Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First Five Minutes: How Tutorials Make or Break Your Social Game (Part I)

In this article, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen explains why the first five minutes of a social game needs to engage players right away.

In a marketplace that appeals to casual gaming sensibility, such as Facebook, competitors and distractions are literally one spontaneous click away. If a social game does not manage to spell out its rules of attraction in the first few minutes, the player has already moved on. In-game tutorials have become the way to kickstart players into social play.

Introduction: Tutorials and the Freemium business model

As the freemium business model is becoming de facto standard in social games, the key design features factoring into acquiring and retaining players are shifting. Developers can no longer trust that their players will make the effort of learning the ropes of their game through a set of challenges, just because they have spent tens of dollars to get the game at their hands.

Because players of social games do not fork out money to have the chance to try out a game, their time is of precious quantity. Therefore developers need to catch and hold their attention both through viral spread and gameplay itself. The core mechanics and social benefits of the game need to be sold to the players in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, they might never come back.

Tutorials as entry points to the user interface

Introducing a tutorial is a way to facilitate overcoming the familiar cold-start problem of a social game: Often a literally empty grid and possibly empty friends list. Therefore a number of user interface indicators are needed to communicate the game’s core mechanics, enticing players into executing them. Some players might get on with this, by pure exploration, but for those regarding themselves as non-gamers, a tutorial is in place.

In their book Designing Social Interfaces, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone write about 'onboarding', i.e. the process, which helps people to get started and oriented with a web site. Much of their points are valid in social game development as well: When a Facebook user follows a link to the game, he is essentially taken a leap of faith, and needs to be guided by hand to get on board with the game - something especially relevant for non-gamers.

The notion of onboarding originates from human resource management. Crumlish and Malone identify three key steps in onboarding: Accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate. In terms of games, accommodation is about giving the necessary tools to the player, i.e. the necessary game mechanics & resources to start with. Assimilation gains a specific meaning from the context of the social network: It accounts for assimilation into the progress of one's friends playing the game, and the benefits from playing parallel to your friends. Acceleration then is about getting the player to engage with the game's full feature set and its possibilities.

Successful tutorials create the curiosity gap

This is particularly relevant in social games, which rely on the 'initiate & wait' type of game mechanics. This dynamic brings along the challenge of easing the player from the strongly sequential tutorial flow to asynchoronous gameplay, where something significant happens only after a certain time interval. If an empty plot does not ‘beg’ for seeds, play might stop right there, unless virality or friends manage to pull the player back. How to help your player across this gap in your social game is the first step for retention – this can be either by the means of user interface, or viral, and/or social design.

Sid Meier, in his recent GDC talk, was reportedly emphasizing how the first 15 minutes of a game have to be engaging, rewarding, fun, and foreshadow the rest of the game. In social games, tutorials try to get players engaged right from the start, towards those crucial 15 minutes – or even a shorter playtime.

In game design terms, this is about clear communication of an overall goal and the subgoals, and giving the player always something to do. In social games, this takes a turn towards marketing-like techniques of influence, such as creating scarcity and the so-called curiosity gap through, e.g. locked features and levels. The gap functions as an addictive pull that makes players continue and come back.

Tutoring for viral spread and monetization

There is another reason for tutorials' abundance in social games, stemming from the freemium model. The developers need to initiate their players into the monetization options, i.e. virtual goods, gameplay assists, etc. This need becomes evident in the visit to the in-game store, which is frequently included in social game tutorials. If the money is to be sunk to the game, the money sinks need to be part of the core mechanics, but whether they should be integrated to the tutorial needs to be carefully considered.

[This article was excerpted and modified from an article of the same title on Gamasutra.]

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


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