Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where have all the skillchains gone?

Final Fantasy 14 has a combat subsystem called "battle regimen." In battle, when in a party with other players, you can all activate a battle regimen. Each of you chooses an action from your usual set of actions - attack, cast a spell, etc. Then someone tells the regimen that it is complete. The regimen then goes off - automated -each of you doing your thing in the order you planned them in. If you all hit, you get a bonus result. There are various bonus results based on the combinations you made. For example, two regular attacks puts a defense-down debuff on the target.

Now this is a fine system, as it lets players team up to get more out of their actions than they could alone. The problem I have with it, is that it replaces one of the most amazing MMO inventions of all time: skillchains. FFXI, the previous Final Fantasy MMO, had a similar system that allowed players to connect their special "weaponskill" attacks for bonus effects.

Weaponskills are special attacks that you can perform when you have enough TP (tactical points, I think). You gain TP when you deal physical damage to an enemy or are dealt physical damage by an enemy (not with spells). When you have sufficient TP you can use it to execute a special attack of your choice from those your character knows. This system got its start with limit breaks, way back in FFVI (and made famous by FFVII). Both XI and XIV use weaponskills with very similar systems. Note that gaining TP when you attack and when you are hit is important. On attack you feel like you're building up toward something more exciting than just endless basic attacks. The when-hit component helps you comeback against an enemy that's beating you down. The actual math isn't as important as the feeling the player has when they gain TP in each of these ways.

In FFXI, a skillchain was formed when two players used weaponskills one after another, on the same enemy. If they both hit, and if the two weaponskills formed a compatible chain, a skillchain would be created. The enemy would be dealt bonus damage with an elemental type related to the weaponskills used. There was a large chart containing all the weaponskills in the game and how to make all the compatible chains with them (on the internet, players had to figure it all out). You could even chain the chains, so up to four players could cooperate to make a big chain with multiple bonus effects.

Now here's why I think battle regimens are worse than skillchains: You can't do them by accident. You see, when playing, you will naturally use your weaponskills whenever you can. They are extra-cool attacks that deal more damage than basic attacks. If two players happen to use them consecutively and they were compatible, a skillchain would result. I'm sure some early players were surprised by this (not everyone listens when you tell them how to play your game). They didn't need to know how to do it before they did it. In contrast, battle regimens do not work unless multiple players deliberately set out to do them. Worse, they are not something you do when fighting alone, not at all in the normal course of battling a monster. You simply cannot accidentally do one. This is bad. If you have a cool combat system that other MMOs lack, you want your players to find it. You need players to be able to do it rather easily. You want the good players to be able to work with the not-so-good players and still have your cool system work out.

Think about this situation: alpha-type player A knows everything about the game. They read the fansites and try everything and are a master of skillchains or battle regimens. Player B is the jump-right-in type who only learns by exploring for themselves, and doesn't really like to take direction from others. They are in a party together. Player A really wants to chain attacks for the bonus. With skillchains, even if A can't convince B to plan for them, A can save their TP until B performs a weaponskill, and then do their weaponskill afterwards. If A knows the skillchain chart well enough, they can also know which of their weaponskills is best to follow whatever B does. A gets all their fun out of it, and feels smart that they were able to chain even with the uncooperative nincompoop B. B is happy too, because they are just going about their business. Perhaps B even learns of skillchains this way, and becomes interested because they can figure it out by watching what A is doing - by playing the game without reading websites or manuals. In the battle regimen world, A cannot get B to press the extra buttons necessary to set up the battle regimen. A is sad and annoyed. B is also annoyed that A won't shut up about it. Further, B is frustrated that they can't intuit how battle regimens work because they never happen as a result of natural play.

FFXIV makes some other improvements to weaponskills, which I like; I just wish they had kept the skillchain system from XI. I don't think they realized how amazing it is and were too focused on making something different. Maybe they even think battle regimens are easier, because there is no timing issue. (With skillchains, if someone was too late in using their weaponskill the chain wouldn't be made.) Sadly, battle regimens instead take the skill out of it (timing it right is a playskill, as is knowing what will chain and what won't). They replace that skill with bureaucracy - an increased amount of menu use is required to activate the system. I wish they had thought more about why they were changing it, and what they might lose when they did.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Social Game Design: Monetization part 2, Offers and Paid Currencies

It should be obvious that if you want to make money from a social game there has to be a way for the player to put money into the game. The two major ways for this to happen are direct payment (they mail you a check, or input their credit card information) or they can do "work" for you. I use quotation marks there because what players do is not something you might consider work. Usually through a 3rd party, the player spends their time and attention on something that results in the generation of value for someone (hence "work"). It could be direct value to you, but usually you're busy trying to make a game, not harvest the work of the internet masses (if you wanted to run wikipedia, well, I hear that job's been taken.) So this third party asks the player to do some work and in exchange the third party pays you money. You complete the loop by giving the player something in your game. The industry term for these arrangements is "offers."

Now you have two methods for players who want more out of your game to give you money. What are you going to give them in exchange? You could offer them individual rewards for each offer they complete, or let them purchase each reward directly with their credit card. There are some problems with this, however. On the offers side, it can be difficult to standardize the offers to be of equal value. The offer providers will have many options that are not of equal value to them. If you force a standardization on them you'll be leaving money on the table - sometimes overpaying a player for a less-idea offer. Either that or you'll only be accepting a very few offers, and players won't be able to find an offer they find attractive ("work" that fits their preferences). On the credit card (or paypal, etc.) side, if you ask the player for direct payment for each little thing you sell them they will be annoyed. Also you'll probably want a minimum purchase amount on a credit card transaction (you pay fees on those, after all) which severely limits what you can sell to the player.

For a single purchase game, like a retail game or a traditional download game these wouldn't be big issues, but we're talking about social games here, where the microtransaction is king. All of this leads us to the need for an intermediate step, a currency within the game that can aggregate the player's payment in different amounts and from a variety of sources into one place. Then this paid currency can be used by the player in various amounts to buy things in the game that they desire. Freeing up the amounts both coming in and going out vastly improves the efficiency of the system and the happiness of all parties involved.

Using paid currency has other advantages as well. There is a significant psychological effect on the player of having a currency they are not natively familiar with. In the United States (for example) everyone knows the value of a dollar - it's the money they (we) use every day. Another currency, anything from yen to your game's paid currency, is less solid. The value of it is less clear and it has a bit of a fantasy quality. This is one reason people tend to spend more freely when on vacation - they can't quickly calculate the value in their native currency, and the foreign currency doesn't hold that intrinsic-value grip on their psyche. The paid currency in your game will act the same way.

When setting up a paid currency for your social game you will need to decide the conversion rate. How much of your game's paid currency does a player get for their dollar (or euro, yen, wan, peso...)? I hope it's obvious they should get better than 1 for 1. You want to make it difficult for them to convert, so I would avoid all strict factors of ten. If you observe some major and successful paid currencies you'll see numbers like 80:1 (XBOX live), or somewhere in the 760s:1 (Nexon). The two biggest reasons for these inflated numbers are: giving the player a feeling of value, and reducing the size of your smallest price. When you pay $5 and get 400 paid currency you feel like you're getting a good deal. When you're shopping in the game's store and you see something for a mere 10 paid currency, you feel you can easily afford it because that's what? Some small fraction of a dollar that you can't be bothered to calculate because you've already clicked "buy" and moved on.

There's a lot more to talk about with in-game currencies, so you can expect a return to this topic in the future.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Show me the Countdown Timers

I have learned many things from working on social games, and one of them is that you should show your players the countdown timers.

Why am I talking about this? I started playing Final Fantasy XIV, and they have a lot of countdown timers... and many of the are hidden. In this MMO, the most efficient exp is earned from levequests, a special kind of quest. You can do eight battle leves per day, and eight crafting leves per day. Or, well, maybe it's every 36 hours? I don't know for sure, and most of the players don't seem to know either. This is a critical cooldown timer, and the game doesn't show it to you! It's extremely frustrating, because you have to go to a certain NPC in town to exchange used leves for new ones, but you can't exchange a used one until 24 (or 36) hours after you completed it. Without the timers, you just have no idea when to go back for them.

That's not the only important cooldown timer the game doesn't show you. After you die and revive, you have a weakness status. In the previous Final Fantasy MMO this lasted 5 minutes, and now it's certainly shorter, perhaps 2 minutes? I haven't timed it yet, but I shouldn't have to. The timer should be displayed for you so you can watch it tick down. All of the status effects do a little bit of blinking before they wear off, but some of them seem to blink for an awfully long time - maybe they blink at 50% maybe 25%? Again, I have no idea, and it's maddening.

If your game has cooldown timers, show them. In FFXIV, all the abilities you can use show their cooldown timers in minutes and seconds, ticking away. Why couldn't they extend that to everything else?

There are many ways of showing a cooldown in a way that a player can feel they have a good grip on how long it will be until... whatever it is happens. Minutes and seconds is the most accurate, but it can be a little ugly and possibly confusing if you load the screen with dozens of them. I also like the radar-sweep transition from greyed out to normal (or vice versa). It's almost as precise as numbers, and, as long as there is enough of a contrast bteween the "live" and "dead" shading that's progressing around the icon, is as easy to read.

In social games, cooldown timers are even more important, because they are often very long - hours or even days. Players often leave and come back to the game later. They need to know how long they can be away, and when they do return, have to be able to easily reacquire the amount of time remaining on multiple timers. In these games numbers are usually the only acceptable readout.

Of course, you can always do both a radar sweep and numbers, and I would welcome it. It's a lot better than nothing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The social games sky is falling! The social games sky is falling!

Have you seen any "social gaming is doomed" articles recently? I have. How typical, a new market appears, everyone loves it, then everyone hates it, then it becomes... a market.

The typical social games sky is falling article comes from a market outsider. Often this person was (or still is) in the download games business. They have a huge interest in convincing themselves, as well as you, that social gaming will soon die off and we can all get back to playing regular online games.

One argument you see, increasingly, is that Facebook (come on now, we all say "social games" but we're really talking about Facebook, as it is by far the market-dominating social games platform) has changed its policies around viral messaging, which undermines the advantage of social games. Without that they will have to compete with all other online games in a level playing field. Since the regular online games market is filled with awesome real games, social games are doomed to fail.

Hmm... let me explain why that's totally wrong: this competition, social games vs other online games, doesn't actually exist. People play games on social networks because they are already on that social network checking up on their friends. While there, they get exposed to a game and can get hooked on it. How do people get into other online games? They see an ad on a website that they otherwise frequent and try out a game that looks appealing. Sometimes they get hooked on it.

Once they have played (and bought) one download game you need to keep that customer, and to do this aggregator websites -, for example - were created. Have you noticed that Facebook has some applications that are aggregators for pre-existing download games? That's very typical of download businesses that are trying to move into social games.

The cross-advertising bar at the top of the game (or just above the game) is an equivalent method that fits the platform much better. These bars advertise other social games made by the same developer, or increasingly, that have deals with the same publisher. 

The need to drive customers from one game to the next exists because players exhaust the content of one game and you'll lose them unless they see another game they want to play. This is very typical of hidden object games (the most recent downloadable game fad). This issue of content exhaustion does not apply equally to all games. Bejeweled and its ilk are so strong because they have infinite repeat content. Many of the most successful social network games have infinite content or provide an endless stream of content. Farmville / Frontierville have little maintenance tasks never end. On top of this they gush content out every week. The constant flow of new things keeps players from "finishing" the game and needing to find a new game. You should be thinking of social games as a service, not as a one-and-done. We're getting a little off track here, but I'll come back to this another day.

Back to the issue at hand: the death of social games. The social games scene is seeing a lot of consolidation, typical of new markets that have shifted from the explosive growth stage to the "show me the money" stage. I bet a lot of these companies have a lot of users for their games, but aren't making any money. They sell themselves on the information that is public ("we have 5 million players") and pocket the sale fee while the new owner tries to figure out where the profits are going to come from. This happens in all fields, right? Social games aren't dying, they're going through very standard life stages for any market. Perhaps they are going through them more rapidly than others have, but that's no reason to go all Chicken Little on us.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Forecasting Hurricanes (in Harvest Moon)

I'm a sucker for Harvest Moon games. I've played several in the series, most recently the Animal Parade version for the Wii. In brief you play a farmer, you grow crops, milk cows, and give gifts to everyone in town to make them like you - especially certain members of the opposite sex until you can marry one of them.

One of your tools is a TV with which you can check the weather for the next day - but only for one day in advance. The forecast is 100% accurate. The game's years consist of 4 months, each month being 30 days and one season. It rains in the spring, but in the summer there are also hurricanes. Here we get to today's topic. These hurricanes destroy crops, which is very bad. If you are lucky you might harvest right before a hurricane and not lose much when you replant right afterwards. If you check the weather each day you would know if the next day would be a hurricane, but since crops take 3-5 days to grow there wasn't much you could do.

In an earlier edition in the series (also with hurricanes) the weather was set one day ahead - because you could see the forecast by that time the next day's weather had to be locked in. However, that's as far as it went. My wife, a gaming perfectionist*, never let a hurricane hit her farm. The entire summer she would save at night, then advance to the next day and check the forecast for the day after. If a hurricane was predicted she would reset to the previous night and try again. Her crops were never devastated again.

The designers must have learned of such behavior (or perhaps knew all along). In the Wii game the weather for a season is entirely set on the first day of that season (perhaps for the whole year). You can no longer avoid the hurricanes. There is still advantage to be gained in knowing when they will come, and Lillian (my wife) now rapidly advanced through the entire summer, recording the days of the hurricane(s). She then returns to her saved game at the beginning of the season armed with the knowlege of when the hurricanes will strike.

In playing Harvest Moon: Animal Parade, I don't do any of that. I don't even check the next day's forecast. Am I riled when half my crops are destroyed? Yes, but because I know it cannot be avoided I'm content to weather the storms. In the older game, however, it was a different story. Because I knew the hurricane could be entirely avoided, I felt forced to take two steps forward and one step back each day, carefully checking the weather and only saving when it was safe. I almost hated myself for this behavior, and I certainly hated the game's creators for allowing such a system to exist. Why have hurricanes at all if it was so easy, and so tedious, to avoid them? Why waste all that programming and art effort that could have gone toward other features? In fairness to them, they may not have known, or may not have had the resources to solve the issue once they found out.

The point remains, however, that you have to be aware of what players can do to avoid entire parts of your design. They are sneaky, those players, and they'll find ways to avoid some of your best material if they believe it to be to their advantage to do so.

*Gaming Perfectionist - see a future blog entry for the full explanation. In short, someone who "gets everything right" when they play a video game.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Murder Safari

When my wife first observed me playing MMOs, years ago, she coined the term "murder safari." She was appalled at what the majority of MMO play consists of: killing grazing animals. It's not very different from poachers in Africa, when you think about it. We run out into the forest or plains, approach some innocent creature that is just minding its own business... and hack it to death! Then we carry off its teeth or hide to sell at the auction house. Now, every time I begin a new MMO I can't help but laugh and think of her assessment of what I'm doing.

Why must it be this way? At higher levels the monsters strike first. At low levels new players can't handle getting attacked without warning. When your character starts off they are too weak to handle aggressive monsters. These and many more lame excuses give us the tedious grind of MMO levelling. While I can understand that you don't want to give players too many powers to start off I don't understand why murder safaris are necessary.

Remember Megaman 2 (Rock Man 2 for our Japanese and Dark Otaku* readers)? In it you have to defeat several bosses. You can choose to tackle their stages in any order. Each of them gave you a weapon that was super-effective against another boss. This formula could make for an excellent MMO experience. Instead of needing to level by killing zillions of monsters I would set up a loop of  interesting challenges for the player. At the end of each challenge the player would earn a new ability. The order you tackle the challenges could be up to you, to a degree. Now I know that you're thinking it's easier to throw in monsters than create challenges, but what if you made simple challenges that put the monsters in a different perspective?

Here's one idea: the stealth challenge. The goal is only to get through the field of monsters to the other side. The monsters will attack if they detect you (MMOs can have various kinds of detection and methods of avoiding or suppressing it). If the gains from defeating the monsters are not worth the time it takes to do it, players will learn to avoid the fights and sneak past everything. Then all you need to do is put a stealthiness ability as the reward for a different challenge and you've created the first link in your loop of abilities and challenges.

Note: it is not cute to reward the players who successfully stealthed with a stealth ability - they don't need it if they are already good at it. Put that ability somewhere else so that players who are bad at stealth can get it before they tackle this challenge and those who are good at stealth can start with this challenge and use the reward ability to help them with a different kind of challenge they are less adept at.

Some other MMO challenge ideas that involve monsters but not just senseless murder safari**

  • Wolf in Sheep's clothing: in a field of sheepy monsters, find and kill the one that's not quite right.
  • Timed escape: similar to stealth, but detection doesn't mean failure, it just means wasting time fighting. Perhaps there is one fight you can't avoid near the exit and finishing it as fast as you can is key.
  • Get chased: get a particular monster to chase you, then lead it to a certain area. Run too far ahead and it will lose interest, too slow and it'll kill you (unless you heal a lot). Variations include a 2-player version in which you must get two monsters to cross paths so they can fall in love.
  • Multi-switch puzzles: Throwing levers and standing on switches to open the way forward. These are especially fun when designed for groups of players. (Monsters are incidental here, fastest to avoid them but clearing them out is allowed.)
  • Tag: You must touch each monster once, but not twice. Good luck keeping track of them as they move around. Can be brute-forced by having enough friends helping by each following a monster so you don't lose track.
A game's design doesn't even need to go this far to avoid grinding. Remember that the players will find the most efficient way to level up. Simple make killing monsters inefficient compared to quests or crafting or whatever you want your game to be about and players will soon realize which is the optimal path.

Look, it's not that I don't love a good battle against a monster. A good battle. I love the boss fights in which you have to team up and figure out the best way to defeat a challenging enemy. Better to spend your design time on 20 interesting boss fights than 100 dull monsters for players to grind on. I could imagine a game with only boss battles. The first few fights that can be tackled at low levels; they could reward enough exp for players to gain entire levels; they could be fun to repeat a couple of times, especially with different player (and class) combinations.

*Dark Otaku - fans of anime and Japanese culture who have an elitist attitude toward fandom. They have low tolerance for new fans and non-fans, and love to emphasize the Japanese versions of things over their American counterparts. Contrast with Light Otaku who, while having equally deep knowledge of anime and Japanese culture, love all fans and have a more positive outlook on fandom.
**Yeah, I just love writing it. MURDER SAFARI!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Social Game Design: Monetization part 1

As I stated last time: 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 monetization.

What? You say that monetization isn't a game design topic? That's for marketing, sales, and business departments to handle? Look, I know you're in the design business for the pure love of making the best possible games, but you've gotta eat too, right? Also, I believe monetization works ten times better if it is integrated into the design of the game by the designer.

This topic is so huge I could probably write a book about it, so I must choose to narrow my focus for this first post about it. Today will be more of an overview and starting point for the topic that I will come back to from time to time.

Most games are monetized in one of these ways:
  • Single (one-time) purchase
  • Advergames
  • Episodic content and paid unlocks
  • Subscription
  • Virtual Goods
Social network games do not mix well with all of these methods. Single-purchase, for example, is a terrible way to make money in social games. All the other games are free, so you can't ask for money up front, you'll just get ignored. You could use the established download game model of free for a while (commonly 60 minutes for download games) and then charge the one-time fee, but it's still a lousy fit for the environment. In social games you need players to keep playing and keep recruiting their friends.

While Advergames can work on social networks, they are pretty inefficient ways to make money for the game builders. For the company that desires the advertising it might be another story. As a game designer, I find this is just a sad way to leave a lot of money on the table. If you want to combine it with other methods (like virtual goods) that would be another story!

Pure subscription models also don't work well on social networks for a lot of the same reasons single-purchase doesn't work. The other games are all free and the smaller, more casual games you're probably making for social networks don't appear to be worth the price of a subscription. (Yes, I know you might be making more money with a virtual goods model than a subscription - but we're talking about how it feels to players, not about reality.)

Episodic content and paid unlocks are a solid way for a social game to make money. The hard part is deciding what parts of the game will be locked and which parts will not. You need just enough to get players hooked, but still have enough meaty options for them to unlock. The more content you can add as time goes on the better. You can start with little or perhaps nothing for pay and so long as you can keep to a solid schedule of adding new content for pay your game may thrive. Episodic content is half of the "freemium" model.

Virtual goods are by far my favorite way to monetize a social game. The game is free, but must include items or objects that can be collected, used, or (often) worn by player characters. Almost all (if not all) of the best known social games sell virtual goods to their players. This is the other half of the freemium model.

Episodic content and virtual goods both must be designed into the game to perform at their best. It's hard to add them later. How to best use them? That's a topic for another day.

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?

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.

Friday, September 3, 2010


The card game, war. Have you played it? Long ago, perhaps as a small child, you played it. It's silly, right? You just flip cards out of the deck and see who has the highest card. That person takes both cards, repeat. It's not even a game, it's just an activity. Neither player can affect the results, there is no strategy, no skill, only pure luck.

Children sure do enjoy it though. How can they enjoy something they have no control over that has almost no benefit? I believe there are two forces at work here. One is a childhood thing, the other a psychological thing.

Children don't know how things work. At some point we learn a lot of common-sense things such as "you cannot change the top card of a deck just by thinking about it," but each of us has to learn that for ourselves. War can be fun for kids who haven't yet reached that conclusion. They think they can somehow be good at this activity through willpower or some imaginary skill. Does flipping the cards faster help? Does concentrating help? Does calling out a card or yelling at the deck or jumping up and down help? Even if you (as a child) know these specific things don't work you may still not have learned that there is nothing at all you can do against a shuffled deck of cards. Perhaps a ghost will help you. Eventually we all (almost all) learn that you can't win at war (the card game) and stop playing it (until we have children of our own, perhaps).

Psychology brings an exciting development to this story. Humans are inherently pattern-finders. Finding patterns is one of our huge advantages and we love to do it. By finding a pattern we become able to predict the outcome and many times this brings us a huge reward. Learn the spawning pattern of salmon? You can get a lot of fish if you come to the river on the correct days of the year. Learn the attack pattern of an enemy warrior? You can block his attack and win the fight. Yet this is also a place in which our brains can trick us. Some random systems scream out "there's a pattern here" when there is not. Attach a big enough reward to the random system and the human need to learn the pattern so it can predictably get the reward takes over. Enter the slot machine, or any other gambling environment that relies on a pure-luck event. Even if you know how it works, the reward is big enough that part of your brain says "keep watching this, we can figure it out, try again, I can almost predict it." Some study I read about but am too lazy to find the reference to postulates that too much of this subconscious brain activity is what predisposes some people to be compulsive gamblers. Even of those who don't "have a problem" there are many who play the slot machines even though it's just war, and the odds are not in your favor at all.

I'm sure this has something to do with game design.