Facebook games are old Play-By-Mail games

May 15, 2010

I was sitting in a meeting discussing Facebook games when the person who called the meeting listed some of the important facets of a successful game.

Free and paid optional actions
Economic balance
Player to player social interactivity

Those of you that know ANYTHING about Play-By-Mail (PBM), know that these are the exact same issues. The biggest company in PBM was Schubel & Son. I met Mr Shubel at a Star Trek convention in 1976. It was before he got into PBM and his son was a toddler.  He understood the basic principles  of engagement, retention, free vs. paid options, economics and social interaction between players. While PBM was never a huge industry, there is no question that Schubel & Sons was a leading company.

This encourages the player to keep going, to come back, to be involved. This engagement, results in retention. The player must always be able to do SOMETHING.  This leads to Free and Paid options.  The free options are always available, even if they are limited by "energy" that must be regenerated over time. The player must only leave the game because they have other priorities, not because they have run out of options.

Paid options are the difference between a handgun and a M16.  They both have devastating affects, but the M16 has greater range and can deliver more bullets faster. While there are many possible examples, this is the one I use as a test with every feature of a PBM game or now, a Facebook game.

There are plenty of examples of the non-player characters, in Shubel & Son games, attacking without reason, and of course ANY battle resulted in a fee to the players account.  But as a player, knowing that at any time you could be attacked, you stayed always defensive, but also risky.

Typically turns in PBM games are weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly.  The fees were $4.00 or up to $15 a turn and people played these games for YEARS.  Because the basic principles were met.

The economy in a game is as important as being true to the theme.  If you're in a Sci-Fi game, you might get out of sorts if your character has to wield a colt 45.  For the economics, if that colt 45 is 50 game bucks, and the bullets are 500, there is just as much of a problem. While that is an obvious and dramatic problem,  most economic problems are much more subtle.

A game designer I admire very much is Sid Meir.  One of his basic principles has been adapted by many game designers, including myself.  That principle is that the game should be playable as early as possible in the development process.  Getting the economy "playable" at the beginning of the process is just as important.  You need to know why the players buy a certain weapon, why they buy a spell or seem to gravitate towards a special ability more than the others LONG before the game goes public.  To leave these into the players hands without testing, is foolish. 

Schubel & son realized very quickly that players wanted much more than to just fight with each other.  They wanted to learn from experienced players, they wanted to form alliances and wanted communication avenues that allowed for a meta-game to be created.  They wanted to be able to negotiate the terms of surrender on a 1-1 level.

Unlike today with instant communication, in 1980 we had only snail mail.  But players used the in game communication systems to their maximum, and then asked to connect directly. It was this direction connection that pushed the games to a higher level, and that's what Facebook does best.

So you think Mafia Wrs is new?  You think Farmville was discovered as a great design in Facebook gaming?  You think virtual good is new?  Think again, think about PBM.  Companies like Schubel & Son, Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo, these people created this business and we can learn a lot from them.  And if we ignore them as no or low tech, we'll suffer the fate of those companies and games that didn't follow the principles that they created.

What PBM have you played lately?  Farmville?  That's a good one.


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]