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Aesthetics of Social Games

What is aesthetics? In the post, I argue that aesthetics of social games center around three dimensions: click-driven gameplay, the social graph, and gated content. Analyzing aesthetics can help in evaluating your design and metrics.
I am giving a talk about the relationship of aesthetics and metrics in social game design this week (at Games Convention Online in Leipzig, Germany), so I'm trying to figure out what 'aesthetics' could mean in the context of social games, especially Facebook ones. I've gone through a number of takes on aesthetics in both game design and game studies literature, and now I am in the process of trying to distill something sensible and practical out of it. By practical I mean something that could function as high-level design drivers or principles in actual social game projects.
 
Now, in the literature aesthetics ends up usually referring to the sensory and emotional experience of interacting with the game; both the look and the feel, in other words. However, I think specific, additional things factor into the social game experience:

First, of course, there is the immediate social context, e.g. the social graph in Facebook: the prompts to notify your friends with wall posts etc. is a part of the experience of playing these games, or diving into them, when responding to a feed post from someone. In the process, the players are both acknowledging social proof from others and creating it for others to acknowledge (or ignore as spam).

Second, I think the underlying business model, in this case the freemium model affects social game aesthetics, because it is intertwined in the games' designs and therefore present in the experience: Unlocking game content by grinding towards it or by paying for the convenience of having it immediately is a decision that social games keep on imposing on players, and thus it has to taken into account in any discussion of social game design, which ultimately is about designing an experience for the players within the freemium business model and the virtual economy model it often brings with it. Another element tied to this is the leveling structure, which accounts for the most archetypal retention structure in social games.

Finally, there is the dimension of aesthetics that, e.g,. Steve Swink talks about in his book Game Feel - the haptic and sensory dimension of gameplay. Usually, in social games this is about clicking away at your farm, cafe, etc. This I have previously defined under the concept of 'clickability' (see my earlier post and the definition below).

Thus, my working notion of social game aesthetics is anchored to three key dimensions of the social gameplay experience:
  • Clickability: 'the routine yet enjoyable behavior of executing a set of game actions, with the mouse, and intuitively responding to the UI feedback, during a single social (Facebook) game session'. The actions and feedback mentioned here constitute triggers for emotional responses, thus integrating the haptic experience of clicking away with a psychological one that emerges from the game's events, such as from getting rewards, monitoring one's progress towards goals, making decisions, interacting with friends, etc.
  • Playing the social graph: How players acknowledge social proof by responding to viral feeds, and create it, by posting feeds. The means to visit your friends' game, e.g. in the context of parallel play in the farming genre, or battle with them in a more competitive setting, account for the gameplay part of this dimension. The leveling and neighboring systems as means of measure and compare progress are instances of this aesthetic dimension.
  • Unlocking: The balancing act of grinding, possibly with help from your friends, or paying for shortcuts or exclusive content/features, is something that is inherent to the freemium model. Therefore it contributes to the aesthetic experience of playing social games. Unlocking also opens possibilities for personal expression, which then becomes part of playing your social graph, i.e. showing off your decorations, achievements, etc. In the MMO space, unlocking is often expanded by the possibility for the players to trade and craft, which contributes to the aesthetics of social gameplay as well. 
In conclusion, essentially social game aesthetics is still about the look and the feel, but with emphasis on the feel of the social interaction, and the constraints that the freemium model imposes on the player's freedom.

So what? How is this practical?
 
In general, it gives food for thought for comparisons between key characteristics of 'traditional' video game design and social game design, as the above three dimensions point to key design areas of social games. Let's look at this from the perspective of what the above three dimensions mean in terms of game design tasks in a social game project:
 
First, the game needs to offer a mix of pleasure and pain - in the sense of slightly annoying grinding needs to be implemented in the level of the UI, as harvesting, collecting, allocating, or as other forms of micro-managing.
 
Second, the social graph needs to be literally included in the heart of the game design, whether it is a list of neighbors, a leaderboard, a map of opponents, etc., and any consequent social mechanics the graph affords, such as sharing or challenging. Furthermore, in order for the graph to function, its members need to know about the game and be motivated to join the fun - and this is where viral design comes in.
 
Third, unlocking relates to the design of level structure tightly embedded into how it governs players' progress and access to features and content. Furthermore, unlocking opens up the task of designing an economy around virtual items, which is crucial in terms of monetization.
 
The final practical take-away is aesthetics' relation to metrics. By analyzing the aesthetics of your game, you can identify which parts of the game, as it is experienced by players, you can validate by the quantitative nature of metrics such as DAUs and ARPUs. The remaining ones go beyond such metrics, and would need more qualitative exploration - such as focus group playtesting - to be evaluated in terms of success or failure. The reasons for initiating the sending of a viral post but nor carrying it through, i.e. canceling, would constitute an example of the latter; causes for drop-off rates during tutorial would present another.

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