Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Near Future of Viral Game Design

In this article, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen argues that 'viral games' might be a better name for social games and postulates the future opportunities for viral games.

In this essay, I want to pose questions about a design aspect which is particularly topical to social game design. This aspect is something that has not been traditionally associated with game design, but rather with marketing and distribution: virality.

It has been suggested that 'viral games' characterizes game applications in Facebook better than the widely adopted 'social' prefix.[1] Yet population is a prerequisite for any viral phenomenon, and it is through social interaction that viral growth can take place. So, viral games are social, and social games are viral, to the extent that their developers and marketers push them to be.

In this context, Facebook and its communication channels become the viral substrate [2] that both constrains and affords viral spread. In practice, designing viral growth for a social game is leveraging whatever communication channels the network platform affords, and integrating this set of constraints and possibilities with gameplay. The platform, such as Facebook, functions here as the viral substrate that sets boundaries for viral growth.

In this kind of design activity, the difference with marketing as such stems from the organic nature to gameplay - unless the marketer understands the details of gameplay, the viral features are in danger of turning into tacked-on messages that only take advantage of the standard communication channels of the network. The marketer-designer needs to understand the inner workings of the product, unlike with many other product categories.

The opportunity in this, in terms of development, is that even if the communication channels change, the message does not change. On the other hand, the player does not necessarily feel very motivated to only function as a puppet marketeer for the game developer. Rather, if there is ever to be an incentive for an individual player to virally spread the word, it needs to be about a personal achievement or decision in the game, not the game as such.

Innovating with viral

The innovation in the viral design of social games is either nearly non-existent, or goes barely unnoticed, due to the formats - i.e. the communication types and channels - that Facebook forces the virality into. The policies Facebook puts in place function as deterrents to aggressively viral endeavours, thus protecting its population.

As the Facebook platform as a viral substrate has changed, the boundaries of viral growth have changed. The development has been one of narrowing the channels rather than liberating them. This means that, e.g., FarmVille's (and Zynga's) status of non-displacement, acquired in 'wild west' days of Facebook virality, is literally non-displaceable.

More substantial and disrupting innovation might come from the double viral loops that connect outside Facebook - paradoxically, through Facebook Connect and Facebook's OpenGraph API, launched later this year, that allows many of the standard page functionalities from Facebook to be embedded into any page in the web. As we speak, social game developers are persuading players to give permission to email them directly. At once, this opens up a direct marketing channel for social games, and expands the viral substrate to an inherently viral medium - the substrate behind the success story of Hotmail, after all.

Nevertheless, I believe there is room for incremental innovation, both in terms of structure and content - even with the channels in place at present. This could constitute the near future of viral design, at least in the context of a social network like Facebook and the communication channels it affords.

Epidemic social gestures unlock viral breadth

If there is a near future of viral game design, my argument is that it is in modeling the viral feeds more strongly towards general social gestures.

This postulation is based on a starting hypothesis, according to which competitive gameplay reduces viral reach and its design possibilities. If we take a highly competitive social game and analyze the Facebook stream stories it persuades players to post, what is there beyond bragging, taunting, and the standard quantitative game data (levels, points, etc.) that can be communicated?

When the gameplay and theme are inherently competitive, the possibilities to adapt general social gestures to viral design become more narrow or at least their social reach stays within more or less fixed boundaries of taste and social proof. Viral messages about game events remain meaningful only to those already playing the game, or someone playing a very similar game.

This might give the virality some density within a closely knit group, but it does not automatically provide absolute breadth, especially if it is bordered with lack of social proof. It refers to general tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it. Social proof is something that differentiates viral in the epidemiological sense from viral in the marketing sense of the word.

Jesse Farmer approaches the same issue from the perspectives of network theory and epidemiology, and identifies two mechanisms of behavior adoption in social networks: The Threshold Model where people do something if enough of their friends are doing it, and the Cascade Model i.e. that people have a chance of doing something if one of their friends is doing it.[3]

Whichever the model, the persuasive means to follow other's actions are crucial. Besides effective copywriting, it is the social meaning of the viral gesture that is important. Majority of your friends might not care less if you got to level 32 at game X, but what if that leveling up stream story would guide you to dedicate it to a friend of yours who is about to turn 32? Even if your friend would not convert into a player instantly, the social gesture of congratulating more likely gives your game a positive tilt in terms of brand value and recognition - your game stands out from the spam in the mind of the yet-to-be player who is your friend. Embedding game events into social gestures presents a chance for a viral loop of social goodwill, but it has to sprout organically from your game's theme and mechanics, and their emotional potential.

Is social proof viral proof?

On the other hand, the forms of social proof are changing in online, networked contexts, discounting some. A common comment from any fan page of a Facebook game application goes: 'Add me please level 19 play daily'. In a social network that is supposed to work according to a reciprocical friendship principle, the benefits of game-related friends are over-riding traditional common nominators of friendship. It is not that games are creating social ties, games are becoming social ties. Such viral befriending is not constitutive of the behavior of the majority of population, but it is still common enough to warrant a reality check on

The broader spectrum of social gestures reaches beyond the competitive dimension. At the same time, expands the array of social emotions the virality can tap into, thus also affecting the gist of viral phenomena, i.e. behavioral adoption. Doing favors and reminiscing are examples of social gestures that, when originated from a game, function as a viral address between two or more people.

It is telling that the types of games (e.g., Friends for Sale) often disregarded as 'real' games by video game developers show signs of the approach. They also marry their gameplay with the social gestures rather than routinely stylize fantastic, or perhaps more appropriately 'farmtastic' actions into game mechanics.

In conclusion, the near future of viral design holds opportunities for experimentation, perhaps even creativity, that question the existing, formulaic means to create viral growth. The balance between density and breadth can be explored with a repertoire of viral channels, but also with social gestures unleashed within them, originating from a social game and injecting the player's friends with a meaning outside the game, and thus beyond spam.

This might open the floor for the first truly mainstream meme from a social game that goes beyond stream stories and parodies. Once that happens, we have arrived at the future of viral game design.

Aki Jarvinen, Ph.D, is the Lead Social Designer at Digital Chocolate, with a decade of experience from creating casual game experience through mobile, gambling, and online games. He is writing a book about social games - you can follow the progress here.





Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why We Need to Pay Attention to Social Games

In this article, graduate student Nick LaLone points out that many video game designers view social games with disrespect and worries that if industry professionals do not take social games seriously, they may be doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.

What are Social Games?
Social games are a structured activity which has contextual rules through which users can engage with one another. Social games must be multiplayer and have one or more of the following features: turn-based, are based on social platforms for providing users with an identity and are casual[1].
A secondary feature of social games is that they tend to be on social networking sites like facebook, myspace, orkut, twitter, or any of the other services out there. The basic social game is linked to a database of friends who take turns doing things in a game through which they are linked (loosely) together in friendship and application.

What do game designers think of social games?

This is best summed up in two parts. First, you have the famous Jesse Schell talk in which he talks about the horror of social games, or the creation of a monetary or credit reward system for doing the right thing permeating the whole of society. Second, there is this sentiment that social media groups are designing games around the idea of making money.[2] And while Zynga has made a gigantic amount of money, there have not been a lot of other success stories.[3] Yet, because of this success, there is an ever-growing glut of imitators.

In a Google search of “zynga is,” the very first link is to an article through which comes this quote:
“Zynga makes mediocre games. What Zynga discovered is that Facebook had left an opening for spam. They acquired a lot of audience from a security loophole that Facebook has since closed. And they aren’t social. Their only social game is Poker — it’s the only one that you can chat in. All subsequent games are turn based and spread over days.”

The audience’s response? A round of clapping.[4]
However, in looking at the popularity of Zynga’s games / social experiments, you can state the following:
But a study done by research form Next Up for pre-IPO trading service SharesPost says Zynga is worth three billion dollars, putting it in the same league as Facebook’s estimated $5B valuation.
Another interesting monetary fact:
A surprising fact came up at last week’s 2010 Media Summit in New York. An eBay spokesman said that Zynga was PayPal’s second-largest merchant in 2009… it’s interesting to consider how Zynga became so big on PayPal, so quickly. Some of its most successful games were launched in 2008, and their quick growth helped prove to the world that virtual goods and virtual currency are a viable market… The caveat is that neither reached their full potential until part of 2009 was past — Zynga started 2009 with fewer than 15 million players. Then there are the many games that Zynga launched in the second half of 2009. Its two largest games today, FarmVille and CafĂ© World, were launched in July and September of 2009, respectively. FishVille was even later, showing up in November…Those games alone represent over half of Zynga’s current 240 million monthly active players, but they were barely present for most of the period that PayPal was measuring.[5]
With 3-5 games, Zynga has gained nearly half of the entire worth of EA [6]:
Market Cap (intraday)5: 6.02B
Enterprise Value (19-Mar-10)3: 4.27B
This has happened before

This sudden and amazing gain comes on the heels of another sore spot in the video game industry, the Nintendo Wii. Looking at the Google searches for “Nintendo Wii,” we find:
Ex-DICE boss and hardcore game designer Fredrik Liliegrin has labelled the Nintendo Wii a "virus" and says that it is "not a video games machine".[7]
However, the Wii has outsold the Xbox and the PS3 nearly 2 to 1 worldwide.[8] Consumers have answered with their spending power yet the game industry seems less than keen on the idea.

The question that sits at the crux of this article is thus: If video games are to be taken seriously, then why not study what hole these “toys” and “distractions” social games are filling for consumers in such tremendous numbers?


Video games as currently dominant video game makers define them have not had the respect of the general populace since the early 1980s. While video games regained some confidence after Atari thanks to powerful marketing and redefinition of what a video game is by Nintendo, they became a product from Japan meant for kids. “Derrogatory nerd culture” has long been the realm of American game makers. While this is changing with the success of the Xbox 360, the general populace is still indifferent to video games as a whole and has remained so until Nintendo and Zynga began to find new ways to get them interested in video games. This tremendous movement is polarizing with gamers and game makers thinking opposite of the general populace and social game makers. To demonstrate this, think of respect for video games (respect being likelihood to spend money or pay attention to the game) on a continuum from low to high. It would look something like this for a “Gamer”:

The gap between the people who play and make video games (white males between the ages of 18-35) and the rest of the world has been thrown into open debate. As Jesse Schell notes, game design decisions outside the dominant console are being made by whoever is there at the time. Professional game makers, because of their derogatory statements about these moneymaking machines, are being ignored. Even if those game makers do not appreciate the design decisions made by social game makers, the fact that a majority of non-gamers are playing these “new” types of games should say something to the “gaming industry.” At the same time, social game makers have just as much need to look at the history of game design. Even if current game design is stifling, gamer target marketing stale, and public ideas about video games (addiction, violence and all) are wrong, there is a lot to learn in that history.

I propose that both sides do a little more research on the other. If game makers want their products to be taken seriously while making enough money to maintain a routine product release schedule, then they should pay attention to this tremendously large gap their so-called “enemies” have brought to light. It wouldn’t take very much (research) to capitalize on the Wii’s success while keeping your games hardcore enough to attract the “core” gamers. On the opposite side, the social game makers must realize the potential to flood their own market in a similar series of events that killed off American console manufacturing at the video game industry’s creation. Both sides must realize; however, that maintaining the sudden and tremendous monetary gain is nothing more than a trend is the very thing the American public did when they labeled gaming a fad when Atari closed its doors and was sold off.[9] American game makers are just now recovering from that error their predecessors let happen.











Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at

Friday, March 26, 2010

April & May Topic Poll

Hello! In order to give more time for our contributors to write articles, we have decided to do topic polls one month in advance. So, the April & May topics will be determined in the following poll. The runner-up will be the May topic.

Please vote for the April & May 2010 topics!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • In Search of Old School Fun
  • The Opening Hook
  • Multiplayer Economies
  • Cheats
Please vote by April 1. Thank you!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Casual games in social spaces

Lead game designer Tom Rassweiler offers his thoughts on the benefits and challenges of re-developing successful casual games for social platforms.

With the potential of garnering tens of millions of monthly active users in a short period of time, social games are in the spotlight and every game company is trying to figure out how to capitalize on this new market. However, every platform has its own benefits and challenges and understanding those will help with the transition.

As an established casual game developer with over 300 titles, Arkadium has been trying to adapt some existing successful casual content into the social space. A couple months ago we partnered with Mob Science to release one of our hit casual games Mahjongg Dimensions as a Facebook game. And as of mid March we surpassed the 1 million monthly active users mark and continue to grow.

While this has been a great success so far, recent articles have questioned the ability of casual games to be successful on Facebook. The idea of retrofitting a game to become social is not seen as the right path to follow; however, I have no doubt that casual games will have a vibrant future within social spaces.

Some recent data from PopCap implies that the demographics of social and casual gamers are, in fact, quite similar. 55% are women. The average age of gamers is 43 and 46% of players are over the age of 50. 65% play one or more times a day. As a designer of casual games, I feel at home with this data. This seems like the casual game market of the last several years, mostly female, older than core gamers.

Social networks offer a huge pre-registered user base which is hard to build with a standalone casual games site. Arkadium has been supporting a game site called Great Day Games for several years now. It has many great community features including avatars, leaderboards, trophies, game rating, and sweepstakes, and from watching the leaderboards and forums, people really like these features. However, only a small fraction of the total user base is registered. The vast majority never chose to register and therefore can’t be tracked in our database. Facebook solves this because every user who allows the application auto-registers to the game with significantly more information than we would get normally.

Facebook also offers very easy sharing and viral mechanics. Instead of having to fill out each friend’s email address for a “challenge a friend” event, Facebook provides a one click solution. There are extremely easy ways to invite friends, challenge and taunt and boast achievements on your wall. Almost all games have a score at the end which provides a very simple hook for this.

Leaderboards are also significantly better in Facebook than on standard casual game sites because of access to friends. Unlike an average leaderboard, dominated by mysterious gaming savants, a leaderboard that only shows the player’s friends, correctly incentivizes the player to compete and invite others they know to the application.

Finally one of the most supportive elements of Facebook is the players’ trust in the platform itself. While not entirely true, there is an assumption made by players that games on Facebook are either developed by or vouched for by the social network. As a result, players are much more willing to provide their user information, feedback, and have less friction to paying for products (especially with the future introduction of Facebook Credits currency).

Of course, along with the huge advantages of transforming existing casual games for social platforms, there are always some challenges. Monetization is one of the most commonly discussed.

Social game players expect everything for free. However this is no different from web gamers in general. It is hard to convince players to directly pay for a casual web game no matter how much time and effort developers put in. One way explored to get around this is to link your successful game to a paid downloadable or iPhone version. This works because download and iPhone games are expected to have a cost associated with it. Bejeweled Blitz makes this work well, and we are having success with a Mahjongg Dimensions Deluxe download. On top of this, there is no reason to exclude micro transactions, but working meaningful ones into an existing casual game can be difficult.

Managing the community becomes another new challenge. The idea of a social game as a service means that players expect social games to be constantly evolving and growing to match the needs of the users. They expect to be responded to immediately when they ask questions on the fan page or request new features. This is very new water for any online casual game developer and even more different from the casual downloadable market. There is no easy solution to this problem except to organize your team as if you are developing a service instead of a product. Assume that the launch day is just day one of the real work. Refusing to engage with users will not succeed.

The future is bright for casual games on social platforms like Facebook. Adapting games correctly is important, but developers and designers shouldn’t be afraid of converting a successful casual game to a Facebook application. And while that doesn’t mean that all of the games will be huge successes, there are many intrinsic advantages to games on Facebook that should not be overlooked.

Tom Rassweiler is the manager of game development at Arkadium.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Exploring Active vs. Passive Play in Social Games (Part II)

In Part I, game designer and writer Doug Hill weighs the pros and cons of passive and active play in social games. In Part II, he explores how to combine both passive and active play in social games.

So.. What's the Solution?

The ideal situation is one where players can actively play the game for as long as they wish, while also creating situations where players must passively wait. Luckily, we've got several good examples of existing games that do this quite well.

Take, for instance, the game of Civilization. Players are actively making decisions in most rounds of play on where to explore, who to attack, what to build, and what to research. The act of moving, attacking, building, and researching is passive in most situations.

What makes Civilization's passive gameplay far more interesting is the depth of choice it presents the player: Do I research something large that will give me a greater advantage, or do I choose something smaller that will give me a quicker advantage? Do I focus on research or production? Do I focus on troops or city improvements?

Civilization creates situations where players have to make important decisions about both their active gameplay and their passive gameplay, as both can have long term ramifications on themselves AND each other. This is an area where current social games are lacking.

Dealing with a Real-Time Solution

Civilization's systems of active and passive gameplay work because the systems are intricately connected when it comes to the flow of in-game time. For most social games, it still makes the most sense for passive time to be based on real time. Thus the problem - How can we, as game designers, create a fun social game that can be actively played indefinitely while still creating an interesting set of decisions for passive gameplay?

First comes this realization - no change in passive gameplay will make active gameplay much more fun to actively play than it would be on its own. The active game must be fun on its own. After all, if we intend for the game to be actively played indefinitely, the passive gameplay is likely to have diminishing returns on how it affects the active gameplay. In other words, even if your passive gameplay gave you ten power-ups for active gameplay, the game still needs to be fun once you've used all ten power-ups.

Once you accomplish this, the rest falls into place pretty easily. Make sure the active gameplay and passive gameplay influence each other directly. This should not be a one-way relationship; each should enhance the other. Also, ensure that the player has interesting choices for the passive gameplay. There should not be one "right" choice, nor an obvious path of choices to take. Give each choice a consequence.

Finally, remember that your audience still wants to play for VERY short sessions with your active gameplay. A great example is PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz, which is a one-minute version of Bejeweled. You can play it as often as you want, but it is always one minute per game. Games can have multiple play-session lengths, but be sure to include a one- to two-minute session if you can. Your audience will appreciate it.

Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is on developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Exploring Active vs. Passive Play in Social Games (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer and writer Doug Hill weighs the pros and cons of passive and active play in social games.

In Mafia Wars and its many clones, players are given energy that they spend on completing jobs, which reward experience and money. When the player levels up, they typically regenerate all of that energy and are given the option of increasing how much energy they can hold. Otherwise, when the player runs of out of energy, they must wait for it to recharge.

The game, in essence, says that you can't play right now. You've had all the fun we want you to have. You'll have to come back later to do more.

In FarmVille and its many clones (Yes, FarmVille is actually a clone, but I haven't played Farm Town yet) the player will plant crops, till soil, pick fruit from trees, and harvest various goods from animals. When you're done with these activities, you have to wait for them to be ready again.

Once again, forced downtime.

Passive Play

The idea behind passive play is rather straightforward - a game creates a forced downtime which results in shorter play sessions. These shorter sessions motivate the player to come back more often. In most cases, the player forms a habit in which, every time they check their social network, they will also play the game for a few minutes - or until the game will no longer allow them to play.

The particular brilliance about passive play is that it can take an incredibly simple game such as a text-based RPG (Mafia Wars) or basic farm simulation (FarmVille) and mask the game's inherent simplicity. When you add in the time lapse and the many social elements, you end up with a game that is far more fun than it would be if actively played. (Mafia Wars would get rather dull if you just sat there and pressed the mission buttons hundreds of times in a single play session.)

While the addition of passive play does make these games more playable, the forced downtime is something that truly feels like a crime against game design. Why would you make a game and then tell players that they can't play it right now? If you aren't doing anything, are you even playing?

Gamers want the option of playing when they want and for how long they want. This requires an Active Play element.

Active Play and Its Drawbacks in Social Games

Active Play is an equally simple concept - the game is going, and the player is there reacting in real time. Now. These are the games we've been designing and playing for decades now.

Why then, do so many social games choose the passive route? What is it about the real time, wait-and-see gameplay that has pulled in so many new players? More importantly, what are the drawbacks of active play for social games?

First of all, passive games are typically cheaper to make than active games. If they weren't, there wouldn't be nearly as many clones (particularly with the Mafia Wars formula) that have cropped up. Active games typically take more programming experience, more art assets, and more design and production knowledge to pull off effectively. Many of the early social games were made by hobbyists, not professional game developers.

Social games also gain a lot by simulating real-time within their game worlds. The passage of time can be one of the most powerful tools for making even the most subtle of interactive fictions more believable, such as waiting 4 days instead of 4 minutes for a digital turnip to grow. Players expect there to be a wait time in between planting and harvesting crops. Taking that element out removes a lot of the imaginative fun for the player.

Another potential problem is that active gameplay may lead to fewer, larger play sessions. Instead of playing fifteen 10-minute sessions of a social game, the player may plays five 30-minute sessions in a week. While this is the same amount of overall play time, it gives that player ten fewer opportunities to influence their friends' games through built-in features like gifting. This means there will be fewer items that show up on your friends' Facebook.

While this is bad for business (especially if it leads to fewer play-sessions) it is also a negative element in social game design. A large amount of social games are driven by that friendship and knowledge that a player's active participation positively impacts their friends' game. This cannot be overlooked.

Passive play, for what it is worth, cannot easily be ignored. It has proven itself to be an effective gameplay mechanic in social games despite the large and glaring drawback that you cannot always play when you wish.

Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is on developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Design Considerations for Social Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes the distinctive design considerations game designers face when designing for social games.

Social networking sites have changed how we consume information and how we play games. It is only fitting that social games reflect the characteristics of the platform. When combined together, the social graph, ambient awareness, and inclusive play are the design characteristics that make social games distinctive to me.

Social Graph

Games that utilize the social graph cannot be played anywhere else without data portability. Most games do pull data from the social graph for challenges and friends-only leaderboards, but some go further by incorporating the social graph into gameplay. In Parking Wars, I can park on each friend's street and in PackRat, I can browse through my friends' pages.

In order to do well in Parking Wars, I need to know the usage patterns of my friends. I find that these games have the camaraderie of a board game, in that there are conversations about the game among friends, and yet, it's not necessary for all my friends to be online at the same time to play the game.

In theory, any sort of information, like fave bands or travel photos, can be pulled from people's profiles, much like Facebook ads do on the side. Ideally, these games would require people to know something about their friends to do well. Or at least, by playing the game, people would end up knowing more about their friends.

Ambient Awareness

On social networking sites, information flows at a rapid pace. The Facebook newsfeed is filled with information no one would ever write an e-mail about or call to tell a friend. Each piece of information is trivial -- e.g. "Facebook User made a ham sandwich." -- but taken in aggregate, all of it coalesces to form a daily picture of what's going on in the lives of friends.

This clutter of unfettered information leads to what social scientists call "ambient awareness." It's similar to noticing what others are doing in a room without even paying attention to them.

Each bit of information accumulates and without even noticing, you learn that two of your friends were in train wrecks, five have the same birthday, or three are attending a conference in Japan. Unwittingly, people's personal lives are scattered across applications, walls, forums, status updates, notes, and comments. Concurrent or parallel conversations are the norm.

Similarly, if I have ambient awareness in a game, it means that just by playing, I'm aware of my friends' progress in the game. I don't need to search for this information. For example, in PackRat, since I have to cycle through my friends' pages, I see their cards and activity logs.

If I've already gone through that set, then I know exactly which cards they need to complete the set. If I want to learn more, then I can click on my friends' Feats, which are similar to Xbox Live achievements or Pogo badges. As a side benefit, by creating these achievements or checkpoints, the developer can collect and analyze valuable customer data to improve the game.

Inclusive Play

The average user belongs to more than one social networking site, but devotes the majority of time to only one. As such, users have different participatory rates, logging in to one social network every day, another every once in a while, and yet another, only if an e-mail beckons the user to come back.

These different participatory rates translate into different play patterns. Some players have limited time and need a game that can be played quickly whereas others are willing to spend hours on a game. In fact, depending on the day or the social networking site selected, the same user may exhibit different play patterns. Therefore, it's more useful to divide players by play patterns rather than by gender or age. A game with inclusive play satisfies players who want to play sporadically and/or continually.

Obviously, real-time multiplayer social games have an issue if there are not enough friends online to play the game. By continual play, I simply mean that the game provides something meaningful for the player to do to further the experience. If I have more than 1 minute to play a game, then I should be allowed to continue.

Instead, in a game like Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures, I'm forced to wait. Sporadic play is great for multitasking but if you're not multitasking, then the game gives you no other choices to occupy your time. Decisions made with a button click, such as rearranging inventory, applying abilities, or applying potions, rarely take six minutes.

In Mob Wars, the waiting period is required to regain energy. It's patterned after MMORPGs when a player needs to regenerate mana and health. However, in a MMORPG, a player can do something else to get XP without expending a lot of mana and health.

Just like "dead air" is anathema to radio, so too is any time the player is sitting around with absolutely nothing to do in a game, and that is, nothing, not even a look at pretty pictures. There is also the danger that the player may leave and forget to return to the game.

Much as sporadic play appeals to one player type, it doesn't work for everyone. Asynchronous play, however, fares better with its long history in games. War games such as chess have been fought via postal mail and then on e-mail and mobile phones. Players have an understanding of how asynchronous games work. Still, I have seen Scrabulous games fall apart due to lack of response. The notion that players have to come back to a game because it's sporadic or asynchronous is a hollow one.

Games built with inclusive play in mind allow all player types to enjoy the game regardless of whether they have 10 seconds, 10 minutes, or 10 hours to play the game. Most casual games fit this model because a player can keep on playing the same short "coffee break" game continually.

The player gets better at the game and perhaps unlocks achievements, but it would be nicer if there was a deeper experience. Other genres, like virtual worlds, RPGs, and strategy games, can certainly take advantage of this design philosophy.

[This article was excerpted and modified from "The Social Network Game Boom" on Gamasutra.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, March 5, 2010

March 2010: The Future of Social Games

This month's topic was proposed by game designer Doug Hill and refined by scholar Altug Isigan.

Altug writes:

Social games play an increasingly important role in the game industry. Played over social networks, it is projected that these games will create revenues of a billion dollars in the year 2010. In both recent publications and recent conference talks, social gaming was a popular topic and the potential of these games seemed to create as much excitement as MMOGs did when they first arrived on the gaming scene. Since social games are relatively new, the future of social games still lies ahead; however, many think that these games are the future of the game industry.

In this month’s rally, Game Design Aspect of the Month asks you to have a closer look at the future of social games and its implications for game designers. In order to inspire you, we put forward the following questions:

• How will social games change the way we access and play games? How will they affect the ways in which studios and business models are structured? What impact will these changes have on the profession of game designers?

• Has the language of social gaming been invented? How much of this language is yet to be explored? Are games like Farmville already the “Mario”s of this new platform or are the true “killer apps” still to come?

• It is said that the demographic of social games is radically different. Often the members of this demographic are called casual gamers. However, research indicates that these are “casual” gamers that spend significant amounts of time playing games on a variety of platforms. Social games urge us to reconsider our notion of the casual. What does this mean to game designers and the way they create and make games?

• The issue of virtual goods often brings up the question of the relationship between game worlds and the real world. The walls of the so-called magic circle wear thinner and sometimes it is hard to tell where the game ends and the real world begins. What are creative, business and ethical implications for game designers in this regard?

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.