Tobold's posts on Facebook lately have given me a quote of his that got me thinking about Facebook games in general.
"Different games have different amounts of social cost, and if you are willing to pay that social cost, there are some good games to be found."
To recap, Tobold was banned from Facebook because he used his online moniker rather than his real name, and did not use his real life friends and family to advance in a Facebook game. Instead he met people online who wanted to play those games and progressed with them. He goes into more detail about what exactly is wrong about that second part: I'd like to focus on social cost.
Firstly, social cost can in a lot of cases be a big deal to gamers. "Outing" yourself as a gamer tends to have social consequences, as the debacle with that Gizmondo writer and the Magic the Gathering Champ displayed rather messily. Given that Facebook is typically connected to all of your closest friends and family members, spamming them with posts from a game is a sure way to out yourself.
I see a bit of an exception here though: I have family members and friends who are not gamers in the slightest (and would look down on video gaming as a hobby), but felt not a tinge of remorse or irony in spamming my Facebook wall with Farmville invites. They were just as dedicated to these things as I was to my WoW account.
It all seems a little weird until you realize a key thing about Facebook games: They aren't for gamers. I'm not talking about design and actual gameplay, because most gamers already know that Facebook games are too simplistic or shallow for their tastes. I'm talking about target audience. The rule about not meeting people online solely for the game is the key factor here. The target audience is the average person who has free time and knows little about games. A gamer can play Farmville, look at the cash shop and say that there are other games out there more worth his money. And there are. An average person is more likely to spend money and invite their friends to play and do so too.
I'm not only talking about the social cost that a person pays in order to play the game. The company pays a social cost too, in that their model pretty much prohibits communities from forming around a game. Though they exist, they are small and not very organized. Zynga hosts forums for them, but their largest section has 67k threads. Possibly ten times as many posts. Though it may seem like a lot, consider for a moment that this game at one point had 8.1 million players. That's 1 in every 120 players making a thread in the Farmville Discussion thread, not including the deleted ones.
World of Warcraft has 195,590 threads in its General Discussion board alone. And this is a forum that just launched with Cataclysm.
Facebook has enacted rules that shoot down any chance of a Facebook game cultivating a community of players, and that is why the crowds move from game to game, abandoning each one in the process. Most of you have already heard the news that Zynga games are hemorrhaging players at a rate far faster than WoW ever did. When it comes to making lots of money fast, Zynga has got it in the bag. But they pay their own social cost, and that is in an extreme lack of sustainability. Take care of your players, and they will take care of you.