Everyone has been playing this game, from my parents to the most dedicated videogame critic I know—Draw Something. Though it may in the end turn out to be a flash in the pan, Zynga see some potential there, and have bought out the developer, OMGPOP. The thing that stands out to me about Draw Something, though, is just how un-Zynga-like it is at the moment. In fact, this is probably the least “gamified” casual, super-popular iPhone type game I’ve played.
OK, least gamified game is a pretty horrible turn of phrase, I realise this. But I’m talking about all the additional stuff that frames the gameplay loop in games like FarmVille or TinyTower: the gathering of currency, the limited number of moves or actions you can perform in a set time, the dozens of ways you can display your accomplishments to your friends, and the social pressure that comes with all that. With Draw Something, the only Facebook integration is the handy method for finding people to play the game with. That’s it. There’s no badges to earn, there’s nothing to buy with real cash, none of that. All the game wants you to do is draw and guess.
In today’s atmosphere of cynical, Skinner-boxing game design focused more on prying a few cents at a time from players’ hands, it’s refreshing to see such a simple game with such pure goals. The importance of this is, for me, in the fact that no one I know has resorted to just writing the word to be guessed in the drawing space with the purpose of gaining more points. There is absolutely nothing stopping two players from doing this—ignoring the ‘game’ altogether in order to rack up the highest score. But in the end, they are only cheating themselves, since there is no social standing to be gained by amassing a bunch of those gold coins. There aren’t any badges, no fancy new cows, nothing to show off to anyone else. There’s no reason to cheat.
I am reminded of a story that ran a few weeks back about the PVP in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Patch 1.1 for that game introduced a point value for killing members of the opposite faction. BioWare assumed this would create greater incentive to participate in the epic PVP battles imagined by, well every MMO PVP designer ever. Instead, the players learned that a ritualistic execution of one side, then the other, was actually a more efficient means to gain points. Similarly, in World of Warcraft, Alterac Valley is merely a race to kill an NPC, rather than anything resembling warfare between opposite player factions. Those players don’t want to fight other players. They just want points.
These MMO examples are the most obvious, but games tend to encourage this kind of ‘min/max’ play. That is, do the least possible effort to gain the greatest possible reward. This economical way of thinking is disastrous for any game that is more concerned with creating some kind of virtual world, fictional experience. Introducing any kind of public competition—whether by creating tiers of weapons and gear, badges, cows to click, or even just a silly number next to the player’s name—attracts these profit-minded players. Not profit in terms of money, but in terms of results: “How can I most easily gain the game points to appear to be a better gamer than my nearest rivals?”
Games like FarmVille are built on this competitive urge and nothing else. The tasks that highly-economic players set for themselves are often painfully boring, rote activities that they will repeat indefinitely. Farming and grinding are not fun! Not in the way that a harrowing, touch-and-go PVP battle is. But in a genuine battle, you’re not sure of the outcome, so it could all be a waste. Better to not waste your time, and instead focus on the tried-and-true methods of gaining rewards. Those rewards are so incredibly important that it blinds many players to what one initially assumes to be the point of a game: to have fun. To do the activities are fun. Who cares if you gain five points or not, if your blood is pumping, the fear of defeat tinging every action with risk, and either the feeling of crushing loss or victory. As it turns out, an awful lot of people are much more concerned with points than with that kind of feeling. When you can gain the same kind of points in a risk-free endeavour that come from a very risky one, what difference does it make? Why risk the failure in the first place? So, if a designer does a good enough job of creating the public reward system to encourage competition, the gameplay loop itself can be next to nothing. If a WoW player is just going to repetitively farm the same, most efficient dungeon over and over, why create all the other ones?
Draw Something avoids all of this. The gameplay loop itself is essentially cooperative, so the two players are actually working together to solve the riddle, while obeying the spirit of the rules. Whether the players gain 1 or 3 coins is of no consequence outside the game itself—there are no trophies to buy with that currency. Breaking a streak is only that—there is no point multiplication factor ramping up the risk. So, as it stands, Draw Something is a fairly low-risk game, but also one that avoids the min/maxing mentality that drives so many people in publicly visible competition.
How long will this last, though? Being acquired by Zynga clearly signals changes are likely in the future. I simply can’t imagine the social gaming giant leaving this formula alone—how easily the game could be framed by the usual trappings of social gaming! Simply by posting on players’ Facebook walls every time the pair surpasses their previous streak record, or making one’s gold coin total public—without even changing any of the mechanics. I can see the potential for a time delay between drawings being created, then avoided through microtransactions. I can see new colour palettes costing real money instead of gold coins—or gold coins being purchased themselves. All driven by Zynga’s ability to profit from the desire to show off to one’s peers.