To say that social games are booming is an understatement. After having been in existence for only a scant few years, games on social networks like Facebook and MySpace are gaining users explosively. There are now over 200 million monthly users playing the top 10 Facebook games alone -- up by 50 million from August to September.
Investors have certainly taken notice and, even in the depths of a recession, startups have been popping up left and right. With competition comes conflict and social gaming has been no exception -- already the space is a mire of me-too clones and lawsuits, with companies so busy looking over the shoulders of their neighbors that they've lost sight of the bigger picture.
Rather than dashing headlong into this new space, throwing money, resources and litigation blithely and blindly, it may behoove us to pause for a moment and consider: just what is a social game? A little critical thought up front might open more opportunities and alleviate some of the pressure to borrow from the competition.
So, What is(n't) a Social Game?
The term "social" is perhaps not very descriptive. Pong was social and so was Super Mario Kart and a thousand other games played by more than one player at a time. So if "social" doesn't mean "multiplayer", what does it mean? Does it imply something larger and more persistent?
Well, large persistent games aren't exactly very new either; as long as there has been an internet, there have been games like MUDs. As the internet evolved, these multiuser games evolved right along with it, giving us games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. These games are undeniably social, so why all the recent talk? If social games are nothing new, what's changed?
In some ways, nothing's changed -- games are still engaging and fun for all the same reasons they've always been -- but in other ways, everything has changed. Social networks like Facebook are bringing games into a completely new context: where, up until now, the user was compelled to find the game, now the game is able to find the user. With this new power, comes exciting potential, game-changing potential.
The Objectives of Social Game Design
Social games can be defined by three implicit objectives, which I will first list as mandates to the designer, then cover in more detail.
1. Build a persistent society -- promote cooperation
Beyond just allowing players to leave messages and compare scores, the goal of a social game should be to build a society. To achieve this, interdependence needs to exist; a true virtual society will only arise from a game environment where players can't fully succeed without the help of others.
2. Maintain a consistent sense of discovery -- promote user advancement and expression.
This feature describes a game environment where the user is continually discovering, building or nurturing new things into existence. Players should feel as if they are evolving both their in-game persona as well as influencing the game world around them.
3. Spread the game virally -- promote recruiting friends
This facet of social game design is made possible by the widespread adoption of online social networks like Facebook. Social networks provide a pre-existing web of low-barrier-of-entry connections.
Games that tap into the trust and familiarity existing between friends have the opportunity to spread effortlessly on an exponential scale. Once a game finds a new user, however, if it is going to continue spreading, it needs to retain and convert that user into a new evangelist.
Spread the Game Virally
On a social network, virality takes two forms: Direct and Indirect.
Direct -- the request
A direct invitation to join the game, given from one user to another, often takes the form of a request (i.e. "come join me in this game"). Because of their unsolicited nature, direct requests are often perceived as intrusive and it helps if there is both a strong motivation and an innocent context, to facilitate the process as much as possible.
The Facebook hit Farm Town hides its requests under the guise of giving gifts. You are allowed to give gifts to your friends and gifts are free to give, but you can't give them to yourself. Thus, gifts inspire a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" dynamic.
Gift-giving interactions exemplify ideal direct viral contact because they simultaneously fulfill selfish motivations ("if I give my friend a gift, maybe he will join the game and give me one back") and maintain a sense of altruism ("I'm giving my friend a gift, I bet she'll love it") so senders feel less like they are spamming and receivers feel more like they are receiving something of value.
Indirect -- the broadcast
The other major advantage social networks is the ability to broadcast. In Facebook this is the wall post. A wall post is nothing more than a public declaration made by an app on behalf of an individual. Almost any event in-game can be used to generate a wall post, but, if it is positioned as a call to action, it can serve as a means of reaching out to friends and spreading the game virally.
In FarmVille, a common and effective wall post is the "lost animal", a post which declares that you have found a lost animal in need of a home, and won't someone please adopt it? In game terms, this functions just like a gift --the only difference is the positioning: lost animals are served to a larger yet less direct audience than gifts.
Build a Persistent Society
There are two key words here: persistent and society. "Persistent" describes a game world that does not stop and start with each play session. "Society" implies a game experience founded in cooperation and teamwork.
A persistent game "lives" even when the player is not present. A player knows that time spent away means potential missed opportunities and this can be a powerful hook that draws him back into the game at regular intervals.
In its most basic form, persistence can be contrived with timers (such as in Mob Wars, where you must wait for your energy to recharge before undertaking more "jobs") but in a full-fledged society, opportunities should be arising organically from the actions of other users.
A society is built on interdependence and teamwork and this is where MMOs like World of Warcraft excel. WoW forces players to specialize; for example, a rogue is good at sneaking in for a devastating attack while a tougher warrior keeps a monster busy and absorbs damage. Both players are more effective as a team than individually.
As players progress, and game objectives become more challenging, they need to learn to work together to succeed. It's this dynamic of teamwork that has retained more users for more hours than the majority of games.
Not only does specialization create a bond between player and game, but it creates a bond between players. A player that is depended upon by others feels needed.
Once a game establishes a persistent society of its own (and is no longer simply riding on a surrogate, like Facebook), abandoning the game becomes more than a personal decision; there are now the expectations of the group to consider. A player that leaves will be missed, and this is a motivator not to be overlooked in our increasingly disconnected modern lives.
Maintain a Consistent Sense of Discovery
Discovery is what keeps an activity fresh and interesting. A player should never be allowed to feel as if he has "beaten" or "completed" a social game. This means there always needs to be something else to acquire or experience.
Acquisition -- the instinct to collect
Collecting stuff is a powerful instinct in humans -- from McDonalds happy meal toys to two-dollar bills, or even just stones we find at the beach, we humans are compelled to collect.
In a game like Animal Crossing or Pet Society there is a heavy focus on this collector model of discovery, with the collected items often being graphical elements that can be used to decorate your house.
Sometimes this stuff is known and aspirational ("I'm saving up to buy that entertainment center") and other times its unknown and random ("the seashell collection has two more slots left in it; I wonder what kind of shells they could be?") Either way, it provides the user a straightforward goal of something to do, a longer-term sense of building something larger, as well as a gauge of status when comparing success with friends.
In order to suspend reaching an ending, the collector model of discovery typically follows an exponential effort curve on the route to getting more stuff; early additions to your collection are easily obtained and give you a taste for more, but further items require increasingly more effort and new goals are always cropping up just as previous goals are reached.
User Expression -- opening up the experience
The other model for discovery relies on user creativity. The premise is basically to give the user a palette of tools that enable self-expression. When users are enabled to express themselves, there will always be something else to see and experience because the community will be constantly creating new content. The discovery comes from two sides: witnessing what other players have created, and discovering you own inner muse.
In games like YoVille, Pet Society or The Sims, players often grow bored with simple house decorating and set creative objectives for themselves, such as making a room look like a jungle or the inside of a space station. This phenomenon was made the objective of the game (fluff)Friends.
(fluff)Friends is ostensibly similar to Pet Society, with the user collecting props and outfits over time, but the end goal is explicitly the creation of (fluff)Art. The appeal of the game becomes not so much to collect for collection's sake, but to collect as a means toward self-expression. The resultant scenes of user art are captioned, categorized, and publically browsable via in-game galleries.
The creation of art is just one common example, yet the possibilities are much broader. The PlayStation network game LittleBigPlanet harnesses user expression to allow the creation and sharing fully interactive gameplay experiences.
A Look at the Industry
I'll rate a few of the top Facebook games, in each category, on a scale of 1 to 5. The ratings will be focused on user experience and potential for popularity. Business considerations, such as marketing and monetization, are arguably independent from the objective of strong social game design and will omitted here.
Virality: 5. Invites come in the minimally invasive form of "gifts". Wall posts are both competitive ("I leveled up", etc) and "lost animals" which catch attention by playing to human compassion. Combine this with cute colorful artwork and a clear physical metaphor and it's no wonder FarmVille spread so well, particularly in non-gamer demographics.
Persistent Society: 3. The game is persistent in that players are encouraged to regularly check back in to harvest crops, but the social experience is weak and does little to improve the basic gameplay.
Social interaction predominantly comes in the form of trading gifts with friends, which pays off handsomely until it gets old (or everyone has had their fill of plum trees and goose topiaries), and "helping out around your friend's farm" -- which pays a cash sum so nominal, it quickly becomes irrelevant.
Maintaining Discovery: 2. FarmVille makes a steady drip of new crops available to the player, but these seem only to offer an aesthetic incentive. New crops don't really behave any differently or provide any form of tactical advantage beyond higher cost and higher payouts.
Some amount of user expression is available to higher-level users in the form of decorative props and the opportunity to create "hay bale art" -- pixel art images created using colored bales of hay.
Total - 10 (5 viral, 5 retention)
Virality: 2. Pet Society is subtly viral. It occasionally pops up a prompt to invite your friends, but otherwise all virality is user initiated. Changing your pet's "status" triggers a wall post prompt. "Sticker Packs" are gifts you can send to your friends, but they seem like a secondary consideration to new players.
The most that can be said of Pet Society's viral strategy is that it provides an immaculately clean, visually attractive game with ample opportunity for self-expression; effectively, it is striving to be a game that players want to share with their friends, and leaves the task of spreading it in their hands.
Persistent Society: 2. There is very little that is persistent about Pet Society -- if you're away for even a small amount of time, your pet will be hungry and dirty, but otherwise nothing really changes while you're away. If you want to maximize earning money, you'll have to return once a day. There is also very little interaction between players -- an attempt is made to create a sense of relationships but this is really nothing more than a mechanic to grind out coins.
Maintaining Discovery: 4. Pet Society has an immense wealth of personalization options, from clothes, to furniture, to plants, wallpapers, and exotic fish. The art is lush, stylized and consistent, giving even artistically inept users an infinite space of creative possibility. Unknown items like fish and plants must be caught or grown, instilling an element of surprise. Yet, in order to acquire anything, the user first needs coins. Coins are earned through the tedious chores of visiting friends' houses and running races, both of which seem to pay out pocket change.
Total: 8 (2 viral, 6 retention)
Virality: 5. There are "Send Food", "Free Gifts", and "Invite Friends" invites as well as what may now be an industry-standard "Rescue the Endangered Animal" wall posts. The art may not be all that impressive, but the aquarium metaphor is about as direct and accessible as you can get.
Persistent Society: 2. The danger of algae growth and sick fish keeps players coming back regularly, but Happy Aquarium does nothing to innovate on the basic
"visit friends to earn money" mechanic.
Maintaining Discovery: 1. It may be that this game is new and the developers plan to expand the selection of available items for your aquarium, but currently there is not much to keep a player engaged long-term. Typical aquarium decorations can be placed on the bottom of your tanks and increasingly more expensive fish may be bought, but very little has been done to prevent high-level fish tanks from all looking the same.
Total: 8 (5 viral, 3 retention)
One additional observation worth making is that social games are not tied to their designs -- they can conceivably change over time. Just as content can be added to expand the potential for discovery, a game geared towards virality can sacrifice annoying viral tactics in favor of a more satisfying user experience, as it reaches market saturation. Considering this, evaluating an app at one moment in time does not necessarily describe its past or predict its future.
It's a rare social game where all three of the above features (spread the game virally, build a persistent society, and maintain consistent discovery) are utilized to good effect. This is not because the three are mutually exclusive but simply because they are served by distinct game mechanics that have evolved separately. It will take conscientious designers, willing to take cues from predecessors as diverse as Farm Town and WoW, to evolve the medium to the next level.
In particular, I believe that the context of cooperation still has much room for exploration. A vast untapped gamespace exists between the insultingly simplistic gift-giving interaction of Farm Town and the dauntingly choreographed combat interaction of WoW.
Our daily lives are so rich with layers of social dependencies that it's a wonder the social gaming space is determined to cannibalize the same narrow range of ideas. For years now, we've seen games that create discovery and there is now a wealth of games spreading virally across social networks, but the real key to compelling gameplay is in cooperation and the foundation of truly persistent societies.
Social gaming has tremendous potential and, if we can look past the picture-perfect clones long enough to see the big picture, it may not be long before the tables turn and games begin evolving the way we think about social networks, instead of the other way around.