Social gaming can be a lucrative and appealing industry, for game developers and investors alike. Jeremy Liew, Managing Director at Lightspeed Venture Partners, attributes this appeal to the ability of social game development to mitigate risk, cut down development time, and keep a low marketing cost. There’s more to making a social game go from one in a million to a powerhouse like CityVille , however. Four core elements – ease of play, time sensitivity, social connectivity, and viral transmission – are key for any social game’s success.
Ease of Play
“Ease of play” refers to the difficulty scale involved in controls, complexity, and overall game play. Here, game developers must make use of the philosophy “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Audience is key in social gaming, and the social gaming audience is one that is less familiar with and, therefore, less adept, at video game controls. While many people who identify themselves as gamers enjoy social gaming, about thirty-five percent, according to the NPD Group, have never played video games before in their life. Social games are often dubbed “casual” games, as they are meant to cater to a wider audience than the traditional video gaming enthusiasts.
Adapting to the market is key, and this means keeping game play simple, without losing sophistication. Controls should be relatively simple (point-and-click, perhaps very limited keyboard shortcuts), and gameplay should stick to its core elements with little complication. A simple cycle of activity – such as the often used theme of planting virtual crops and returning later to harvest for profit and experience – allows new gamers to enjoy social games without feeling overwhelmed.
The second core concept in social game design is time sensitivity. While many social gamers enjoy long hours at their favorites, the core appeal for any social game – its “hook” – is how quickly a player can achieve goals.
Casual game players do not make gaming their prime hobby. They generally do not purchase the hardware or software or set aside hours of game time each week or each evening. Being able to quickly check in on their game, one or more times a day, allows them to manage a quick and progressive play style over the course of time. Games which require long investments of time – usually deemed as more than 15 or 30 minutes – are less appealing because they require more significant time investment from the player.
A good social game will be sensitive to the time of its users, and adapt accordingly. Play should be able to be managed in short bursts, especially in the early stages of a game when new players are testing it for enjoyability. Later progression can slow down or encourage longer bouts of time spent, to encourage retention.
The idea that a social game would forget to include social elements seems unlikely; however, many new social games that arrive on the market forget this key element.
“Social” in relation to a game means more than offering the game on a social network, like Facebook, or a social platform, like the iPhone. Instead, “social” should refer to the connectivity of a single player in the game to other players. Social games thrive when they not only allow, but encourage, friend-to-friend game play and assistance, including posting gifts on Facebook walls and sending personal high score challenges. The key here is that the player not only needs to interact with the game, but with others playing the game.
Social connectivity is vital to a social game’s success because it encourages depth of interaction for each player. While the game may be simpler than games designed for a less casual audience, it can also encourage more social play. Social connectivity also plays a core role in the fourth element, viral transmission.
Social game development is both good at hedging risks and taking them. Because social games are typically free, development costs must be compensated by micro-transactions, limiting marketing budgets for social game developers. The social nature of these games, however, offers a new marketing opportunity – viral transmission.
The idea behind viral transmission is simple: get a player hooked into the game, offer them an opportunity to connect socially with others, and then offer them a method to share the game. Facebook offers two simple methods for viral transmission: wall posts (both on the player’s own wall, and that of their friends), and game requests. Many mobile social games use social gaming networks, such as OpenFeint or Games Center. Other options include offering “share” buttons that let the player post about the game to Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit, and Digg.
This not only offers a social game free advertising to its core audience, it also offers the best kind of advertising: word-of-mouth. This effective method of advertising works so well because people trust the words of a peer more than they do a simple advertisement. It is also a form of advertising that still thrives on technology that seeks to block out traditional forms of advertisement, and positive word-of-mouth works excellent for brand building. Offering methods of viral transmission, then, enables each player with effective marketing tools for expanding each social game’s brand.
With these four core design elements, social games are given a solid framework that enables their growth and success in an increasingly popular and crowded market. While games missing one of these elements are still capable of growth, they are less likely to succeed in the long-term without re-evaluating their design for the social platforms of today.
Jeremy Liew, “Why The Economics of Social Gaming Are So Attractive To Investors,” paidContent.org.
The NPD Group, “20 Percent of the U.S. Population, or 56.8 Million U.S. Consumers, Reports Having Played A Game On A Social Network,” NPD Group.