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Social is the Platform: A Designer's Perspective

A discussion on the design shift required to move from traditional thinking about new platforms to the new platform of social games.

Many are seeing the explosion of success in social games and coming to the market treating it as they have always done with new markets such as iPhone, Casual, XBLA games. They are bringing their game designs and adapting them to fit the new platform, here typically Facebook or MySpace. They learn the platform's ins and outs, sins and graces, inputs and monetization, EULA's and so forth. They put up a well made game with a solid game design that was made using intimate and up to date knowledge of the platform at hand. They develop and launch their game, it quickly plateaus, and never recovers. What happened? The problem is in the entire paradigm thinking of the developer. They see Facebook or MySpace as the platform they want to succeed on, but social games aren't just another platform to learn in the traditional sense of new platforms, and a whole new way of thinking must be adopted.

Platform: some sort of hardware architecture or software framework that allows software to run.

Everyone says that Facebook is a platform, that they are the software framework that allows the other software (our games) to run. They are wrong. Platform is a convenient marketing and web 2.0 buzzword to describe Facebook, and it is correct from an engineering or business view. But it is wholly inaccurate for the game designer.

For a game designer to succeed with social games, they need to understand that social is their platform. That concept is so simple that it's deceivingly so and therefore easily lost. It takes time and a change in thinking to understand. It's easier to explain by example.

Take the latest Playdom game Social City for example, which has been out for barely over a week and is already listed as 2.5 million MAU's on their Facebook page. To put that into perspective Fable 2 on the Xbox 360 found 2.5 million players lifetime, and this amazing little game with no shaders or realtime 3D or game press did the same in a week. In another day more people will have played Social City than Fable 2.


Granted we are comparing a paid game to a free one, a console to an open system, and so forth, but still, we're talking about 2.5 million game players in one week, a great game by anyone's count. How did this game do it? This is just a little internet game, right? And the internet, games, and internet games have been around for a long time - so what gives? The answer here is social.  In addition to being expertly designed and executed, the game successfully leverages the true social platform, thereby triggering viral mechanisms that we all hold latent in all of us.

What do I mean by social is the platform? The framework of the social platform is like Soylent Green - "It's People." The social platform is the squishy meatspace of us and our real friends, a myriad of social and psychological interactions on an intricate and unseeable psychic network. It is this unique and very real framework, infinitely linked to others, which sets up and allows the software (our games) to run. It is this which is the social platform to design for. We will always want and need to play and interact with our friends. As designers, we can exploit that need to create richer experiences of interaction.

When you make the switch and start designing for the social as a platform, you start to truly tap into the power this new landscape holds. New genres, new content delivery mechanisms, new monetizations, new virals - there's no end to the expanse or degree of innovation. We're going to be digging our teeth into this platform for a very long time, what we've seen is only the beginning.

So if MySpace and Facebook aren't the platform, then what are they? I submit to you that they are the protocol.

Protocol: a set of rules used to communicate across a network.

A protocol is a language, a common denominator, an agreement - exactly the kind that Facebook sets up with users who agree to call each other "friends" and allow various permissions. Facebook is, at its core, a highly structured series of permissions, agreements, and arrangements. If those rules are followed, two computers (people) can communicate across a network (as friends).

Just as http and email are both protocols for the internet platform, MySpace and Facebook are both protocols for the social platform. These are some of the first protocols for the social platform but they won't be the last. Eventually the protocol will restrict the platform and newer protocols must be developed. The next Facebook lies on that horizon.

If you are designing for social platforms like MySpace and Facebook, remember that the true platform is the intangible social and psychological landscape of your real-life-connected players and their friends, and if you design to exploit that rather than what email permissions are being allowed this month on a particular social network, you will tap into the true platform that makes the best social games the biggest successes.


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