Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Facebook Game

Internet growth is feeding the world of social networking on an amazing level. Recently, thanks to the constant postings on the topic from Brenda Brathwaite and the Halo vs. Facebook talk from Nicole Lazzaro at GDC, I decided to join the world of Facebook. I found numerous friends, looked at pictures, and left messages for people that I don't normally talk to.

I started to notice something during the last few weeks, however. I've started getting friend requests from people I don't consider friends. I received a friend request from someone I went to high school with, but rarely talked to for the entirety of the four years I was there. Another friend request came a friend of that friend, who I think I've met maybe once or twice in my entire life. Another friend request comes from someone who I generally did not get along with when I knew him. Even my own mother submitted a friend request.

In my world, none of these people are my friends. I would presume none of them consider me actual friends either. However, in the world of Facebook, we are friends (if I accept the request, and I normally do). As far as I can tell, there isn't a real way to discern between real friends, best friends, and people you just know; they are all the same. By doing this, Facebook creates a meta-game. It's the "How many friends do you have?" game. This is a powerful game, and it is what I suspect drives people who I barely know to add me as friends (I assume my mom's request was more about her showing me that she keeps with the times from a technology perspective).

The benefits of winning said game do not tangibly exist. Much like the Xbox 360 achievement point quest, the end result isn't meaningful. Its only benefit lies in bragging rights. Why people engage in such behavior isn't necessarily the right question. The fact that they do is all that matters. Knowing that people enjoy engaging in meta-games, how can we build social systems that encourage that sort of behavior into our games? How can we make our games more like Facebook?

Microsoft's achievement point system is certainly a first step. There are numerous accounts of people just playing games to get points. Many of us scoff at this notion, but it exists and is something to truly consider.

Something that I feel isn't used often enough is allowing more character customization, even if it's just aesthetics and not actually changing the gameplay. There could be an in-game economy to purchase these new items. This allows players to express themselves in-game, by having a fairly unique character, and gives them something to work for. More shooters need to include options past the choice of character model in multiplayer. Army of Two allows the user to purchase masks, which can give you a greater sense of identity. This lets players work towards something long term. If the ability existed to leave messages for your friends to show them your new items, even better. This means that even if you aren't online when I log in, I can see exactly what your new character model and texture look like, what extra features you have on that I don't have, and then work towards getting them myself.

Another idea is to provide an auction and barter system. Forza Motorsport has done an excellent job of creating a micro-economy within the game. This keeps people playing, so they can buy that awesome new custom car, that no one else has. Even if the differences in the cars were just the texture on the car, this would be still be a wildly popular feature. Having a car that no one else has really sets you apart. Socialization of this auction system drives people to find other unique cars, in their quest to be noticed in the game community.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of how to integrate more social elements into games. I'm very new to the social networking game and am just beginning to understand it, so I don't have too many in-depth ideas on exact ways to integrate more elements into our games. However, I am certain they do exist. By adding the elements of social networking into our own games, we can expand the audience and keep that audience playing for longer. What other elements could we add to our games that promote more socialization and resemble the Facebook game?


  1. I personally feel split on this one. I can certainly see the merits of designing social networking into gameplay, especially in the ways you describe. I have a feeling we'll be seeing some of this in the next Animal Crossing game, if it's designed for online connections in the way I expect it will be.

    On the other hand, it seems that social networking has become a kind of default design component in everything - to the extent that I think my next refrigerator will have social networking features built into it. :-)

    The Facebook phenomenon probably has some useful hooks for game designers, but as you suggest, I think we need to be thoughtful about how best - or even if - to use these features.

  2. I think with the way cell phones integrate with facebook is even more powerful than facebook itself.

    I have my iphone linked to my facebook, i get texts when i get a wall post, i can even take a picture and upload it directly to my wall... document my travels on the fly. Update status, etc. Imagine a game (most likely an MMO) that integrated such mobile features, that directly affected game play. For example, maybe you can setup a shop or bazaar in world of warcraft, have that link to your cell phone so you know when people buy or want to buy your items. Send messages to people in game, or be informed that you are needed for a party or help, etc. All from your cell phone that most people carry around ALL OF THE TIME.

    Or even have some sort of mobile, real time game that requires you dialing certain numbers, interacting with people to solve some sort of puzzle.

    I suppose I'm clinging onto the whole phone thing, but its arguably the number one social tool we have. Somehow using that medium to further game development would be a very interesting idea to prototype.

    Granted to you get into issues of cell phone minutes being used, limited data bandwidth, etc.

    Getting back to xbox live, i think the achievement system is awesome. My actual score isnt that important to me, but when i see the little dialog popup when i did something neat or cool... it feels good. Plus i like going back to look at previous achievements and remembering getting it. I suppose its my own justification on sitting there wasting time playing a game.

  3. sergey trubetskoyMarch 19, 2008 at 6:09 PM

    Hah, welcome to the world of Facebook. It also took me some time to get that the people you call 'friends' in the real world adn those on Facebook do not have to correlate at all. I'd go as far as to say they need to come up with new names to differentiate between your 'online friends' and 'real world friends', but I realize there is probably some overlap in there. But then again, people probably like knowing that they have 5,000 friends, even if they're all on online social networks.

    I don't find it at all surprising that people turn Facebook into a game by competing for the most friends. The 'tangible benefits' to playing and winning these games are the brain's opioid receptors registering a hit, or the feel-good boost you get when you excel at something. And as successive hits begin to dull over time people will look for new opportunities, or games to play. So in short, people are really good at finding ways to compete, creating "games" out of things regardless of their original intent. Which lead me to the question: what is the end difference between playing a piece of software specifically designed to challenge you (a video game) or creating your own challenge from a piece of software that wasn't (Facebook)? I'm sure there are many lessons game developers can learn from Facebook and vice-versa.

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