Whither the wither mechanic?
By Simon Newstead
In the first social game wave, two common mechanics were harvest (appointment) and its companion, wither (delay penalty).
Playing off the harvest, the wither helped reinforce the regular return cycles those games were designed around. How?
The fear of loss can be strong. The feeling that your precious crops would decay (or be stolen) was a strong motivation to log on that one last time before sleep or early morning before packing lunch for the kids.
Fast forward two years later, the wither mechanic seems to be falling out of favor.
This year’s most successful mobile farming sim, Hay Day eschews it.
So do many others that have ranked in recent times. Even Zynga’s Castleville team at GDC talked about how they wanted to remove it, but were constrained due to other factors.
So why this trend? Some thoughts…
1.Social players are already conditioned to return and harvest. In the inital social game wave there were millions of first time “gamers”. Early hits like Farmville trained them how to play, checking back regularly to collect and progress in bite size chunks.
2.Other systems provide calls to action. With development of more mechanics for high grossing whales (eg events), there are other drivers for players to return. Zynga shared that 64% of players are prompted to return through platform reminders – a growing set of open graph stories, pictures, notifications and requests. An extra set just adds more complexity.
3.Elder players are motivated by efficiency. For example, a deep crafting and request system provides strong drivers for players to be optimal in their return schedules to gain ever increasing rewards. This desire for increased payoff turns out to be a very strong retention motivator for experienced players.
4.Wither unwieldily as a monetization driver. Some games allow you to rescue decayed crops (or revive near death puppies) for a cost. This can help as a time based monetization driver, but it’s hard to balance. eg- the amount of crops a player may have growing at any particular time could vary greatly. It’s also something part of the core loop, which can affect core satisfaction with the game, in the case you couldn’t log on last week due to, you know, real life. Instead, other approaches such as time limited events provide a simpler single monetization request (extend the easter egg hunt by 24 hours?). It’s also one that doesn’t punish you as part of the core loop, and instead gives you an chance to win something extra special, if you chose to.
5.Wither is a negative experience. Losing something isn’t pleasant. Especially when that thing may have taken plenty of time and effort to create. Punishment and its avoidance has a place in game design, but arguably not as your primary return driver. What are the options? A better way to handle that could be to remove it, or flip it around to be something positive.
For example Zombie Farm by Playforge originally had a wither mechanic. However the sequel was changed to be an early bonus system – i.e. when you returned to Zombie Farm 2 on time you got a freshness bonus, but no matter if you returned a week or month later you never lost all your crops outright.(source:iteratingfun)