Thursday, 19 November 2009

Does Corporate Involvement Change Online Games?

      Last night I attended the RSA's "Design & Society: Gaming the City" talk, which held some amazing points about the nature of games overall, their future, history and the implications of their use in our society. Perhaps one of the most interesting points brought up during the lecture (which is available online here), was about the nature of the gaming experience when it relates to stated functionally and subsequently companies.

      The example used was about an on-line game, ESP (Requires registration), which allowed two anonymously paired players to attempt to describe an image placed infront of them. Without being able to communicate in any way with the other user, the players attempt to describe the image using the same terms. Points are subsequently awarded for using identical terms to describe the presented image. As the game was being described by the speaker, one could see how he and others enjoyed the spontaneous synchronicity of the game's experience.

       The point in presenting this game within the lecture however, wasn't specifically about the game's experience, but on factors that impacted it as the site developed. The underlying purpose of the game wasn't only entertainment, but to instead create a "Mechanical Turk" type device that crowd sources image recognition. The frequency of terms used by players allowed for the generation of meta data identifying what the picture was, something computer's can't reliably do. At this point, one can say that the game's experience isn't changed by an implicit benefit from playing it, but instead allows for added value to the overall experience (out of those that are aware of it's functional capacity).

Great as an image labeler, horrible as a chat room.....

       The development of ESP led to a Google version (aptly named) "Google Image Labeler" which, unlike ESP clearly states not only a corporate involvement, but also an explicit function of playing the game. Last night's presented argument stated that in changing from ESP to Google's version, something was lost from the overall experience and in this case, I tend to agree.

       Such an argument brings up an interesting question,"Aside from underlying functionality implications, how does corporate involvement fundamentally change the gaming experience?" Further, how do developers and marketers strike a balance between branding/involvement and the user experience?

This game is like agriculture based intellectual crack....

       When talking about such an issue with a few folks after the lecture, I found myself referencing the issue around the example of Farmville on Facebook. Facebook games are by themselves an interesting category, due to the fact that they exist as social and entertainment entities. Almost all gaming experiences based on the Facebook application platform gain atleast some of their value by rooting the gaming experience in sharing with friends. Farmville is no exception, as the virtual farming game allows users to move friends in as neighbors, tend to their farms, gift each other and assist in growing crops. Without the help of others, the game becomes a slow and repetitive experience (though personally, even with friends I view it in slightly the same way).

       With respect to the ESP example from earlier, I think that should I find out that Farmville was a secretive crowd sourcing tool to discern crop growth patterns, it wouldn't affect my user experience in many ways (though my thoughts on the state of actual farming would be shattered). However, what effect would explicit corporate involvement do to my hypothetical experience?

       If Farmville renamed itself "Tesco's Produce Aisle presents Farmville", I'd like to think I wouldn't mind, but I do believe that some hardcore players would be alienated. Contrary to this, the game's currently established currency system allows for players to gain special currency by filling out surveys or signing up for trials, something that seems much more corporate, but I accepted easily (though I never did it). While the current system put in place by games such as Farmville, which game maker Zynga seems to favor despite throughout its portfolio, explicitly ties business interests into the gaming platform, I never noticed because it was optional and it was there when I started.

This is an example of a piece of clothing that can't even be worn for irony....yet

      I think in such an example we find the crux of how corporate involvement can fit into online game development. I'd like to believe that corporate/business interests need to be upfront about their involvement in games (something that successful promotion seems to require), but it seems that proper integration into the game is much more important. Allowing players to function autonomously of the game's business aspects allows users to choose whether or not to interact with the brand's interests. Corporate promotions that follow such a maxim may be promotional without being garish, a possible reason why I don't mind paid aspects of Farmville, but at the same time slightly (very slightly) recoil at an explicitly Tesco titled version.

     Perhaps the other factor that controls successful involvement from the above example, is the establishment of involvement early on. As"Google Image Labeler" was clearly a derivative of ESP, user's had an expectation about the level of business/corporate involvement developed from their earlier gaming experience. With Farmville, atleast from a personal view point, I formed my expectation of the gaming experience with business/corporate interests present and therefore habituated to them quickly and without much notice.

     If a game is presented in such a way that marketing/business interests aren't overpowering, that the gaming experience can function in an unimpeded manner and if user's expectations allow it, corporate involvement and marketing interests can fit within some types of online games efficiently.

Of course, my example above is rather limited and based on personal views, leave some comments about your thoughts on the issue.

*I'd also like to point out that while I did play Farmville, I successfully extricated myself from its flash based veggie claws, something my lunch hour has thanked me for.