What Makes Social Games Social?

The former executive producer of Kabam's Kingdoms of Camelot breaks down social interaction as expressed in casual social network games and hardcore MMOs into a set of heuristics that can be applied to your designs, to see how they support social play.

When people think about online social gaming, two broad categories of games immediately spring to mind: casual social games and hardcore MMOs. Despite the criticisms leveled by traditional game designers at casual games for their Skinner Box-like appeals to our core psychic compulsions, these games have become wildly popular on Facebook and mobile devices. MMOs, while never as broadly appealing, enjoy multi-year runs and rabidly loyal user bases. One common contributor to the success of both types of games is their unique social mechanics, which might be summarized as follows:

Casual social games:

  • Inviting "neighbors," sending gifts, visiting your friends' playspaces
  • Asynchronous play with asymmetrical, loose-tie relationships

Hardcore MMOs:

  • Forming parties and joining guilds, chatting with guild members, coordinating real-time group battles
  • Synchronous play with emphasis on symmetrical relationships that build strong ties

As a current designer/producer of hardcore strategy MMOs at Kabam and former designer/producer of casual social games at Zynga, I've become intimately acquainted with both sets of social mechanics. And I find both are very useful in developing sticky, engaging gameplay experiences. Neither is necessarily better than the other.

In fact, as free-to-play (F2P), online, multiplayer experiences make up an increasingly large share of the overall games market, we're seeing titles emerge that mix and match social mechanics from both the casual and hardcore lineages to great effect. League of Legends is a great example of this: Riot's DotA redux came from out of nowhere to make tens of millions of dollars by combining social mechanics from MMORPG PvP battles, RTS duels, and more casual F2P games to create an entirely new genre, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA).

Lobby screen in League of Legends.

Much of this evolution of what comprises "social" is being driven by the F2P business model itself. Traditional retail games equate to a single consumer decision: to buy or not to buy. F2P games, on the other hand, feature an ongoing courtship between the player and the developer. Because of the low barrier to entry, players are inherently less committed to any given F2P game. This means developers and publishers must do everything they can to keep players engaged deeply and regularly with their games. This can be done with core gameplay and an effective monetization system; the opportunity cost for leaving a game in which you've invested substantial time and money is high.

But "crowdsourcing" engagement and retention to the players themselves via compelling social features remains one of the surest ways to make a game both sticky and fun. A single-player game is a game, but a social game is a community, with all the fascinating human relationships one expects: competition, collaboration, peer pressure, rebellion, jealousy, compassion, and more. The difference between playing Scrabble against the computer and playing Words with Friends is the difference between killing time and a pop culture phenomenon.

So, for today's F2P online social games, "social" is about the user experience AND about business -- the two are inseparable. Game designers must determine which social mechanics fit their game's target market, gameplay, and business model. Whether these mechanics are traditionally found in casual Facebook games or hardcore MMOs is irrelevant.

Instead of viewing social through this limited, binary lens, this article will analyze player interactions using a set of three general heuristics. The advantage of this approach is that these heuristics can be applied to any online multiplayer game. Freed from a specific game design, their functional value becomes more apparent. Developers can then choose the interactions they feel will best serve their game's design.

Three Heuristics for Categorizing Social Mechanics

Of the three social mechanics we'll examine, one relates to the timing of social interactions and two involve the type of social relationship. Together, these mechanics encapsulate the social interactions of most online games:

  • Synchronous vs. Asynchronous player interaction: do interactions occur simultaneously in real time or at different times as in a turn-based game?
  • Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical relationship formation: does forming a relationship require input from both parties or can they be formed unilaterally by a single party?
  • Strong Tie vs. Loose Tie relationship evolution: do relationships tend to become deep and long lasting or are they more likely to be light and transitory?

Three heuristics for social game features.

Let's break down each of these heuristics in turn.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

The stereotype is that MMOs feature synchronous, real-time play while casual social games are asynchronous with interaction occurring at disconnected times. However, all MMOs also feature important asynchronous features (in-game messages, for example) and some Facebook games employ synchronous features (such as chat). Rather than an absolute proposition, current social games tend offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Some games may highlight one or the other, but there are many that utilize both to establish a richer layer of engagement and retention.

Synchronous Interaction

The concept of synchronous gameplay is intuitively obvious -- players interact in real time rather than taking turns. Examples of synchronous social interactions include text chat, voice chat, video chat, and player vs. player (PvP) battles (yes, PvP is a type of social interaction!). Synchronous interactions can scale from two players head to head (e.g., whispering and duels) to large groups (e.g., lobbies and raids).

Let's look at chat specifically as it is a powerful synchronous tool for player engagement and retention in both casual games and MMOs:

  • New players use chat make friends and ask basic questions
  • Experienced players use chat to brag about in-game accomplishments and form actual friendships (usually while killing time between events)
  • Hardcore players use chat to coordinate complex group (e.g., guild/alliance) play and manage intense politics and rivalries

Whether it's used to run a major guild in The Old Republic or help finish a badge book on, chat has a similar effect: boosting player engagement and facilitating long-term retention. When there is a real, vibrant support community present, players come back to a game more often and are less likely jump ship for another game. At Kabam, we've found chat invaluable as we've sought to bring more hardcore aspects to Facebook and web gaming -- which we'll discuss later.

Asynchronous Interaction

The term "asynchronous game" might at first conjure images of something slower or less robust, but asynchronous games can be just as engaging as synchronous ones -- think of playing chess with a friend or Diplomacy by mail, for example. Asynchronous social games come in different basic flavors, with some of the more common being:

1. Turn-based shared games: Examples of this genre include the With Friends games and one of my favorites, Carcassonne. They work well socially because:

  • Each move is a mini game
  • There is social pressure to come back and complete your next turn
  • Challenge of head-to-head competition
  • Bite-sized gameplay is easy to fit into schedules
  • Players can play multiple games at once

Asynchronous head-to-head play in Carcassonne.

2. Turn-based challenge games: Essentially, this works out to be two separate matches: I play your AI and then you play mine; aggregate score determines the winner. A good example is the Bola soccer game on Facebook (which literally mirrors the traditional home-and-away format of international soccer matches). They work socially because:

  • Social pressure to return challenge
  • Head-to-head competition
  • Less waiting than shared turn-based since each player can complete their entire game independently
  • Different strategies for attack and defense enrich experience

3. Score-based challenge games: This is the traditional "beat my high score" format as exemplified in Bejeweled Blitz. These games work socially because:

  • Social pressure to return challenge (one-upmanship)
  • Head-to-head competition and often game-wide leaderboards
  • Less waiting than turn-based since players can try for their high scores anytime
  • On the flip side, these types of games can be less interactive

4. Open-world asynchronous games: In many ways, this is the standard Facebook game model, used in games like FarmVille and many others. It's also the model for newer games with deeper social interaction such as Empires & Allies and Backyard Monsters. They work socially because:

  • Model supports variety of game modes, including both single-player and multi-player PvE and PvP
  • Can approximate MMO experience without incurring the technical challenges of real-time play (i.e., provides the living, persistent world of an MMO)
  • Still offers convenience of more casual games -- can play at different times and for short bursts

Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical

Perhaps the best example for understanding this heuristic is the formation of social connections in Facebook versus Twitter.

Facebook social relationships are symmetric: I ask to be your friend and you must agree in turn for the relationship to exist:

  • Core social unit: "Friend"
  • Pros:
    • Mutual acknowledgement breeds trust
    • Allows for deeper sharing
  • Cons:
    • Site interaction limited to friends
    • Friend relationships require (sometimes complex) management tools

Twitter social relationships are asymmetric: I can "follow" anyone I want, without their reciprocation:

  • Core social unit: "Follower"
  • Pros:
    • Allows for widespread broadcasting
    • Facilitates rapid dissemination of information
  • Cons:
    • Less investment in core social unit
    • Can be less private or more spammy because communication filters are less sophisticated

Examples of symmetric social interactions in online gaming include friending, neighbor systems, gifting, trading, and private chat on an individual scale and parties, alliances, and manual multiplayer matchmaking on a group scale. Asymmetric social interactions include following, broadcasting, tweeting, and blogging on an individual scale and public quests, factions, and random matchmaking on a group scale.

Let's take a deeper look at a few examples of symmetric and asymmetric relationships in online games.

Symmetric Interactions

A classic example of a symmetric relationship in online gaming is the MMORPG party. Forming a party in an MMORPG requires explicit consent from both the inviter and the invitee, the assumption being that the inviter wants control of who exactly he or she goes adventuring with.

While this means the invitee is sometimes subjected to a disappointing lack of invites (or a pile of ignored requests) it does mean the inviter can separate the wheat from the chaff in composing their party. This ultimately results in a deeper bond between party members, creating a tangible "us vs. them" mentality during PvE, bringing out effective class combos and facilitating the trade of level appropriate items and information.

Although Facebook games are less known for such symmetric relationships, they do exist in many of the platform's games. The neighbor system prevalent in games like FarmVille, for example, is a symmetrical social relationship. Even players who are in same game and are already FB friends still need to become "neighbors." This additional social hurdle creates an ongoing "friends with benefits" interaction where players send more gifts to each other and help each other unlock "social gates" (e.g., "You need five friends to staff this building," or "You need 10 keys to unlock this door").

Friend ladder in Cityville.

Asymmetric Interactions

Facebook games also feature numerous asymmetric social interactions. Instead of neighbor systems, many games simply add your Facebook social graph directly to your playspace without requiring the permission of your friends (e.g., Bejeweled Blitz). In our Kabam game Dragons of Atlantis, players can select any Facebook friend to serve as a general in their army, even if they're not actively playing the game.

These types of relationships are admittedly shallower than the neighbor system above, but because they are so broad, they lower barriers to interaction and create a high-density of ties among the games' players. In the Bejeweled Blitz example, it's too important to let the player see his friends' high scores to ask them for symmetry. The game just wouldn't work without a highly visible leaderboard. In the Dragons of Atlantis example, invite a non-playing friend to be a general has the advantage of exposing the game to potential new players in a personalized way via a wall-to-wall feed.

Asymmetric relationships also exist in MMOs. A great example of this is the "public quest" feature in Warhammer Online. This type of group PvE was specifically designed to avoid the normal hurdles of symmetrical party formation by automatically creating a transient party of all players who are near a public quest site. If a dragon is terrorizing the area, for example, anyone who comes within a certain range is automatically considered to be participating in the public quest to kill it. Players can quickly and easily get a taste of group play and then go their own ways afterwards. The low social barrier allows for more frequent cooperation, even if it means forgoing usual party staples like chat and item trading.

Strong Tie vs. Loose Tie

Symmetry vs. Asymmetry describes how relationships form but doesn't necessarily dictate how they evolve. For example, people who meet in the "Long-term Relationships Only" area of an online dating site are more likely to get married than those in "Casual Encounters" -- but that's not always the case. Ultimately the relationship depends on what happens after the first meeting. Strong tie vs. Loose Tie is a simple heuristic for gauging the evolution of a social relationship with a focus on depth of interaction.

Examples of strong-tie gaming relationships range from 1:1 scale (two-player co-op play and RPG parties) to group scale (guilds, alliances and leagues). Examples of loose-tie relationships also range from 1:1 (in-game neighbors, for example) to group scale (factions, classes, and tournaments).

Factions vs. Guilds

Strong ties are usually symmetric -- which makes sense as the requirement for symmetry usually means the relationship was designed for deeper sharing. Conversely, loose-tie relationships are usually, though not always, asymmetric.

A look at guilds versus factions provides a classic example of strong versus loose ties in MMORPGs. A player usually chooses a faction at the very beginning of a game on his own (i.e., asymmetrically). The faction relationship plays a role in determining core aspects of the player's experience, like which classes are available to him, where he will spending his time adventuring, and what quests he will encounter. Socially, it works as a broad glue, separating "us" from "them" or the "good guys" from the "bad guys." So even if a player meets someone whom he has nothing else in common with, their common faction can still be a jumping off point for their relationship.

Guilds are quite different. They usually don't affect a player's core experience so fundamentally, nor are they as critical in the early game. But once a player gets involved in a good guild (via symmetric acceptance), the social benefits it offers can literally be game changing. Guilds are where players trade items, learn optimal strategies and tactics, receive buffs and other benefits and, most of all, make friends. I can tell you a variety of personal things about the folks in my Chronicles of Merlin alliance (i.e., guild), despite not knowing any of their names or having ever met them. We even have our own Facebook page and interact with one another outside the game.

Alliance leaderboard in Chronicles of Merlin.

Factions vs. Neighbors

Loose-tie relationships aren't always asymmetric. Facebook neighbors, mentioned above, are in fact a good example of symmetric loose ties. The neighbor relationship is primarily designed for sharing gifts and small amounts of viral currencies, not for extensive chatting, strategizing, or cooperation. The reason for symmetry in this case is simply to better leverage the virality of the Facebook platform. Forcing players to confirm neighbor relationships engages them in sending requests to each other, an important behavior to encourage early in the players' lifetimes.

Class specialization

Loose ties don't always equate to low game impact. As mentioned above, factions can play a major role in shaping a player's experience. Another ubiquitous (to RPGs at least) example of a loose-tie relationship is class specialization. Class specialization is certainly social; it forces interdependence in group combat and defines the classic MMO tank/healer/DPS triad.

But it isn't a strong tie. Just because I'm a mage and you're a mage doesn't mean we're going to be fast friends. Rather, like factions, class specialization is a broad, constant factor in shaping gameplay outcomes. Interestingly, because class specialization is asymmetric (no one consents to my class choice), you can end up with too many players of one class. Although most games are balanced such that this does not occur on a global level, most of us have experienced the unfortunate PvP battle where our side was repeatedly mowed down due to a lack of "___" or too many "___" (fill in the blank with any of the roles: tank/healer/DPS).

Case Study: Kingdoms of Camelot


In order to better explain how these heuristics can be used to understand social mechanics, I'm going to apply them in detail to a game I know well, Kabam's Kingdoms of Camelot.

Our goal when we started Kingdoms of Camelot was ambitious: to create an MMO that also worked as a Facebook game. We wanted to combine hardcore strategy gameplay with Facebook's built-in social/viral channels and a deeper level of free-to-play engagement and monetization.

By a combination of skill, luck, and perseverance, we hit our goals and created one of most successful games on Facebook. Still going strong after more than two years, Kingdoms of Camelot is now one of the top strategy franchises on any platform, with 490,000 monthly active users as of this writing, so we must have done some things right -- particularly on the social side.

Let's look at what went well and what we could have done better for the both game's MMO and Facebook social components.

KoC as a Facebook Game

The core of KoC works fairly well as a Facebook game, since it can be played as a single-player, quest-driven city builder. Key social mechanics that work well with Facebook include asynchronous combat, a friend ladder with invites/requests, resource gifting, and viral feeds for things like building help.

Combat (asynchronous, asymmetric): Combat in KoC is asynchronous: the attacker initiates a battle against any player (even one who is offline), his armies march to the target on a map, the battle ensues, and results are then sent as reports to the inboxes of both players when it is complete. This simple, timer-based system supports bite-sized Facebook play patterns while still allowing for engaging PvP.

KoC's combat is also asymmetrical in that a player can choose any target. The world is a real, open battleground and doesn't use any lobbies or matchmaking like some PvP systems. This "always on" feature is mitigated by the fact that beginning players are protected from attacks and any player can hide his troops in a "sanctuary" to prevent losing them when offline.

Battle report screen in KoC.

Invite/Request system (asynchronous, symmetric): Like all Facebook games, players send friend invites and build a friends ladder. You can invite friends to be Knights that lead your armies and you can send gifts of resources and troops to friends. Players can interact with friends anytime, even when offline (asynchronous), but friends must accept invites and requests (symmetrical).

Social feeds (asynchronous, asymmetric): KoC's social feeds are similar to other Facebook games but focus on material, in-game incentives (vs. "bragging"). For example, players can share a Merlin's Magical Boxes token for a chance to win free virtual goods or post viral "Build with Help" requests that Facebook friends can click through to reduce the time to construct buildings, conduct research, or train troops.


What we did well:

  • Evolved Facebook city building games by adding in asynchronous combat
  • Leveraged integration with core Facebook channels for modest virality/engagement bump

Where we could improve:

  • Facebook channels are not as deeply integrated as some games
  • No "friend visits" or vanity social status
  • Friend invites and gifting are not tied to game progression or in-game resources
  • Feeds are only utilized for some features, limiting virality

KoC as an MMO

Beyond its core Facebook integration, KoC's innovation is that it plays like a real MMO: emergent behavior in both social and combat features drives deep immersion. The game's combat system features open-world group PvP, tournaments, and leaderboards just like a client-based MMO. Other traditional MMO social features include alliances, chat, messaging, and trading.

MMO combat (synchronous, strong tie): Because KoC's combat system is based around open-world group PvP, it drives synchronous, strong-tie social interactions. Even though any individual attack is asynchronous, alliances band together to conduct planning and strategy and coordinate waves of attacks in real time.

The game features regular tournaments with rewards and new worlds where players can start over, both of which encourage repeat play while refreshing PvP rivalries. Individual and alliance leaderboards provide a measuring stick for combat might, fueling a strong sense of both social status and competition.

Alliances (synchronous, strong tie): The game's alliance (guild) structure and social tools enable extremely strong ties.

A feature known as "alliance diplomacy" allows alliances to set other alliances as friends, enemies, or neutral, giving rise to meta-alliance social play that is symmetrical (both alliances must agree to a diplomacy level), asynchronous (diplomacy doesn't need to be done while both parties are online) and strong tie (the jockeying for position and status never ends).

Social status and power disparities within an alliance also generate strong ties. Each alliance has several leadership roles for elite players who serve as Chancellors and Vice Chancellors and decide who's in and who's out of an alliance.

Being rejected from an alliance can be like being rejected from a prestigious college or job: it can fuel a player's game-long quest to prove the alliance wrong by forming a rival group that is more powerful.

Alliance-specific "slices" of other synchronous, strong-tie social tools such as chat, messaging, and battle reports also allow alliances to communicate and strategize while keeping the information "in the family." For example, how players in one alliance describe players from another among themselves can be quite different from how they socialize with them externally.

Chat (synchronous): KoC chat is a key synchronous social feature that makes the world feel more dynamic and alive in real time. Three levels of chat allow players different ways to communicate. Alliance and private chat channels (symmetric, strong tie) foster relationships during the down time while waiting for builds to finish. Global chat (asymmetric, strong or weak tie) lets beginners ask questions while encouraging the trash talk that drives enmity between alliances.

Alliance chat in KoC.

Messaging and Trading (asynchronous): Messaging (asymmetric, strong tie) is used for communicating organizational and logistical info: alliance rules and announcements, battle plans, enemy information. Resource trading (symmetric, weak tie) adds an additional layer of non-combat, social interdependency as players buy and sell goods with each other.


Kingdoms of Camelot brought synchronous, strong-tie MMO play to Facebook social gaming to create a new experience on the platform.

What we did well:

  • Layered synchronous MMO PvP combat onto a Facebook game
  • Focused on strong-tie alliance relationship as gameplay foundation
  • Supported combat system with social communication tools that leverage both synchronous/asynchronous and symmetric/asymmetric relationships

Where we could improve:

  • Deepen combat system with additional strategy/tactics (e.g., support group PvE in addition to group PvP)
  • Develop social structure of alliances even further (e.g., support broader play styles beyond attacking and sharing resources)
  • Provide additional communication tools (e.g., offline notifications for key events/interactions, additional channels for communication between alliance officers and other subgroups, etc.)


As the online game landscape becomes less black and white, social innovation requires more work. When we established Kingdoms of Camelot as an early hardcore MMO on Facebook, we had a clear point of differentiation from previous games. Since then, the Facebook landscape has become more MMO-oriented, and there are more PvP games available. Even heretofore strictly casual game developers like Digital Chocolate and Zynga have joined in with titles like Army Attack and Empires & Allies.

Map screen in KoC.

At the same time, the non-Facebook landscape has become more "casual" (or at least more broadly social). Players now expect ALL online games to offer full multiplayer functionality and interactive support features. This is evidenced in recent developments in AAA MMO social mechanics.

For example, World of Warcraft made major updates to its raiding features with Cataclysm to make group PvE less onerous and more accessible. Star Wars: The Old Republic, the latest and greatest MMO on the block, allows players to work on their personal class quests even while adventuring in mixed-class parties.

This is an important concession to social accessibility, as class story quests are a key differentiator in SWTOR.

Lastly, the free-to-play business model is really flexing its gaming muscles. Most of the older subscription MMOs -- Dungeons & Dragons Online, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online -- have all moved to F2P. Even some non-MMO, hardcore games like Team Fortress 2 are now F2P as well. In fact, Sega just announced the first true F2P title for the PlayStation Vita, Samurai & Dragons, based on the top-grossing F2P iOS game Kingdom Conquest.

This diverse landscape means that it's harder to differentiate your social game (or should I say "your game, socially") from the competition -- yet more important than ever to do so.

Using These Heuristics

The three heuristics we've described are not a panacea for all social game design -- but they can be very instructive. You can use them to both help evaluate existing games or design new ones.

For existing games, break down your social mechanics against these heuristics to determine your true mix of synchronous/asynchronous, symmetrical/asymmetrical and strong-tie/loose-tie relationship features. Ask yourself if your approach fits the needs of your audience, gameplay, and platform. For example, an older audience might not take to synchronous play, while a younger audience might demand it; a "twitchy" arcade game might not be suitable for strong-tie relationships; or a mobile game might be most social if relationships were low friction and thus primarily asymmetrical. So ask yourself: what would you change, and why?

The greatest value of these heuristics can be realized when designing new social games from scratch. Proper use can move your game beyond the binary casual/hardcore approach to incorporate novel, multilayered patterns of social interaction. It's always easier to build a strong social layer into a new game, where it can be tied deeply into the gameplay, than to try to graft new social features onto an existing game.

In translating your business and user goals into game features, put the greatest focus on the social mechanics your particular players will interact with most often. Even a well-designed social feature will have a smaller impact on users -- and ultimately your business -- if it is buried in the interface or peripheral to core gameplay.

Also remember that a mix of social mechanics often yields the strongest results. Kingdoms of Camelot likely would have been less successful if we had used elements solely from the Facebook or MMO side of the social mechanics ledger. A mix of features leveraging Facebook channels for viral acquisition and early retention plus MMO social interaction for deeper engagement and monetization was what worked best for us and our players.

Finally, remember that these heuristics are rules of thumb, not absolute guidelines. Learn the rules then break them as long as it works for your game and your audience. Good luck!

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