Notes from GDC Austin: Top Ten Social RPG Trends

gdc-austin[Editor’s Note: Last week at GDC Austin, Steve Meretzsky and Dave Rohrl from Playdom presented on the top ten social RPG trends. Long-time game designer and author Raph Koster was kind enough to share his thoughts from the session, which we’ve included in their entirety (slightly cleaned up and reformatted) below.]

Top 10 Social RPG Trends

One year ago, social apps were barely games. Then Mob Wars launched, followed by lots of imitators. This is now called the social RPG, and social RPGs are 13 of the top 25 games on MySpace – they’re less dominant but huge on Facebook as well. Social RPGs share some DNA with MMOs and longform games – they take months to play, level up, and build your character, but have spare presentation, spreadsheet style UI, and low production values. Play sessions are usually a few minutes due to a mechanic of energy depletion that limits your play sessions. This talk will cover ten trends, and then make some guesses about the next year.

1. New Horizons in Virtual Goods

Started out monetizing with selling currency which you could earn slow or buy fast. Over the year, ways of monetizing have become more sophisticated. Limited edition items are among the most successful now, limited by time or quantity or both. Work best when the goods are closely linked to the game, and meet asopirational fantasies. In games with avatars (which is increasingly common) clothing is huge.

In Vampires you are given a choise of three closed trunks, Monty Haul style. Are also shown the other two trunks after your choice, and then you get to play once per day but can play more if you pay.

Usable buffs are big. Mafia Wars offers a daily lotto ticket but you can buy more. End of week drawing… In MObsters you get a card every day, can buy cards, and try to get a poker hand by the end of the week.

In Sorority Life invited users to design clothing for the avatars. Took the best entries and madethem forsale for real money andthey were some of the best sellers ever in the game.

2. Gifting Invites

The idea of having players send gifts to one another using FB’s channel. Key driver in Lil Green Patch. Not much there: send gifts, plant gifts, visit garden to rake leaves or chase squirrels in another users’ garden.

This mechanic invite flow is in Farmtown then Farmville and is now common. Zynga rolled it across all theirs, Playdom did too. Standard design trope now.

Why do this? People like sending gifts to friends, feels generous, people like getting gifts. Good for reengagement. One sad thing is that gifting invites are very much carbon copies right now, all the buttons say “proceed to send”:)

3. Making Missions More Interesting

Missions earned cash and loot, but the experience was not very interesting… deterministic. You pressed the button and knew what was going to happen, no gameplay involved. No tthat compelling even though it was the backbone of the experience.

One way is with the introduction of “mission mastery,”first in the game Street Racing. This has been a case where each game has changed and evolved the mechanic. In Street Racing,missions unlocked new missions. In the next game,Mafia Wars, you could move on without mastery,but the twist was you could master tiers with prizes. In MObsters 2, simpler than Mafia Wars, added fourth level of mastery, brozne,silver, gold, platinum mastery,and prizes per missions.

In Hero World, the mission list is dynamic — it changes moment to moment,and missin failure (on random chance but weighted by your skills).  In Yakuza Lords, they have added mission requirements such as battles won,etc.

Last big development is adding minigames, as in Sorority Life.Hidden object game, tower defense game, word game, and payout depends on performance.

4. Customization and Personalization

Didn’t use to be that you could have differentiated player profiles. You had one of three or four classes selected before starting. This has really started to explode.

Avatar Creation, such as Vampire Wars, Sorority Life. When the avatar surfaces as key points of impact, brings a lot more resonance. Does a lot of good things for item iventory too — often the only difference is in color.In the game mechanic items, this would be very bad and annoying (few real choices), but when tied to avatars and customization, it is very attractive. Sorority Life has a “pock hottest avatar”with three random avs, been a real positive for the game.

Mobsters 2 lets you pick from 20classes, varied bonuses, missions, bonuses, etc, to encourage playersto try out identities.

Metatrend: increasing socialness of social rpgs! They only took advantage of playerson a team,but once you invited somone in, limite dinteraction.But now it is more social.

5. Collections and Wish Lists

Mafia wars; as you do missions,you get random loot drops that are probabilistic across all missions.Each are part of a collection, within the theme of the game and aspirational — playig cards, paintings, racehorses, cigars.Complete a collection and get a permanent stat boost. What makes it social is that you publish the ones you are missing as a wishlist, and friends can see it and send you waht you are missing. Now your friends are not just present but they engage with you. It is also viral bc every time you get one, post the wishlist, get an item, it is an excuse for the gameto send out a feed item.

6. Metatrend: lots more ways to work together on common goals

Collections, great, wishlists make it really social.

In Mobsters 2 you have missions that need loot dropped by other missions. But if you don’t have it, you can request it from your friends as a gift. Same for energy,post asking for Mobsters energy drinks so that you can finish a mission.

In Zynga’s Vampire Wars, if you want to throw in money you can spin the wheel of blood magic and get a random ability, and it gives it to all members of your team,so there is strong social incentive to do this.

In Mobsters 2, if you try and fight andlose bc they aretoo powerful, you can post a feed item asking your friends to come beat up on the guy you just lost to.

In Mafia Wars, “declare a war.”You declare war on another player, anda subset of your mob are asked  to fight 1:1 duels with their top mob.

Right on the edge of social RPGs, Mousehunt. You can build hunting parties and participate in tournaments, try to be the team that collects the most mice in a time limit.

7. New Themes

Lots of experimentation. Quick survey here in popularity order:

  • Horror/Vampires: 4.3M MAUs on MySpace, 3.4 on FB.
  • Auto racing
  • Fashion/dress up has been very successful one.
  • Fantasy/SF. Historically in gaming, fantasy has been huge, but fantasy has been middling successful on SNS, and SF has been hugely not (120kMAUs). This demonstrates we are looking at a very different demographic,mass market, for the first time.
  • Pirates
  • Music/celebrity.

8. Using Friends’ Data

You needed X friends to run a mission, but it didn’t matter how much the friends were active.

In Mafia Wars, riends take specific roles and uses their usage history to gauge their effectiveness. In Playdom’s original Mobsters game, how many friends were active in the last day made a difference. In Mousehunt, if you are in the same area as your friend,and huntmice,they “come with you”. At the start of this trend,we will see more of this happen.

9. Narrative

A violation of the metatrend,since there is nothing inherently social about narrative. Why are we seeing it? Same reason we see it in other game genres, it is strong and compelling. For a percentage of the audience, it is a strong reengagement feature, how the story unfolds. It is also easy and cheap to add to a game.

Bloodlines has a comic narrative for the intro screen. Hammerfall RPG has a narrative structure with overhead map and storyline. Missions are stronglynarrated. Yakuza Lords also uses comics to narrate, as brief screens, outloining your character, revenge and redemption as motive. In MObsters 2, very robust storyline, told through the missions, one-timemissions the player does, and the missions have branching narrative through choice of missions. Sometimes there are gameplay differences, but sometimes it is purely narrative: moral choices, etc.

10. iPhone and social RPGs

Zynga made a gorgeous version of Mafia Wars, nicer than the FB version! Interesting pricing strategy driven by Apple’s rules — Zynga’s iTunes page has a whole bunch of apps for the same game, at different price points with different points. Playdom links to existing SNS accounts, so you don’thave separate mobs, you have one mob run remotely on your iPhone.

Interesting challenges on rendering complex HTML on iPhone.

5 of top 40 free apps are social RPGs, but none of the top 150 paid apps are. Apple does not allow micropaymentsin free apps, so this is concerning.

What is next?

One trend is a lot more temporary buffs, virtual items that get used up.

Gift invites: recent arrival,we will see a lot of mturation on it. Giving away standard items today, we are not seeing innovation in terms of stuff that can ONLY be gifts.

More dynamic gifting invite splash pages — different selections of gifts based on their actions, or their level, etc.

Missions, look for the mechanics we discussed to spread widely.

I hope we’ll see a lot more interesting interrelationships between missions.

And minigames will become way more prevalent. The ones so far have driven engagement way up.

Customization will keepgrowing,the more individuated a player is, the more social. We will see this go much deeper.

As a concept collections are solid, but the user interface is complex.

Collaboration will be a fruitful and interesting areato explore. Can’t forecast this well,but I think there will be a lot more interesting ways to work together for common goals, timebound and not.

MOre experimentation will themes is coming.

Gameplay data stuff is just scratching the surface. Thousands of clicks are being generated, very hooky and addictive, so there is a lot of data that is not beingtransformed back out to the players in ways that deepend their interaction with their friends. As longas the data can be packaged in digestible fashion,this can be a major trend in the next 12 months. Have seen way more advances on the Flash game side here.

The narrative trend is that it will become another item on the checklist, something the players expect and demand.

As far as iPhone… not speaking on behalf of Playdom here, personaltake on the market.Not sure it is a place to put a huge bet for social rpgs. They work well on web: fast HTML, large canvases. They don’t fit very well with the iPhone, which does rich media, varied control, small screens. The viralchannels on iPhone are higher friction. Not sure we will see this as a huge trend. If they do succeed, willbe as adjunct and extension of the web game, not as standalone.