Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ready for Social

If there was one thing that every major developer and platform provider at E3 agreed on this year (and there were many things on which they did not agree), it was that they simply could not ignore the emerging possibilities offered by social networks anymore.

This admission is an important first step for the video game industry, currently roughly divided into companies that are DTF ("down to Facebook") and those that ain't. The current state of things is really sad because it limits the marketplace in artificial ways - there are not many options out there right now for the Street Fighter IV player who likes finding matchmaking opportunities with his Facebook friends, nor are there many ways for me to share my Halo 3 user videos to a place where people are actually going to see them. I can't tweet comments about my favorite user-generated Portal 2 levels as I play them because the Steam community is very averse to the idea of the invasion of external social networks, which incidentally is the same reason that popular "casual" destinations like Pogo and Big Fish Games avoid Facebook like the plague, for fear that their change-averse communities will rise up against them.

But why all this fear? Are we as gamers all really so limited in our world view, despite comprising such a large and diverse portion of the world's population? Do we really lack the collective clarity of judgment to realize that just because 99% of the games currently using Facebook's platform are imitations of one cleverly designed farming game in their marketing tactics, business model, and simple gameplay, that their simple connection to the Facebook platform makes them so? Are we truly so blind to the diversity of games already available on Xbox Live, Steam, and on the iPhone that we believe a game's mere use of a social networking API could actually communicate anything meaningful about its quality or substance?

I'd like to think, "no," but so far my experience is that many gamers and internet-savvy users, aware of the popularity and success of Facebook and of the amount of "real information" it asks of its users, are loathe to accept any implementation of its API in their games, no matter how harmless, option, or beneficial, and that's extremely disappointing, because it limits my options. I'll have to save my diatribe about internet privacy for another post, but I completely agree with anyone that doesn't think Facebook should be a mandatory component of a game that could be played without it (i.e., most games, including the ones in the top 10 apps on Facebook). I'll be the first to tell anyone considering opening a Facebook account to take a long hard look at their Terms of Use, their privacy settings, and their track record, and make an informed decision about how they do and don't use the service. And I'm not a big proponent of the perceivable desperation baked into any game that has access to your news feed. But I do feel the opportunities for good far outweigh the potential downsides.

Fact: Facebook currently has over 500 million users. If you live in the United States or one of the many other countries with a high adoption rate for the site, then you are more likely to have friends using Facebook than any other social network, including AIM, Steam, Battle.net, Meebo, Myspace, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, GameCenter, Twitter, Second Life, Flickr, LiveJournal, or your bizarrely-specific-to-your-cultural-nice online dating site.

All of that being said, here is my hypothetical evidence to support my theory that the [transparent, optional, secure, game-appropriate] use of social networks like Facebook can only make our favorite games better.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: "Super Guide Ghosts"

I just finished playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 (at least, the "first quest") and loved the game to pieces. Here's a game more challenging than its predecessor, yet more accessible than ever before - a wonderful example of smart game design that's fun for players of all types. The game has a few very clever built-in hint systems, one of which Nintendo likes to refer to as the "Super Guide." This is an in-game movie that will play through a level for you if you're stuck - letting you intervene when you feel comfortable taking the reigns again. The game also has a "co-star" mode where a second player can take on a helping role as an in-game pointer for collecting items, stunning enemies, and pointing out secrets.

What if I was stuck on a level, and the Super Guide was able to tell me that I have 5 friends with this game, 4 of whom have all beaten this level already? I can select my friend Andrew, and the game will download a 'ghost data' file of his playthrough. In seconds, I'm following a jump-for-jump copy of Andrew's path through the level, missteps and all. When I'm done, I'm able to send him a one-up as a thank you for sharing his play-through data with me, and Andrew's rating as a Super Mario Galaxy 2 Super Guide increases, meaning others are more likely to select his play-throughs later. Andrew might even take it upon himself to make his play-throughs completely public, and gain such a reputation that his user profile becomes the de facto replacement for the Super Mario Galaxy 2 GameFAQs page.

Furthermore, when I see him later that week, I can tell him that not only did I beat the level, but I also caught a glimpse of his trouble avoiding fireballs - something I'm sure he'd be quick to defend.

Portal 2: Co-Op
Did I say Portal 2 Co-op? Let me re-phrase that. I meant "Steam."

I'm sick of having four Steam friends, despite my overwhelming confidence that I know more than four people using the service. Steam has so many great tools for players and developers - great communication tools (chat, messages, groups), a great client and storefront - but Steam is not a dedicated social network. It exists for a fringe purpose (gaming) and because of that it's never going to be as frequent a stop for casual gamers and fringe gamers (like many of my friends) as a site like Facebook.

If Steam had a Facebook app with a decent adoption rate, however, I'd have a lot more real Steam friends. I'd know the instant one of my friends started playing Portal 2 and I'd be able to be the first one to swoop in and offer to walk them through the first few levels of co-op. I'd see that girl I knew in high school that I thought I had nothing in common with, who actually has more achievements than me in my obscure indie puzzle game, and I'd consider reconnecting (and asking what she thought of the game).

Moreover, I'd have an achievement for every friend that wrote "Spaaaaace." as their status at some point in the last two months. But then again, maybe that's what the nay-sayers are worried about.

Grand Theft Auto IV: my wildcard idea
I figured it would be fun to come up with something really out-there for my last suggestion. Here goes!

Fans of Rockstar's pioneering, envelope-pushing Grand Theft Auto IV (can you tell I'm one of them?) often cite the in-game television as one of its brightest spots - a trivial bit of detail that goes a long way toward building the world (and being hilarious satire).

Picture playing GTA IV while connected to the internet, when all of a sudden, you walk past a TV in a storefront playing a news story with an image of your friend Garrett on the screen: 

Newscaster: Police say they are still on the lookout for their suspect, who they believe could still be hiding in the vicinity. Witnesses are encouraged to call a toll-free number if they have any information, for a reward of up to $200,000.

You recognize Garrett's Facebook picture instantly, of course. You know that Garrett must have caused some serious mayhem in his game in order to rack up that kind of bounty on his head - and you also know he'd turn you in in a heartbeat. You dial the in-game number and correctly select Garrett from a multiple-choice list of friends. Your character is rewarded in-game money, while Garrett's is fined. But Garrett's informants tell him you were the rat, and now you're a marked man - good luck next time you need a favor from that guy.

Looking Forward
Consoles and "hardcore" gaming have a long way to go towards acceptance of the "social networking" trend, but I'm confident that someday we'll all be used to the idea enough to be accepting of the good ideas and shielded from the bad. All it takes is a little bit of imagination on our part (the players!) to see that there's good there (and to understand the nature of the potential evils) so that we can protect our interests and seek out new experiences. I'm excited to rat out my friends in GTA and count my "Spaaaaaace"-related statuses. I just hope everyone else gets excited soon, too.

If you think I've said something worth repeating, try Re-Tweeting! I'm DTF, too - share a link to this post and get a discussion going in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. I play the Super Mario Galaxy 2: Super Guide Ghosts and as per my view it is good challenging game to play. Players can watch the smart game design work to play this game.


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