The Triumph of Personal Virtual Space in Social Games

There’s a revolution going on in the video game industry. Each day hundreds of millions of players log on and experience the phenomenon called social gaming in games like Farmville, Frontierville, City of Wonder and others. The numbers of people that play these games makes traditional online games like World of Warcraft seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

This new kind of video game experience exists largely on social networking platforms like Facebook and because of its massive earning potential it has shocked the traditional video game business to its core.

What is it about social gaming that has captured the imagination of gamers around the world?

Reciprocity and Ownership

I believe that the most popular social games like Farmville and Frontierville utilize and capitalize on mechanics that tap into some core underpinnings of the human psyche. The two most important of these are the need for people to cooperate and the need for humans to own things.

At some point in a future article I’d like to delve into the human need to cooperate which Robert Cialdini in his seminal book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion calls reciprocity — where humankind has progressed because of the societal benefits of mutual cooperation. But for now, I’m going to focus on the human need to own things — especially land — and demonstrate how it can be an extremely effective way to give players a stake in your virtual world.

The Pride of Ownership

As humans we’ve always been connected to the land. After all, the land is where we actually live and build our homes. As we progressed from hunter and gatherer societies and started to realize the benefits of farming our homes become permanent fixtures in the human landscape.

The pride of ownership is old as humanity itself.  It’s a well-known fact that people take better care of things that they own compared to things that they rent. Compare the condition of slums of inner city public housing to suburban neighborhoods where people actually own their homes and there is a world of difference in the level of upkeep and of course crime.

When people have a stake in something, suddenly they start to care. The same is true about ownership in social games and in virtual worlds. The ability to own something even virtually creates a bond between the player and the world. It is precisely this bond which forms the basis for why social games are so popular.

More on this later but first let’s take a look at a very popular social game that is capitalizing on the pride of ownership: Frontierville…

The Importance of Personal Space in Frontierville

In social gaming worlds the player is essentially managing his or her home, land and belongings. The point of these games is for the player to engage in continual home improvement. This is something that companies in the real world like the Home Depot and Lowes have turned into a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry.

The beginning player in a more advanced social game like Frontierville starts off as a simple pioneer in the wilderness with a covered wagon and a few basic items. The goal of the game is also to overcome the wilderness and other obstacles and to raise a family and improve his lot in life.

Think for a moment about the experience that Zynga is offering to its players around the world; most people who play this social game probably rent and do not own their own homes. By allowing you to have your own virtual home and improve upon it by purchasing accessories like carts, chairs, fountains and anything else you can think of they are allowing millions of people to engage in simulated home ownership. This is a very powerful fantasy that taps into a deeply held human need to be the master of his own castle.

The Magic of Cultivation

As a child one of my favorite fairy tales was Jack and the Beanstalk. I loved that story about those magical beans. Social gaming companies also realize how magic those beans are. The deep seated need for humans to cultivate and plant is also something that Zynga has wisely encouraged players to do in both Frontierville and their original hit Farmville.

Gardening is one of the most popular past times in the world and for good reason; there is something fascinating and rewarding about being able to plant a seed and watch it grow. When we plant, we can be like little gods and watch the miracle of life unfold before our very eyes. Although only virtually, players can do this many social games (and in the Lord of the Rings MMO) and it is no wonder they are so popular.

On Harnessing Creativity

Another important aspect of allowing players to own their own space is that it allows them to be creative and put their own personal stamp on the world.

Every player can customize the colors and materials used in all of the buildings in a social game like Frontierville. They can choose to place buildings, animals and items where they wish. The opportunity for personal expression via customization cannot be underestimated and again gives the player a deep bond with the game world.

Another benefit to consider is that social dynamics of competition and cooperation are created when the player’s neighbors come visiting as they are exposed to different homestead designs and approaches. Zynga the developer of Frontierville is counting on the deep seated human competitive imperative of keeping up with the Jonses as players envy their friend’s accomplishments.

So what does all this mean for MMOs and virtual worlds?

Personal Space in MMOs

As most MMOs deal almost exclusively in character advancement via combat and completing quests, the notion of personal space is not taken very seriously. Currently in most MMOs the player owns only the clothes on her back, her weapons and some bank slots. While player housing exists in a few MMOs, it is given mere lip service with the exception of SOE’s EverQuest 2 and a few others.

While I understand the need to focus and polish on core mechanics, player housing could be a natural way for MMOs and virtual worlds to take advantage of the explosive social games revolution and broaden the demographic. If done right, it could be a very cohesive mechanic that could include existing professions and new trade-skills such as forestry and woodworking.

Lessons for MMOs and Virtual Worlds

As a person who cares deeply about MMOs and virtual worlds, I believe some MMO developers have been dangerously ignorant and willfully blind to the recent triumph of virtual personal space in social gaming. In fact player housing in virtual worlds was the actual precursor to what we currently see as land/home ownership in social games like Farmville and Frontierville.

Blizzard, the leading MMO company that makes WoW, claims it has 12 million subscribers but still has no plans to implement player housing despite the fact that in 2007 Jeff Kaplan the Lead Game Designer of WoW said the following in an excerpt  from an MTV interview:

Another small but potentially profound concept for “WoW” is player-generated housing. Gamers don’t have a room of their own for their characters to live and decorate right now. This matters to Kaplan, who is a big fan of “Animal Crossing,” the Nintendo franchise centered around cultivating a home and sense of unique, personal space. “I think housing can take ‘World of Warcraft’ to the next level,” Kaplan said. “I want to make sure that when we introduce player housing to ‘World of Warcraft’ we do it right and give the feature the credit that it deserves, which is a massive amount of production time on the programming, design and art time. It’s something we actually wanted to do for the original shipping game.” But it’s not coming, he said, until it’s a “Blizzard-quality feature.”

It is now almost 4 years since that interview with still no plans for player housing. While fans of WoW wait for Blizzard to come to their senses the video game industry has changed dramatically with hundreds of millions of people playing Facebook games that are designed with player ownership of virtual space as their core feature.

Investing in MMO Infrastructure

Every MMO company has to invest in seemingly non-important world “infrastructure”. These are elements that you’d probably notice if they were missing.

Blizzard does just that as they have spent countless millions of dollars on non-core aspects of WoW such as cinematics, art, music and sound. If any company can afford to implement player housing it’s certainly Blizzard. Now that they have recently announced that a Dance Studio is coming to WoW they have simply run out of legitimate excuses to keep putting player housing on the back-burner.

Strangely enough, the very same Blizzard that borrowed the idea of achievements and primitively tacked them onto WoW has not found the time, resources or will to capitalize on the biggest trend in gaming: personal virtual space which is more of a natural fit for a MMO like WoW than achievements ever were.

Concluding Thoughts

As someone who is hesitant to get on board the bandwagon du jour, I have been naturally suspicious of social games. But after extensive experience immersing myself in social games like Frontierville and others, I have come to realize that some of these games allow for personal ownership, creativity and expression — all which are dimensions that are sorely absent in most MMOs.

In fact Raph Koster and Tami Barbeau were some of the first people to wake up the MMO community about their importance and I owe them an apology for cavalierly ignoring their warnings. Although social games are far from perfect and have some serious shortcomings, they and their implications are here to stay.

It bears repeating that the benefits of allowing player ownership are numerous. The more game designers give their players a sense of ownership in their virtual world the more those players will bond with that virtual world. Deeper bonding means better subscriber retention. Not only does the developer win but the player also is rewarded with a deeper and more meaningful game experience.

Player ownership also contributes to creating better player communities as players who own nothing are mere guests and tourists and behave as such. Players who are allowed to take ownership care more about the virtual world they live in, generally behave better and provide a more rewarding play experience.

But I’d even take the concept of ownership even further: I’d like to see players actually start owning their own stories and reclaiming their virtual destinies once again. It’s only a matter of time before the video game industry wakes up and starts trusting the players and allows them more autonomy.

The current philosophy of MMO design philosophy as exemplified by WoW has resulted in subscriber stagnation with no growth and probably eventual decline on the foreseeable horizon. Therefore the failure to acknowledge the mind-boggling success of Facebook games and embrace, promote and expand personal player space within MMOs is perplexing.

Player ownership of virtual space can no longer be marginalized and dismissed as an esoteric gaming feature for a small group of role-players. Player ownership is no longer the future, it is right here and right now for companies with the good sense to realize it.

-Wolfshead

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