Saturday, April 7, 2012

Winning Pitch Workshop: Part 1: Social Games

Led by veteran game designer Naomi Clark, the Winning Pitch workshop event focused on developing an original social game design and creating the materials needed to communicate it effectively to a real client. The workshop combined lectures and exercises with hands-on creative collaboration and culminated in a pitch session. Naomi Clark gave a presentation on the components that make a social game.

What makes a game a social game? According to the audience, it's monetization, micro-transactions, addictive gameplay, constant rewards for the smallest tasks, social graph, asynchronous play, and leveraging obligations. Social games facilitate social interactions, but are not really social and one can argue that they're anti-social (due to spamming). They are free to play, but sell items. Many of them aren't very much games at all. There are many paradoxes here (social but not social, free but not free, games but not games).

Social games is the genetic marriage of persistent worlds and casual games.

From persistent worlds, it derives...
  1. Earning, customizing, and building over months and years
  2. Grinding (labor for rewards)
  3. Offer rich multiplayer experiences and the ability to play "alone together"
From casual games, it derives...
  1. Pick up and play mechanics, Low barrier of entry and easy learning curves
  2. No Interface preconceptions, simple controls
  3. Rewarding and positive feedback over punishments
Naomi identifies 5 main components of social games.

  • Interstitial play patterns and asynchronous mechanics.
    • The dominant play behavior is to play during breaks in quick 5-10 minute chunks.
    • Persistence and the fact that events happen in between sessions cause retention, or the tendency for players to come back.
    • Asynchronous mechanics is often called appointment gaming. Things run in the background and happen while the player is away.
    • There are also asynchronous multiplayer games, usually turn-based and harkens back to playing by mail. These are not simultaneous. Real-time asynchronous games exist like Tetris Battle where the player plays against a recording of another player (like racing against a ghost car).
    • Asynchronous RTS exist, like Travian and Urban Dead, by expanding timers and encapsulating events (one move can take a few days to complete). This makes them appear to be more turn-like. Real-time expenditure of turns levels the playing field between players. Players can't group together in the middle of the night and attack a defenseless player.
    • Siege vs. tower defense games. These have asymmetrical roles as the attackers play in real-time but the defenders can play turn-based. They just set up their defenses beforehand and check back after the attacks.
    • Asynchronous Action RPGs put gameplay in ellipsis. Mobsters 2 is like Grand Theft Auto but instead of getting an assassination mission, stealing a car, driving the car to the target location, and shooting a gun at the target, the player can do all this by clicking a button that says "Complete Quest." All of the intermediate steps are skipped over. The player spends resources to complete quests, a trope that has carried over to many of the standard Facebook games.

  • Broad audiences with niches.
    • Social games target casual audiences by having simple one-click interactions.
    • Gameplay reinforces carrot on the stick, providing super rewarding and rarely punishing experiences. There are no traumatizing events to scare away audiences.
    • Triple Town, a favorite in the gaming community, was actually considered too confusing by most playtesters, according to creator Daniel Cook. There may be many reasons for its confusion -- the game requires too much planning in the player's part, it isn't rewarding enough compared to other social games, it had a bad tutorial, the game is claustrophobic, the bleed out time is too long and mistakes lead to more mistakes, there's no direct feedback, and it was easy to forget your plans in between play sessions. However, the main reason for its failure was that people didn't understand they needed to plan ahead. Many playtesters played it like they were decorating a space and were confused when some of their plants disappeared into a tree. Dan Cook wanted a casual game, but ended up appealing to a more hardcore crowd.
    • Profitable choices vs. more profitable choices. There are no bad choices, just good ones and better ones. The only way to lose at a social game is failure to show up.
    • Crossover hits (a hardcasual game) exist such as Empires & Allies. These types of games tend to find a niche and have more dedicated players.

  • Persistence and progress.
    • Persistence of the world keeps players coming back. Changing the state of the game during holidays and seasons incentivizes players to come back and check on their territory.
    • Castleville's persistence, and that of other ville-type game, is the city you've built yourself.
    • Bejweled Blitz's persistence, and that of other arcade games, is the high score, though some games reset the high scores every week.
    • Draw Something keeps the player's history and data (most used colors, etc.)
    • Dreamland, designed by Naomi Clark, is a game where the protagonist enters a maze of her dreams and fights off her greatest fears. The persistence is found in the upgradeable bedroom that players can decorate. The bedroom serves no gameplay purpose other than being the main hub.
    • League of Legends, a massively successful team-based competitive game, has persistence in the player's data and match history. Players can level up their accounts which allows them to unlock more heroes, skills, masteries, and runes that increase their stats.
    • Triple Town's persistent elements are the score and coins.

  • Sociality (other players as context)
    • "Alone Together." 70% of time spent in World of Warcraft is played alone. The concept of having people to play "next to" is like playing golf at a driving lane or studying alone in a library where others are doing the same.
    • In Castleville, players don't truly cross paths with each other, but they always feel other's presence, whether in the leaderboard or in the footprint of their friend's actions on their own village. There are tacit pacts created for mutual aid, where players agree to send each other gifts back and forth.
    • There are some real-time, simultaneous games like Zynga Poker, but these are usually played against strangers. Dungeon Rampage is an example of a real-time game that can be played with friends.
    • There are many asynchronous multiplayer games.
    • Idle Worship presents a new model of looking at players next to you (the world map).
  • Free entry
    • All social games follow the freemium model. There are usually soft and hard currencies, and the process of making the player run low on these resources are often called soft and hard chokes.
    • In Tiny Tower, players can grind for hard currency, usually by transporting people in the elevator whereby they have a small chance of tipping you a hard currency. Zynga never gives away hard currency as a general company-wide rule so Dream Heights, a direct clone of Tiny Tower by Zynga, does not give away any hard currency. As a result, transporting people in the elevator in Dream Heights gave little reward and therefore is essentially useless, but is left in there purely as a result of a cloned system.
    • Frontierville, being another Zynga game, does not give away any hard currency. Comparatively, Tiny Tower makes more money than Frontierville (higher ARPU), so the slow trickle of hard currency may arguably be a better monetization route.
    • There is a group of advanced players who try to beat the house. They are complete grinders, focused on optimal play without ever spending money or submitting to viral requests.

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