valid contribution to it.
In League of Legends, the moment of impact can last for 20 seconds and it will pass quick as lightning or seem like an eternity depending on circumstance just like that little extended pause at knock out in Street Fighter. The final freeze frame, the exaggerated one that declares winner and loser.
In a similar sense, Diablo and Final Fight is really the same sense of satisfaction, part of the same template-branch in the giant idea-organism-tree of game design. Both are social, as are DOTA and Street Fighter. Sure, not everyone plays them socially, but they facilitate that as well.
What is it that makes them games? Well, certainly tons of underlying mechanisms, some of which are commercial in nature (the spare change chucked into the arcade cabinet, the time spent on Battle.net), but to me it’s the moment of impact.
Social games modulate the moment of impact in certain ways depending on the number of players. System granularity (not complexity) usually increases as well, to “pad out” the moment of impact with resource management, risk-reward loops and tactical considerations/tension builders. That’s why a good Street Fighter 3 match is so awesome: It’s all the compressed impact of agency every few seconds.
I’m not good enough at Super Street Fighter IV to get that same lovely sense of authority over the possibility space that I get in truly great moments of successfully extending my will into social landscapes filled with means and cause for conflict, itself an amplifier rather than dampener.
That’s because I don’t have anyone to play with, and while I can learn the rules of the game, the psychology of their application eludes me as long as I don’t have any social context for them. Their architecture, both form and purpose, brings people together into conflict in the same focused way that alcohol and low lights bring them together into socializing — like the whole Games Gone Wild evening, really.
But I didn’t expect the panelists to say that. The evening was, after all, a sort of investor meat market, something I only really noticed when some pleasantly intrusive older chap, an energetic and eager sort that’s unstoppable rather than rude. He cheerfully interrupted a nice conversation I had with another Middleware Guy who did a sort of story-telling AI that I described as a dynamic foldback scheme system and got a nod for. I’m sure it’s way cooler than just that.
I think I have that guy’s card, and I know he has mine. Another social game — I make sure they all get a nice, pink Zangief business card that sit there like a little memetic time bomb, ready to blow up once an unwitting host is given some reason to remember me. The guy who did the fantastic card game Once Upon a Time, about collaborative storytelling, has a card and I hope he remembers me.
He organizes occasional board game gatherings for dabblers and industry professionals. I believe I might just kill to be there. More social games.
The night ended with a long-ish conversation with another Middleware Guy. He was American, seemed very bright and focused in the serious and slightly overwhelming way that some American professionals do. Like a momentarily friendly predator, a lion laying down with the lamb.
We chatted, he gave me some strangely sage & fatherly life advice, told me a little about his career and was critical but clearly encouraging throughout the conversation. He sidelined me to talk to someone appearing to be a paymaster-cum-chum who I promptly introduced myself to, resulting in a bit of social strongarming. I probed his shabby exterior while mustering a shield of nonchalance, trying to figure out why he smelled of money despite the unshaven face, crappy cargo pants and beer gut.
He soon threatened to kill me, so I finally managed to break into the local wi-fi and send an e-mail to my girlfriend, promising her I’d be home in about 10 minutes. Death threat untweeted, I strayed onto the Long Way Home, cheering up council workers as I completely missed Waterloo Station while the rain kept getting worse with every step I took. Another social game.