Do you think I'm a bigger tipper than you are? Do you think I remember the name of my kindergarten teacher? Imagine that we're friends and that a video game is asking you these questions. Imagine that it asks you to answer questions about yourself too. For example, if you were the first person on the moon instead of Neil Armstrong, would you have thought of something cooler to say than "One small step for man…?"
If you had access to a button that would eliminate all McDonalds restaurants from existence, would you push it?
These are questions in The Friend Game, a new and potentially excellent Facebook game from the same New York-based game studio that developed a cell phone obsession of mine, the puzzle game Drop 7. Answering questions like those about yourself and your friends is how you play The Friend Game. Correctly indicating how your friend would have answered the same question — about herself or about you — is how you win.
This game doesn't feel like most other video games.
"There are a lot of games about tracking things in space and shooting them, which is an actual skill," the game's creative director, Frank Lantz, told me during a phone interview yesterday. "But there are are very few games about thinking about what another person's likes or wants or what their judgment is of you."
The Friend Game is game about "empathy," he added. "It's testing how good you are at putting yourself in the shoes of another human and knowing who they are and what their likes and dislikes are." (Note the timely contrast. This is a game about knowing your Facebook friends; not about IDing them for assassination based on their physical shortcomings.)
The game is played on Facebook, where it is currently in closed beta (you can try to play it at this link, but the beta player count is likely to cap out soon). You have an avatar. Your friends do, too. Clicking on your avatar or theirs lets you answer questions about yourself or them. Sometimes you're answering questions your friends haven't answered yet. Sometimes they have answered and you're scored on whether your answer matches what they said (to be clear: you're not getting points if you both say you're hopeless romantics; you're getting points if you both said that you are a hopeless romantic — or if you both said you're not).
Lantz wants people to think of it as a party game, a drinking game, and a "social karaoke".
It's also a Zynga game, so even in its beta form, it already has a metered energy system. It's free to play, but if you want to play a lot at once — and if you stink at knowing how your friends would answer questions — you can pay more to keep plugging away.
The Friend Game has been a long time coming and, full disclosure, I've been rooting for it before I even knew what it was. Lantz and I have been friendly for years. I've quoted him in articles, attended gaming events in New York City that were overseen by him in his second career as the director of the Game Studios program at New York University. And i've had drinks with him, though he's managed to keep any and all details about his game — the first official game from his studio, Area/Code-turned-Zynga New York — until we spoke yesterday.
It's a relief to see that Lantz, who I consider one of the smartest thinkers about games I've ever met, isn't making what any of us would expect from a Zynga studio. The theory always was that his team "got it," that they wouldn't be making just another 'Ville game or a clone of some other popular game.
Oddly, The Friend Game actually feels like what maybe a Zynga game should feel like or, more specifically, what a Facebook game should feel like. That's if you operate under the assumption that the strength of Facebook is the connections it makes between friends and that the real identity of Facebook is one where we both share ourselves and role-play our lives in front of people who are our friends and in front of people who are really just our Facebook friends. How refreshing that we get a game that plays with all that stuff. How devious that it will probably make players second-guess how well they know their friends or why they're "friends" with some people on Facebook in the first place.
The Friend Game is not a clone, but it does echo some other games. Not video games, really, but other games. The guessing-what-your-friend-would-have-answered thing is reminiscent of the old game show, The Newlywed Game. Or, for Lantz, who is a huge poker buff, it recalls a poker game called "What does Johnny Lodden Think", which involves one poker player asking a second poker player what he thinks a third poker player is thinking.
The Friend Game even in its raw, beta form feels like an evolution of those ideas and the invention of them as a video game that expands their concepts. In Lantz's game, I didn't just find myself answering questions about whether he remembered the name of his kindergarten teacher but about what I thought a group of players (everyone in the beta or my circle of friends, I'm not sure) thought about something. For example, if the group all had to wear one of three t-shirts every day for a year, which would they pick?
It's exciting to play something that feels new and works so well with Facebook. Maybe this is what Facebook games should have been like all along. Or maybe that Zynga-style energy system will muck this up. Hard to say, but The Friend Game is a refreshing game amid so many social game me-too's.
"I genuinely hope you like [the game]," he was telling me yesterday, though he went on to tell me I'm not quite his ideal player. "When you make a game, sometimes you have certain people in mind that are your ideal player. You are not my ideal player, but Leigh Alexander was." Thanks, Frank.
I'll be playing it, even though it's not for me.
And if it helps, my kindergarten teacher's name was Mrs Dawson. And I'd let McDonalds continue to exist. I enjoy their breakfast sandwiches too much.
Bonus detail for Kotaku readers: The one and only Tim Rogers wrote some of the questions for the game. And yes, Lantz laughed, they were some of the longer ones.