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.


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