GDC 2012: Traditional advice that doesn't apply to social games

In a social-focused GDC session, Playdom creative director and PopCap San Francisco founder David Rohrl gave his listeners four pieces of widely held advice for AAA and core-games that won't work for social games.
After 13 years in the core game development space, Playdom creative director and PopCap San Francisco founder David Rohrl's transition to social games should have proven a relatively pain-free process. However, he spent the better part of a year in a state of frustration and anxiety. The heart of the problem was that, as he puts it, "Good game design is not completely universal. …there's a lot that doesn't cross over" from traditional console or core game design to social game design. While important differences between, say, online multiplayer and AAA single player development are generally recognized, "some platforms are more different than others." There is plenty of solid design advice from the core games space that will only lead to headaches in social games: "Social is an extreme outlier," says Rohrl. When you shift across platforms, good design principles can become bad ones and old habits can cause problems. Rohrl elaborated four pieces of common sense advice from traditional game design that simply do not apply to social games. The first rule to throw away is that designers need to "understand [their] game's loss condition" — advice that Rohrl himself gave out in 2005 at a casual games conference. Rorhl used a screenshot of Zelda as an example of this rule — understanding how to lose is extremely clear: get hurt by an enemy, lose your hearts. Even the casual game Zuma has a clear loss condition: if the colored balls reach the mouth of the frog, the player loses. But this rule applies to hardcore gamers because they tend to seek out challenge and expect a loss condition to be part of their initial orientation to the game. In CityVille and similar social games, there is no explicit "lose" condition. Social gamers expect uninterrupted forward progress — an expectation that is very difficult to disrupt. On the "Axis of Casualness," social and Facebook games present a new "extreme" of casualness, the "hyper casual". At the more well known "core" end of the spectrum, players need to conquer failure. At the "hypercasual" end, social and Facebook game players expect automatic success. Tongue firmly in his cheek, Rohrl noted that, "Casual gamers, contrary to popular perception, do like to make choices — to choose between the win button and the win big button." The second rule is to "keep adding complexity to keep things interesting." Rohrl's examples were the World of Warcraft talent tree, with a range of options that interact with multiple systems in complex ways, and the League of Legends item store — showing a similarly complex system of interactions, which core gamers have come to expect. Even the casual game Peggle features a character select screen with ten characters, each with distinct powers. In contrast, there are no complex interactions the social game player needs to master in order to succeed at CastleVille. Expectations are different — hypercasual players want to use your game for different things than you might expect them to, and they want to understand things instantly. The third rule of game design that fails to apply to social games is that designers have to show a clear path to final victory (or, how to win your game). It can also be expressed as "You always want to give the player a map". Game maps in core games and console games tend to lead to one place: Game Over (even if you win). This doesn’t work with social games. Social game designers need to ask themselves, "How long do we want the player to play our game?" With more in common with MMOs that never finish development than console games that are designed to be played a small number of times -- or even with multiplayer online games designed to be played numerous times -- social games are constantly and continuously deployed. Console and downloadable games are "shipped" once, episodic games may be delivered a few times, and MMOs are paid for monthly, social games are often updated weekly, or even daily. The fourth and final rule of game design that will only cause a social game designer create a "wretched" social game, is embodied by the advice Chris Crawford gave in his book on game design: "Focus on interactions between player and game." Rohrl compared the "great moments" in single player games, casual games and social games. In single player games, players are likely to say, "I figured it out", multiplayer games, users say, "I demonstrated my skill." Social games make players say, "We did something together." Single player games, according to Rohrl, "train players to love the game" whereas hypercasual games "train the player to love their friends."

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