To be known as a “social game”, games need to have a number of elements that encourage player engagement amongst friends. Players need to be able to interact with their real world friends in many ways: they want to compete, cooperate, show off to and taunt friends. To better understand the ‘social’ in social games, we put together a list of the 7 elements that should be included in every social game.
Real Friends List
The most important feature of a social game is a user’s real-world friends list. So when I invite friends to play, or look at the leaderboard, I should be able to see my personal friends in my social network. This is one of the main aspects that make today’s “social games” different than social games of the past. It’s not like today’s social games are the first to use buddy lists and social features, but it used to be such that I was playing against random people that I had met within the game. That’s fun for certain players, but it’s hard to deny that being able to cooperate or compete with a real-world friend is a stronger social experience. This feature is activated by ensuring your game is a Facebook application or uses Facebook Connect, so players can import their real world friends.
One of the key elements of today’s social games is the ability to buy gifts for your friends. Whether it is alerting friends’ to stray animals in Farmville, handing a drink across the table in Mafia Wars or buying someone a new couch in Pet Society, gifting is one of the most popular activities available. This can be traced to the early days of the Facebook application platform as well, when applications like “kisses” and “superpoke” were the top games in the network and pretty much revolved around sending premium gifts to one another. Facebook itself has a gifting element to the site, and estimates have them sending around 100 million paid gifts per year (at a revenue of $100 million!). Gifting is certainly a staple of social games, and should be included in any title.
Almost any social game you play today will have some sort of always-present leaderboard. I first knew leaderboards had a strong social element when I saw them on Who Has the Biggest Brain by Playfish in late 2008. Every player that would start the game would inevitably look down at the leaderboard and realized where their high score ranked amongst their real friends, and the leaderboard also highlighted the overall top three. In an IQ comparison game like WHTBB, this fostered an extreme sense of competition that was almost inescapable: if you played the game, you were in a competition with your friends to see who was smarter. This type of Playfish leaderboard has now been used across every game, and rightly so, as it makes every game session a social experience.
Challenges were the first feature that alerted me to the power of social games, and that was when I played Jetman in early 2008. The game itself was one of the simplest I’d ever played, and gameplay consisted of holding down a button to turn on Jetman’s jets and allow him to hover through a cave. The great thing was, at the end of every game, I was asked whether I wanted to use this score to challenge a friend. So within one click, I was having a head to head competition with my cousin halfway across the world, and the rivalry got heated. It almost seemed like the challenge element was as important as the gameplay: we were so obsessed with beating each other that it wasn’t even important whether the game was any fun. Challenges have been implemented in almost every game available today, and need to be part of any social games experience.
Having chat and messaging within the game is a delicate proposition in Facebook. Since players already have many means by which to contact each other, through the Facebook chat and message systems, designers need to ask how they want to control messaging in gameplay. In Pet Society, users have the ability to send small text notes to one another. An incoming messages appears as a small envelope that rests by the door of the recipients’ house. The fact that these are small tangible objects give the messaging a bit of a ‘gift’ feel, and serves to reinforce the gifting element of social games as well. Players need to have some way to contact each other, and even if that means creating a discussion board on your Facebook fan page, it needs to be easy for players to know how they should be reaching out to others.
Grouping together with friends is certainly a staple of social games, and while it’s not a particularly involved element of many social games at this point, it will likely evolve into a more important feature. Games like Mafia Wars rely strongly on the ideas of “mafias”, which are groups of players that help each other complete missions to gain experience and gold. The teamwork in the game is still minimal, and just having someone in your mafia means that they will automatically join you when you need it, but that dynamic may change as the ‘mafia’ type games evolve. I would like to see something like a mafia relying on the diversity of its mafia to complete special missions, so that actively recruiting new types of players is encouraged.
In a social game it is an important social feature to be able to customize your avatar, your house or your room to show off to others. The point here being that the expression of individuality is something that adds to the social experience, so that players can enjoy their friends’ creations. What would Pet Society be if you couldn’t design your room to look the way you want it, and show it to your friends? My choices of how I structure my farm in Farmville are sometimes directly related to sharing that design with my friends, and showing off my personal style. This is a social element that increases with time as the games increase in complexity. Players will be customizing more than just aesthetic elements, for instance designing levels for other players.