How Social Games Need to Take Cues from MMOs and Offer a Compelling Finish to the Social Experience

In an earlier article, I discussed the idea that social games will have difficult retaining users because the users will run out of reasons to return to the application. Developers need to constantly unveil new content, but eventually there will need to be an end-game – a goal to achieve.

Common computer games have a player versus computer endgame where the player eventually defeats the computer and “wins.” In literal terms, this means saving the princess, solving the puzzle, or collecting the golden coins.

Social games don’t usually have this type of end-game. Some, like PackRat effectively end when you’ve collected everything (a near-impossible goal). Others – like Armies or Vampires – never really end. You can always acquire more land/money/troops/victories. Features like ranking boards keep the most competitive users coming back again and again.

But creating compelling end-games is a problem not limited to Facebook games. Popular massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft and Dark Age of Camelot have experienced similar problems with retaining users. By understanding these juggernauts, perhaps we can better understand how developers can create end-games for social games.

What to Take from MMOs

1) Make Winning Rules. People love to win. When players compete against each other, some will lose (n00bs, the pwned) and some will win (the pwners, omg ze best!). Competition is the lifeblood of gaming. IGN has an interesting article on Player Versus Player (PvP) end-games, and makes the case that the game has to be compelling to players of all ability levels and experience, but that one team (or player) needs to “win” and the others “lose,” so the game can be played again. In effect, anything that ends an interaction and splits your players into winners and losers is an end-game of sorts.

2) Bring Closure. So you’ve gotten people to play your game for days, months, hell, even years. They’ve invested hours and hours on collecting your diamonds or conquering your countries. Now what? Essentially, the end-game should be a culmination of the game play, creating a balance of skill, luck, experience, and fun that will keep the player coming back again and again.

3) Allow More Interaction. High-end MMOs feature incredible graphics and complex ways to interact with fellow players, but many Facebook social games do not have these technological abilities. Many depend on text to convey story, and images to convey places and characters. Social games like Armies, Vampires, etc require very little skill, but mainly time and under-the-hood dice rolling to reveal the outcomes of battles. Games like these are handicapped because without players interacting with fellow players in a more elaborate and defined way, it’s hard to build a connectivity needed to retain use.

To put it another way, high-end MMOs address the end-game by ratcheting up the interaction between players so the players know exactly what constitutes a victory and what constitutes a defeat. They have something to aspire to. Social games need that connectivity too, that something tangible to lord over the defeated opponent or aspire to achieve. Text that reads “you win” doesn’t do it. Another level, a secret realm, a medallion or achievement, needs to be offered for people who have reached the “end-game.” Simply, even in the context of social games and despite their perceived handicaps, there are ways to create end-games.

How To End Social Games

Let’s look at some “end-game” scenarios for popular social games. Granted, I haven’t achieved the higher levels of most of these games. The life of a social game reviewer means you spend enough time to familiarize yourself with a game but rarely enough time to “beat” it. Since most of these games can never be truly “beaten” the feat is even more enormous. So if my suggestions seem off (as in these games already have something similar in the higher levels) please appreciate it’s because I haven’t spent the hours of game time or hundreds of invites necessary to get that far.

1) Create an Elite Class. For a game like Vampires, Werewolves, and the ilk, you’re confronted with a text/jpg RPG that relies heavily on invites, battles, and upgrades. An end-game, or a way to convey to users that they’ve maxed out, is either to arbitrarily set a certain level (lets say 60) where these players are awarded with a special class, a special icon on their page, and/or new abilities unavailable to other players.

2) Look Back and Reflect. Gamers like to know they’ve accomplished something, and sometimes showing them how much they’ve progressed gives them a sense of accomplishment. A way to end your social game could be to show a screen that explains how they player progressed through the game, charting their successes over time and asks them if they would A) like to play again (and start over) B) keep playing (and prove your superiority over the other players. Algorithms displaying player progress shouldn’t be hard to write because much of that information is retained by developers anyway. Seeing how you played and what worked might also entice them to play again.

3) Well all else fails, give them something shiny. Games that rely on collections, obviously, are easier to have an endgame. If you collect all of the items (or reach a certain level) you’re rewarded with a special item, badge, and title. It’s an extension of the game play elements while at the same time rewards the player with something special. It’s like a merit badge, only nerdier.

Obviously, social games are more than just RPG and collection applications, but you can take some elements of these proposed end-games (special item, badge, exclusive forum to interact with similar game-beaters) and place them in other games. As games develop better graphics and better ways to interact with peers, you’ll get more elaborate ways to congratulate the player and reward him/her for the experience.

In the meantime, check out some really bad game endings to understand what not to do here. There’s nothing worse than spending hours devoted to a tough game to be rewarded with another “Thanks Mario, but the princess is in yet another castle.”