Creating Closure in Social Games

[Editor’s note: Brenda Brathwaite is an accomplished game designer with credits on classic titles like Jagged Alliance and the Wizardry series. She is currently Creative Director at social game developer LOLapps. This post previously appeared on her blog, Applied Game Design.]

The player of a social game needs to feel closure.  The principle of closure is so important that without it, a game will struggle with low retention and all the problems inherent therein.

What is “closure?”

I will define closure as the ability to leave the game with a feeling of certainty that one has done all one can do and that things will be okay until one returns so long as the player abides by known rules. It’s all wrapped up — or knowingly left unwrapped (e.g. the player runs out of energy) — and the player perceives that she understands the complete game state.

In any Facebook game, closure exists if:

  • I understand the primary grind of the game.
  • I know when I need to come back to tend to the primary grind of the game.
  • I know precisely what will happen if I fail to come back either because the game tells me what will happen or an implicit mental model exists.
  • I know the things that can modify this stability (being whacked or assisted by another player, for instance).
  • I have a means to protect my game state or enact revenge for things happening in my game which I perceive are beyond my control (and returning in time is within my control).

If players are unable to achieve a state of closure, they leave the game feeling confused at best or failed at worst. Typically, failure to achieve a state of closure results in players feeling uncertain in their decisions or uncomfortable with what they perceive will happen while they are away. Players who leave feeling something in this range are less likely, then, to come back. Why come back for more “confused” or “failed” or “uncomfortable”?

Closure is a tricky thing to identify, too, and it’s closely tied to a word I’ve used several times — perceive. The player’s perception of the game state is more important than the actual game state.

For instance, during the development of Ravenwood Fair, there were multiple times where I perceived the game state was doing something when, in fact, it wasn’t moving along those lines (though I am a designer on the game, I didn’t design the creature AI, so I was free to perceive whatever I wanted). The Fair is surrounded by a scary forest, so I felt uncomfortable leaving them there, fearing something would go very wrong. I needed to know they were safe while I was away, otherwise, I didn’t feel good leaving.

Interestingly enough, when I was assured my perceptions were false, it didn’t actually make me feel much better. My perceptions about the way I thought the game was working and my buy-in of the perception (and the mental model upon which it was based) were too strong. So, instead of saying, “Okay, cool”, I struggled with how I thought the game should behave and felt a strong need to see it rectified. It was an odd moment of dissonance for me, but the resultant design solution gave me closure. The “Protectors” system you see in the game today was designer John Romero’s effective solution to the problem.

It’s worth going into this a little deeper on two points:

  1. It was a gendered problem.
  2. It couldn’t be a gendered solution.

Not all problems of closure are gendered, meaning that one gender feels a much stronger need for something than the other, but this one clearly was. It was something that genuinely affected how I felt when I left the game (and therefore affected my likelihood to return to it). Researching the issue, I found it was a feeling shared by other female players, but the male players seemed completely unscathed by the issue. As its lead designer, Romero worked to fully understand the root of the problem, but his design solution needed to do more than solve my issue — it needed to be fun for all game players. Otherwise, it risked appearing like a Band-Aid on an otherwise tight system. For those interested in gendered issues in game design, I recommend Sheri Graner Ray’s Gender Inclusive Game Design.

So, closure.  In the social space where the player has absolutely zero investment, it’s critical. I must leave feeling that I know what happened, what will happen, and what role I am expected to play in it. I need to know (not merely feel) that everything has gone right. I need to know I have maxed my gameplay session. If I don’t understand your grind, the role of various components in the grind, or what my role is in some part of it, you’ve lost me (and some part of your DAU, too).

Closure allows players to comfortably leave the game with a plan, and that means they are much more likely to return.