August 2, 2010 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[When Ian Bogost launched the satirical Cow Clicker on Facebook, he didn't expect to unearth massive conflict around the burgeoning social game space -- nor to field the largest volume of criticism from his own colleagues. What does it all mean? Our own Leigh Alexander investigates...]
Academic, author and game designer Ian Bogost is a little bit worried that his latest game, Cow Clicker -- a simple Facebook title simply about clicking on cows -- might receive more attention than anything he's done to date.
If that turns out to be the case, it'll be an interesting turn of irony, the sort that motivates the sometimes-controversial designer: this is because Cow Clicker is a satire that asks players and developers alike to examine the explosive popularity of Facebook games.
The game, Bogost tells us, was initially conceived as an alternative to a straight lecture presentation he was asked to give at an NYU event; with only ten minutes to speak, and (as usual for Bogost) "a lot to say", why not show instead of tell?
Cow Clicker was intended to present the four issues that Bogost says "concern" him most about Facebook games: "enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time," described in detail on his blog post about the title.
Gameplay in Cow Clicker is insultingly simple -- Bogost has described it as "Facebook games distilled to their essence." Users obtain a cow on which they can click every six hours, and every time they click, they earn more opportunities to click their cow or their friends' cows. Users can buy custom "premium" cows or buy their way out of the six-hour delay with the game's currency, "Mooney" (Bogost claims that the coincidence with the last name of Zynga's vice president is nothing more than sheer accident).
"It's particularly easy to be a negative critic, to talk down about something from on high," he says. "By making a game to deliver that message, I hoped it would be taken more seriously." So while Cow Clicker is, in a nutshell, a criticism of the social game industry, "that's not all it is," he adds. "It's also a social game! Which is counterintuitive, isn't it?"
Going Beyond Concept To Practice
Counterintuitive or not, Bogost says that when using a medium to generate discussion on that medium itself, it was important to go beyond the conceptual into something that fully operates in practice: "If I had just made a Facebook game in which you clicked a button every six hours and it spammed all your friends, it just wouldn't have been interesting as art, as critique, as satire," he says. "By making a distillation of a social game that actually (if perversely) functions as a social game, I feel the stakes on video game satire are raised."
"I wanted to see what would happen, and to learn if, perhaps, I was right or wrong (or neither) about this variety of social games," he continues. "So if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I'd say that the purpose of the game is to test a theory about social games."
Since then, Bogost has watched Cow Clicker's players from afar in endless fascination, surprised to see both the volume of users willingly engaging with the satire -- alongside plenty of actual players who appear to be enjoying Cow Clicker the way they would FrontierVille or Sorority Life. He's fielded calls from National Public Radio and engaged in heated public debates with the development community.
All in all, he says, it's been a surprising experience, but one with several major takeaways: "For one, clearly there was a tremendous amount of anxiety about social games among the general public," he says. Despite the current major trend that sees millions of users flocking to Facebook games and adoring them, he says player reactions to Cow Clicker have included a large amount of "performative snarkiness."
Player Engagement Lessons
"I think people really aren't sure what they think about Facebook games, about spending their time on them, about what they're being sold and what it means for life and culture and time and so forth," he suggests. "Cow Clicker offers a little release valve, a safe place to question those ideas."
Bogost also says reactions to the game have taught him more about the willingness of players to engage with video game satire, whereas common attempts at video game humor feel insincere or fall flat -- unless, as the adage goes, you're Tim Schafer or Ron Gilbert, a theme aptly addressed by game critic Michael Abbott in a recent column.
"Video games in general just aren't funny, and when they are funny it's usually one-off gag humor," says Bogost. "Yet satire and humor are a very old form of expression, and they're enjoying a great deal of popularity right now. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and The Onion and so forth—these are major players in media and culture these days." Going full-fledged and creating a working game helps Bogost in milking game satire for all it's worth, so to speak.
But there is undeniably controversy around this latest salvo from a developer reputed for his tendency to question, often acerbically, the industry's favorite trends. And most of those most harshly on the side of Cow Clicker's detractors are Bogost's own colleagues -- game developers, many of them from a community of storied design veterans who have recently moved to the social gaming space, excited by new design possibilities therein.
Many of them are missing the irony in Cow Clicker, says Bogost, and that scares him; instead, they "peacock about what features I might add or how I've missed opportunities for virality," he says. "Those reactions fill me with sorrow and dread."
The Developer Backlash
Bogost sees an enormous climate of anxiety surrounding social game developers, despite the mass proliferation of their success stories in the financial headlines. Many of them, he suggests "are full of loathing or guilt or other sensations" about the growing divide between their territory and that of the traditional audience -- much of which frequently vents its own sense of being threatened by the new market amid absolutist venture capitalist and CEO-driven talk of the death of video games as they've known them. The often-aggressive, contentious discussions in the comments on Bogost's blog are something to behold.
"I think a lot of them are defensive. I think there's a huge amount of personal conflict and self-doubt in social game development these days," he suggests. "On the one hand, many developers know they despise many Facebook games, even if they can't put their finger on why. But on the other hand, many developers are jealous of their success."
"And those who are in the social games scene, they feel like they're a part of some great new age of game development, finally bringing games to the masses, and they're bitter when called out for 'not making real games' by creators who, in their eyes, are just shoveling first person shooter power fantasies into the eyeballs of adolescents," he adds. "So all around, there's a lot of anxiety and doubt. And when people have doubt, they tend to lash out defensively."
Cow Clicker drives directly into that flashpoint of conflict in an enormous and rapidly-changing game industry (summarized well in a post-GDC roundup written this year by former Civ IV project lead and Spore designer/programmer Soren Johnson). In that respect, the game's greatest success may be that it's exploded the conversation, bringing some of these considerations and private insecurities even more directly into the forum of public dialogue.
"I think a great many social game developers are mistaking the success of their games for positive contributions to humanity," Bogost says. Plenty of social game developers cite the new mass audience as one of the primary merits of their work. When he joined Playdom -- recently picked up in a much-buzzed (and much-questioned) Disney buy for up to $763 million -- well-reputed Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky brought up all the "people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age."
And it's a common refrain. "If you talk to just about any social game developer, but particularly those who used to work in 'traditional' development, you'll hear them talk about how their niece or mother or uncle or whomever plays their games now. As if that fact justifies the nature of the games themselves," says Bogost. "It's as if there's been this huge vacuum of professional isolation that's finally being released, and some developers are using that release as an excuse to justify the construction of profoundly dastardly works."
Developers and players alike often experience an enormous feeling of resignation when they see headlines about the multi-million users -- and the concurrent multi-million dollars -- in the social gaming space. The high-risk traditional game industry has traditionally operated in virtual slavery to numbers, where earnings equate to opportunities for innovation until they're themselves seen as evidence of, or reward for innovation.
"When I hear so many developers use the market as a primary justification for design choices or professional choices, it makes me feel wretched," says Bogost. "Many people like saturated fats and simple sugars and The View and a great many other things, but that does not automatically make those things righteous or good."
The Battle Lines
It may not be so simple. Plenty of design veterans, like Civilization II and Rise of Nations developer Brian Reynolds (who joined Zynga and launched successful FarmVille-alike FrontierVille) or long-serving Brenda Brathwaite, best known for her work on Wizardry and now creative director at LOLApps, tell us that the Facebook platform allows them to focus on the types of challenges they best enjoy: what Reynolds calls "straight mechanics" in an environment of rapid innovation.
"Designing an award winning RPG took me longer, but it was easier," said Brathwaite in a Twitter conversation with me recently. "We iterate rapidly and distribution is super fast. The majority of games stick to formulas (genres) and innovate within."
Despite her enthusiasm for the new space, Brathwaite also is puzzled by the environment of controversy and conflict on all sides that so often targets the Facebook space: "Many board and card games have simpler dynamics and sell amazingly well, but don't provoke the same bias. It's interesting," she said on Twitter. "This whole social versus hardcore reminds me of console vs. PC, or even hardcore RPGs versus Diablo... and we can see who won that battle." The industry will never see the climate that birthed Ultima and Wizardry again, she points out.
Bogost asserts his respect for these designers, and believes they are "earnestly hopeful." But he's still defiant: "I don't really see what rapid iteration has to do with 'innovation' or breaking out of formulas," he says. "Aren't all these games just as formulaic as any genre, with innovation mostly limited to optimizations meant to squeeze more out of players?...I think these designers are making aspirational claims. Let's hope they live up to them."
The Learnings -- And The Numbers
In the end, Bogost believes he's drawing the most fire for being a critic: "I've heard some developers suggest that as a fairly visible critic and developer, I ought not to say nasty things about games, because doing so will open some mythical floodgate of public resentment," he says. "This is frustrating to me since I've spent many years supporting the uses of games far beyond the blindered view of the traditional industry, so I think I've earned my stripes in this regard."
"But more importantly, supporting video games is not a monolithic affair. Part of being a critic is highlighting the bad along with the good. I know that critique mostly highlights the 'awesome,' so maybe this point is lost on some, but disagreements are productive," he adds. "I find it baffling that some developers might assume the existence of some sort of tacit contract for the universal support of video games. What a juvenile idea."
Of course, we had to ask Bogost about his user numbers. One final key takeaway he says he's gleaned from Cow Clicker is the inherent unreliability of Facebook metrics: "According to the site, I had around 16,000 monthly active users at the start of today," he says. "I count something more like 25,000 users in my own records, but I'm aware that 'user' isn't the same as monthly active user in Facebook terms. That's a tiny number compared to these giant Zynga and Playdom games, of course, so clearly I'm not reaching Colbert or Onion level public invective yet." [The preceding metrics were accurate at the time this interview was conducted; as of press time Bogost says he's up to 25,000 MAUs and 34,000 total users.]
What about the money question? How much is he making? "Currently, very little, enough to cover the hosting costs of running the game," he says. "Ironically, I'd have to engage in the statistics-based design and A/B testing of the big boys to tune cash out of the game, and I don't know if I have the stomach (let alone the time) to take a swing at that."
"But I think it also should remind us of the scale of finances in these sorts of games," he adds. Generally, the percentage of users who spend money in social games is markedly smaller than the number of those playing for free -- "that's a fact that feeds back on the design of social games. You need to get a bajillion users, and the design follows suit."
"I'm not entirely sure what Cow Clicker is," Bogost reflects. "It's an experiment. I'm trying to keep an open mind about it, and to let it guide my understanding and opinions about social games. As of right now, I feel genuinely apprehensive about it."
"On the one hand, it's great fun to watch the satire take on its own life." And yet watching it all happen, watching the users and cents fluctuate, Bogost is picking up his own lessons on what it may feel like to be in the shoes of his social colleagues. "On the other hand, I find myself drawn to the game and its support in the same unhealthy, compulsive way I suspect social game players feel about social games."
"Perhaps that very struggle, between joy and loathing, is at the heart of the game's meaning."