Monday, September 6, 2010

Social Game Design: Virality part 1

In attending PAX this past weekend I went to the "World of Farmcraft" panel, featuring Tyler Bielman, James Ernest, Henry Stern, and Paul Peterson. I could go on at length about how awesome these guys are but I have a lot else to talk about today. Suffice it to say they are good people and great designers.

During the panel Tyler asked the others what percent of their time they spend designing the engagement, monetization, and viral parts of social games. Good question.

Many social game companies focus on these three aspects when evaluating an existing game or the design for a future game. In the next several posts I'll break down each of these beginning with Virality. In social game design circles the term "virality" is used to denote how well the game or application spreads from players to non-players. How fast does it go from 100 users to 10,000,000.

Non-social games don't have viral features as part of their game design. They might have advertising, but very few (if any) have mechanics integral to the play of the game that help spread the game from existing players to non-players. Trading card games might be the notable exception.

In the early days of social games (2008) most games simple had a button to "invite your friends" that would generate a message or notification that told your friend the game existed. Then came the heavy-handed mechanics that required you to invite friends to play before you could progress in the game. On Facebook, rules came down from the platform that this had to stop.
Now (2010) viral mechanics are starting to get interesting. Here are some examples of mechanics that encourage players to spread the game around:

  • You can increase the size (area) of your farm for $1 real money, or, if you have invited 5 friends, you can use the "free" earned currency from the game to make the upgrade.
  • The more friends you have the more powerful you are when you attack other players.
  • Your friends can heal your character when it's injured (and the more friends you have, the more likely one of them will be online when you need healing).
  • You won 100 earned currency. If you publish to your news feed, friends who click on it will also receive 100 earned currency.
  • You can hire a friend to work in your shop - doing so invites them to the game if they are not already playing.
  • You got a new high score, hooray! Tell the world!
  • Your new high score is higher than your friend's score, time to rub it in their face.

You may have noticed that some of these mechanics seem to operate in different directions. We can break down viral mechanics into types based on how they recruit your friends and why you want to publish them.

  • You publish to help your friends (they earn currency by clicking on it).
  • You invite friends to unlock something.
  • You invite friends to make yourself stronger.
  • You publish a victory - personal achievement or competition our of a sense of pride.

There are many more subtle reasons a player can have for spreading the game around. These are just some of the more common and more obvious. You have likely also noticed by now that social game platforms have two main channels for viral spreading: Publications and Invitations.

Publications come from the player and are shown to the world - or at least to all of their friends on the platform. These are shouts: "Hey, look at what I did!" that are driven from the player's desire to express themselves, to share a moment of their lives with others. Getting a high score, a new level, finding a rare item, these are typical things you want to tell your friends about. The "publish this and your friends will get something" concept is an exciting new twist on publications. It will be interesting to see if other new twists become popular.

Invitations are direct communications between the player and a specific friend. Due to their more personal nature they are more likely to be responded to. In theory when a friend invites you there is some feeling of gratitude and perhaps obligation to join. In practice invitations to games on social networks has become such a tsunami of annoyance that some people no longer respond in the same way they would to a real-life invitation to something. Is there a sociologist in the house?

"To be continued..."

Note 1: "virality" is not a word. Virulence is a word. Virulence does not mean what social games professionals think it means. The word they are looking for is infectiousness - the capability of a thing to spread rapidly to others. Virulence is the strength of the thing's ability to cause disease, which is more like retention / engagement.
Note 2: I'll cover earned currency and paid currency in a future post.

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