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Facebook: Social game devs must make their games  actually social
Facebook: Social game devs must make their games actually social
October 29, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

October 29, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Social/Online, Design

At a recent session at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, Facebook director of user growth Alex Schultz apparently solved the riddle to improving user retention in social games:

Make social games social.

Ok, that sounds obvious, but more than a few game designers and pundits have expressed their disdain with social games that aren't really all that social. And a lot of Facebook games even today suffer from that same un-social problem.

Schultz said Facebook is looking forward to games that are "fundamentally better with friends, and fundamentally impossible to play without your friends."

He added, "We're really excited by games we see that are better with friends the whole way through."

He turned to non-Facebook online games like Mojang's Minecraft and Blizzard's StarCraft as examples of games that engage users socially. StarCraft "has social context against it... We know that [social context] drives more people to engage and convert wherever Facebook does it."


Another issue with retention is that most games, including Facebook games, are hit-driven. They start off with a huge audience that tapers off in the long run. Some others manage to remain steady with a small but loyal audience, so the curve doesn't trend downward.

But a new trend is emerging, said Schultz. Some games get new bumps upward.

"Mobile is bringing this, too," Schultz said. "When you sign up to a social game and only two or three of your friends are playing it, it is not fun. As more and more of your friends join the game, more opportunities come for it to be social," he said. Mobile platforms can drive a delayed bump in users -- and increased engagement -- if, for example, a previously iOS-specific game is ported to Android. Players' friends can see via Facebook that a game that they were interested in is now on their mobile platform of choice, and help boost engagement for everyone by joining in.

"The most exciting thing that's happening on the Facebook platform today is Open Graph," Schultz said. That's because it's driven by "shares that are intentional by the user."

Schultz singled out Playdom's Marvel Adventures as a game that is doing a great job of utilizing the Open Graph, which tailors content to users' specific interest. Games like this "have these custom actions and custom creations in the news feed [and] are getting clickthroughs that are an order of magnitude better" than auto-generated spam of the "lost duck" variety.

"Long term, if people are visiting their friends' profiles -- which they do -- you have these aggregation units that say 'Alex defeated five enemies this week', or whatever," he said. That kind of data -- seeing what their friends like to play, and the progress they're making -- gets users excited to try a game.

New channels drive growth

Sean Ryan, director of Facebook's games partnerships team, agrees. The "secret sauce" to user retention, according to Facebook game partnership director Sean Ryan, is to effectively use the social channels that Facebook provides. Over the last couple of years, Facebook saw major changes to its social (okay, viral) channels, which took some getting used to for game developers. Now, the options for virality are more targeted towards people with similar interests (such as games), which make for a generally less spammy user experience.

This can have a practical, overall effect on the platform as one for games. Ryan shared some statistics about player growth: on September 30, 2011 the company had 226 million players; on September 30, 2012 that has climbed to an audience of 251 million.

He also shared a slide showing the increased diversity of genres on the platform as compared to a year ago, while talking up the success of Kixeye (Battle Pirates) in bringing core gamers and (Bubble Witch Saga) in enlivening the arcade game genre. These numbers are by daily active users.

He also talked up Facebook's best picks for the games of fourth quarter 2012 -- on both Facebook Canvas and mobile:

Games on

Stormfall: Age of War (Plarium)
Wizard of Oz (Spooky Cool Labs)
Fresh Deck Poker (Idle Games)
Full Bloom (Playdom/Disney)
CityVille 2 (Zynga)

Social Mobile games

Hay Day (Supercell)
Live Hold 'em Pro (Dragonplay)
NFL Pro 2013 (Gameloft)
CSR Racing (NaturalMotion)
Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder)

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Carlo Delallana
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Schultz said Facebook is looking forward to games that are "fundamentally better with friends, and fundamentally impossible to play without your friends."

I agree with the first statement but the second one is the main reason why social games are in such a rut. It's not so much the hard requirement that you have X number of friends but the constant push for virality is what leads to social erosion on Facebook. Long lasting social ties occur because there is an intrinsic value in these relationships. The systematization of socializing in effect assigns a "reward" value for interacting with people. This makes interactions very extrinsic and reward-driven. You'll have to increase the pain and the relief dosage to maintain this all the while creating that social erosion among players.

Christian Nutt
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Well, are board games in a rut because they're "fundamentally impossible to play without your friends"? No, they're fantastic.

In other words, people need to make games that are worth playing with people, not games that force you to abuse your friends to make single-player progress.

That's what I thought Facebook games would be like in 2008 lol

Jakob Gamertsfelder
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Compulsory grouping design bores me stupider. The Zynga games with the constant need to bug everyone you know is one version of it.

WoW has something similar in needing groups to do various content. Holiday events, dungeon bosses and the like. This leads to some bitterness between playstyles, casuals versus elites is the main one. I think it's an assumption that this group design led to WoW's success. I think of MMO's as solo games with a ton of flexibility in player choice, that's why I think they were successful.

Others copied WoW in the group design, Runescape was one, they designed a dungeoneering subgame that required grouping and punished solo play. It led to a division along the lines of solo vs group players.

All told, I doubt Facebook will have much luck with compulsory group games even if they call the game social.

Carlo Delallana
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@Christian> I agree, which is why I pointed out that I had no issue with games designed to require X number of players to enjoy. The difference between board games and social games is how integral the social experience is to the game design. Board games are deliberately designed to have an optimum min/max players. This is integral to the design and enjoyment/scalability of the board game experience. FB social games prioritize virality. The ultimate goal of the social experience is to expand the number of players and in the end it simply creates artificial fun at best or allows you to get past the grind at its worst. This is in contrast to how board games work because the dynamics of play changes drastically depending on the number of participants.

If I can make a better comparison, board game "social design" is a precision strike while facebook social design is like firing a shotgun from the hip. It's about the scatter and seeing which of the buck shots hit.

Raymond Grier
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Yes, the requirement for friend involvement has almost halted my progress on Hidden Chronicles for about 2 months now. I don't know why I still bother other than OCD and habit. I have friends who complained about game spam who I had to appease, thanks Zynga.

Raymond Grier
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" 'Alex defeated five enemies this week', or whatever," he said. That kind of data -- seeing what their friends like to play, and the progress they're making -- gets users excited to try a game."

Many games already do this and that doesn't effect me. Somebody's progress in the game isn;t interesting to other people until they are already interested in the game. Such posts might spark curiosity in the game but only if it has a theme they already like.

Nintendo's drop-in/drop-out style is perhaps the best one I've seen. You can play by yourself without drawbacks but a friend can join whenever they like to create the social aspect. If you figure out how to do that with an open-ended online game then I think you've got the key to success.