Over a year ago, I had actually been very active in gaming on Facebook. I tried and played every app my friends sent to me, and actively gifted and visited and all those other things I'll bring up momentarily. As time went on, I grew increasingly busy and tired out of a lot of the apps. Eventually, I quit altogether, and just went on Facebook to check in on friends. During the time I gamed, however, I didn't pay much attention to the details of my gaming habit. This week's revisit was far more intent on the details of social gaming.
The life of a social gamer is different than most gamers, which stems from the very nature of the social game “apps” themselves. Most social games require little skill, but do require constant revisits to progress. Unlike leaving a character for a few days without playing them (to gain rested experience, for example), a great majority of social games penalize you for not revisiting. Take your common farming game, for example. In these, you must progress by planting crops and then returning to harvest them. Planting crops, of course, costs money; harvesting them and selling them earns money. Crops take a variety of time to grow, anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. If a player does not return in time to harvest their crops, the crops will die and be lost – meaning a permanently lost amount of money to the player. Repeat this cycle enough times, and the player will be broke and stranded on meager funds from items that don't die without constant care, usually farm animals and trees. Imagine spending 100 gold on your favorite character, then forgetting or being unable to check in on time to get the 200 gold back in profit for equipment or experience.
Imagine, then, when a good portion of the games you're playing require this kind of timed investment. It changes the way you play entirely, and, at the higher involvement of play, results in scheduling your game play. You must carefully – across multiple games – plot out what kind of item you're going to work on (crops, food, etc.) based on its length and your ability to harvest it at that time. You must then develop a schedule that spreads out your times across the day so that you're not caught at any time in such a way that you can't get back to them in time. Even at a more casual level, where you perhaps only check in once every day or two, these decisions must be made carefully so that you can get to your items before they expire and your investment is lost.
Multi-player in social games is another strange thing. Almost all of the social gaming apps emphasize a high quantity of friends versus the cozy intimacy of playing with the people you actually know. Friends are often no more than fodder for getting daily gifts you need to complete whatever current purpose you're working toward, whether it's building a barn, expanding a restaurant, or completing a collection. Friends can often serve as an extra little bonus for visiting them daily – a little extra experience and coin that proves just enough of a motivating factor that players may actually, crazily, take the time enough to go through their list of 126 friends on Farmville to fertilize their crops and feed their chickens.
In fact, few games actually offer more of a multi-player aspect than this mass of trading gift requests back and forth and visiting a dozen friends for a handful of coins. Here is where I need to pause a moment and do something I'd thought I never would do: give a nod to Zynga. While their apps are known for the scorn of many, including myself, their latest game FrontierVille actually incorporates more multi-player than other games. Visiting other friend's properties allows you to complete your own quests, gather items for your own collection, and more surprisingly, actually help your neighbor by doing things on their farm they may not get to. Neighbors can then accept your help whenever they log in, and your character will complete those tasks on their farm. This means that neighbors can actually come and help make sure your crops don't wither by harvesting or reviving them; they can tend to your animals and harvest your trees, clear your land – all those things that help you have more things done by saving your own energy for other tasks. Although cheesy in every bit of the sense (I spent one morning talking to my mother about how to collect different types of manure so she could make fireworks), the game actually nurtures multi-player relationships as more than simply another number in the bucket of daily deeds.
Social gaming certainly emphasizes regular maintenance and massive friends lists in a pursuit of excellence. Add to that one final element: time. For games that are supposed to be more casual, just a few social games can suck up huge chunks of the day very quickly. Take a very casual player, for instance: one game will on average take at least 15 minutes to play per day, plus an additional 5 to 15 minutes to accept their gift requests depending on the size of their friend list and how cooperative Facebook is being. Half an hour per day per game is, in fact, very casual – but now multiply this by multiple games (the big names on Facebook encourage you to play their entire hand of games, even adding cross-game rewards for doing so) and multiple times per day depending on that previously plotted out schedule of investing and retrieving. It becomes incredibly easy for the social gamer to get quite literally sucked into a cycle of gifting, receiving, and doing for the entire day. I can reassure you that with the number of friends I have, and the apps I have installed, I could play every day, all day long for a month and still never be “caught up” with everything going on – and I'm about in the middle when it comes to my social gaming activity at its best. The cycle seems endless.