Gamifying Flirt - concept and gameplay development

What we did and learned attempting to gamify seduction and flirt for Fb social game Flirtatious. Stated aim: make online flirting a game by creating fun without losing meaning.

The idea of Flirtatious came from a simple realization. If people flirt voluntarily and for fun, then flirting is a game, in the barest sense of the term. Flirting is also inherently social, so flirting is a social game, meaning that online, it would be a Facebook game. The goal was set, design game that translates the fun of flirting into a Facebook social context.

Password for the beta is gamasutra, and Flirtatious is here (facebook app)

Initial mistakes

The question was first to translate flirting into gameplay. I thought an RPG structure, including NPCs, was the best suited. Drawing from inspirations such as Japanese dating sim games and RPGs was a first obvious step. We thought we might try to create large scenarios housed in different cities / venues, where each new question and choice was governed by the choices the player had previously made. A constrained choice structure with an apparent complete freedom, and some dead ends. This turned out to be misguided as I realized that this was extremely hard to achieve in a coherent and engaging experience, and would most likely result either in a bloated and ultimately failed development process, or in a minimal and somewhat incoherent approach, resulting in a lousy experience.

Finding a new approach

So, we accepted the error of our ways, we went back to the drawing board, and we looked at the basics again. What is the essence of a good flirting experience? I think it’s having common references and humor, which in turn allows for a pleasant flirt and a wish to discover more of the other person. This view seemed shared, and most importantly, possible to implement, so we started going down that path.

Common references meant that in order for one player to start flirting with another, we’d need to provide a way for the player to assert her cultural preferences. Only then could meaningful flirting occur, with a reasonable chance of success. The structure of the game was then defined as 3 main elements: a game in which tastes were expressed, a stage where a playing partner is selected, and a flirting game based on humor.

We also needed to design for women as much as men. The design and testing had to involve both genders so as to create an equally appealing experience.

Translating the experience into actual gameplay

First, expressing tastes. We decided that common and opposite likes and dislikes are most meaningful, while a neutral option of don’t know/don’t care had to exist but have a lesser impact on the matching algorithm. So we needed to provide a quick graphic way for players to express themselves, with three options for each item. We chose a very basic and intuitive gameplay, with a bonus tied to speed, so as to give the players a slight pressure to be quick and reduce the chance they’d get bored. We are still adjusting the method for selecting and picking the items presented to the players, in order to balance between items that are mainstream (ie that most people know), and items that are a bit more confidential, and allow for finer matching.

Matching itself is designed so that choice is significant. As the items shown are generated anew each time, in turn the matching algorithms applied on them yields different results each time. Choosing or not choosing someone therefore has lasting consequences, as one can never be sure she will ever see again someone she overlooked.

Once a player is chosen, it leads to the main stage of the game, flirting. It involves the active player, and a chosen player whose personal custom scenario is used as the base for the game. We iterated several time on this one, as there are multiple challenges here: creating a fun playing experience balanced with a meaningful flirting experience, while removing as much friction as possible from creating one’s own scenario. In the end, we opted for:

- an intuitive Q&A structure laced with british humor, which we felt struck the right chord of second degree, and balanced by more serious answers so as to make the choice of what answer the player likes best easier. The Q&A is played asynchronously, but accompanied by feedbacks mimicking real-time reactions of the other player to the active player’s choices, so as to remain as close as possible to a a live flirting experience. If anything I think we still need more feedbacks to liven up the experience.

- a straightforward scoring mechanism, with a winning threshold defined at 50% of correct answers, and hints so as to help the player when two answers have equal appeal. Hints and some redesign or the Q&A structure had to occur in large part because alpha playtesting came back with players saying they found it too difficult and felt is was almost like answering at random (not our intention of course, but it didn't matter much). We now have answers that feel much more like a meaningful choice is being made, at the cost of some lost humourous content. The quality of the experience is a cruel mistress. The reward of winning is quite simply defined as unlocking the “get in touch” option with the other player, and this is where real flirting ties back into the game.

- a tutorial stage that incorporates scenario creation through playing, and playing only. Advanced editing remained possible once the tutorial is over, but the onboarding of a new player wouldn’t be hindered by anything looking remotely like a chore. We had at first gotten blinded by the need to have a scenario for each player that reflected them best, which led us to give too much choice and create confusion. Simplifying was a huge improvement, at the cost of only a little more random custom scenario for each player, which in turn can create more variations, and more surprises for active players discovering new scenarii. It's always nice when you realize the mistake you knew you were going to do, were warned about, had tried to guard against, you ended up doing anyways. Loss of time wasn't too big, thanks to early testing, so as frustrating as early playtesting might be, its importance can't be overstated.

Finding meaningful social gaming interactions

Last but not least, social gameplay. It's not enough to have a game on Facebook to call it a social game. The friends of the player in the game were referred to internally as wingmen (I blame imaginary person Barney Stinson for that). As it turns out, the first role of friends in a flirting situation is support. Their mere presence and willingness to say that the person flirting is a good person goes a long way to create the trust needed in any relationship, no matter how new.

But friends can go further and actively recommend their friends to one another, or newly met people to their friends. This real life mechanism translates very well in a social setting like facebook, and allows the game to offer an alternative action choice when they fail to unlock the getting in touch option.

These two types of interaction are the two main viral channels for the game, in addition to more traditional wall publishing (for boasting and self-deprecation purposes only) and invites.

I hope whoever didn't go TL:DR found this mildly interesting/helpful. Feedback is very welcome, so comment away, or feel free to get in touch directly. You can follow us on @flirtati

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