Yesterday I received a Twitter DM (direct message) from my friend and colleague Constance Steinkuehler that read "Please join me. I'd like to recruit you as a spymaster to my spy ring - http://playspymaster.com". It looked a lot like spam, but I also noted that Constance and her husband both had a number of game-related tweets in their activity streams, so I clicked through out of curiosity, and signed up for the game. After less than 24 hours of play, and a lot of exploration of both the gamesite and the various responses to it around the web, I thought I'd write up my first impressions, good and bad.
First, let me preface this with the fact that I've been wishing for a long time for a way to filter out tweets from my friends that are on topics I'm uninterested in. Most often, these are tweets with hashtags relating to conferences. It's like being forced to read someone's live blogging or IRC chats for a conference that I don't care at all about. Unfortunately, the only way right now to avoid seeing them is to unsubscribe from the person, which is far too harsh a solution. It seems like a basic type of functionality, and one that I'd happily pay for in a twitter client. I mention this because almost all of the current complaints around the tech blogosphere relating to this game could be addressed with this simple feature.
If you read some of the recent rants regarding spymaster (like this TechCrunch article), you'll see that what people most object to, with good reason, is the littering of players' activity streams with automated updates about their game activities--from leveling up to purchasing new weapons. These updates are auto-generated, and look like this: "Just bought a Yarygin PYa “Grach” Pistol. #spymaster http://bit.ly/playspy"
A near-fatal design flaw of the game is that players are rewarded with more in-game income if they increase the number of events that trigger these auto-updates in their stream. Essentially, they're being paid to spam their social network, and that's generating justifiable resentment. I asked aloud in twitter why it is that the same people who regularly flood their own streams with conference and event related tweets resent these game tweets so much, and Christy Dena pointed out that the game tweets are auto-generated using templates, rather than user-created--and she's exactly right.
Similarly, the spymaster game uses the Facebook-like approach of asking you to recruit others in your network to play the game--the interface for sending invites is almost identical to that used by Facebook games. That triggers a twitter DM to your selected followers, and that DM cannot be personalized in any way. As a result, a large number of people I invited had the same "is this spam?" reaction that I initially had.
In terms of gameplay, your strength in the game is increased by the number of twitter followers you have, and even more so by the number of those twitter followers who join the game. You gain energy over time, and can use that energy to complete tasks (although the tasks require no skill; they're essentially games of chance), which in turn earn you money and experience. You can also attempt to assassinate other spymasters in order to gain still more money and experience. That's fun for a very short period of time, but the "now what?" ennui kicks in very quickly...there's no skill involved in any of the actions, and no rewards outside of leveling up and acquiring more money.
I play these games not only because I get a kick out of them, but also because there's a lot for me to learn as a game developer about what works and what doesn't work and why. So, that being said, here are the lessons I've learned thus far from watching spymaster play out:
- If you're going to encourage people to send messages--public or private--in an existing social network site, you must give them the ability to personalize them. Otherwise it seems clear that most users will (quite reasonably) perceive the messages as spam rather than social updates. And rewarding users for doing more of this spam is a dangerous approach with serious long-term consequences; many people are already alienating friends and losing followers simply by accepting the default notification options in the game.
- Spymaster asks you join a specific directorate--US, British, or Russian--when you first login, and warns you that the choice is a permanent one. Requiring a meaningful choice at the beginning of a game is a good thing, but making it permanent and not providing information on the implications of the choice (particularly socially) is very problematic and off-putting.
- The game provides an activity stream on the main "dashboard" page to let you know what's happening with your spy ring, but there's no way to get information on other spymasters, compare your progress with others, etc. Without a leaderboard or comparable tool, much of the joy of competition and comparison is removed.
- There's not enough to do, and more importantly nothing that requires actual skill. That means that once the novelty wears off, and you get through the first few easy-to-achieve levels, there's not much to engage players. I suspect there will be precipitous drop-off in player engagement after the first 24-48 hours.
- While you're encouraged to recruit your friends, there's no way to see at a glance which of them have accepted your invitation, or who was already in the game. You do get DM notifications, but there's no in-game way to see your social network. That's a serious failure.
- On the plus side, Spymaster is utilizing Twitter's new OAuth authorization, which means you can authorize them to do these actions under your account without actually providing your login credentials, and you can also easily revoke those privileges (although you need to know to go to Twitter settings->connections to do so, something many users won't know).
- There are some nice touches in the UI in terms of updating and availability of tasks and resources. Nothing spectacular, but definitely some ideas worth looking at and adapting.
- If Spymaster does nothing else, perhaps it will finally push Twitter client developers to provide an option for masking specific hashtag posts, something that's been badly needed for a long time.
So, those are my initial thoughts on the game. My apologies to those in my Twitter followers who were aggravated by either my initial invitation or the ongoing updates.