Designing for the Social Platform

I spoke on a panel yesterday and someone asked a question about the tablet market versus the iPhone market. After carefully explaining to the person that NO ONE QUESTIONS ME, I went on to discuss some of my thoughts on the difference between the platforms. You see, I’m of the mind that each platform (mobile, tablet, social, browser, pc, console, etc.) fosters a specific style of play that has important design implications. The best game for the social platform really shouldn’t be ideal for the mobile for web platform.

I’m probably wrong (I’m not), but I enjoy writing a lot more when I take risks. So let’s crack open social and see what’s what.

Where Hast the Social Gone?

Facebook has established social as a legitimate (and profitable) segment of the video game industry. Even with the virals somewhat constrained, there is something powerful about attaching a social graph to an entertainment experience. Games have long been “social” in nature, but Facebook presents an opportunity to optimize and aggressively pursue social interaction via game design. The power of the social graph has enormous implications for design – implications that are generally ignored.

Social games aren’t very social. Don’t take my word for it, even the uppity ups at Zynga agree. Collaboration is superficial, communication is largely nonexistent and the social graph is more about user acquisition than gameplay. I don’t really expect games to reach the pinnacle of their evolution a few years into the platform, but I am a bit surprised that games don’t more seriously investigate depth in social mechanics.

Think about Monopoly.  It’s a great, enduring game that necessarily contemplates a social interaction as a part of gameplay. More importantly, it’s about depth in social interaction – wheeling and dealing between players is a critical component to the enjoyment and sophistication of the game. These mechanics simply aren’t present inside social games. The social graph is leveraged (to great effect in the past) for the purpose of drawing players into games via friend gating and wall spamming, not for actual social play.

In fact, the games often actively prevent socializing around the game. Typically the games focus on asynchronous, single-player experiences with little by the way of direct communication. Interactions focus on task fulfillment but not collaboration on joint projects. There is little by way of mutual strategy; it simply isn’t required for a significant portion of the game play.

Perhaps the biggest issue has been the fact that social games don’t really need to be social to be successful. If you can create a game that people find compelling on a single player level, then you can just rely on the “social” aspects as a mean to lower your cost per install of the game, which just expands your margin on each player. If players are opting in to these type of experiences and monetizing, why undertake the arduous task of creating a multiplayer game?

And it is arduous. In a single player game focused on player versus environment, you can implement all manner of broken items without fear of repercussion. If the player wants to monetize his way out of a challenge by buying Nuke Weapon +1billion damage, then no worries. Sure, it may impact the player’s long-term retention by allowing them to consume the content more quickly, but you’ve adequately monetized that tradeoff (particularly if you can route him to another game in your system after that).

Multiplayer social games require highly balanced systems and monetization cannot rely on a “pay to win” model. Giving paying players a significant advantage in a competitive system disenfranchises the broader player base, which you generally need to fill out the ranks of the community. So you get into this tough situation where you need to try to deliver value to the monetizer without creating a significant perceived advantaged. Tough stuff to be sure. A great example of a game that managed this balance well is Draw Something – providing players with new colors is an advantage, but not an enormous one.

The sea change will be when people stop thinking about virals as a solution for distribution and start thinking about it as a fundamental aspect of core gameplay. Imagine a game that seamlessly integrates friend acquisition as a positive mechanic. Where players are incentivized to call new players into the game as a critical part of increasing satisfaction rather than removing frustration. Such a game has the potential to revitalize virals by creating incentives for players to actively advocate beyond spamming on behalf of the game.

The Way We Play

Asynchronous multiplayer games are attractive because they don’t require any coordination on the part of the users for them to play. I do not expect social games to move down a synchronized path in the near future. The simple fact is that synchronized games are at odds with the nature of the platform. Facebook is a platform designed for the multitasker, a synchronized game requires a high degree of concentration. A game that expects a player to pay attention for anything approaching a meaningful period of time (5+ minutes) without distraction has just lost the core Facebook audience.

Facebook often operates as a background process to one’s day, a low priority dalliance people cannot resist. It occasionally bubbles to the surface via a friend request, a wall post or a filler for one’s idle moments but one’s primary objective is rarely Facebooking. You don’t see people block out 2 hours out of their day for the purpose, it just so happens that they end up spending that amount without really paying attention to it.

This use case does not align with synchronized highly dedicated play over extended periods. People cannot afford to spend 20 minutes playing a game they can’t disentangle themselves from during work. They want something they can slide in around the margins of their day. This means social games need to be social without requiring people to interact in real-time. A tricky proposition.

Of course, this disadvantage is countered by an advantage: you KNOW a person is going to come back to their Facebook page. This means that a message sent will likely be received, even if it isn’t acted on immediately. Even more important is the fact that a person will likely return to their Facebook page at numerous points throughout the day. As a result, an asynchronous game can potentially have an impact on a person’s thoughts around the clock, something most synchronous games can’t lay claim to (because they need to end when one player leaves).

To date, games leverage this use case in a primarily single player way (retargeting mechanisms like crop withering in sims comes to mind). My expectation is that Facebook games will make greater use of play patterns in a more directly social way moving forward. I can see round-based and turn based play becoming more important. I can see collaborative projects that require players to create through iterative efforts. There’s a lot to be done by drilling down on the use case and associating it with social play, far more than we’ve seen to date.

The real question is what happens if and when social gamers tire of the single player PvE grind fest. Eventually, social games will require new ways to take advantage of the large install base residing on Facebook, and the natural progression is along those lines of design that highlight the advantages of the platform. The social graph is something with no analogous presence on the other platforms, and it’s a serious opportunity.

JM: And now the disclosure. Both Shawn and I work at game studios that put the social back into social games. Minor detail. But I think we chose our paths because of our convictions. At least that’s the line we’re sticking to.

And between you and me, I think Shawn is baiting me with that unsubstantiated intro  about social needing to be different from mobile. I’m not taking the bait.

3 thoughts on “Designing for the Social Platform

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  2. For on-the-go social gaming, I believe games like Scramble, Words With Friends, and Draw Something have the perfect model – low commitment interactive gaming with high game variability and short game length. Those games are great because they actually require no synchronous interactivity between players but gives them the feeling that they have been social.

    Moving forward, I would like to see social games move away from the current model of using “social guilt” as a motivator for playing. The main reasons I personally steer clear of FaceBook games in general are because they 1) try to be too integrated into my social life and 2) they try too hard to create external social pressure to keep players engaged. Social pressure is an integral part of any non-single player game, but that pressure should be internally by the social dynamic of the players. More and more social games are trying to leverage their social aspects to keep players interested, but those tactics have actually succeeded in pushing a lot of gamers away. Social games will have to be a bit subtler in the future if they don’t want to annoy their base.

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