Casual Connect Seattle 2012: Putting Actual Strategy into Social Games

Adding strategy to social games can help developers struggling with high user acquisition costs because strategic games attract players that will stay longer and pay more, says Dan Chao, director of product at GREE/Funzio. Chao gave a talk on adding strategy to social games at the Casual Connect conference, happening now in Seattle.

According to Chao, adding strategy to a social game is essentially adding tradeoffs and competition to a game, while balancing social game elements like asynchronous play, offline activity and short sessions. While different audiences will tolerate different levels of strategy and complexity, Chao gave several universally applicable tips to help other developers understand how to incorporate strategy during his talk.

Interesting Choices and Hard Choices 

The key to strategy is interesting choices, said Chao, but developers should keep in mind the “more is better” approach isn’t strategic. Chao referenced early Facebook strategy games like Mafia Wars as an example. If the most efficient way to win a game is to just get more of everything, it doesn’t require players to actually think. Chao argued it is better to create hard choices. A player should have to weigh the relative merits of equipment or items, make interesting decisions, kick off interesting processes and balance multiple statistics.

More than Routine Tasks

While all social games have routine tasks such as collecting money, there should also be more detail and personalization involved, Chao argues. Players who can optimize their army compositions and their towns are playing more strategically.

Every feature should move a metric

In traditional console games, the key driver is to make the game fun, said Chao. To this end, every game system in a console game is just designed to be fun since the game only needs to be sold once. On the other hand, in social games, every feature needs to contribute to fun, monetization or virality (at least), since the game is a living, continuous entity.

Let players lose, let them spend

Real strategy requires one player to lose, said Chao, since people need to lose to create competition, and players wanting to be better and to win will drive monetization. Players should also be able to spend a lot at once — not to a game breaking level, but to a point where they feel happy with what purchases can do for them. According to Chao, strategy games are often whale driven, and whales want to be instantly competitive. If that competitive power is too firmly locked to level progression, those ultra competitive whales don’t get to pay for the things they would be willing to pay for.