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Advancing Social Games

Today's post looks to answer the latest million dollar question: How can you convince regular gamers to play social games?

Josh Bycer, Blogger

October 26, 2012

10 Min Read

A few weeks ago I posted a look at negative game mechanics which were: mechanics designed to stop the current player from playing the game. In that post I talked about how social games are making use of them and that it is stifling the game design in them.

What is frustrating to me is twofold. First is the denial or delusion of social game designers that they are making unique products by using these mechanics. And second is that the current design philosophy behind social games to me is killing what could be great ideas.

In the last post on this subject I mentioned the social game Outernauts: a Sci-Fi take on Pokémon developed by Insomniac Games. Lately, I tried Indiana Jones Adventure World by Zynga after watching the GDC presentation on it.

The concept of the game was a good idea, and I could see the merits of designing an “action-adventure game light" using the Indiana Jones property. But after about 30 minutes of playtime, split between three sessions due to running out of energy, I had enough. Between the constant pressures to spam my friends to play and all the price tags popping up with every item got to the point of aggravation.

With the problems facing both Facebook and Zynga I can't help but feel that the social game bubble is close to bursting. Not helping matters is the lack of variety in design between social games.

                                   Farmville Market UI

But I still see promise with social games as a way of getting people who didn't grow up playing games, into them. Now it would be easy to just say that "social games are going to die" and let that be the end of it. But I'm in the mood for a challenge and for this post; I'm going to try to create guidelines to make a social game that can work for both soft and hardcore audiences.

1. Let the player play for as long or as short as they want.

One of the most prominent negative game mechanics in social games are action resources: where the player can only interact in the game when they have enough energy. This mechanic not only becomes a determent to the gameplay, but is also used to bug your friends. The first thing that pops up when you run out energy in any social game is the option to ask your friends to do something to get you more energy.

The problem with action resources as they stand is that they are designed to punish people who want to play for a long period of time. It's annoying to play through a map, or a stage and have to stop half way through not by the player's choice.

One of the reasons why social games are designed this way is to force the player to either spend money, or spam their friends with requests. Another reason in terms of design is that most people don't want to play for hours on end, especially the main audience of social games which are non gamers. And with action resources, it allows the designer to not worry about their audience playing the game to the point of boredom. But at the same time, you can't reward one group and punish the other and expect your game to grow.

Developers like Nintendo and Popcap have figured out the solution years ago: design bite sized levels that anyone can play. With short focused levels, it will let people make progress in a short time, while expert players can sit and play through multiple levels at one time. Depending on the person, a play session may only last 5 minutes, or an hour. By keeping progression quick, it allows anyone regardless of their preference to make progress in the game, without being tethered to another system.

                              Indiana Jones Adventure World Shopping

Now, if you are adamant about having action resources and want to include them, then this next point is for you.

2. Keep pay and play separate:

One of the basic rules designers have learned over the years is to not interrupt gameplay unless it is vitally important. But in social games, the player is constantly being taken out of the experience by pop-ups asking them to message their friends, buy more stuff or post an achievement.

For this point, social game designers need to learn a lesson that F2P games have already learn: for pay mechanics to work, they must be kept out of the gameplay. To put it another way: the pay barrier cannot be intertwined with playing the game. If you're going on a ride at an amusement park, does the ride stop halfway through to collect more money from everyone?

One element that I see in social games is the game stopping the player to either buy more energy or buy more items to complete a quest. If the game is based on micro transactions, then they should occur before or after actually playing the game content. This would allow people to focus on the gameplay instead of their wallets.

Another part of this is having quests or content pop up during play that requires the player to spend money. Once again these gating mechanics are not beneficial to the gameplay and should be avoided.

Going back to action resources, this would allow the designer to make them more meaningful. Have them act as tickets for playing areas, similar to the Mann up tickets in Team Fortress 2's Mann vs. Machine mode. That way if your design is built on action resources, they would not interrupt the flow of the game. Making action resources meaningful brings us to my next point.

3. Making money matter:

Spending money in any video game is a big deal and should not be taken lightly. When you start asking the player to keep putting money into a game, the designer has to make sure that the player doesn't feel like they're being ripped off.

Free to play games, online services and social games all make use of premium resources: resources that can only be earned by spending real cash. This type of resource is primarily used to buy unique content. The problem with social games is that they make everything purchasable with premium resources and dilutes their value.

When you play a free to play title the designers know that they need to make something worth it to spend money on. In League of Legends, players can buy new character skins that completely change the look of their character and in some cases the sound effects.

The point is that when you're asking the player to spend additional money then there should be something that is really worth it. Either in the form of unique gameplay or simply as a status symbol such as the character skin example. There are cases where if the game is good enough, some people may be compelled to buy premium content to support the developers for the free game, when that happens you know that the designers are on to something.

I'm going to say the following as nicely as I can to the social designers who are reading this. When you have the option to complete quests or skip entire sections by letting the player spend money. What you're telling me is that your game is so horrible that there isn't any point in playing and instead just pay more money.

You should not have the only reason to spend premium resources be things that the player will accomplish on their own. If you want actual gamers to play your game and spend money, then you have to give them actual value for their money. Not just skipping through content or completing quests.

Now, many free to play and even regular games feature micro transactions that can improve the player in a competitive setting. This takes us into the realm of “pay 2 win" and something that needs to be watched out for in any game. But since we're focusing on social games at the moment, I'm going to put talking about this to the side for this post.

 Outernauts allows you to spend real money to upgrade your characters

If you title has enough content to satisfy your audience, one option is to release "booster packs" of additional quests or content for additional cost. Granted you are going to annoy some groups of people for charging for more quests, but depending on if it's the only transaction model in your game, then it won't be so bad.

4. Putting the social back in social game.

My last point and one that is disturbing that we haven't seen yet, is allowing people to actually play with each other in social game. This point is not talking about casino styled games as they already have the competitive aspect down, but for games with more complex gameplay.

For a genre that has the word social in the title, most social games are not built around human interaction. Sure you can visit a friend's area or bug them for items, but there is no communication or cooperation present. Some games let you invite your friend's character into your game, but the character would be controlled by the AI and not by the friend.

Considering how many social games are inspired by other games and each other, I'm really shocked that no one has looked at the Puzzle Pirates method. In Puzzle Pirates, groups of players act as crew on a ship with each person performing a different task. The task itself is translated into a puzzle game, with how high each player scores at their task helps the ship at sea.

Why no social designer has thought about taking this idea further is beyond me as it is the perfect fit for social game design. Create simple game systems designed to work in tandem and let a group of friends play together for a shared reward. Think of it as a smaller scale version of a MMO raid, granted it won't be anywhere as challenging but the concept of working together is there.

Both the social and mobile game markets are no longer considered in their infancy and now it is up to the developers to grow their respective markets with new ideas. Mobile games have been doing just that, with a wide variety of genres and complexity. But we have yet to see the social game market take such a step. With every new social game, adhering to the same designs as before. If the social game industry wants to be treated with respect both from other designers and gamers, then they need to start making waves before it's too late.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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