Free for All: Why social gaming could destroy MMOs and how we can fight it

CastleVille screenshot
I am a huge fan of social media. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus -- it all makes sense to me and has shown to be a very useful tool in not only communicating with friends but finding new games, developers, and websites. My Twitter feed provides enough news and information that I can skip any standard media. I haven't watched a local newscast for a long, long time. On top of that, I can communicate with readers in real time, sharing photos and tidbits of cool.

Has social media affected MMO gaming? It definitely has. Watch any smart developer's Twitter feed and you will see the community team interacting directly with players, answering questions, hosting contests, and helping players feel as though the developers are actual people. Social media has also changed how we connect to our games, MMO or not.

All of this means that everything is social now. Going to the dentist? Share it with your friends. Defeated a boss monster on your Xbox? Tweet it. Just picked up that epic sword in Dark Age of Camelot? Post it to your Facebook. Heck, many MMOs now have a Twitter or Facebook option built right into the client. All of this instant connectivity is nice, but it's possible that the "massively" part of MMO will soon apply to any game. What will this do to the genre?

CityVille screenshot
Let's look at everyone's favorite whipping boy, Zynga. There are stories of the social gaming giant buying out and destroying entire companies. The way some people talk you'd think that Zynga is hatching an evil plan to take over the world instead of making whimsical and fun social games. Yes, the company is growing, and yes, it is gobbling up whatever comes across its path. Let's be clear, however: The company could not do it without gamers' money. There is a common argument that Zynga designs its games to somehow trick players into spending loads of cash, yet those who say such things consider themselves to be smarter than that. They stay miles away from Facebook and other "social" games. They sneer whenever they hear of an "energy mechanic." The truth is that thinking Facebook is somehow going to trick you into posting walls of spam and spending tons of cash shows just how little you know. It takes one or two clicks to say no to any invitation to post content and the same number of clicks to ignore someone or change settings. The way the anti-Zyngas talk actually makes Zynga seem smarter than even Zynga would ever purport to be.

Even though original content seems rare in the world of social gaming, the same applies to MMO gaming. Let's not pretend that MMOs are somehow a more sophisticated activity than playing FarmVille. MMOs are generally a series of mechanics arranged under the roof of lovely graphics. Probably 80% of MMOs that I come across do almost nothing original at all.

As with both genres, the majority of bland content cannot take away from the amazing gems that do exist. For every dozen crappy social game ripoffs, there is at least one or two social games with lovely design, wonderful music, and refreshing gameplay. Progress is slow, but social gaming is moving forward at a much faster rate than standard MMOs. Again I look at the brilliance of accessibility in the social and casual market. Many of the largest publishers offer games that can run on a variety of devices and feature immersive stories and interesting puzzles.

"It might seem as if MMOs and social gaming have nothing to do with each other. One is a genre filled with actual, persistent worlds complete with years of content and lore. The other is a genre filled with brightly colored games with low barriers to entry, seemingly devoid of anything of substance."

It might seem as if MMOs and social gaming have nothing to do with each other. One is a genre filled with actual, persistent worlds complete with years of content and lore. The other is a genre filled with brightly colored games with low barriers to entry, seemingly devoid of anything of substance.

But I beg to differ.

That stereotypical "soccer Mom" social gamer might feel just as immersed and as connected to her tiny little town in CityVille as any player of Lord of the Rings Online feels about his main character. Humans enjoy details, for sure, but they are also built of impressions. Studies have actually shown how we damage a memory every time we recall it and that our brains fill in details so convincingly that we see that memory as accurate. Humans rely on impressions and general experiences. When that soccer Mom goes to bed and falls to sleep while imagining the future layout of her city, she is feeling the same immersion that we feel while escaping into our favorite MMOs. After the adventure is done, all we have our memories. Those memories and social connections we made at the time are important not because of the way we made them but because we made them.

All of this is to say that social and casual games are social enough. If it isn't already the case, I will be surprised, but I would wager that within a few years, social and casual gaming will so greatly rule the marketplace that MMOs will be as much of a niche as MUDs are to MMOs now. People will tweet their experiences and "play along" with their friends even thought they are not logged in with them. The robust world of MMOs might eventually be squeezed out of existence.

Twitter logoI, for one, will not take this trend lying down. I love social and casual gaming, I really do, but I think there is plenty of room for all of us. How do I plan on fighting the deterioration of persistent worlds? I will continue to look for every MMO I can find, browser-based especially, regardless of size or graphical quality, and will try to expose, encourage and support the genre. Yes, the "AAA" MMOs play a part as much as any MMO does, but they cannot be the entire story. If we want MMOs to continue to grow and even flourish, we need to support all of them. Well, unless they suck. In that case, we need to criticize and move on.

Social gaming is going to grow. Social media is going to continue to connect us around the world. No one would argue that this is a bad thing, especially when you see the difference it has made around the world during these violent times. More and more humans will gain access to cheaper and faster technology. That tech will connect them to the web and to social media. Social gaming, gaming that is easy to connect to and share with others, will be an easy sell.

True, persistent MMOs can be bloated, heavy, and repetitive. Many fans see upgrading a PC every two years as some sort of rite of passage and proof of dedication to the hardcore, but social gaming can be played on a $200 netbook or hand-me-down tablet.

Take this as a warning: Social and casual gaming will not die. It is not a fad. It is also independent of Facebook. A game like Hero Academy has done very well because it instantly connects people together, allows them to communicate, and encourages them to share screenshots and bragging rights from the same devices they play on. It's social enough.

As MMO gamers, we have to ask ourselves whether playing with the same guild of five or 10 people in the same title is any different from inviting your "neighbor" over to farm. They're both social activities.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.