No Elder Game for Social Games?

Like millions of others, I’ve been playing a variety of “social games” online.  I’m struck by several aspects common to these games, including the overall poor gameplay.  I think that will change, slowly, as game developers figure out what works and what doesn’t.

But what has also struck me is that these games have no “elder game.”  In terms of a linear, limited form of media (book, movie, single-player game) you might say they have no third act; there is no summation or reconcilation.  Of course, in an online game you don’t want a summation — you want people to keep playing!  And yet, each of these games seems to run out of steam for the player experience sooner or later.   You amass enough “stuff” (coins, guns, troops, mana points, whatever) and either the challenges you face are uninteresting or non-existent.

So (as always) the question is, what’s next?  How can social games transform their gameplay to remain engaging to the “elders,” those who have mastered the main part of the game already, to keep them playing and (of course) paying?

Or is this the right question to be asking?  Might it be that social games simply have a lifespan on a per-player basis — when you’ve done it all, you’re done, thanks for playing, bye-bye?  Is it expecting too much of social games to deliver fun experiences for the new player, the up-and-coming player, and the elder player?   If it is, what does this say about the staying power of social games as a genre (is faddishness a built-in Achilles’ heel?), and if not, what does that say about the current state of social game design?

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6 Comments on “No Elder Game for Social Games?”

  1. Allan Says:

    Is it possible to create a game model where ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’? What if some aspects of the gameplay were evolving over time and could be influenced by player choices? The game space might be so vast that it could never be fully explored, even by the developers.


  2. Mike Sellers Says:

    I think the more “worldy” games get, the more this is the case. This also means that the games are more difficult to test, since if you can’t ever cover the entire game space, you can’t know for sure that there aren’t some nasty edge conditions waiting out there.


  3. Allan Says:

    I was reading recently that some algorithms are next to impossible to test in advance. The most efficient way to see what they do is to run the program. Not comfortable for the testing team!

    I’m talking about setting up some of the ‘rules’ of the game as a complex adaptive system (or as a series of linked systems). Such a system will evolve to best meet some fitness criteria. We can’t know in advance what will evolve, but we can set the fitness criteria. I suggest that user numbers and satisfaction be the goal.


  4. […] I’ve talked a bit here about the need for depth in social games — the need for an elder game that keeps you playing after you’ve grasped the primary gameplay.  This need is showing up […]


  5. Mike,
    So what do you call Club Penguin? In my mind, CP is a “social game” for younger audience that does not yet use FB or other sites, does not use chat, or post in forums.
    So perhaps your intent is to be very narrow in terms of discussing the crop of FB oriented projects – but I think it is worth discussing how Whyville, Gaia, Habbo, etc handle the social space without ‘elder games’ by being entirely about the social and not so focused on the game.


  6. Mike Sellers Says:

    I agree, the ones you mention are social games — a lot more social than many found on FB! I would say that some, like CP, don’t have any elder game, and it shows: the lifespan of their players is limited both by age and activity (and their lack of earn-out shows this on the macro scale).

    Habbo and some of the others have had various elder games emerge within them; they’re enough of a sandbox to allow players to find their own elder games (much as guild politics is the elder game in many traditional MMOs).

    Where these emergent elder games exist, it’s because the developers have left sufficient room in the design for them to emerge from the players — in other words, they didn’t nail down all the things you could do, and to some degree got lucky. From what I’ve seen there’s little thought put into enabling or supporting gameplay (social or otherwise) that represents a natural stage for the player to move into as they master the game. When they work, these latter-stages act as a way to lengthen the players’ stay and (more significantly) have them contribute to the overall game community and ecosystem in ways that enhance it for everyone.


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