Facebook games are ostensibly all about connecting their players. Yet, in many ways they exist on an isolated island. That's one of the reasons traditional gamers and game franchises have avoided Facebook in the past. And all of the breakout hits so far on Facebook have been cheap PC game ripoffs from the 90s, like FarmVille and ports of other popular casual games.
But this month things are changing. Two of the most popular PC game franchises in the world have released free Facebook versions of their games—Civilization and MapleStory, which are as different as PC game franchise can be. But here they are, both on Facebook at roughly the same time.
Are either successful? Will the hardcore PC gamer set traditionally associated with Civilization finally make "friends"? Will MapleStory break its absurd simultaneous player records? With great trepidation, I allowed both to access my personal information and fired them up to see whether they could win me over.
CivWorld has a lot to live up to. The Civilization series has been the high point of turn-based strategy for two decades. Its designer Sid Meier is a legend, and he had direct control over this particular game instead of just overseeing it, as he done recently with other games in his role as head of Firaxis. It's a big part of what got me into PC games in the first place, and if anything was going to get me into Facebook games, this was going to be it. A free Facebook Civilization game made by the master himself.
But I am not impressed. Granted, I didn't play it for very long or get too involved in playing it with my friends, but mechanically, the game just isn't very impressive. It's real-time, which makes sense given the Facebook format, but it still makes it hard to think of it as "Civilization". Instead of controlling a whole civilization, one controls only a small city with the goal of confederating with other cities to form a civilization. There aren't really any units to move or anything, so most of the gameplay seems to consist of bickering with your fellow confederates and clicking a button to make your townsfolk harvest resources.
Oh yeah, and you can only harvest resources so many times before you either have to wait in real-time before you can get more resources—or pay real money to buy more harvests. That's how this "free" game makes its money.
You can visit your friend's cities, chat with them, exchange things—all of the stuff you do in cheeky games like FarmVille and most strategy games on Facebook. That's the problem with CivWorld. It promised to bring the refined, deep gameplay of Civilization to a platform plagued by a dearth of both. The final product, alas, looks a lot more like FarmVille than Civilization, and has not sold me on Facebook games.
MapleStory has quietly (at least in the West) become one of the most popular games in the world. It's a "free-to-play" Korean side-scrolling MMORPG that's set records for having the most simultaenous worldwise players more than once. But it's eight years old now and developer Nexon has decided to expand their empire into Facebook with a slimmed down, social network version of their game called MapleStory Adventures.
Because MMOs have important simliarites to Facebook games, like chatting and collaboration, MapleStory seems to be better suited for the platform than Civilization. Whatever the reason, this came out as a much more natural feeling game. I've never been into MapleStory, but this game sucked me in for quite a while. It works a lot like MapleStory, with players running around completing quests, making items, and slaying baddies together. While MapleStory makes money by offering vanity items for sale using real money, MapleStory Adventures squeezes cash from its players by limiting the number of in-game actions they can perform per unit of real-time. If they want to play more, they have to buy more actions with real money.
It's a clever scheme. The crafting system also seems interesting, but takes considerable real-world waiting time to yield any fruit. Really, it's not as good as most retail games—or even the PC version of MapleStory. But those who spend their entire day plugged into Facebook could do a lot worse than this.
Both of these games feature systems (action points, harvests, crafting) that discourage long-term play. They lead one to play the game in short, regular spurts, which is exactly what a company that makes money by displaying advertisements to players wants. That is how these Facebook games make all of their dough that doesn't come from micro-transactions. From early quarter-muching arcade games to the epic PS3 movie-like adventures, the games on every platform has reflected the economic and technical limitations thereof. It's interesting to see how yet another unique game platform (Facebook) is changing the conventions of the medium once again.
We'll see whether it works out for better or worse.