"The best content is other people" says Dimitri Williams in a recent op-ed article in the L.A. times, making a very good case about the importance of the social aspect in helping new games and platforms succeed. But for social features to work, they need to happen at the right time and place in your experience.
The most successful games of the last few years have all helped us connect socially: “World of Warcraft,” “League of Legends,” “Pokémon Go”. Creating a community not only brings new content but let's you grow your game or platform organically; a vibrant community is a very strong attractor of new players. This is why it is so important for games and new platforms like Virtual Reality to figure out how to add social components. "Virtual Reality needs to be social to succeed," also argues Signe Brewster in another great article making the case for social, but the importance of forming a community is not limited to VR: it is an essential ingredient to any game and app that is trying to engage people in the long-term. We are social animals. We like to feel connected to other people and feel part of something larger. The trick is that the features that will help you build a community need to come at the right time and place. Otherwise they won't work.
A very common mistake that I see many developers make is underestimating the cost of social features. I am not talking about production and implementation costs, although that could also be expensive, but high costs from the player’s perspective: our social status is precious and we are very protective of it. Many games ask us to invite friends and post about the game in our social networks as soon as we finish a couple of levels. Do you do it? I doubt it. I don't.
The reason is because social interaction is expensive. Our social standing among our friends and family is precious; we are not willing to mess with it easily; even less for something that we don't care much about. Most players are only willing to share things that they are committed to and believe will help their social status. They won’t share just because it is easy to do, or by giving them a cheap incentive. In a way we deal with these things in a similar way we deal with other things in life. We would not introduce a person we just met at a bar the night before to all our friends and family in Facebook, even if we had a good time at the bar. The same goes with your game, not many are willing to share after the first few sessions; you are better off focusing first on creating an experience that players will find worth sharing, and leaving the social aspect for later in the game experience. Once you are deeply invested in an experience you are much more willing to try to bring your friends along.
The same thing happens with multiplayer games like MMOs. Even if it is not about bringing external friends but about meeting players and making friends inside the game, most people rather play alone until they have mastered the basics of the game. Most people don't want to appear as incompetent, even in front of strangers. So here too, you don't want to introduce social features and social pressure too soon. This will also be the case for any social VR apps out there. Social is powerful, but to really thrive people need to feel safe. Social mechanics work better when you are already familiar with a space and its rules, when you already feel competent and confident. This is what successful MMOs do well. When we designed Disney's Toontown Online, we pushed players to make friends with other players in specific missions, but those missions were only available after you were familiar with the world, and they provided very clear objectives that worked as ice-breakers. The reason it was easy to make friends and form a larger community is because you had a clear excuse -a mandate to connect- and the connection benefitted you and your new friends and made everybody more successful in the game.
In a previous article, The 4 Steps of Successful Games and VR Experiences, I talked about the steps of long-term engagement: stand out-connect-engage-grow. First you need to stand out in the crowd of games and apps; then you need to connect emotionally to the players so they are willing to give your game a chance; then you need to find ways to keep them engaged; and only then you can bring the social aspect to help grow your product. Even in the case of MMOs where social interaction is key, it is better to limit and scaffold around the social aspects until your player feels like she has mastered the game enough to have a good social standing.
Before adding social mechanics somewhere in your game, ask your self a couple of questions to figure out if your player is ready for them:
- Is the player already engaged? Make sure that the metrics you are using to determine that your player is engaged make sense -finishing one level of your game does not mean the player is engaged.
Does the player feel confident about the rules of the game and his/her role in it? Will socializing help her strengthen her social standing? If not, how can you scaffold your game's social interactions so they feel safer and risk-free?
Social features are very powerful, but they are also precious for most people. Adding social features too soon can backfire. Most players need to be fully engaged and feel comfortable before they are willing to interact with strangers or they are willing to bring their friends over to a new experience. I strongly believe that if you want to engage players in the long-term it is crucial that you include some community building features; but make sure you engage and make your player feel comfortable first.
You can see more about how to create engagement in Games and VR experiences at FelipeLara.net.