Messenger Games – The next big opportunity?
Messenger games could be the next land grab opportunity in the mobile space. I spoke at Digital Dragons conference in Poland, evaluating the different messenger platforms (iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WeChat) as potential routes to market. There are still a large number of restrictions on what you can do as a developer, but the scale and gamer engagement seen on new Messenger platforms is a positive sign.
- Discussion of the Messenger Landscape. Who controls which apps, what is the scale and usage within these apps.
- Blue Ocean – Currently the number of developers making messenger games is low, there is still opportunity to land grab.
- How Messenger Gaming works – how a user gets a messenger game on to their device.
- Why Messenger games are unlikely to work with IAP, but will focus more on social distribution.
- Breakdown of a number of top messenger games. What are the good and bad game design decisions that have been made:
- Give player meaningful choices on each round
- Everything should be instant, high intensity.
- End rounds naturally, by easing people in and easing people out
- EverWing uses social mechanics to drive higher engagement and to bring people back to the game more often.
- Messenger games have more, short sessions. Design yours for 30 seconds rounds.
- How to write engaging messages to bring people back in messenger. Dynamic, Social, Competitive.
- Messenger games retain for longer periods due to compelling social, and less competition in the space (being first helps your game to be noticed and played more often)
- Why are you not thinking about messenger games?
Deconstructing Nimblebit Bit City
The latest release from Nimblebit features the Bitizens and this time they’ve used an idle/clicker/tapper crossed with a city builder in their new release of Bit City (iOS / Android). I’ve been a long time fan of the Nimblebit team, started by the brothers Dave and Ian Marsh back in 2007 but expanded to a number of other key staff. My personal favourite game of theirs was Tiny Tower, but I’ve also played and churned out from most of their newest releases. Pocket Frogs deserves a design mention as it still has one of the best collection/rarity mechanics of any game that I’ve played on mobile. Nimblebit specialises in creating a collecting or simulation experience around common everyday objects.
Bit City’s core mechanic is an endless economic growth game and the aim of the game is to progress through the 8 increasingly sprawling cities to generate the most income per second.
Clickers in General
The clicker or idle genre is one of the more recent but extremely popular free to play mechanics that we’ve seen on mobile. There are some great reasons why the mechanic itself has been present in many large successes such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans or Egg Inc. At it’s core, the loop for a clicker is very simplistic. You’re trying to improve your rate of earning, in order to buy items to increase your rate of earning.
The simplicity of the core loop is both a blessing and a hindrance. The fact that everything you do in the game contributes to making you better at what you do (earning currency) feels very rewarding.
Every action is a positive action.
The hindrance comes when you eventually find the core interaction (tapping as fast as you can) repetitive and boring. In some clicker games, this can happen very fast. So, as a game designer, you eventually shift the player’s motivation from tapping to something that will last much longer. The clicker game genre eventually shifts into a strategy of choosing what to upgrade next. In Tap Titans 2 a player is strategically shifted from upgrading characters to gathering gear, pets or items. All of these have random drops and XP to give much more strategic depth. Upgrading anything feels good, but timing and choice matter.
No one can be expected to be active in a game forever which is where the idle aspect of most clickers come in. While you’re away your game is playing itself, constantly growing your earnings. That way when you come back, a stockpile of cash for you to quickly spend and improve to feel powerful. This happens every time you come back, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 hours, the size of the stack changes but the feeling of reward stays the same.
The genre itself appeals to a certain type of gamer. Those obsessed with finding the most efficient and time-effective way to improve their progress (in the form of earning rate). Sometimes referred to as min/maxers finding 1-2% efficiency in upgrade choice is rewarding as you are progressing. Yet even the casual player feels good, you’re constantly making progress but at a lower rate. If you’re more interested in story and context then you will often not feel as excited about idle games. It is a game for fans of stats and numbers.
Bit City – Context provides content
Idle games began on the web with titles such as Cookie Clicker or Cow Clicker released around 2012-2014. These games were incredibly simple. They drew huge numbers of returning users every day as the objective of “having the highest number” is so clear and powerful for players.
In more recent times games such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans, Farm Away, Make it Rain have re-skinned the mechanic and given a context to the clicking. Context helps with design decisions as you immediately add more depth. Depth provides you with content and that content can better mask the simple stat progression. Player’s decide their goal is to “build the greatest city” rather than to “get the highest number” and this creates a better sales pitch if and when they tell their friends about your game. Context helps you design and it helps you sell, use it to your advantage and don’t neglect it by slapping it on at the end of development.
Bit City provides much more context to the clicking experience by using a city and it’s buildings to provide more visual substance and reference to the core loop. The City Context is a good one, used in multiple genres it’s easy to reference, has great depth and is applicable to people from all countries. Bit City uses this to great effect, but adding Building Zones, Cars, Planes, City Hall and Windmills each contributing to your currency earning.
Clicking = Building
The core mechanic of tapping furiously on the screen has been removed in favour of the idea of building. One must purchase and classify lots so that buildings of specific type are built. Buildings then fill each lot and the large Build button upgrades and refreshes the building on each lot for a small increase in coins per second earning power. The upgrading of buildings is endless and rather than getting stuck in a content farm black hole, the buildings are upgraded at random. Every upgrade levels up the block and each subsequent upgrade adds 1 second to the total time required to build the next block, leading in the later game to upgrades take minutes. Choice of which block to upgrade is removed from the player through randomisation and the player is taught very quickly that every upgrade is beneficial.
This is a very strong mechanic for a number of reasons:
- Thematically it makes sense. Your city changes with time and you can position blocks in certain areas to make your city look beautiful
- You may also lock in place any buildings you particularly like allowing the creatives build beautiful masterpieces of a modern renaissance!
- Choice paralysis is removed because you don’t need to choose what to upgrade and all upgrades are beneficial.
- Build timers slow down sessions giving people incentive to leave.
As a pacing mechanic, it continues to engage at all stages of the game. This is often one area that other clickers loose me on as in the mid-late game, I simply stop clicking…
Simplicity and clarity are always key design decisions for mobile game developers. People spend a few minutes at a time with your game and so everything needs to be clear and make sense in an instant. The choices available to a player in Bit City always relate to upgrades. The most profitable upgrade you can do is buying a new building for your city as each building provides a larger base earning rate. A really nice design feature is the idea of city zoning. There are 3 zones, Residential, Industrial and Commercial. Within this feature is a lot of shallow depth, that is there are a very large number of options and possibilities but as a player, the way they affect the game is incredibly minor. They do not affect the core in any way, they simply provide a route to micro-optimisation, reinforcing the fun of clickers.
Each building zone is balanced by providing a 10% bonus or 10% deficit depending on the overall % of zones, this promotes people to build in an ordered manner. At certain times you may want to opt for larger investments in certain zones because both the Mission system and the City Bonus system provide bonus’ specifically based on type of building built. This is a good use of shallow depth again. Most people would not obsess over the minutiae of which building to build, but to really get the most optimisation at each minute of gameplay it might be valuable to invest in specific zones at specific times.
Missions with increasing reward
Another clever design decision is to reward ever increasing premium currency (Bux) by completing missions. Missions usually revolve around building, improving or owning some upgrade or building.
There is only one mission available at a time and they seem to be structured to appear in a specific order. Rather than having a small payout with lots of quick missions to teach people the mechanics, Nimblebit have used missions to give players a longer term goal. The cleverest of these is the ownership of 2 of the same building types i.e (2 Baseball Fields).
Mission systems are one of the classic mid-term progression systems. They provide a steadying hand and a focus for players when options of what to do open up. The best mission systems are usually curated or at least missions are grouped and then provided based on XP level.
The Premium Currency (Bux) are gifted in 10 bux increasing increments. This is risky, as it becomes a significant source of Bux in the mid game. I think the progression is a nice touch but the size of the progression is too high, it would have worked just as well say, 10,12,14 etc. At mission 13 I’m on 130 Bux which is equivalent to $0.13. Each mission can take an hour or more, but sometimes you might complete 2 or 3 in a few minutes. Although it might not seem a lot it lessens the requirement to spend. In the mid-game, it’s most profitable to focus on and perform the mission at hand. Balancing the rewards and spend of the premium currency is definitely one area that Bit City could improve on.
Progress, Profits, Prestige
Modern clickers increase the gameplay depth over time in a number of ways. These usually either increase the speed of clicks (Faster), the value of a click (More) or automating the clicking process entirely (auto). Each of these upgrades has a clear and tangible benefit, they help you gain more currency quicker, give your players a choice: do you invest in yourself being active in the game, or invest in the time you’re inactive?
Each city comes with a set number of plots. 4 for a level 1 city, 8 for a level 2 city etc. As you build more buildings you start to max out your plots. As soon as you have maxed your plots a new city unlocks and you sacrifice all of your upgrades and buildings to start again. This creates a clear goal for gamers and eases gamers into the game via small cities. As you progress the cost of each new building starts to become prohibitively expensive which encourages you to want to sacrifice everything in order to prestige to obtain Keys which will speed up everything in your game for the entirety of your play time.
What’s very pleasing compared to other clicker games is that the speed of progress is managed by a multiple limiting factors. Limits by multiple sources feel elegant rather than a strong single limiting factor. First, the coins themselves slow progress as you can’t build enough buildings, then the plots limit progress on one city as you max them out and finally the cities themselves become prohibitively expensive unless the global tap multiplier is improved by prestiging.
Prestige is very important as it adds ebbs and flows to an otherwise linear progression. Every time you do prestige you suddenly feel incredibly powerful as you race through early content, this is important as rather than having to create more complexity players are re-engaging with the game and reinforcing the simple systems of the game and progressing incredibly quickly. Bit City has created “mini- prestige’s” every time you upgrade to a new city once you have maxed out your plots. With every reset there is a sense of loss but also a sense of growth, getting your players used to this feeling helps them engage with the main Prestige mode.
In the mid to late game idle games, prestige currencies become the main goal in Bit City these are Keys. It’s very important to get the balance and the feel of Keys right. In Bit City, Keys feel underpowered as the quantity of keys provided when you prestige is too small. A user wants to feel progress at close to double the previous rate when they sacrifice all of their upgrades. Doubling up whilst keeping a logarithmic increase in the power curve of costs equates to half the time spent getting back to where you previously were. One you reach your old position the logarithmic power curve kicks back in and really winds back a player’s progress to a snail’s pace forcing them to prestige again.
A player chooses when to jump to the next prestige level and effectively picking at the right time can jump you onto a much more powerful curve. Great game design in this area wouldn’t use perfect logarithmic numbers but would add some randomness and inconsistencies to make it a guessing game for the player to find out if they are maxed out at an inefficient area of the curve.
UI / UX
It’s not mentioned in mobile how important the user interface is for a game. Especially in these management style games with large amounts of details, getting information across clearly and concisely is a challenge on a small screen. Nimblebit do a number of great reinforcements.
- Your key measure of progress is represented as a large central number of coins per second present on every screen.
- The build button (the button you click the most) is larger, more centralised and stands out from the rest.
- The subtle nuances of the game such as plot size, or building type are reiterated to you when you need the information, such as the quest system (large service)
- Before you make a large choice there is always a confirmation screen ensuring you are happy with your decision.
This attention to detail of the user’s journey removes frustration from the game. It allows you to choose where to focus your attention on to complete one or two of the tasks at a time and speed up your progress. A nice font and simple language make it enjoyable to read.
Monetising – Keep a tight grip
I’ve spent $10 so far in Bit City. For that, I got 10,000 bux. Bux are the only premium currency and are used to speedup progress, buy city upgrades that persist through prestige mode as well as unlocking certain famous buildings that provide enhanced bonus’. I feel that this was the point where the game design suffered.
- Bux are not a rare currency within the game. You can get 10s if not 100s of bux by completing missions or taping on vehicles that randomly drop bux, as a free player you can often buy a few persistent upgrades. When purchasing these upgrades there is no delight, magic or drama and as a player, all you see is your bux amount slowly draining. Purchasing the unlock of rare buildings was also much the same with a simple UI transition from locked to unlocked within the building card screen.
- No early conversion purchase. The Builder in Clash of Clans or World Multipliers in Adventure Capitalist, which immediately are the best bang for your bux! *pun intended…
- Gauging the value of upgrades is difficult. For instance, Market Gains for 1000+ bux increases your Bank Savings rate by 1%. This feels minor but would have a huge effect on the earning power itself. Rather than so clearly affecting such a powerful rate, investing in 20% cheaper bank upgrades would have had a similar effect to the player but would be immediately noticeable.
- No sense of mystery or delight when spending bux at any point. All bux are spent with a simple click and a UI change.
- No random drops. With it’s huge array of buildings creating a clear building rarity scale and then having a random drop element would make every bux much more exciting to spend. Random rewards have spikes of joy, rather than a focussed
I suspect the number of people purchasing bux will be low, simply because the number given out in-game is very high and people can immediately get a sense of what it would be like to have 1000s of them by spending a few hundred that they got for free. Games with great conversion rates keep the pressure on players to want to spend by constantly showing the value of having premium currency to progress. Bit City treats bux too loosely and as such the pressure to get my wallet out is low.
Video Ads – Double Time
I suspect that the game’s primary monetization route would be video ads. There is currently only one method to engage with a video ad through the opt-in button called “Double Time”. The value proposition here is strong, for a short period of time, double everything. Directly doubling the speed of progression is the best feeling for a player because it directly contributes to that core loop. Things that feel great in-game are strongest when they contribute to your progression directly. Clickers, by their very nature, are all about progress and so the reward is clear and easy to feel.
Unlocks happen more regularly I can build more buildings and progress shows a real gain. The upgrade itself is time limited to 10 minutes but with bux can be upgraded to 15 or more minutes. This again is a clever gamble as by getting people to potentially invest in an IAP they then encourage more video views, which if you remember is a key KPI for increasing monetization from video ads.
The major issue here is that there are not more ways to engage with video to improve those views per DAU that lead to more revenue. The 10-minute bonus is strong, but what about a 4h increase in the Bank Savings rate? Watch a video ad to upgrade a building directly would provide so many more places that a user could click the Watch button, increasing its adoption. The classic Double Up bonus for all returning players could be run once every 24 hours in order to highly incentivize at least one valuable video view per day. There is huge scope for expanding video ads integration.
Conclusion – Great Core, Monetization need Tightening
Bit City is a great example of expanding clicker mechanics into new genres. City Building and Clickers make a great match because of the depth in buildings and environment that are available to the team. Nimblebit have done a really good job of pacing the game across multiple cities causing you to have clear evolutions in your progress as well as allowing you to prestige at any time, making it your own decision. The type of upgrades and the thematic choice of upgrades fit nicely, all contributing to a busy and bustling city experience. The UI and UX of the game itself is also neat, simple and clear making playing the game an enjoyable experience.
The game’s biggest weakness will be its monetization. It’s very loose usage of Bux as a reward currency and the fact that players can only interact with video once per session without enough cues from the UI. The value of that video view is high so it should see good usage, but providing your most engaged and active players with more ways to watch would see many more views per DAU.
The games a great addition for the Bitizens and well worth a play!
Big Fish, Small Pond: Surviving in a Maturing Market
Last week I attend Quo Vadis in Berlin and gave a talk on how to survive in a maturing mobile market. The slides are below.
My main take away was that companies need to set themselves smart constraints within which to be creative.
The four ideas I gave for setting yourself smart constraints were:
1. Know your strengths
Whatever your strengths are, be that an existing audience, particular technical expertise, or genre knowledge, you have to build on that. The market is tough enough without you giving yourself the best chance.
2. Find your pond
Incumbent games have too much market presence and content and too many systems and players to go head to head with. Define your market as a niche that is small enough for you to dominate (though big enough to pay the bills).
3. Manage the Risk
All game production is risk management – no one knows for sure if a game will be a success or not before it launches. Make sure that you manage the risk in production as well as possible. Do a risk assessment as you start out a project to get an objective feel for the number and scale of risks involved, and an idea of when they can be addressed (sooner is better!). This will also help you tackle the biggest risks first wherever possible.
4. Stick to the plan
It’s very easy half way through production, when things aren’t going well, to convince yourself that you just need a couple more months to fix things. Set yourself some fixed targets at the start of the project that trigger a full scale review of the project if they are missed. That way you will waste the least amount of time on projects that are doomed.
Content Hunger: How to avoid the content mill in gaming
Games are content, and so the economics of games are largely the economics of content. Content is what players pay for, and content is what takes time and money to build, with both the quality and amount of content increasing production costs. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and having a great time. I’ve already sunk just over 20 hours into it, and if friends and reviews are to be believed, I have at least another 30 to go before I finish the main storyline.
The world you can explore is vast, filled with scripted missions, side quests, wild beasts, roaming bandits and hidden secrets. Romping across the landscape from rocky deserts to dank marshes I am both awestruck at the variety and volume of content in the game, and slightly sickened by it. Sickened, because now I work in the industry I know how much time will have been invested into producing everything I see, and how countless days must have been put into dark corridors, rock formations and other mundane details that give the world authenticity, but will be largely forgotten and ignored by players.
Mobile is some way behind the production values of consoles. Partly the hardware isn’t as good yet, and so cannot support such high end graphics. Partly developers have not needed to deliver such high quality games to win customers. But mobile is rapidly catching up, and whilst the quality of content may not be as high, the amount of content needed is already probably larger. The F2P business model dominates mobile, and success here is highly dependent on retaining your players for months or even years. Having something for players to do a year after they start playing your game is no mean feat. Wooga’s hidden object game Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content – something that few if any console games can match, and as a result of this the retention in the game is phenomenal.
Content is a key competitive angle
It’s clear on both console and mobile that the amount of content you can deliver, and its quality are key factors for success. It’s hard to imagine an RPG without the amount and quality of content that Skyrim or Dragon Age has being a success. For a competitive HOG you need to deliver a similar amount of content as in Pearl’s Peril – something that only one or two developers apart from Wooga can hope to do. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft has become so entrenched is the amount of content that it has built up over the past decade is now almost impossible for other MMOs to replicate.
For many games the number of man-hours that have been put into content determines the production quality and amount, together with the efficiency that this time is converted into content, given the tools utilized. The older a genre is, the higher the production values are – by pushing the content bar ever higher, developers shut out competition and establish themselves in franchises for the long term. With each game developers up the stakes, both because they can due to improving tools and existing assets to start from, and because they must to continue attracting players.
To be successful developers must therefore invest in their tools and production pipeline to match the incumbents in the genre they are going head-to-head with. Failure to do this sort of preparation can only result in failure. Indies and smaller developers that cannot match the content output of bigger companies must innovate on the gameplay mechanics more to succeed. By innovating they can produce a new experience that players will not directly compare with established games. No one compares Realm of the Mad God to World of Warcraft, or Faster than Light to Mass Effect. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to stretch content for as long as possible, and all developers, regardless of their content output are wise to use as many of these as possible.
Randomness: Games with randomness are far more playable than those without some element of randomness. In Candy Crush Saga, levels are different each time they are played due to the random way that gems drop into the board. Players replay levels effectively waiting for the right combination of gems to drop. Imagine the game without this randomness and each level has a solution that can be found by trial and error relatively quickly, and the levels become boring.
Alternative choices: Allowing players to customize their play experience in different ways allows them to go back and replay the same content to explore how their decisions influenced the game. Whilst this requires some additional content that not all players may see, it allows die hard fans to play through most of the same content several times with minor variations. A good example here is how Telltale games allow you to replay episodes making different decisions each time. These decisions allow you see how the other characters react and the story pans out. In Dishonored the skills you upgrade give you different ways to complete each level, and the amount of violence that you employ throughout the game affects the way the story pans out to give replayability significant appeal.
Events: Most successful mobile games run timed events of some form. Often the mechanics of the event are very similar, but the appearance of exclusive content that is only available for a limited period engages players extremely well. For the chance of getting a new unit, building or item players will happily grind through a lot of content that they have already seen before, and the most active players will often only be playing for the events schedule, having already exhausted the other content in the game.
Difficulty levels: In games where the difficulty of levels can be increased, then replaying the same content is fun because it requires players to master a higher skill threshold than before to complete. Changes in difficulty can often be made with config changes that are cheap to implement, and the players will still enjoy the content. Guitar Hero or Rock Band use this mechanic to allow you to replay the same tracks again and again at a level that is always challenging.
User Generated Content: In Clash of Clans, players spend most of their time attacking the bases of other players. As the layout of each base is set by the defending player then an incredible amount of variation is generated by the players. All Supercell needed to do was to give players the tools reason to vary their base layout and the players take care of the rest. Different bases require different tactics to attack and so even though additional buildings and units are released only very slowly, players stay engaged in the game.
In any genre, games compete on the amount of content offered and its quality, both of which drive up the cost of production. It is important to recognize the demands of producing this content before starting production and only choose genres where you can compete. Having chosen a genre it is vital that developers build the tools and pipeline to deliver the required content, as well stretch the playtime from their content however possible.
Social Gaming: Facebook, Guilds and Beyond
Facebook has had a big impact on games. Before Facebook, video games were seen as an antisocial activity for spotty boys hiding in their bedrooms. Together with the ubiquitous usage of smart phones and Nintendo’s family marketing of the Wii, the perception of both the gender bias and social nature of video games is gradually shifting.
In fact, arcade games originally followed the distribution of pinball machines in bars where adults would socialize, before spreading to family friendly venues such as cinemas and malls. Reacting to a dire recession in the early 80s Nintendo decided to focus its marketing of consoles as toys for boys, rather than entertainment for all, and in doing so set the popular view of video games for the next 30 years.
Now, finally, the industry is beginning to come full circle, and it’s the social aspect that I want to focus on here. It was on Facebook that the term “social games” was coined. Of course, games were social before, whether you were playing Mario Kart with your friends or raiding with your guild in World of Warcraft. But now, even as Facebook is steadily replaced by mobile as the new platform for gaming, everyone is still talking about social.
It’s not hard to understand why. Kongregate spoke convincingly at GDC 2013 on the importance of social features, and particularly guilds. Their talk highlighted the dramatic ways that guilds can improve retention, engagement and monetization. A few facts summarized from their presentation:
- Every one of their top 10 games has some form of guild structure
- Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
- Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60
But guilds are only one part of “social”, just as Facebook and your real life friends are. Humans are social beings, but their social interaction can take many different forms depending on the context. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to social in games, and each game must work out what is appropriate for its own audience and mechanics (and the same is true if you are building an app). I believe that the nature of social interactions depends on whether your game is really about your Friends, the Mechanics, or the Content.
When you play a game with your real life or Facebook friends, things work best when the experience is about your friends, and not about the game. Playing with people is a great way of strengthening your relationships with them. Games are appropriate for the majority of family gatherings, whether it’s Risk or Charades.
For the experience to work out well for everyone, then the game needs to be right. The game should facilitate building relationships, and act as a backdrop to this, rather than be the main event. Games of low skill typically work best as they allow participants of all ages and abilities.
This is why games like Draw Something and QuizUp work so well, and more complicated simulation games have quickly fallen out of favour on Facebook. In the former, the experience is more about your friends, and in the latter it is more about the game. Real life friends and family are not the way to drive distribution or underpin retention unless your game is about the people you are interacting with. As we all know from the complaints about people’s newsfeeds being spammed, it isn’t that common for our friends to share our taste in games.
In this category I would put everything from people who like playing otherwise family games to a competitive level, to immersive experiences such as World of Warcraft or Clash of Clans. If you are REALLY into bridge then you don’t invite your real friends over and grind them into the floor. You are going to have an unsatisfying time both in terms of the quality of gameplay, and social experience. Instead you either play a friendly match where everyone can enjoy the social aspect, or you join a bridge club and enjoy the gameplay.
This latter case is still a social experience of course, but it’s unlikely to be one with your immediate friends and family. It’s more appropriate to share it with other people that share your love of bridge. This is exactly what Netflix and Spotify have realized as they’ve shifted their recommendations engines from showing you what your friends like, to what other people like you like. Generally we do not really care what our friends have been watching. But if we enjoyed The Godfather and The Departed, then we are interested in what other people who also liked those films would recommend.
For games that rely on their mechanics, adding in a social layer can have some powerful effects. Initially, players can even be taught how the game works by more experienced players and this knowledge flow continues as players exchange thoughts on more advanced strategies. A social aspect can enrich the gameplay by requiring the coordination of several different players such as in raids in World of Warcraft or Destiny. Finally, as these interactions build new relationships between players, they develop a sense of duty to each other, which leads them to keep coming back even if they tire of the gameplay itself.
For the social layer to add value to players, and by extension developers, it doesn’t need to involve people who are real life friends. It’s much better to group people together by the intensity that they play the game, so that they can engage at the same level as the others in their group. This is exactly what happens in Clash of Clans and many other clan based games, where the top clans demand a certain level of engagement as a requirement for membership. Not that the developers need to worry about this, as given the right tools the players organize themselves.
There is however a third, much rarer way of organizing people. In games where there is a strong narrative and the experience is largely single player and driven by consuming content in a linear manner, it makes more sense to group players by their progress through this content.
This is what happens when people live-tweet TV shows. Using Twitter, viewers can feel part of a larger experience and share in the unfolding drama, regardless of whether they are actually sitting with other people watching the same show. I believe there is an innate human desire to calibrate your social responses, and this fills the same role. It helps people comprehend their own reactions, see if they are appropriate and ensure they understand the situation in full.
This is the equivalent of catching a stranger’s eye and enjoying a moment of shared understanding – we know it in a diverse set of situations from sharing the frustration of waiting in line to sharing the elation of hearing the opening beats of a favorite song at a gig. The same sort of social experience could enhance games like BioShock and Mass Effect, maximizing the impact of the most dramatic moments. However, most games that would fall into this category do not have any form of social layer, because of two problems.
Firstly, how do we bring together people who are all experiencing the content at different rates and different times? The solution here might lie in something akin to the comments sections on newspaper and magazine articles. Here the comments don’t need to be by people you know, or written whilst you read the article. But they are still relevant to you, because the person commented after they experienced the same content as you just did, and they enrich your experience of the article by providing additional information and opinions.
Secondly, how do we allow people to be social without breaking the immersion of deeply engaging games? The last thing people want after deciding who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead is for the drama of the moment to be shattered by being prompted to see what everyone else did. Luckily TellTale have the good sense to wait until the end of the episode, a natural break point before allowing you to review what everyone else did and connect you to the forums. In free to play games this might in fact be even easier, as the breaks between sessions and timers are natural point to allow people to engage with each other, both savoring recently enjoyed drama and anticipating exciting things to come.
A few games do manage to solve these problems and pull people together in this way, however. Dark Souls 2 allows other players to leave messages as you work your way through the world and narrative. These can either be helpful tips or troll postings luring you to an untimely death. You can also summon other players into your world to help out with particularly hard bosses. These interactions with other players enrich the single player experience by adding a new, social layer to it. In both cases the associations with players work because they fit into the context of your game, not because of the relationship that you have with the other players. Other players appear as phantoms and in doing so stay consistent with the Dark Souls narrative, and do not break immersion.
Social rightly continues to be a buzzword in the games industry. However, there is not a single solution for what social should look like. Different types of social interactions are suited to different game experiences. When designing a game there is almost certainly some way that it can be enhanced with a social aspect, but this needs to be designed according to the type of experience that you are building for your players, rather than the design fads of the day.
This post was written by Ed Biden, who also writes at Just for the Fun of it.