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Social players don't want to read your text -- or do they? Exclusive

Social players don't want to read your text -- or do they?
October 10, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

Do social game players want to read in-game text?

Traditional wisdom says that players engaged in quick bite-sized games might not want to read in-game text, but that might be wrong. They might even be engaged with the text -- if it's done right.

Following a talk at the Narrative Summit at GDC Online in Austin, we spoke with Zynga's Steve Williams and Jonathon Myers to find out what they learned from players of Indiana Jones Adventure World.

You work for Zynga, I'm sure you've done a lot of tests. What do social game players like to read?

There's two main things that we discovered that they like. One bit: they like namedropping, especially anything related to an IP. When we announced [for Indiana Jones Adventure World] that we were going to do Marion Ravenwood in Tibet, people just went crazy.

The other thing we discovered: anything that involved a call-to-action. It actually made me question a lot about what we were learning. We would put out a ton of text, and within it there'd be a call-to-action, and people were just jumping on that. Which implied that they were reading all of it, but they didn't seem to be reading it. So it was an interesting thing.

Are they actually reading all of it? Or are they just filtering out the rest?

Yeah, they're probably skimming it to look for interesting Indiana Jones stuff, yeah.

Did you have to learn to refine your text to make those calls-to-action more prevelant?

Absolutely. We had a plan, and we executed it, and it turned out to be wrong sometimes. We had to do a lot of experimentation. We did some focus testing and a lot of internal testing. We had some people who were really important to our process who kind of came from a direction of "I don't want to read a thing," and every time we engaged them with text somehow, it was big. We started off with a fairly passive voice, because we wanted to lay out an adventure. And that wasn't the best move. The best move is short and punchy: This is what I need you to do. Go do this thing. Clever turn of phrase. That's about it.

You mentioned in your GDC Online talk that you're finding that social game players might actually like to read.

Kind of the conventional wisdom is that no one wants to read text. We're finding out that's just not true. I called it a collectible for a reason: people would literally seek out and find text and tell people hey, I found this Easter egg.

So where do we go from here? Can we make text more of a focus for social games than they are now?

I think yes. I think what we're going to see is another branch of our social gaming that is going to try and bring back a lot of old game tropes. And I absolutely think that text-heavy stuff is going to be represented there pretty strongly. I also think this is industry-wide, this isn't just a Zynga thing. I think a lot of people have independently come to that conclusion, that there is a space for text.

It turns out our generation didn't read a lot, but the next generation after us does. They're on their phones reading or texting. The art of writing is returning because of that. My daughter is 9 and she was a much better writer than I ever was. She just writes all the time on her phone and other places. It's going to be an interesting time for games soon.

And that's just because of mobile devices?

I think so. I think people are more engaged with text in their day-to-day life. It's more than just reading stop signs now. When I'm on the train, I have nothing better to do than read text. It's not like the old days, where I'd just stare at the wall. Staring at the wall is now forbidden on a train! People look at you funny if you do. You have to be on your mobile device, reading.

People are reading more, but are they reading less? Are they reading in smaller chunks?

Yes. I absolutely think that. I used to do MMOs. On the second MMO I worked on we had a 512 character limit for our quests. And it was just this unreasonably small amount. It's like, no one can tell a story in 512 characters or less! The third MMO I worked on, we had a 256 character limit. No one can tell a story in that! And of course we did. And another MMO I worked on, we actually called them tweet: all of our text was approximately 140 characters or less. It can be done, and you can tell interesting stories.

So I guess the big takeaway is that game writers should refine their text to be tweet-able.

Yes. You've got to hone that stuff. You don't ever want to be wordy in a social game, you never want to be philosophical or anything like that. There might be a place for that, but not in any games that I can think of.

What's the biggest text count you display?

Jonathan: I'd have to check, but I don't think we got over 150? 150 would be the top. The one we used most was about 123 characters, that was the norm.

It's almost like Twitter figured this out.

Yeah. I absolutely think so. 123 characters is suspiciously close to a tweet, and I think they just realized that two sentences is all you ever need.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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