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PRACTICE: Social Game Design Needs More Prototyping

At NYU's PRACTICE game design conference this weekend, social game designer Scott Jon Siegel explains why more exploration and refinement of prototyping is key to his genre's growth.
Currently, social games are designed largely by precedent or by metrics, but the role of prototyping is under-explored in the field. That’s the view of Scott Jon Siegel, who’s been working in the field of social game design for the past three years. "Analytics teams, while they’re doing great work, they’re using this data to improve their user flows… and all of the aspects that affect the business of a game," Siegel opines, speaking at this weekend's PRACTICE game design conference at New York University's Game Center. One of his greatest fears is that the social gaming industry will turn entirely over to analytics for its design forms, and all the dangerous false positives and business-oriented choices that can miss the spine of user experience. Finding an experimental prototyping model that works in the social space may be challenging, but it's essential. He concedes that design by precedent is something of a polite way of addressing the cloning that often occurs in the social game space. For example, most social games now contain "doobers," the clickable pop-ups that catch the user’s eye and cost energy to click. It began with Zynga’s FrontierVille, and when it was perceived to enhance engagement, most social games began to adopt them. "This is how we propagate UI and UX and game design mechanics in our space," Siegel says. "It’s easier to replicate success patterns than it is to reinvent the wheel with every new release," he says. "I actually believe that derivation is… a necessary part of the design evolution of our industry," he notes. "Because I think casual games actually thrive on recognizability, and the social games industry… is a sort of subset of the casual space." But too much risk aversion can stifle a genre, he believes: new social games are being produced at a stunning rate, but new genres have been very slow to emerge. "We end up rarely seeing any great amount of meandering from these [formats]." Prototyping can help designers mitigate the risk of exploring new design forms, Siegel asserts. But it can be difficult in the social space, because social games are more about the cumulative effect of multiple interactions, versus finding the fun in a single session, as in the traditional prototype. "You can’t simply test a gameplay mechanic in a single setting and from that judge whether it will suitably serve a social game," Siegel points out. "We’re just not used" to testing for retention and virality, key to the success and growth of social games. "I believe that for a social game prototype to be successful, it needs to focus on these elements," he says. One method is to address systemic impact: The effect of mechanics of persistence on the state of a play field – for example, the "crop growth" mechanic that asks players to sow seeds and then collect from them later. The other is to address the social impact, or the effect of the social graph and friend activity on the state of a play field. As a recent design exercise, Siegel attempted to design a Facebook version of a popular social board game – migrating a long, synchronous experience to one that accommodates short sessions and often asynchronous experiences with friends. He experimented until he found a model that worked. His recommendation to social game designers looking to implement more prototyping is to start early. "The prototyping that I have done has not been out to a large community -- it's been usually amongst the development teams or amongst friends of the development teams," he notes. Naturally, the prototyping group should be tailored to represent the target audience of the game as well as possible. "There's a ton of potential still untapped here, so I say let's all get our hands in the dirt and see what we can build," he enthuses.

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