There is a lot of excitement about social games in the casual gaming community, and for a good reason. Social games are quick to build, often fun to play, growing rapidly, and generating real revenue. Many casual game producers and designers are making the transition from the casual download world into the social gaming space and expecting it to be straightforward. After all, there are a lot of commonalities. The audience is online, mass market, unstintingly casual, and often very pink. They love short play sessions and easy, steady success. Themes like restaurants and farms resonate in both places.
But the transition is often much more challenging than expected. The category itself is emergent and rapidly changing, and much of the design and production process is very counterintuitive for people who have been working in packaged goods (or casual downloadable games). This is the first in a series of articles that will walk you through some of the most interesting and important lessons I’ve learned in my two-plus years in social gaming.
Designing To Reduce Churn
Unlike traditional game design, almost all elements of social-game design should be done with a business objective in mind. In most categories in the game industry, once you’ve understood your audience’s psychographics and made sure you comply with a few core market requirements (like driving your player past the 60-minute trial barrier), you can put all of your focus on making a fun game.
In social games, this just isn’t the case. Your game needs to drive a variety of important user behaviors that are important for the health of your business. Many of these require very carefully thought-out design, high levels of platform integration, and massive iteration to get right. Three of the most critical metrics that any social gaming business needs to watch are churn, growth, and reactivation. Of course, revenue is an important goal as well, but it’s important to realize that positive developments in churn, growth, and reactivation will result in “compound interest”—growing your user base while ensuring that each player helps you acquire more users. If done well, this will cause exponential growth until your game begins to saturate its market. Positive developments in revenue, on the other hand, can only give you linear payoffs. Getting each user to pay more money doesn’t give you any advantage in terms of getting more players into the game every day.
Positive developments in churn, growth, and reactivation will result in “compound interest”—growing your user base while ensuring that each player helps you acquire more users.
As the game designer on a social game, your first and most comfortable job will be reducing churn. This is the part of the work that looks the most like traditional game design. Of course, one of the key ways of keeping users coming back is to build a fun game. If your game isn’t pleasurable to play, it will be very, very challenging to get users to come back to it. And fun is no easier to build in a social game than in a casual downloadable—harder, perhaps, because your game needs to fit in a much smaller package, reducing the emphasis on production value.
There are a number of well-established techniques that have emerged to get users to return to your game on a regular basis, turning them from samplers into players, and eventually (you hope) into payers. Among the most important of these design tenets are:
- Using timed re-engagement
- Limiting game-play
- Letting things decay
Using Timed Re-Engagement
One of the most popular techniques that a variety of social games employ to bring users back regularly is known as “appointment gaming” or “harvesting.” This mechanic was first seen in a number of farm-themed games, including Slashkey’s Farm Town, the game that started the farming genre on Facebook. Over time, the mechanic has made its way into a variety of games, including city-builders, pet-care games, and many others.
In this mechanic, users pay to plant a crop which will mature at a specific time. Until that time, the user cannot claim the reward. After that time, the user can claim the reward for a period of time. In many but not all games, the crop “withers” after that time and becomes uncollectible.
This has become a potent device for encouraging users to make a commitment to playing the game and to returning over and over. They are excited about the reward of a successful harvest and concerned about the loss they will incur if the miss their appointment. The metaphor is also widely extensible; in Playdom’s Social City game, players make an appointment when they choose a good for their factory to produce.
It is worth noting that the impact of this mechanic can be amplified or lessened very significantly by the way the game’s economy is balanced. In games where the user’s pocketbook is greatly rewarded for a successful harvest and takes a punishing blow on failure, users are highly motivated to return to the game in time to harvest their crops. Of course, for users that fail to keep the appointment, the experience of seeing a dead farm and an empty bank account may be the motivation they need to stop playing.
One of the oldest methods of driving re-engagement with social games is limiting the amount of time the user can spend playing in a given session. This convention has been popular in RPG’s like Playdom’s Sorority Life game. This mechanic gives the player a certain amount of “energy” and other similar resources that they can expend each day. Each action that the player takes in the game expends a certain amount of resources, which slowly replenish over time. When players run out of energy, they have no choice but to stop playing for the day or to spend money to refill their energy. Then when they come back some time (say 12 or 24 hours) later, they will have another full load of energy to expend.
In many ways, this is like the downloadable game designer’s familiar trick of making sure that the 60-minute trial is a strong enough experience to get the player excited about the game but not quite enough to thoroughly satisfy the user’s desire to play. Of course, in a typical downloadable game the designer only needs to pull this trick off once—making sure that there is clear bait for additional value out past the 60-minute mark. Social game designers need to ensure that their games are balanced to deliver on this goal continually. Every day, users should play the game enough to remind themselves of what they enjoy but not enough for the game to feel tired or tedious. They should finish their daily session with a highly appealing goal in sight but not in reach.
Energy serves a couple of other interesting purposes. First, because it limits core game-play (which is what the user most desires), allowing players to send each other energy (or ask their friends for energy) can be a highly viral activity. Also, when players run out of the energy they need for their core game-play, they may be nudged into other aspects of your game that are more viral or social, such as fighting other players.
Letting Things Decay
The design strategy of letting things decay is a variant on the Timed Re-Engagement mechanic, with a couple of key differences. First of all, it is typically the game rather than the user that chooses the time period when the user will next need to come back. Second, the user’s main motivation is generally not to claim a reward when a crop matures, but rather to revive a system that has sunk into chaos. Third, if the user waits too long to return to the game, instead of finding that something has actually died, they will typically see something they care about looking or feeling really haggard on their return.
This mechanic originated in pet games—even as far back as Tamagochi, in which the user must typically feed, groom, and otherwise care for a pet in order to make it look happy and playful and able to engage in a full range of activities. The game itself determined at what speed the pets’ levels of health and happiness would deteriorate. Users who came back in time would find their pets happy, health, and ready for action. Players who stayed away too long would find not only that their friends had passed them on the leader board, but also that their pets were sad, smelly, and hungry, playing hard to their sense of guilt.
For this technique to work at all, it’s very important that the neglected entity resonate very strongly with the player’s emotions. There must be a strong emotional reaction to seeing the avatar/homunculus/possession in distress. This is one of the reasons that this mechanic has been applied most often to pets or other animals, like the pets in Playfish’s Pet Society. We have seen some applications used in various games to represent the state of a player’s business, but this is a less common and less emotional application of this technique.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at design elements that help make games socially relevant—the things that you can do to make players feel like they’re playing with their friends (even when they’re not) and building their relationships by playing your game.
David Rohrl is a Creative Director at Playdom where he conceives and designs a variety of new games, helps to improve existing games, mentors junior design staff, and annoys producers. Rohrl has over 15 years of game development experience and previously occupied senior production and game design roles at Zynga, PopCap, EA/Pogo and The Learning Company. He has produced more than two-dozen published titles including casual hits Word Whomp, Tumble Bees, and Casino Island —and has served as managing producer on a dozen more. A long time organizer of the annual Casual Games Summit, Rohrl chairs the IGDA Casual Games SIG and speaks regularly at major industry events. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Fundamentals of Social Game Design. Part One: Reducing Churn | By David Rohrl,