Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Social Game Design: Retention part 3: Mystery

Mystery works very well in social games. I'm a little surprised it's not used more often as a core mechanic.

Some former colleagues of mine at Gamehouse released a Facebook game called The Secret Plant Society. In this game you grow plants in pots. You start off with some clover plants, but if you grow them next to each other you occasionally get mystery seeds. What do those seeds grow into? You have to plant them to find out. There is a deep and highly branched tree (pun!) of plants for you to discover. Since you don't know what plants combine to make what, there's a lot of mystery.

How they use that mystery is what I find most fitting for Facebook. You get a "mystery seed" when the plants cooperate, but you need to grow it to find out what it is. Naturally, growing takes real time, and this mystery combined with sporadic gameplay can really hold a player's interest. You've already got the "cool thing" but you have to wait to see what it is. (As should be obvious if you're paying attention to social network games, the delayed results of sporadic gameplay are one of the most successful mechanics available.)

Another thing The Secret Plant Society does to enhance the mystery experience is to show you an almanac of all the plants you've got. 

This almanac automatically records the combinations you find. More importantly, it hints at what you've yet to discover. For example you can see here that I've crossed yellow and scarlet begonias to make orange ones. There are also some yellow begonia crosses I haven't discovered yet, but there are empty boxes with "?" in them. These blanks give you some idea of what you don't have, and that brings you further into the mystery. This is very similar to the way most achievements that you have not earned in games have a blank outline. You know you're missing something, but what is it?

Even if you don't have plant breeding in your game, you can still put in a little mystery in things like crops. For example, in the shop you don't have to show the grown plant. Show only the seed (and the name). Players then have to grow the corn to see exactly what it looks like. It sounds like a small thing, but you just need enough of these small things to add up to keep a player interested in your game and curious enough to remember to come back and play again a few hours later.

From big mysteries to small mysteries, you should think about what you can hide from the player for a little while. What will they be so interested to discover that they'll come back later to see it?

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