Let’s just start with the definition of a game, It is structured playing usually undertaken for enjoyment or sometimes used as an educational tool. The Key components of a game are goals, rules, challenges and interaction. This is what you can find on Wikipedia. I’ll try to put it in another form. Users interact with a game by using rules to beat challenges in order to achieve goals. These components are essential and if you are missing one of these you have a problem.
The business model for social gaming involves engaging and retaining users and eventually at some point paying for certain in-game items. The goal they wish to achieve is for the user to keep playing the game for a long period of time and keep purchasing items at regular intervals of time. The easiest of the three according to me would be getting users to begin with. The real challenge for developers is to keep them coming back and eventually pay. Developers and Facebook promote the return factor through numerous strategies such as gaining items for free for playing daily (Developers) or Facebook’s social graph integration for games for developers to implement. These maybe good strategies but what is the best strategy? That I am afraid the only answer I can think of is the game itself. Is it good enough to warrant replayability.
WHAT IS YOUR GOAL?
Now let us understand some aspects of game design which are currently being implemented. Developers want users to engage over a long period of time. How do developers wish to achieve this? Answer: There are no winning criteria for the game. I put it in bold because this is critical. It does sound logical if you want users to continue playing the game as long as humanly possible but what it actually leads to is a missing key component for the game, GOALS. Developers can argue that they do in fact have goals in their games, which usually means either build a certain building to receive X amount of currency or XP or something else but considering the fact that developers want their users to play their game till the end of time, how short term of a goal is something like this. Think of it in terms of a runner running on a track endlessly since there is no finish line (reminds me of a quote I saw on a Nike T-shirt). But take a hint from that Nike. Nike is a sports brand and a quote like that appeals to true power players who will train harder than most in order to be the best or at least that’s the kind of people Nike wishes to attract. Same holds true for the current game design, you may attract millions of users but it is only those power players who will commit to a game and spend money on the game like the developers want. For most of the others, you have to incorporate goals, not only short term but medium and long term. Long term play requires long term goals.
We all react to the environment we are put in and it may not always be as expected. The point I’m trying to drive here is that, games modify user behaviour and it may not always be as per the expectations of developers. Developers’ rationale for no winning criteria is to expect long term user participation but what is actually happening. If the game does not have a winning criterion, a user is left to create his/her own goals. If I am building a farm or a military base without any context to why the hell do I want to do that in the first place, it’s entirely up to me as to how big I want my farm or base to be. And sooner or later, a user will ask “Why am I playing this? Why am I doing this? There’s no end level boss or end level goal for me to complete.” Then as you may already conclude, the users tend to leave or switch to another game.
The solution I recommended to my proponents for this particular issue was drawing a parallel to the television industry or the comic book industry. Give users episodes. Give users a playground but give them a context and a why so that there is a reason to play. Then expand the playground and add further goals similar to season 1, 2, 3 and so on for television shows where you end each season with a hook and get the audience psyched for the next season.
Gaming is a form of entertainment, when someone goes for a movie, watches a television show or plays a game they expect it to have a beginning, middle and end because when people want to be entertained they expect to receive some closure to their experience by the end of it. How many of us groan if the director leaves the movie with an ending which leads to further questions? How many times do we groan at the season ending of a television show because of the hook they leave you with at the end and make you wait for the next season? The difference here being, people get excited too with that hook and come back and watch the next season. My suggestion is to implement a similar model where you offer users a self contained playground and let them go through it in its entirety and then expand the playground further.