Monday, June 10, 2013

Saving Gaming for the Rest of Us

"Anyone who can't make money off Sports Night doesn't deserve to be in the business of making money." —Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night

The game companies of the world are gathering this week in Los Angeles for E3 2013, a major conference in the world of game development. Electronic Arts will hold a press conference at 1:00 on Monday.

I am looking at the E3 site, and other sites about gaming, like AppData, which tracks numbers of users for all apps on Facebook.

I am trying to make sense of the larger world where it makes economic sense for a corporation to spend over $300 million buying a successful company and to throw that investment away less than four years later, as Electronic Arts is doing with Playfish and its products.

Pet Society is still up there on AppData, as EA's third most popular game, with over 100,000 individual players each day, and over 1 million players a month. Some companies should be very happy to have those numbers. Pet Society is still ranked 157 overall, in AppData's odd way of lumping online games in with Yahoo, Yahoo toolbar, Bing, and Pinterest as apps. This is technically correct, but in terms of how real people use computers, lumping apples with oranges.

And I'm thinking, EA, do you actually enjoy being named Worst Company in America for two years in a row by Consumerist? Are you going for three?

And what about you, game companies, and game analysts? I'm looking at the categories for games on the E3 site. Here's are the genres discussed on their forum:

First Person Shooter
Strategy, Real-Time Strategy
Rhythm and Music
Survival Horror 
Third-Person Shooter

I am not decrying other games. I merely note, there is almost no slot, no pigeonhole here for the sort of game that Pet Society is: a focusing, open-ended, noncompetitive experience where you can apply your natural creative impulse. Imagination. That what-if, let's-pretend capacity that's innate to small children, and gradually crushed out of us through rote schooling and formalized jobs. Creativity. Call it what you will. We value it at its highest flowering in art and literature, but don't know how to encourage the creativity that lies in everyone.

My husband loves comic books. Always had. Tried drawing his own. Not very well. In Pet Society he found a place where the brilliantly designed elements fell into place for him. He found an inner child in his pet Scoop, and created a brilliant little world for his pet. All the pet friends and their players could come and play with Scoop's toys, and wander through his house. 

What genre is there for the gentle games that soothe us, delight us, and awaken a sense of wonder? Can computers hone creativity as well as reaction times? Can we light up other areas of the brain besides puzzle solving or heroic rescue or quest retrieval? 

The players of Pet Society are making a stand. We want to be noticed. It's more than just losing our personal pet. Real life pets get old and die, we grieve, and go on. 

We protest the willful destruction of a beautiful, unique environment that encouraged creativity. That could be played with joy by people of any age, or any language. Where every pet and every room in every players house was as unique as a fingerprint. Standard-issue goods were combined in wonderful ways. 

Pet Society was a brilliant achievement in programming and in visual and sound design. Since it defied categories, and looked on the surface like Second Life for 3-year-olds, it may never have received the acclaim it deserved. It's been a marvelous experience that's held my attention for the past four years. One flick of the switch, and that world will be dark forever on Friday.

How someone can not make money off this intellectual property, with its devoted following of over a million fans? As Forbes wisely observed, social games should have a plan for the life of the game, including how it winds down. Can other companies make what they consider good money housing Facebook games? Is a subscription model possible? Mark Zuckerberg, don't you want happy customers  too? Does anyone at G3 see that there's an audience out there that is not being served? 

This sudden closure has won EA a new round of antagonists. Pet Society players are already boycotting EA products. Unless Monsanto somehow gets on the radar of Consumerist voters, that third year title could be already cinched.

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