Fundamentals of Social Game Design. Part One: Reducing Churn
There is a lot of excitement about social games in the casual gaming community, and for a good reason. Social games are quick to build, often fun to play, growing rapidly, and generating real revenue. Many casual game producers and designers are making the transition from the casual download world into the social gaming space and expecting it to be straightforward. After all, there are a lot of commonalities. The audience is online, mass market, unstintingly casual, and often very pink. They love short play sessions and easy, steady success. Themes like restaurants and farms resonate in both places.
But the transition is often much more challenging than expected. The category itself is emergent and rapidly changing, and much of the design and production process is very counterintuitive for people who have been working in packaged goods (or casual downloadable games). This is the first in a series of articles that will walk you through some of the most interesting and important lessons I’ve learned in my two-plus years in social gaming.
Designing To Reduce Churn
Unlike traditional game design, almost all elements of social-game design should be done with a business objective in mind. In most categories in the game industry, once you’ve understood your audience’s psychographics and made sure you comply with a few core market requirements (like driving your player past the 60-minute trial barrier), you can put all of your focus on making a fun game.
In social games, this just isn’t the case. Your game needs to drive a variety of important user behaviors that are important for the health of your business. Many of these require very carefully thought-out design, high levels of platform integration, and massive iteration to get right. Three of the most critical metrics that any social gaming business needs to watch are churn, growth, and reactivation. Of course, revenue is an important goal as well, but it’s important to realize that positive developments in churn, growth, and reactivation will result in “compound interest”—growing your user base while ensuring that each player helps you acquire more users. If done well, this will cause exponential growth until your game begins to saturate its market. Positive developments in revenue, on the other hand, can only give you linear payoffs. Getting each user to pay more money doesn’t give you any advantage in terms of getting more players into the game every day.
As the game designer on a social game, your first and most comfortable job will be reducing churn. This is the part of the work that looks the most like traditional game design. Of course, one of the key ways of keeping users coming back is to build a fun game. If your game isn’t pleasurable to play, it will be very, very challenging to get users to come back to it. And fun is no easier to build in a social game than in a casual downloadable—harder, perhaps, because your game needs to fit in a much smaller package, reducing the emphasis on production value.
There are a number of well-established techniques that have emerged to get users to return to your game on a regular basis, turning them from samplers into players, and eventually (you hope) into payers. Among the most important of these design tenets are: Using timed re-engagement; Limiting game-play; Letting things decay.
Using Timed Re-Engagement
One of the most popular techniques that a variety of social games employ to bring users back regularly is known as “appointment gaming” or “harvesting.” This mechanic was first seen in a number of farm-themed games, including Slashkey’s Farm Town, the game that started the farming genre on Facebook. Over time, the mechanic has made its way into a variety of games, including city-builders, pet-care games, and many others.
In this mechanic, users pay to plant a crop which will mature at a specific time. Until that time, the user cannot claim the reward. After that time, the user can claim the reward for a period of time. In many but not all games, the crop “withers” after that time and becomes uncollectible.
This has become a potent device for encouraging users to make a commitment to playing the game and to returning over and over. They are excited about the reward of a successful harvest and concerned about the loss they will incur if the miss their appointment. The metaphor is also widely extensible; in Playdom’s Social City game, players make an appointment when they choose a good for their factory to produce.
It is worth noting that the impact of this mechanic can be amplified or lessened very significantly by the way the game’s economy is balanced. In games where the user’s pocketbook is greatly rewarded for a successful harvest and takes a punishing blow on failure, users are highly motivated to return to the game in time to harvest their crops. Of course, for users that fail to keep the appointment, the experience of seeing a dead farm and an empty bank account may be the motivation they need to stop playing.
One of the oldest methods of driving re-engagement with social games is limiting the amount of time the user can spend playing in a given session. This convention has been popular in RPG’s like Playdom’s Sorority Life game. This mechanic gives the player a certain amount of “energy” and other similar resources that they can expend each day. Each action that the player takes in the game expends a certain amount of resources, which slowly replenish over time. When players run out of energy, they have no choice but to stop playing for the day or to spend money to refill their energy. Then when they come back some time (say 12 or 24 hours) later, they will have another full load of energy to expend.
In many ways, this is like the downloadable game designer’s familiar trick of making sure that the 60-minute trial is a strong enough experience to get the player excited about the game but not quite enough to thoroughly satisfy the user’s desire to play. Of course, in a typical downloadable game the designer only needs to pull this trick off once—making sure that there is clear bait for additional value out past the 60-minute mark. Social game designers need to ensure that their games are balanced to deliver on this goal continually. Every day, users should play the game enough to remind themselves of what they enjoy but not enough for the game to feel tired or tedious. They should finish their daily session with a highly appealing goal in sight but not in reach.
Energy serves a couple of other interesting purposes. First, because it limits core game-play (which is what the user most desires), allowing players to send each other energy (or ask their friends for energy) can be a highly viral activity. Also, when players run out of the energy they need for their core game-play, they may be nudged into other aspects of your game that are more viral or social, such as fighting other players.
Letting Things Decay
The design strategy of letting things decay is a variant on the Timed Re-Engagement mechanic, with a couple of key differences. First of all, it is typically the game rather than the user that chooses the time period when the user will next need to come back. Second, the user’s main motivation is generally not to claim a reward when a crop matures, but rather to revive a system that has sunk into chaos. Third, if the user waits too long to return to the game, instead of finding that something has actually died, they will typically see something they care about looking or feeling really haggard on their return.
This mechanic originated in pet games—even as far back as Tamagochi, in which the user must typically feed, groom, and otherwise care for a pet in order to make it look happy and playful and able to engage in a full range of activities. The game itself determined at what speed the pets’ levels of health and happiness would deteriorate. Users who came back in time would find their pets happy, health, and ready for action. Players who stayed away too long would find not only that their friends had passed them on the leader board, but also that their pets were sad, smelly, and hungry, playing hard to their sense of guilt.
For this technique to work at all, it’s very important that the neglected entity resonate very strongly with the player’s emotions. There must be a strong emotional reaction to seeing the avatar/homunculus/possession in distress. This is one of the reasons that this mechanic has been applied most often to pets or other animals, like the pets in Playfish’s Pet Society. We have seen some applications used in various games to represent the state of a player’s business, but this is a less common and less emotional application of this technique.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at design elements that help make games socially relevant—the things that you can do to make players feel like they’re playing with their friends (even when they’re not) and building their relationships by playing your game. (Source: Casual Connect)
Fundamentals of Social Game Design. Part Two: Social Relevance | By David Rohrl
by Yulia Vakhrusheva
In the previous issue of Casual Connect (see Summer 2010 issue), I wrote about ways of shaping your game to reduce churn—particularly techniques that build a closer bond between your user and your game by requiring the user to come back to the game day after day.
In this installment, we’ll look at one of the most interesting aspects of social game design: using social graph data to make your game feel socially relevant to players. After all, the really unique aspect of social games is that they are social—they have access to their players’ social graph data and can use it in interesting ways to create games that are fundamentally about playing with friends.
The really unique aspect of social games is that they are social—they have access to their players’ social graph data and can use it in interesting ways to create games that are fundamentally about playing with friends.
Surprisingly, some of the games that made the most interesting use of social graph data were among the very earliest games on Facebook. I’m not sure why this is – you would expect that as developers got more experienced at making Facebook games, their ability to use social data in really interesting ways would mature as well, but it just hasn’t been the case. Of course, this might be because social-game-makers have been spending a lot of time and energy learning to make fun, solid single-player games and have focused less on making them social. Or maybe it’s because these types of social game-play worked incredibly well with some older Facebook viral channels that no longer exist and developers haven’t yet figured out how to make them as effective in the current viral channels.
Creating Friendly Rivalry
Sorority Life’s leaderboard shows all players, not just your friends.
One of social game players’ most significant social emotions is a desire to be dominant and show off their prowess. This has been a fundamental part of the game maker’s tool-kit since well before the creation of games on social networks. Ever since humans started competing, people have wanted to know who the best players are.
Of course, many social games let players see how they stack up against all the players in the world, just like the many non-social web games. This is particularly common in text RPG’s like Playdom’s Sorority Life. This mode of competition is particularly relevant to very hardcore players who are willing to spend large amounts of time and/or money to become elite players. But there is nothing about this type of feature that makes it unique to social games.
On the other hand, social game developers have created a new style of high score list that is much more relevant to casual players and is much more unique to social networks—the friend leader-board.
PlayFish’s leaderboard animations gave their early games a more social feel and made them stickier than competitive products.
It shows only the scores of the player’s friends, not the scores of all players. Climbing this type of high score list may not give a player the same intense feelings of accomplishment that becoming the world’s top player does, but it has two huge advantages over traditional leader-boards. First, instead of letting only one player in the world enjoy being in first place, it lets many players get excited about being tops in their own personal worlds. Second, a friend leader-board lets players feel a strong and personal emotion each time they pass one of their friends on the board. Playfish used a friend leader-board supported by highly polished victory animations when players passed their friends’ scores and it turned their early social games like Geo Challenge into social gaming phenomena. Players’ drive to gain bragging rights over their friends made these games hugely sticky, and friend leader-boards have since become nearly universal among social games.
Using Friends as Game Tokens
Serious Business’ Friends for Sale was one of the monster hits of the early days of Facebook. The game was extremely simple. As the title would suggest, you could buy
Friends for Sale requires you to buy and sell your friends to advance in the game.
your Facebook friends (or at least representations of your friends) for in-game currency. Friends produced income for you as long as you owned them; the more expensive the friend, the more income he or she produced. Each time a person was purchased, the price would go up, giving a nice profit to the player he or she was “stolen” from and providing a cash bonus to the person being purchased.
This core game-play gave the game an amazingly social feel; every interaction in the game involved looking at the profile of a friend. The most basic activities in the game allowed the players to express a wide range of relationships and social emotions through the game, from flirting to a (fairly literal) “I own you” statement. The game’s mechanics also encouraged you to think deeply about your friends’ social status—each friend’s popularity, activity (and attractiveness) was critical to your ability to sell them for a profit.
And the game’s developers were smart enough to make sure they didn’t just stop at the basic interactions. They used this brilliant core of social game-play to add a variety of powerfully expressive social features and killer virals.
Additional Social Features
Friends for Sale allows you to give virtual gifts and make other social gestures to your purchased friends.
Friends for Sale had three main additional social features beyond the basic friend marketplace: nicknames, gifting, and puppeting. Nicknames allowed you to set a tagline for any friends you owned. Gifting allowed you to spend game currency on virtual gifts for the friends you owned. Puppeting allowed you to pick two owned friends and a variety of verbs to create a viral suggesting that one friend had taken action on another (example: “Dave Rohrl shook hands with Jessica Tams”). Players used these features to express a variety of socially relevant feelings—everything from taunting to flirting to admiration. These features greatly enhanced players’ enjoyment of a very simple game by allowing them to further express themselves.
Friends for Sale also featured some of the most intriguing virals in the business—especially in the era of the silent Facebook notification. Whenever you were purchased, you received a notification reporting who had purchased you and encouraging you to click into the game to see how much your friend thought you were worth. It was one of the best and most potent curiosity-based virals in the history of the platform.
Forcing Friend Interactions
Every player action in Parking Wars involves a social interaction.
Area/Code’s Parking Wars was a highly unusual success story on Facebook. It was a game with virtually no virals, little or no ongoing development, virtually no marketing, and no attempt at a revenue stream. It was built by a small independent developer as an advergame for a large traditional media company, and neither company had meaningful experience on Facebook. Despite all of these handicaps, it showed steady, consistent growth for many months and was a huge early leader in player retention.
The core game was very simple. Each player had a street with five parking spots on it and two cars. (Players unlocked more cars as they leveled up.) Players could park their cars in empty parking spots on their friends’ streets. Parking spaces could be legal for any car, legal for certain types of car, or off limits to all cars, and players could park their cars legally or illegally. Signs would also update randomly from time to time, so that cars could become legal or illegal while they sat. Cars would increase in value over time for the first 12 hours they were parked. The car owner could retrieve the car at any time and earn some cash. But if the car was parked illegally, the lot owner could also ticket it and steal the car’s value from the car owner. Handing out tickets as a lot owner was fun and satisfying (as was silently slipping out of a space in a friend’s lot before being ticketed), and players were able to add a personal message to the ticket message. (This may have been one of the inspirations for Facebook’s current newsfeed dialog.)
A big part of the game’s magic was that it managed to be heavily multiplayer even while being completely asynchronous (players did not need to be online at the same time in order to interact). The only ways to advance in the game were to park on your friends’ streets and get them to park on yours. Surfing a friend’s street to find a place to park got you to look at your friend’s profile picture and muse briefly on the friend and your relationship. Ticketing your friend felt like a personal victory, and it was hugely tempting to tear off a juicy taunt in the ticket’s comment field. And to be really dominant in the game, you had to think carefully about how your friends were playing the game and who was least likely to come around in time to ticket you.
Although it seems like many early social games did a better job of creating highly socially relevant game-play than the games that came after them, I’m hopeful that the next generation of social games will combine the great single-player game-play that we’re seeing in on the platform today with some of the great social relevance we saw in the early days of social gaming. And in the next article we’ll take a look at something that social games have gotten much, much better at over the last couple of years: allowing players to collaborate asynchronously.（source:casualconnect）