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SOCIAL GAMES: UNDERSTANDING DESIGN
by Rohit Maggon on 03/13/13 12:22:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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.

A REMINDER

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.


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Comments


Brian Tsukerman
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I agree with you that one of the major flaws in social gaming is the lack of conclusive goals outside of the short term, which stems from the desire to keep people playing endlessly.

I do like the idea of episodic play, but I'm curious on how much this differs from the approach of just adding new short term goals as is common in current games. If there's one game I'm playing that seems to exemplify this approach, it would be Marvel: Avengers Alliance. It has separate chapters, each one containing 6 missions, with new chapters added as time goes on. In particular, the Special Ops missions are only available for a limited time and provide an excellent incentive in the form of an unlockable character if you complete it entirely before it expires. However, the standard goals they provide seem to simply be just various iterations of either level someone up, collect coins, win fights, or beat a chapter.

Is this close to what you are getting at?

Rohit Maggon
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Hi Brian,

I think a similar feature is followed by Kixeye's War Commander as well, wherein they release an "Operation" every few months which follows a loose storyline and rewards players to complete within a specific time frame.

An example of Episodic Play could be the game which seems to be latching on quite well, Criminal Case. Its a simple hidden items game but each case acts as a self contained episode. There is a lot of grinding for sure but atleast the framework of implementing episodes is in place, consciously or unconsciously. And I can bet that retention metrics for the game may be higher than what are considered the industry average. The guys are still experimenting with monetization which actually says a lot about the fact that they concentrated on the game design before implementing a monetization strategy.

Apologies for replying so late, didnt receive any notifications from Gamasutra about comments.

Bruno Chaves
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I agree, but not with all you said. You have a point, but you forgot one important detail in game design. In this case, the criterion is conceptually victory, and is not set as the goal is to emerge victorious X!
As an MMO, the criterion of victory, is conceptually created by the player when certain achievement level, when winning a quest, when defeat a powerful creature, etc..
In the case of social games, the criterion of victory, could complete the quest, complete the challenges set for yourself are also valid, conquer certain types of items, etc..
These are types of games that has no end, but that's what makes arrest the player, like an MMO game for failing to close, it will only stop playing when you get bored.

Michael Joseph
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It should also be recongnized that it's impossible to keep any individual playing indefinetly. In time, they will all eventually quit.

"The solution I recommended to my proponents for this particular issue was drawing a parallel to the television industry or the comic book industry."

Emulating tv/comics might help but they don't have it mastered either of course. Eventually people stop watching/following them as well. There comes a time when the characters have explored all they can and the series formula starts to get old. I think this is why the origin season series in comics are really the only ones really worth reading. Once the character has completed their transformation into the hero, the rest of the books become "tune in next time to see how our hero defeats random villain of the week again!"

How do you get people to keep tuning in for stuff like that once the hero has completed their transformative journey? I think it's mostly charisma, comedy, suspense, nostalgia, villain of the week origin story, and other types of gimmicky devices that have to make up for the fact that the main story is over.... but the show must go on....

p.s. To be fair, there are some episodic shows like Star Trek that use familiar cast and setting but explore new themes and messages each (or most) episodes. This is different than episodic adventures of Lone Ranger who defeats yet another black hat every week.

p.s.s. I'm also reminded of the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett who's Sherlock seemed so bored with life at the start of each episode until his next adventure came knocking on his door to provide some temporary distraction. In a way, that made his Sherlock a reflection of the shows viewers awaiting their next Holmes adventure.

Michael Salmon
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I think altering games to episodic form may work for you, but you have to realise that people play in different ways and strive for different experiences.

You state that giving users episodes is a solution, but I do not see the problem. You just have to look at the success of Sims games, Clash of Clans and Simpsons Tapped Out that having no long-term goal can be successful. These games look to break down the game into short sessions, with every session is a mini-game; each session is a new episode, which follows the narrative created from the autonomy over your actions.

Continual games provide the user with freedom over their own actions through establishing their own goals and direction, developed by challenges emerging from the games environment. Emergent goals arise from each input, supporting the next goal, and so on. The Sims games, for example, have a huge range of options, mechanics and paths that the player can take, with every step becoming a new experience that is different from somebody else. However, with genres such as FPS, you are limited to basically move and shot, so repeating that without an eventual goal would be repetitive and boring, similar to your runner running around the track.

You also state “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”, but as a business this has to be your focus, with the majority who users who play your social game will never reach monetization stage. Although this might not suit your needs, they have to focus on those who do spend to remain in business. Monetization design should be created so the game provides items that are of value, and segmented between its audiences, so if it is not fulfilling your needs then you will not perceive anything of value. Those companies who do put effort into understanding play emotions and tailor their games this way tend to be more successful.

Of course, having an eventual goal to reach may suit some, but that is the freedom that games bring through providing different experiences for different individuals. There is so much choice out there that if you are playing a game and not gaining enjoyment, you can easily switch to a game that does. This does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with the game, it is just not an experience tailored to you.


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