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Do Social Games Need More Social Chaos?

Something has been bugging me about social games of late. There are a lot of great games out there – I play a lot of them. And you know what many of them have in common? There isn’t enough chaos in most of today’s social games. Let me explain what I mean. I grew up playing two games where bad things can and do happen and they really impact game play. I played a lot of head-to-head Madden football growing up. Every now and then, one of your star players would get injured and go out for the game. There was nothing you could do about that – the player was gone and you had to soldier on. I also played a lot of SimCity. You know what used to really irritate me? When an earthquake would come along and wreck my perfectly designed city. It drove me nuts.

As frustrating as these seemingly stochastic elements were in the game, they made the games more fun. There was an element of chance and risk that was beyond the control of the player. And the consequences of those seemingly stochastic elements was often grave – losing your star QB in the first quarter of a game of Madden can be lethal. Recovering from a catastrophic earthquake in SimCity is not easy and can erase tons of progress. But those elements and risks are always in the back of your mind and they make those games fun.

Why haven’t we seen that in social games? Why isn’t there flooding, frost, drought, locust plagues, and other stochastic elements that can really wreak serious havoc on your farm in Farmville? Island games where volcanoes can erupt and cover the island in ash, erasing progress? Virtual pet games where pets are resistant to training, care, or any attempt to make them obedient? I’ve seen some movement toward light penalties in games, but when will someone really push the envelope and try something riskier here?

The only reason I can see why folks have been shy in terms of integrating these kinds of game mechanics is the belief that today’s crop of social game players have a high degree of loss aversion. Put another way, the belief among social games developers is that putting in real stochastic penalties in games or other forms of anti-progress activities would not be well tolerated by the folks who play these games today. Nobody *likes* losing things in games – it’s not fun. But it can make a game so much more vibrant and complex. I do think there are some players who would rebel against changes like this – but who wants to play a game that’s almost always up and to the right so long as you do what you’re supposed to do? I think we’re missing out on something by not having more random bad things that can happen to you in the current crop of games.

Do you build or play social games? If you have thoughts on this topic, feel free to leave a comment.

PS – Hat tip to Shanna Tellerman for the blog post title and Justin Hall for chatting about it over coffee.

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