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.


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