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Twitter Game Design: Observations & Principles

Aki Järvinen takes a look at the emerging space of Twitter-based games from a design perspective.
Besides simple trivia or math quizzes, attempts at RPGish exploration of the Twitterverse, or word puzzle based movie-tie-in campaigns like the Terminator Salvation game, and the Spymaster flooding issues, we are starting to see game designs that are less obvious or inaccessible in their complexity. SNODS - 'Social Networks Online Defense Squad' - is a case in point: the game displays clever solutions in how it takes advantage of Twitter's social dynamics and how it builds a certain kind of social graph around you. Here's my analysis of the game, and some observations of how these solutions can be carried into social network games in general.

SNODS case study: Game design features

First, let's briefly run through some of the features of SNODS that are interesting, game design wise.

Game mechanics and goals

First, in SNODS (developed by Itch) players take other Twitter users as captives. Every player has his won holding pen, initially for six captives. The users a player takes captive start producing hourly income, as the screen capture from my account shows.

SNODS player account

Other players might try to kidnap my captives, which would give me a chance to instantly recapture them. The motivation for this is that the tweeples' hourly production rate is dependent on their status in the Twitterverse, i.e. number of followers they have. There are plankton, guppy, fish, and whales in the sea, as SNODs labels them. See Christopher Mack's post on Inside Social Games for more information about the game's features.

Game dynamics

SNODS is a waiting game with some additional twists: Similar to the clever Facebook game Parking Wars, in SNODS there is a gameplay dynamic where the players login/logoff to the site becomes a risk reward structure: if one stays away from the site and/or Twitter, there is a risk of losing one's captives, or losing money directly as one is able to try to steal it from another player. Players can purchase guards to prevent this. Also, one can make the decision of putting a valued captive into 'solitary confinement' which betters the chances of keeping him/her captive. There is a catch to this, as the captive does not produce income while in solitary confinement.

Leveling structure

In the fashion of Mafia Wars, 140 Mafia, and countless other social network games, the leveling structure is highly hierarchical and related to different missions and upgrading possibilities. Missions present specific instances of gameplay stringed together essentially as quests, in the overall, seemingly endless leveling structure. Stealing money and captives from others pits players against each other. Yet, what is missing is the 'gotcha' element of Parking Wars - i.e. when one is able to catch a fellow player parking illegally and slapping a ticket at him.

Lasting appeal?

Still, SNODS does afford, at least in theory, different levels of commitment; hardcore players can use specific, hashtag based tweets as commands, whereas casual players (like me) can still have a sense of progress without delving into such intricacies of the system.

Then again, having played the game now for a week or so, it has become somewhat stale with the level of commitment I am willing to invest at it - players do not steal my captives, as they are not probably desirable enough in terms of the game; some people steal money from me, but I do not get aggravated enough to go after them, and so on. Still, SNODS has kept me interested longer than Spymaster, for instance, because there are strategic aspects to it that I find more interesting, and the same goes for the core gameplay mechanics. In other words, there is a stronger sense of gameplay.

Monetization

SNODS offers the players a chance to become a 'Special Agent' (which is strange as everyone is dubbed 'SNODS Special Agent' by default) by purchasing a three month subscription plan for 14.95$. As a UI design note, this option is hidden behind way too many links. The paying player is allowed to accelerate their leveling up, they get 50% more resource accumulation, discounts from buying upgrades, extra recaptures of kidnapped captives, and so on.

Tweeting

Spymaster made the flood issue in Twitter game design quite apparent: Non-playing Twitter users were flooded with the #spymaster tweets that were irrelevant to them. What was interesting was the fact that it was a game that generated a heated discussion concerning Twitter's lack of filtering options.

With SNODS, the developers have taken precautions at the flooding issue, and the game does not reward tweeting to the same degree as Spymaster. Yet, it also hints at a complete level of control, which is not the case, however, as tweets about upgrades will find their way to your tweeple anyway. This brings up the question of the social acceptability of playing Twitter games, especially in relation to the particular sensibility of one's own follower community. Personally, I felt uncomfortable that in order to make the observations documented here, I had to channel some potentially unnerving tweets at my followers' eyes.

Work in Progress: Twitter Game Design Principles

Based on my analysis of SNODS, and other Twitter games mentioned here, I will present some tentative findings as game design principles. These are guidelines or hypotheses very much still in the making, but I believe they help in thinking about specific design solutions when creating social network game concepts. These are not in contradiction to the more general design drivers and principles I have written about earlier ('Game Design for Social Networks').

Time-based risks & rewards

Visiting and revisiting, or logging in / out, of the game is a dynamic that not only characterizes social network use, but lends itself to game design, because a risk-reward structure can be built in connection with it. It also supports the emotion of curiosity, which is fundamental to play-related emotions, i.e. what makes games fun and captivating, experientially speaking.

Follows/followers status (or ratio) as resource

Every game is not only a system where players interact with each other, the game elements, and the rules, but also always an information system. Thus, a game system can utilize the information the social network contains, and build its rules around that information, and give it new meanings. With Twitter, I do not think the game design solutions regarding follows/followers, number of updates, and other quantifiable information are exhausted. Game designers can look at the information services like Twit Truth provide to think about the possibilities.

Content from tweets as input to the game system

The substance of tweets is another information users produce into Twitterverse. However, due to it being qualitative in nature, its worth in terms of a game has to be based on player evaluation rather than system evaluation. This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it might make your game's rules less clear - but on the other hand, it gives room for player expression, and thus for more emergent play experiences.

Embedding game mechanics into #hashtags

A technique related to the above is what the Moonfruit Twitter marketing campaign implemented: As long as users include a specific #hashtag in their message, they are spreading the message. In a similar fashion, hashtags can have uses as subtle game mechanic which counters the flood issue: If your players are willing to include your game's hashtag in their off-game tweets, it presumably does not bother those not playing to the same degree. To support this, a website or desktop client functionality which inserts the hashtag automatically is in order. Because of this, it would not be surprising if a Twitter desktop client/widget would be launched specifically for game purposes.

The Retweet as human touch and reputation system

One of the playful aspects of, e.g., Facebook games is the symbolic physicality that pokes, hi-fives, sending drinks and gifts, etc. give to game play. They add a symbolic gensture of friendship and human warmth across the mediated network space. Twitter does not really have that - or does it?

Even if it lends itself to 'insult swordfighting', i.e. a witty exchange of ideas and compliments, I would argue that the practice of re-tweeting is the most inherent symbolically physical act, even if different from the Facebook examples. RTs also touch on another interesting aspect of social networks, namely the reputation systems many of them embed into their community functionalities (e.g. Flickr). Reputation systems are inherently related to hierarchies and roles between players, and thus RTing as a game mechanic should be given more thought.

Flood control - social acceptability

In any case, the public timeline and non-reciprocical nature of Twitter is both a possibility and a constraint. It gives your game a broadcast channel, much like a push SMS without costs, but you will not be able to control where it lands with precision. Direct messages help in avoiding spreading unnecessary flood, but they are more like e-mail than tweets in nature, and make your game go perhaps a bit too much under the radar in terms of your game's viral propagation. This is a case by case design solution, and it is very much dependent on the theme and business/design goals of your game.

Website as external interface and visualization aid

A website external to Twitter might sound obvious, but there are particular reasons for its necessity, and these might also have consequences for game design. This is particularly due to Twitter's non-visual and fast-paced nature.

A website is able to function both as a history and a home base for individual players, with information that Twitter can not handle or which is simply not part of the user experience of Twitter. The game's website should function as an external hub that visualizes the game state and data, and makes Twitter-based communication and community functionalities clickable - preferably into one-click actions that get the game mechanics rolling spontaneously.

Post Scriptum

Thanks for reading - I'd love to hear your comments. It might be that Twitter as a game platform is doomed to curiosities, and just not a very viable platform for games, or at least for developing anything more sophisticated than clones of popular social network games. Still, I am in the process of developing a game concept based on these design principles and patterns - if you are interested in discussing projects, do not hesitate to contact me.

-Aki - follow me at Twitter

Contact Aki via e-mail

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