They seem harmless enough, but since their arrival, social games have caused a lot of controversy within the gaming community. Established gamers feel besieged by a new kind of game they’re not sure what to do with while millions of new social gamers gleefully storm the castle.
This week I had the privilege of asking a few questions of Josiah Gordon, VP of Meteor Games, makers of the entertaining (and adorable) Serf Wars. Here’s what he had to say about Meteor’s relationship to social game behemoth Zynga, its approach to designing interactive entertainment, and its reaction toward social game critics.
NJ: Critics would say that social games aren’t about a fun experience – they’re about crunching numbers to find ways to get people to spend money. What’s your company’s design philosophy?
JG: Our focus has always been on creating richer, more engaging entertainment experiences for social gamers. In the past, social games on Facebook were designed largely for virality, for example forcing players to essentially spam their friends to make progress, but now we are seeing an industry-wide shift in social games towards quality, engagement, and more fun. In the long run, this is good for the whole ecosystem – players, developers, and the platform itself. Meteor Games prides itself on producing high-quality, original games that are so engaging that players want to share their experience with their social network.
NJ: Related to this, what would you say to long-time, hard core gamers who say that social games aren’t really games?
JG: In the past, that may have been valid criticism but with the number and variety of games out there today, just about any gamer should be able to find something that appeals to them. Several companies like Kabam and Kixeye are producing IP targeted at “core gamers” that also own the latest consoles. Meteor Games’ latest title, Serf Wars, includes elements found in more core games including story-driven combat, minigames, resource management and crafting (for upgraded weapons, armor, etc.). We feel it has broad appeal but our target audience for that game is a player looking for more strategy and involvement than your typical city builder or farming sim offers. Clearly, today’s social games don’t have 64-player immersive 3D battles like the latest console titles, but they are certainly moving in that direction. Serf Wars’ roadmap includes cooperative boss battles and player-vs-player combat that should appeal to core gamers that crave crushing their opponents.
NJ: Zynga just announced Castleville, a title that could be seen as direct competition for Serf Wars. Upon its release, do you think Serf Wars will retain its audience? Why?
JG: We don’t know enough about CastleVille to comment on the gameplay, however, we are confident that we’ve created a fun, immersive experience in Serf Wars that will keep our players engaged and coming back for more. As long as you build a great game, people will play.
NJ: For many people, and for me personally, what’s annoying about social games and ultimately makes us stop playing them, is the built-in need to pester your friends for help. How do you view the social aspect of Serf Wars as being different from that – or do you?
JG: Serf Wars is primarily designed to be fun and we purposely created an environment that is less intrusive that many other social games out there. Serf Wars doesn’t have mechanics that impede your progress if you choose not to involve your friends. There are benefits to playing with your network, such as discounts in the shop, the ability to have more combat squads, and playing minigames you haven’t unlocked, but our real virality will come later with co-op and PvP combat where you’ll be able to wage war with your friends. Serf Wars is a game that you can play by yourself, but you’ll have even more fun if your friends are along for the ride.
NJ: What was the thinking behind adding minigames into Serf Wars?
JG: Minigames are fun! Also, the game’s resource economy revolves around playing the minigames. When you get a good score you’re rewarded with gold, to help you build up your kingdom and recruit units for your army, and resources that you use to craft items like powerful weapons, armor, and health potions. They also provide a way to enjoy the game while buildings are being built; units are being trained, and so on.
NJ: Will players who never spend any money, find themselves stuck at a certain point in the game?
JG: No, we designed the game to appeal to a broad audience of players, which includes both paying and non-paying gamers. Currently, monetization is pretty light – limited primarily to exclusive buildings in the shop and time savers. However, in the future players who choose to buy unique items may gain an edge in combat. With that said, we’ll continue to stay true to our vision and keep the game balanced as we introduce future systems and hard currency items.
NJ: How do you compare the social experience of a Serf Wars to say, a World of Warcraft? Do you think the casual audience wants or is ready for the latter?
JG: We see World of Warcraft as the model social game. In WoW, players recommend the game to their friends; play together and meet new people; and they have formed a vibrant and passionate community. By definition, I don’t see WoW as a casual experience – the game has too much impact on people’s lives and culture. The gaming audience is enormous and people respond to different things. I think we’ll see social network games strive for a WoW level of engagement and impact but players that get hooked won’t be able to call themselves “casual” any longer – they’ll simply be gamers!
NJ: The multiplayer aspect of Serf Wars – at this point seems to be about playing nice and co-operating with friends. Do you think the game’s audience would want a competitive mode? If so, are there plans to have one?
JG: We do have competitive combat in our development roadmap, which puts the “wars” in Serf Wars. However, when we polled our active players we found that they wanted to team up with their friends to fight huge bosses, more so than battle one another. Our community is very important to us and per its feedback, we elevated cooperative play in our development schedule.
NJ: Looking toward the future – your company’s got four sim-adventure style games so far in its portfolio. Are there any plans to expand into other genres or do you think this is the chosen genre of the social gamer?
JG: As a company, we are focused on creating engaging, virtual world type games that hold players’ interest for spans of years, rather than months. We’ve created properties that are expansive enough to allow us to continually add new systems and content over the course of multiple years, keeping players engaged and entertained. We’ll continue to build great experiences and are always looking at new opportunities, formats, and so on. Our goal is to have players automatically associate quality production value; great art and music; expansive open worlds; and a healthy bit of quirky humor.
NJ: A more general question – how do you see social games evolving over the next say, five years?
JG: We see social games evolving to be greater shared experiences – bringing true multiplayer and cooperative play to the forefront. Social games will continue to move cross-platform with web, tablet, and social network canvas implementations and we’ll see games that leverage the social graph but may not reside on any of these media. Mobile will play an increasingly important role in players’ game experiences and titles without separate mobile apps will increasingly use the device as a way to keep players connected to the game world even when they are not in front of a computer. Furthermore, we see community playing an ever-larger role in social games.
Today, game communities are often limited to discussion boards or forums but there’s no reason why community couldn’t be at the forefront of a title or be the actual game. The social game industry is evolving and innovating at an astonishing pace and our goal is to maintain a lead by creating extraordinary entertainment experiences.