Casual Games =~ Social Software
March 23rd, 2006, By Duncan Gough
Looking back, I think there is a clear definition to the content I’ve created here on Suttree.com. There are two distinct kinds of posts – those about web development and those about casual games. What I’ve noticed over the last few months is that a lot more people are talking about both of these subjects in equal terms. By no means does that make me the first person to do it. Flickr grew out of an online game so I’d be ill-advised to start makes those kind of claims. However, I don’t belive that I’ve clearly expressed all the web2.0 and casual game relationships in one place. This, then, is meant to be that post.
Having read Amy Jo Kim’s inspiring Etech 2006 presentation, and also m3mnoch’s thoughts on travian, it’s clear that I could make a useful comparison between a huge social news website, digg and a huge online games website, travian.
First of all, here’s a pretty picture which should give a good idea of the relative size of both digg and travian:
Whilst Digg has enjoyed a huge amount of traffic and the ensuing popularity, like this interview with C|Net, Travian has not yet received such acclaim.
In a shorter timeframe, Travian has followed an impressively similar path to Digg but with almost no publicity. If Travian continues to follow a similar route to Digg, will it start to receive more recognition? History suggests that it won’t, at least not from the mainstream online press. The real trailblazer in online, browser based web games is, of course, NeoPets. Whilst there is still little or no press attention given to such a success, big business, in the form of MTV, was clearly impressed.
Besides this, what other characteristics do social software websites, like digg, have in common with online, passive games like travian?
1. The real poster child of web 2.0 is tagging. Every website supports it and tags now present a real alternative to traditional search. Tags and the keyword dictionarys that they create provide a domain-specific grammar that can be applied on a hyper-local level, to a specific website. For passive games, tagging doesn’t really apply. However, if we think of tagging as a way for users to express themselves online, then passive games have their own popular form of self expression, that of avatar customisation. Where tags give every user a way of personalising a website (which, in terms of growing up, proves that we’re at The Age of Point at Things), avatars give players a way of differentiating themselves from every other player in the game.
2. The advent of tagging also brought about public member homepages. Since tags are personal, users want to see how tagged what. Passive games work the same way. Customised avatars lead other players into a discovery of who else is playing with them, so passive games often offer freely browseable member homepages. And web 2.0 groups, as best displayed in Flickr, are transplanted into passive games with clans. Travian even encourages players to browse outside of their farm to see who else is building nearby. Without wanting to labour the point, this is the same as browsing your delicious inbox to see who is tagging urls that you’re interested in but currently unaware of.
3. Web 2.0 has grown out of a handful of core services, each competing to be the simplest and best. del.icio.us is the best place to store bookmarks, Flickr the best for photo’s, and so on. With regards to passive games, there seems to be a similar, if less well-defined battle being carried out at the moment. The core game types of puzzle, cards, sports, fantasty/rpg and space sims are being built and populated with players.
4. Passive interaction. This is what m3mnoch really hit on the head with his passive gaming post. Online, browser based games excel in their surface, their depth of gameplay controlled by a UI of simplcity. Just like checking email, IM’s, etc, all brief tasks. It’s easy to start building or farming in Travian and then switch back to, well, working. This passive interaction is key to the gameplay, it’s almost not designed to be addictive, rather, it’s designed to be hard to give up (a thin difference, I admit). How does passive interaction show itself in proper social software? Metadata. Think about the camera metadata that is automatically added and used on a site like Flickr. Photo metadata is added passively and adds to the stickiness of the site by filling it with relevant data. Even MOG does this, silently tracking external clicks to rank games by popularity. Passively, the web site and the web game are interacting with us.
5. Following on from this, is the realtime aspect of both sites. Digg has an AJAX powered ‘digg this’ button that animates and adds your digg to the community total. It’s not rocket science but it’s effective in making users feel part of a online group. Travian happens in realtime too. Choose to farm a seqment of your land and the clocks starts ticking, indicating that no more work can take place during this time. The same thing happens in EVE Online – tell your character to learn a new skill and they’ll continue to learn even after you’ve disconnected. It’s a virtual world, after all, and it removes a lot of the mindless, grinding and levelling up that other MMOs suffer from (although EVE still has plenty of mining to get through). Digg even has a feature called digg spy that provides a compelling window to what is happening on the site, in realtime again.
Finally, where do passive games lead? Given that many social software sites are looking to implement an element of play into their theory, is there anything in Travian that indicates what sites like digg might do next? The ‘item model’, also known as the ‘Korean model’ is a revenue system that gives away the full MMO game for free and charges users for upgrades and extras (more about that here). Travian, currently a top-1000 website according to Alexa, has no ads on display. Instead, it offers PLUS accounts, which are staggered payment options with different advantages attached. Digg, on the other hand, use Google Ads sparingly. Whilst the ‘item model’ can be abused so that the player with the most money to spend wins, I’m not surprised that Travian has chosen to go down this route. When it comes to Digg, though, can the ‘item model’ be appplied?
The answer to that, I believe, lies with Google. They introduced Google Ads on their search results pages and made a fortune. Could Digg introduce paid stories and do the same? For Digg, the democracry and independence is a huge selling point among its’ users. Being able to submit a story and gain traffic from it is why so many people do. The same was true of Google, though. It was the best search engine because it has less clutter, was perceived to be faster and delivered better results. However, that is still true even after the context-sensitive Google Ads were put in place. Digg, like Travian, could easily introduce a new revenue stream of paid-for content provided it makes them as user friendly as Digg is and as clearly defined and segregated as Google Ads are.