Games Made For Sharing: Social Game Design
It’s a truism that even in the era of instantly accessible content, nothing quite rivals the power of word of mouth. Social media can help us to find new trusted content to download, but maximizing your game’s social impact requires more than integrating the Facebook, Twitter, or even the Everyplay plugins into your game.
Creating a social game has the potential to bring with it huge benefits such as increased installs, increased retention, and even retention through social factors. The following chart comes from our 2014 online survey of 3000 games players and shows how sharing behaviors can impact spending.
As a game designer, you have to understand not only the player’s underlying motivation to share, but his journey to engage with shared content. I’ve written about this before when I tried to classify social player engagement using “The Six Degrees of Socialisation”.
We don’t need to explore this in detail here, but essentially players are willing to engage at different levels based upon the effort, reward, and risk of doing so. Like ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, we have to fulfill their most basic need first before players will consider higher states of engagement. However this is actually an upside-down pyramid, as the effort involved to sustain each sunsequent state grows ever higher and involves greater personal risk. Let’s look at the kinds of behaviors we might eventually hope to get from our players.
- Wanderer – The lowest level of social interaction, such as using helper characters based on real players who happen to play at the same time as you (e.g. Hellfire/Puzzles & Dragons).
- Personal Affirmation – A simple public statement of the players’ engagement in a game. There is no expectation for others to engage back as this is a broadcast of their identity.
- Social Capital – An indirect benefit from some kind of display in the context of a game that reflects the taste/talent or commitment to the game. A key aspect to many IAP decisions.
- Making A Statement – Beyond the simple broadcast comes a more competitive declaration usually involving scores, some amazing captured content, or an act of creativity.
- Meaningful Communication – The start of leveraging a game to intentionally communicate to others, rather than in a gameplay context by using the game as the medium.
- Esoteric Lore – Games (particularly where there is ambiguous strategy) become the focal point for social debate and depth of knowledge of game Lore becomes inherently valuable.
- User Generated Content – When player creativity breaks the barrier of what is essential to play and creating content becomes the purpose (sometimes across other mediums).
- eSports – When competition becomes formalized & stratified to the level where observing professional play is as intrinsically enjoyable as any sport (often with significant prize money).
Encouraging these behaviors can be incredibly powerful as long as its authentic. For the purposes of this post we don’t want to confuse social features with ‘gift spamming’, which has almost nothing to do with genuine social communication and is essentially a derivative form of gameplay advantage. That can have its place, but it has been so overused that it has damaged player trust. Instead, we have to create the conditions which enable players to communicate and make this inherently enjoyable; but we can’t force them to use them. As much as we all want to make our game the next eSport or YouTube sensation, that is out of our hands and success only comes from our players. Every game can benefit from social design, but it takes a touch of alchemy for games to ‘Go Viral’. It seems that this is often based on the following factors:
- Social Zeitgeist: Timing is everything. There are countless games out there and your game has to stand apart not just in terms of play, but also in its timing with the audience. What makes your game stand out as not just the next Angry Birds, League of Legends, World of Tanks, etc., but something ready right now to replace them?
- Social Identity: Players need ‘hooks’, which let them easily identify both themselves and all who belong to your player’s community as ‘Us’ and those who don’t play as ‘Them’. This may come from the art or playing style or even inherently in the skill curve. However, you need something which directly connects your audience and lets them stand apart.
- Niche Lore: An incredible level of Niche Lore (detailed and specific knowledge) can be required by players in order to maximize their potential playing these games. This is especially important where there are ambiguous or asymmetrical strategies of play. Don’t mistake this for complexity, even a game like Puzzles & Dragons has an incredible depth of hidden knowledge which comes into play only in later phases of long-term play
- Brand Reach: Scale is a vital factor in all of this, as is having both deep marketing pockets and endorsement from your existing community – YouTubers or Platform holders absolutely help to expand your reach. Scalability is not just the number of users though. It requires a depth and repeatability of game play that can last for months, or better yet, years, while still sustaining a predictable uncertainty. You need a critical mass of content and audience if the game is to gain a self-sustaining momentum.
If we want a successful game, then we can’t afford to ignore these social factors even if we don’t think our idea is likely to gain the heady heights of League of Legends or Minecraft. Benefiting from social experiences is about understanding not just how we connect players to each other, but also how to incorporate the design choices which make communication inherently worthwhile. Let’s look at a psychological model of sustaining social connections:
This model looks at how any social relationship involves a degree of effort and an expectation of some kind of reward (love, happiness, acceptance, pleasure, companionships, etc).
If we consider our engagement with a game a social relationship, we must acknowledge that there are a lot of games out there which present themselves as having a positive social experience. If we don’t understand the delicate balance between effort and reward in our game and how we compare to others, how will we be successful at retaining users?
How we communicate with players and, more importantly, how they communicate with each other, takes on a new dimension. Just like any human relationship, communication is key to understanding how what we’re getting out of being together compares to what we would miss out on if we separated.
So what practical tips can we apply to our game design that will create the best potential for social sharing and retention? And of course to maximize this potential if we manage to become part of the social zeitgeist. This seems to come down to understanding how your game delivers on the following:
Replayability is an essential aspect of any game as a service. In many eSport games, this goes as far as ensuring that the start conditions are identical every time with players choosing upgrades only during play. This is a valid strategy but it comes at a price where the game risks impacting the ongoing sense of purpose and progression for many players. These players will hit a ‘skill’ ceiling when it comes to such games and may churn earlier as a result. This approach can also directly limit otherwise useful In-App Purchases, which could have delivered not just social capital, but also good strategy options.
However, some (often MMO-style) games only unlock the best equipment as the player journeys through the game, with each new monster the player meets being slightly more difficult than the last. This can quickly unbalance the play too far away from the skill and the autonomy of players. Breaking the game strategy and progression into independent loops can mitigate this. For example if you had a game which had a preparation stage, in-play improvements, and victory conditions, then you could take the following approaches:
1) Player Preparation: The character/tools you take into play have both positive and negative aspects which affect play style.
2) In-Play Upgrade Path: Players may adjust in advance, but there are ‘standard paths’ for newer players. Make the advantages strategic.
3) Victory Conditions: Taking part and completing play should always be rewarded to give you a chance to improve. Victory itself should introduce new choices/strategies which contribute to the player’s sense of purpose and engagement, rather than simple linear improvements which equate to the player just fighting a bigger monster each time.
Competence VS: Accessibility
There is nothing quite like a challenge to create a sensation. We love the extraordinary difficulty of games like Dark Souls or Superhexagon, but these frustrating challenges eventually wear on us over time. The trouble is that the difficulty curve cannot be never ending or our players will reach a point where the effort overwhelms the rewards of success; one where they either can’t afford the time or simply don’t have the reflexes of their friends.The ability to learn how to play the game is too often poorly understood by developers who may introduce cumbersome tutorials or fail to communicate clearly enough for mass market players to feel they know how to even get started. Many games also mistake the nature of competitive play. While competition is a huge motivation for some, the vast majority of people are not motivated solely by competition. They need other things to motivate them, such as progression and narrative- You don’t want to alienate your social audience by limiting accessibility to those with sufficient skill.This becomes easier to manage when you stratify the game, allowing players to reach their own level of competence and find others of a similar level, or when you provide alternative success criteria. Remember that a player’s own goals have to feel attainable, even if they can’t compete at the very highest levels.
Emergence VS: Balance
We have talked about Replayability and Purpose as important factors to balance. If we fail, it can lead to not only sterile gameplay, but also sterile game visuals. We need our games to sparkle when they are watched by an audience. This means we need to uncover unpredictable elements of gameplay or visuals which will delight viewers as well as players – this often takes the form of effects triggered by unique combinations of actions.Consider tactics introduced with a new playable character or an emergent property of an item in gameplay, such as Acid being combined with Stone. The key to developing successful emergence is that it’s not about randomness; it’s about a set of rules having player-led uncertainty. Hill Climb Racer has consistently been one of the games with the most shared replays on Everyplay, because the emergent properties of the game’s physics always deliver a joyful result – catastrophic failure. That failure isn’t randomly imposed, as it’s an emergent property where the physics meets sensitive player controls.
The choice of attack method in a MOBA itself only becomes interesting to watch when it’s defended by another player and their choice of character. There are (usually) only 3 paths, yet they remain interesting based on how each player leverages their abilities and advantages against each other. Their teamwork, communication skills and knowledge are just as important as the game itself. All of this falls apart if the emergent properties in a game overwhelm the inherent balance of the game. If the game loses balance, it stops being fun and any emergent properties are rendered worthless.
Autonomy VS: Narrative
Games are fundamentally an expression of the player through the game where their actions help to shape their own narrative. This is what makes games different from any other media. We need this capacity in a game in order for our choices, skills and actions to make a difference. However, in many very popular games the player is either discovering the single solution setup by the designer or unlocking the narrative the game designer wants to tell.True, autonomy can’t be possible if you’re playing a character with a specific story to tell, but how can we understand what our character can do or why we should emotionally connect with them without any context? Designer-led (rather than player-led) games are largely at odds with this concept and therefore negate the benefits of social play, but that doesn’t mean that narrative doesn’t have a place in social games. As Wolfgang Volk said at Respawn 2015 “[SIC] games have rules, conflict, and character, they are already stories and any narrative we create around that should be designed to help the game and its rules be better understood”. Again this becomes easier when we separate out aspects of the game from the player setup, the in-game upgrades, and the post-play sense of purpose.
In the end though, there is only so much we can do to create the right conditions for social experiences. In many ways the most important tips have very little to do with game design itself.
- You Can’t Fake Authenticity – Engage honestly with your players, listen yet still lead.
- Trust Your Audience – Going social means losing control – but this is good (when moderated).
- Players Have Their Own Audience – Why is your game fun for your players’ friends to watch.
- Social Isn’t Just an SDK – It’s about how you use those tools inside your game.
- Social Reflects a Hierarchy of Needs – We don’t all have to make eSports games.
Think about the player’s own audience to make the most of the experience and then download the Everyplay SDK here to capitalize on shared content creation.