“Social games” has been the hot new thing for the past year or two, ever since Facebook stopped being a networking site and started being an application platform. Now that the initial wave of enthusiasm over Facebook has cooled off, and people are no longer convinced that it’s going to absorb the entire Internet, social games have spread beyond that site, popping up on MySpace, Hi5, and any other place with an API and a dream. Even Twitter — which has little-to-nothing to do with social networking sites other than the fact that it’s about, y’know, socializing with a network of people — seems to have attracted its share of attention from folks looking for a new frontier in which they can stake a social game claim.
In the last couple of days, I’ve seen two different Twitter-based games percolate through the stream that act a lot like the more Facebookish variety of social game: Spymaster and Tweet Lord. Because Twitter doesn’t provide the shell for applications that Facebook does, developers have to approach it more obliquely, which makes for some interersting interactions.
Spymaster is a spy-themed variation on Mafia Wars, in which you perform various spyful tasks, transfer money in and out of Swiss bank accounts, and most importantly, assassinate other spies. Those other spies are also Twitter users; in fact, the only way to log in is through your Twitter account. Your player stats are determined based on the size of your network, with bonuses applied if your followers/followees are also playing the game.
Beyond the initial sign-in and the notifications that get posted to your Twitter stream (possibly to the annoyance of your followers), pretty much all of Spymaster’s interactions happen on their web site. There’s pleasure in seeing the names of your Twitter friends on your kill list, but for the most part, Spymaster tends to play around Twitter — keeping your network in sight, but only tangentially making contact with it.
Tweet Lord takes a different approach to using Twitter. The game is an RPG in which the moves take the form of various emotes, which are sent out via player tweets: the game records all “@” replies to its bot and parses hashtags to determine the actions that players take. Many of those actions are transitive, like #wave or #bite, which gives the whole thing the feel of a Vampires/Zombies/Slayers/etc. poking game.
There’s a lot more use of the player’s Twitter stream in Tweet Lord than in Spymaster (probably too much: if I were to play the game, I’d probably want to create a separate account to do it, in order to avoid flooding my friends’ streams). Getting feedback on player actions still requires going to the web site, however, to see stats and levels and whatnot. In fact, there are buttons on player profiles that will compose tweets for you, requiring minimal interaction with Twitter itself. In this way, Tweet Lord plays through Twitter — using the site as a conduit, but funneling players back to its own site at both ends of the feedback circuit.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of games that don’t try to graft Facebook/MySpace/etc. mechanics onto a site that really isn’t built to support them: various bot-driven games that work through DMs and filtered “@” replies; most of them seem to be trivia games or polls. Then there are the less formal games that people spontaneously play: word association, riddles, hashtag memes, etc. One of the big game events of last year was Color Wars: by the time it was all over, there was a fairly elaborate web site that gave the games more of a “playing through” feel to them, but most of the fun was in the spontaneous formation of teams and attendant trash talking — the games themselves ended up feeling like just a formality. Twitter, with its loose formats and lack of formal structures, tends to feel more like a playground than a baseball field, supporting free-form paideia better than rule-bound ludus. I am OK with this.
N.B. One thing I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of is games that play with Twitter, using the text of your stream in one way or another to generate or influence gameplay. Someone get on that!
N.not-so-B. I hate writing about Twitter for the same reason I hate writing about blogging: the more times I type out the word, the sillier it reads. Maybe I should just stick to Flib-Flarb.