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.


Cuppycake said...

Good post.

One thing that I think is important to note is that in Farmville, the actual core game mechanic (the farming) is actually a grinding disguise for what the real game is for a lot of people - the dollhousing and decorating aspect of collecting, growing, and customizing the farm. This is done in that farming downtime, and is actually a core mechanic in itself. While the main leveling mechanic is indeed passive, there is a whole wealth of other 'active gaming' that is done as well, such as the decorating, gifting, and visiting neighbor's farms.

Amy B said...

It's also worth pointing out that games can add more "active" elements for players who like them. For instance, Fish World allows you to train each fish once every 4 hours. The "training" involves steering the fish through an obstacle course.

If you're serious about raising enough fish to keep leveling up, then this means you can engage in active gaming pretty much all day long if you want.

Where this could be harnessed for more monetization is for "branded" items that are "portals" to active games. For instance, in Farmville you could watch a particular show on television that runs a commercial gives you a code that you could type into Farmville to get a "Florida's Natural" orange tree. In the drop down of items for that tree, you could have a "Play Grocery Heist" option, where the object is to steal all of the FN orange juice from the store. Successful heists lead to more XP, and each tree would have a passive limit to how often the game could be played, motivating players to look out for those commercials.

For more on this, see "Can Social Media Save Broadcast TV?"

Doug Hill said...

Thanks Tami!

You make a very good point about the customization mechanic in Farmville. I can understand the appeal it would have for a lot of people. It is a form of expression, just like any other act of creation, and you can instantly show it off to the friends who will appreciate it the most - other Farmville players.

I'm guessing the decorating mechanic doesn't get much respect from many gamers as it is free-form instead of goal-based. There are no rules.. no success or failure mechanics. You can't win at it. We crave instant feedback on whether we succeeded or not.

It just goes to show that these games truly are reaching out to a different audience.

Doug Hill said...

Thanks Amy - Merging active and passive play in future social games is the meat of the second half of my article. I'm glad to know that Zynga added more of those elements in Fishville (which I have yet to play.)

Amy B said...

Fish World is not a Zynga game.

Doug Hill said...

That is my mistake, Amy. I read FishVille instead of Fish World.

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