Thursday, September 9, 2010

Social Game Design: Retention part 1

Social game creation and distribution companies often discuss three important qualities of a game on a social network. Virality, Monetization, and Retention. Today's topic is retention (but you already knew that, didn't you?)

Retention, also known as engagement, also known as BASIC GAME DESIGN. I'm sure some pre-social games designers (like me) feel offended and traumatized that the main thing we work so hard at can be relegated to just one of three bullet points on a distributor's to-do list.

Many are even more offended that most "games" in the first wave of social network games didn't really have any "retention" features at all, they were just viral spam machines. Take a deep breath. Maybe two. The first wave wasn't completely awful (Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures, for example) and social games have come a long way since then. The best news for those transitioning from other game types to social games is that when someone asks you about retention features you already know what to do. Start by telling them about all the coolest and funnest parts of your design.

Soon you'll find you need to get more specific. The smart ones will come back to you asking for specific game design elements that get a player to come back to your game later. A fun minigame will keep a player's attention for 15 minutes, but the retention question is: will they come back tomorrow? You are probably familiar with growing crops in Farmville. You plant crops and then must come back later to harvest them. Some crops take 2 days to grow. This is one of the more common forms that retention mechanics are taking in social games. Start something with a click, come back later to see the results. This is what most non-designers think of when they talk about retention mechanics.


Now contrast that with the overall retention mechanic in Farmville: a persistent farm that you grow from a few fields to great big huge tracts of land. You can see there's a lot of room between those two things, but anything on the straight line the connects them will be a retention mechanic.


Here's a spewing of ideas that increase retention:

  • Story & Characters- players come back to see what happens in the plot. TV shows like Lost do a great job with this - people want to come back to see what happens to the characters they love and how the story develops. In some games you play the main character and make choices about how your story develops, but just because the player is in control it doesn't mean they don't want to return to see what happens next.
  • To Do lists - give the player more than they can accomplish in a single session, in a single week, in a single month. Everything from a list of missions to achievements can create the feeling of incompleteness and striving toward goals that bring players back.
  • Ownership & collection - people love amassing loot. Note that this can overlap with monetization.
  • Guilt - something bad will happen if you don't return. While effective in the short term, it can be counterproductive long-term. Once a player feels they have lost too much they will never return.
  • Missed opportunities - add events to your game that trigger while the player is away, but that can be taken advantage of if the player returns in time. Nothing is lost if the player doesn't return, but they can enjoy monitoring the game in the background or checking at least once a day. This also increases the feeling that the game world is a living thing, increasing player interest overall.
  • Daily Events - once-a-day quests & contests.
  • Weekly Events - think about the overall play pattern of your users and how to engage different users at different frequencies. I recommend having both daily and weekly events for modern social networks.
  • Cooldown timers - okay this is more of a mechanic that can be applied to several other things on this list, but it deserves mention on its own. You can control both the pace of play and the power level of abilities you give to players through cooldown timers. They are super effective in social network games. These timers can last from 5 minutes to several hours.
  • Interacting with your friends in fun and positive ways - don't separate viral and retention mechanics too much. They have some overlap, especially in well-designed social games. Players will come back to your game just to play it with their friends, and mechanics that allow them to work together are usually the strongest for retention.
What's the best retention mechanic you've seen in a social network game?

3 comments:

  1. New Farmville retention idea to be rolled out:

    If you don't do enough to maintain your farm, the game emails a log of your prior Farmville activity to your employer.

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