Seeing as I now work at HitGrab, I figure it’s time to get serious about games. And much like how you must read a lot to become a good author, you must play a lot of games to become a good game designer.
I play plenty of games these days, though they are typically either indie PC games (Altitude, Mount and Blade, VVVVVV), or big-budget console/PC crossovers (Batman: Arkham Asylum, Just Cause 2, Alpha Protocol). I’ve generally avoided social games because they all tend to run on Facebook, and well, I’ve already made my feelings on Facebook pretty clear.
But social games are doing some fantastically interesting things these days, to the point where even I can’t seem to avoid logging in on Facebook regularly to continue playing. (Though I check my Facebook feed about as often as I visit the dentist, fair warning.)
I’ve decided to blog my experiences playing these games, and make a series out of it – every week (roughly), a new couple of games reviewed. This week, I start with a new game from some long-favourite designers, and the current Big Fish in the social game space.
I’ve been following Brenda Brathwaite on Twitter for some time now, ever since I heard of her mindblowing game Train. When she started tweeting about her new social game she was working on alongside fellow game design luminary John Romero at LOLapps, I knew I had to check it out. I just didn’t expect it to be so… cute.
For reference, Romero was behind the primal gorefest that was Doom. Brathwaite’s Train has you unknowingly sending Jews to Auschwitz and breaking down into tears when you realize what you’ve just done. Ravenwood Fair on the other hand is about as hardcore as Jello pudding.
In Ravenwood Fair, you play as either an adorable teddy bear or racoon lady, clearing the spooky forest; building fair games and buildings; and inviting other adorable woodland creatures to come and sample your hard work. You earn coins, experience, and items by cutting down trees, bopping scary monsters, and by having guests play your games and visit your stalls. Occassionally, one of your guests will see something in the forest that scares them and come running to you to be calmed down. Without you intervening, they’ll cower pitifully for ten whole minutes before going back to playing games again.
Once I got over the shock, it made a lot of sense. The average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman, and more women play social games than men. DoomVille – while a neat concept – won’t go over too well with Your Mom. Ravenwood Fair on the other hand, is perfect.
And all the little things are done super-well as well. When you cut down a tree or bop a monster, the experience (little stars) and money (little coins) explode out like a pinata was just broken. You can have brief conversations with the forest creatures, and it quickly becomes apparent that they have a little life of their own going on, with unique crushes and aspirations.
The monetization is also done very well. Building a game or other fair building requires coins and items. Coins are relatively easy to come by, but to get items, you must chop down trees and bop monsters (or engage a viral channel and beg some from your friends), and you NEVER have enough of the required items. Never not EVER. In specific, I’ve been short on Vitalin since I started this flipping game. You can buy each item for 1 Facebook Credit each (about $0.10), or in 5-packs for 4 credits. OR, when you click on the structure of a building to check and see how much of what you need to finish it, they quickly total up the cost of the remaining items and offer to just sell you the rest in one transaction.
All this adds up to a fun, exceptionally well-targetted game that is paying off handsomely. As of right now, Ravenwood Fair has over 500k Daily Average Users, and close to five million Monthly Average Users. Ravenwood Fair just finished its winter seasonal event, and released a new version of the client with guest-based quests. Honestly, I was really prepared to set this game aside, but LOLapps has kept interesting updates to this game flowing at a steady pace.
CityVille from Zynga is huge right now. Like just shy of 100m MAU and nearly 20m DAU huge. It would be downright irresponsible of me to start reviewing social games and gloss over this one.
However, aside from the theme (which Zynga wasn’t the first to do anyhow), there’s not much that feels particularly new about the game. I came from Ravenwood Fair directly here, and I didn’t feel like I really had much to learn about how the game worked. Sure, decorations in Ravenwood increase your Fair’s “fun” which draws more guests who play your games and make you money – but in CityVille, they add a direct percentage to the collection values for nearby property. The mechanic may work a little differently, but it has pretty much the same end result. And god help you if you came here from FarmVille looking for something new.
That said, it doesn’t look like people were looking for something new. CityVille has the charm of SimCity with the comfortable, familiar mechanics of FarmVille (and countless other social games). The quests system is spot-on, always serving you up new things to do that are just outside of your current reach. The characters, animations, and sounds of the world are all super high-quality and welcoming. CityVille does so many things right, that the fact that most of its mechanics are simply refinements of already-explored systems is fairly moot.
For example, when a friend helps you in CityVille, you log in and see a small marker above a building with your friend’s profile picture on it. You have to manually accept their help, and then you get to watch as the marker moves across your town, collecting rent and sending tourists. This is an excellent improvement, since for many social games, you never get to see the result of your friends’ assistance at all, and it doesn’t feel like you’re playing with your friends at all.
I do have to take issue with the monetization, however. There are buildings and decorations that you can buy for CityBucks – in-game cash that you either accumulate slowly or buy with real money – but generally they are only vague improvements over things you can buy for regular coins, and are ignorable. Instead, where you’ll be spending most of your money is on community buildings.
See, in order to build certain businesses, you need to have a certain population. However, your population is capped by the quality and quantity of community buildings you have. Businesses and houses are built with coins and energy, but community buildings require those and staff as well. You can either send requests to your friends to have them staff your buildings, or fill the slots with an NPC for CityBucks.
Now, I don’t have a lot of friends on Facebook, since I tend to try to keep my friends list to people I know personally and hang around with frequently. I also can’t stand it when people spam their feeds with app requests, so I refuse to do that myself. For a game like CityVille, which very quickly has buildings that require up to ten friends to staff, this means I have to blow CityBucks to complete my community buildings.
I’ve spent a few Facebook credits on items in Ravenwood to complete the last couple hard-to-find item and not felt bad about it, but I begrudged every single CityBuck I spent on completing a community building. For refusing to spam my friends, I was penalized by having to shell out cash.
When I spend money on a game, I want to do it because I feel like I’m getting something out of it – that I am spending money to add to the fun. In CityVille, I felt like I was spending money as a penalty because I value my friends and their feeds. Definitely not cool.
Still, the basics are right, and I have no doubt that many, many people will choose to purchase the slightly-better buildings and decorations, and fill their community buildings with friends and NPCs. CityVille is absolutely monstrously popular right now, and I’m sure it’s making Zynga some incredible money.
I’m going to go both new- and old-school next week. I’m going to bust out the original superhit: FarmVille. It’ll be interesting playing it after CityVille, in exactly the opposite order of most of its players. I’m also going to be trying Monster Galaxy – one of the new breed of “battling” social games (read: Pokemon with your friends) that are becoming very popular these days.
Again, these updates aren’t guaranteed to be the same days or times each week. I’m pretty busy these days at HitGrab, working on our fantastic and fun social game: MouseHunt. We just pushed out a new update bringing back a favourite recurring character and adding a whole new gameplay mechanic to the game. As cool as that is, we have so much more planned for the coming months that I don’t know when I’ll have time to get all the game playing in I want to.