Looking back at my wrapup of 2009, it does seem as though, three months in, we’re in danger of repeating ourselves. After all, we have Activision Blizzard’s Bobby Kotick asserting his particular brand of fear and loathing with one of his most popular studios, and now it seems the talk of GDC 2010 was… Farmville. Specifically, how metrics-driven game design (such as what Farmville uses) will destroy fun as we know it.
"You want to make an intrinsically interesting game," he said of game designers at large. "[When] you add extrinsic motivators to make your game better, if these studies do apply to games, you're destroying intrinsic motivation to play your game."
"The game industry used to use no metrics whatsoever," he continued. "Everything was gut and by the seat of our pants. Then metrics came around, and [now] we're addicted to metrics. If I change a value of my purple hat, fourteen more people buy it, and we think we're totally in the zone."
"But that's totally missing the point," he said. "That can lead you down a bad path. Extrinsic motivators will lead you towards dull tasks, and you're totally [cornering] yourself into designing sh***y games that you have to pay people to play" with reward structures.
And that’s not even the most apocalyptic take. Jesse Schell, Carnegie Mellon professor who gave a widely discussed talk about how gaming-style rewards can be used as motivational tools outside of gaming (for good or ill) said, quite literally: ethical game developers are at war with Farmville.
"The 21st century will be a war of attention," Schell said. "We have to choose sides." The world can either be controlled by the designers who only want to make money -- the "persuaders," as Schell labeled them -- or these games can be controlled by the humanitarians, and the artists, and the fulfillers. The persuaders can be beaten, Schell said, but only "if we wake the hell up."
"The war is already here," Schell pleaded. "You're fighting in it right now."
For their part, Zynga, Farmville’s developers, didn’t help matters by giving a well-publicized (at least among furious game developers) patronizing pat on the head.
The weirdest moment came from the guy accepting the Best Online Social Game for Facebook game Farmville (who immediately became known among the buzzing attendees as "that Farmville a**hole"). He used his acceptance speech to take a swipe at all the indie types who had been trashing his game all week, and then he said that Farmville maker Zynga had plenty of openings, not-so-subtly implying that if any of the indie kids wanted to get a REAL job, they could submit an application. Thus he achieved the impossible feat of making everyone in the room hate Farmville even more.
Of course, if you want to know what’s actually happening, follow the money. And that, specifically a panel of venture capitalists – the people who actually fund new game companies - held cold comfort as well for traditional game developers.
"It was easier ten years ago... when you'd just ship a great product and the users pay you up front," [Pacific Crest analyst Evan] Wilson says. "Those days are over."
From there, he raises a controversial question: "How important is game development when you have poor quality free social games generating these kinds of numbers?"
Media companies only care about daily average uniques, Wilson continues. "The industry has been moving in that direction rapidly and it's accelerating and it's scary," he adds. "It is a big, big issue when some of the leading social gaming companies can get over 20 million players on a game in nine days," he adds -- even the best AAA titles can't pull those numbers.