Massive multiplayer online games have been a lucrative industry trend for years, but Tarn [Adams] disdains M.M.O.’s. To him, they replace the deep pleasures of imaginative game design with the novelty of community and are invariably oriented toward mass, lowest-common-denominator appeal.
—Jonah Weiner, “Where Do Dwarf-Eating Carp Come From?”, the New York Times

I like to think, maybe naively, that my friends from the world of creator-owned, self-published indie tabletop RPGs are proud of (or otherwise pleased with) the fact that I’ve gotten a job in digital games. A friend of mine likes to say that there are two types of indie RPG designers: the ones who wish they were in video games, and the ones who wish they were in a band. I don’t know if that’s descriptive of thepeople, but it is descriptive of the culture, for better or worse. I clearly wanted to be in digital, and thankfully, here I am. That said, there’s one question I get asked fairly often:

Why social games?

Especially with the largely punk-rock, do-it-for-the-love, fuck-The-Man ethos that pervades indie RPGs, social games seem like an odd choice: the genre appears as hyper-commercialized transactional gameplay, light on story and innovation, aimed at an unsophisticated market new to the idea of video games. In reality, I think that social games are in their infancy in terms of what they ARE and what they can do, but ultimately, they might be the thing that bridges the gap between what we do at the gaming table and what we do at the computer.

When World of Warcraft was first released, was there a single weekly RPG group in the country that didn’t lose someone at the table to Azeroth? There had been adventure games before, and MMOs before, but never had the quality of graphics, game structure and IP intersected in a way that was this accessible to a major audience. Tabletop players everywhere were quick to point out that WoW was not a real substitute for the shared imaginative space of an extended roleplaying campaign, but that didn’t always matter; no one claimed that the positive feedback from WoW was identical to what you got rolling dice with friends, but it was close enough to serve as an acceptable substitute.

I touched on this a bit in a two part guest post I did for my dear friends over at Failbetter Games; the idea of a narrative physics engine— something that does not model as precisely as real life, but gets close enough to provide a similar sort of satisfaction. That was talking specifically about story, which is something I find incredibly important and will no doubt blog your ear off about at a later date. Socially, though, it provided a similar sort of simulation.

On one end of the social spectrum, you’ve got tabletop RPGs, which are the ultimate social game. Often, playing involves sharing a meal and swapping stories about your week; more than that, though, it involves sitting down and sharing an imaginative space and continuing narrative with people whose company you enjoy. It allows us to see sides of our friends we’d never imagine: though I hope it never comes up in real life, thanks to RPGs I know that my friend Vincent can plan a jailbreak on relatively short notice and that Julia can think of great places to hide weaponry where cops would never look. On the other end of the spectrum, you have CityVille: App pages with seas of  ADD ME and a consistent stream of requests: Your Ex-Boyfriend Wants You To Be Captain Of His Navy, Your Mom Built A Bakery Next To Your Prison, That Guy From High School Would Like You To Send Him Some Pineapples.  (I hesitate to call XBox Live “social gaming,” as it’s more the equivalent of an aural fourchan; screaming the word PENIS down a marble hall just to see how many times it echoes.)

The good stuff, as you might imagine, is in the middle.

Minecraft does social brilliantly— multiplayer servers that require ops to self-select participants, creating the same sort of community as a guild or gaming group without the open-to-the-public concerns of getting griefed. This does make Minecraft a difficult place to meet like-minded individuals, however; like sitting around a game table, you’ve got to know someone to get the invitation.

Failbetter’s Echo Bazaar is much less mercenary in their social transactions than your average Facebook game.  It makes valiant efforts to imbue the “social requests” of a mostly-asynchronous, deliberately lonesome game with more narrative significance— but Echo Bazaar still feels fundamentally like a one-player game where you get to send up signal flares: “I’m here too!”

What I’m trying to say is this: I believe in satisfying and intricate game design, but I also believe that the design of a game is infinitely more satisfying to an average human’s needs if the design requires multiple people interacting in order to work correctly. For as long as I’ve gamed at a table, I’ve heard the same argument: “Digital games will never kill tabletop games because they don’t give you the feeling of doing or making something important with your friends.” With games like WoW and Minecraft, those arguments have obsolesced— and that’s left me looking for something more respectful of my time than MMOs, more structured than Minecraft, and yeah, with stories and gameplay that appeals to me as an almost-thirty-year-old mom of two. Shit. That sounds a lot like social games, doesn’t it?

They’re not quite what I’m looking for— not yet. But that’s part of what’s so incredibly exciting about being in this space. I’m not in this because I’m so impressed by what Farmville did; I’m in it because I can’t wait to see where it’s going. And maybe I can drag my D&D group there along with me.