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Are Social Games Really Social? Games?

Ghosts in the shell

Embarrassed kids are amusing. A parent or authority figure co-opts a line or two of their lingo, and they act like it's the cataclysmic end of everything they hold dear as foretold in The Prophecy. It is, to them, a corruption - a barely recognizable remnant of something they once loved that's been chewed up, spat out, and then obliterated by a fortuitously timed meteor. It's interesting, then, to watch fully (or at least, mostly) grown adults react the same way any time social games come up.

And yet, while the parent/grandparent parallel still applies, there is some reason behind social gaming's reprehensible reputation. The overwhelming majority of the titles that gum up Facebook's works bombard users with requests and notifications while waging a rapidly escalating war on their wallets. Worse, calling them "social" is a major stretch, seeing as friends in Zynga's "ville" games or even Funcom's The Secret War are less people and more currency. It's almost enough to make you wonder if all those "incredible gaming possibilities" Facebook proponents tout are even real. That in mind, I spoke with Brenda Brathwaite and John Romero - whose company Loot Drop just launched Ghost Recon: Commander - about how the modern age has shaped social games and whether or not they're having a negative effect on the people who play them.

In many ways, Ghost Recon: Commander represents a step in the right direction. It doesn't require any of the obnoxious "social" stuff like constant wall posts, notifications, or microtransactions. It has player-vs-player multiplayer that actually necessitates a modicum of actual interaction. Oh, also, it's an actual game. It's self-described as "X-Com-inspired," though admittedly, disjointed, one-at-a-time squad controls and less-than-stellar AI keep it from tickling the tippy toes of that classic's lofty heights. And yet, there are missions and mechanics and character progressions that can be, on a fairly deep level, enjoyable even without the traditional series of jagged Facebook-themed hooks just beneath the surface.

As such, Ghost Recon: Commander almost feels like an awkward middle point between Facebook gaming's sordid past and a (relatively) hopeful future. Its asynchronous definition of "social," especially, is far more a product of Facebook's bite-sized-snack approach to interpersonal relations than it is anything that might traditionally be considered substantial. You can bring friends' soldiers with you on missions, but not, you know, friends. PVP, meanwhile, is an asynchronous back-and-forth ala Words With Friends. Sure, you can have gobs of games going at once, but it's social quantity over quality. Ultimately, then, I have to wonder: does Facebook's all-encompassing approach to communication actually hurt more than it helps? Brathwaite and Romero argue that the situation's not quite so black-and-white.

"Let me put on my 'former professor' hat for a second," Brathwaite began during an interview with RPS. "So if we want to talk about social stuff, Twitter, Facebook, handwritten letters – all of these things are social actions. Board games are 99 percent more social than Doom ever was. If you play Doom, your face is stuck in that monitor and so is mine. When we play Ghost Recon versus each other, we may as well have Kansas in between us, right?"

"Here's something that's great: I play a lot of Facebook games with my daughter. Right now, she's on the other side of the country. So this asynchronous socialization to me is super valuable. She and John play WoW on the weekends. Their characters are way higher level than mine."

Further, Romero went on to explain that levels of social interaction can even vary hugely within a single game. Continuing with the World of Warcraft example, the Doom-co-creator-turned-Facebook-maestro explained:

"You know what's funny – talking about this idea of 'Well, you're not really there and you're not playing together'? Well, when I play with [Brenda's daughter] Maezza in World of Warcraft, she's got her own thing she wants to do, and I'm doing my own thing. So even though we're in the same world, unless you force yourself to be in a party and stay at the same level, it'd have to be a concerted effort to actually level together. We'll be questing together, and she'll be like 'I've got to go in a dungeon!' And then she'll take off and go into Dungeon Finder. So how useful is it even to be in the same place in the game? Even if you get people together, they might not want to do exactly what you want to do. And asynchronicity kind of solves that whole problem."

"We spent all of last summer playing Minecraft on the same server," Brathwaite added. "So it's a full-on family. We're all in there – doing our own thing. Or sometimes, we'd build things together, and we had a blast. And then we'd have truly social things, and it was like 'OK everybody, we're going to Disney [theme park],' and everyone was like 'Yay!' And we'd all go do that... You know, what's happening in WoW, Minecraft, and Ghost Recon are just different forms of socialization. These questions never actually arose until the fake socialization that Facebook games specialized in [caught on]."

So Brathwaite, Romero, and co's hearts are in the right place with Commander, but sometimes, nature trumps nurture. The question in this case, however, is whether or not it should. Like any other commercial game, Commander needs to make money, and its business model tweaks a few tried-and-unfortunately-true Facebook techniques instead of blazing an entirely new trail. The short version: For now, the absolute best guns, base camp items, etc - from a pure stat perspective - are only buyable with real money.

And though Brathwaite and Romero assured me that will change soon, weaponry's still tiered in terms of power - not skill-based difference. Moreover, you either have to buy ammo with real money or wait a few hours for it to refill. So then, pick your poison: time or money. In defending that approach, however, the two were refreshingly direct.

"The single best thing in the game right now, you must earn," Brathwaite noted, referring to grenades, which can also be handed out to other players. "You cannot pay for them. But it boils down to – and this predates games – you pay for quality. You want bigger, better, more? You pay for it."

"I would not feel OK about it if you couldn't beat the game with [earnable items]. John bought gold [in WoW] yesterday for Maezza because she wanted a mount. But that's basically cheating the system. People sell these incredibly high-level characters. So I would have a problem with [buyable items in Ghost Recon] if they ruined the game for everybody else. But that's not the case... Those [items] aren't required for gameplay. Those are required if you just want [something extra]. For instance, if you want to mow stuff down, there's a weapon for that."

Even so, games like League of Legends and - for the most part - Tribes: Ascend have proven that a microtransaction-driven business model need not dangle pure power in front of impatient players' noses. Waiting for ammo to magically regrow, meanwhile, is a terrible design choice no matter how you slice it. So then, can social games be social? Yes, on some level - when paired with other forms of interaction. Can they be solid, enjoyable games? Again, yes, as Commander's robust mechanics show. Ultimately, though, those questions are only starting points, and games like Commander still have a long way to go before they can even dream of leading the pack.

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About the Author

Nathan Grayson

Former News Writer

Nathan wrote news for RPS between 2012-2014, and continues to be the only American that's been a full-time member of staff. He's also written for a wide variety of places, including IGN, PC Gamer, VG247 and Kotaku, and now runs his own independent journalism site Aftermath.