Social Games vs Multiplayer Games: A Commentary on Raph Koster’s Social Mechanics Presentation

[Editor’s note: Guest columnist Tadhg Kelly has an in-depth review, below, covering a presentation recently given by veteran game developer Raph Koster at the Game Developers Conference happening this week in San Francisco. Please note that in order to follow along with Kelly’s commentary, you’ll need to reference Koster’s original presentation. Please view the presentation itself, here, for reference.]

The excellent Raph Koster delivered a long presentation (190 slides) at GDC on Monday on what he called social mechanics. The presentation covered topics such as common social actions that occur in social games and potential innovations in social structure or gameplay that developers could adopt.

Raph often delivers talks about game design issues – especially as they apply to online gaming – and since he has been at Playdom for a while, social games and social structures have very much been on his mind. The slides are presented in a PDF on his site, which makes them quite hard to read, but they are well worth digesting.

I thought that since I’m not at GDC, it might be interesting to write a review-from-afar. I looked at the core of his ideas, many of which center around cooperative gameplay, then raised questions over whether they were appropriate to the social game space. Below, I suggest some alternatives that may have been missed in the presentation, and finally I ask whether social games have a next level of sophistication to them at all.

Initial Impressions

I dislike the term game mechanic. It means anything to anyone, and so it tends to represent only a very loose umbrella of things that happen in games. From an informal perspective (i.e. someone who doesn’t make games), mechanic is just a sales term. You use it in presentations with investors along with discussing your unique selling points, and everybody thinks they understand what you mean.

So from a sales perspective, I understand why Raph might use the word social mechanic but it doesn’t actually mean anything, especially not to game makers. What the presentation actually covers is:

  • Observations on social structures in games
  • Musings on what might work in social games
  • Thoughts on why some games work the way they do
  • Some common action types in games

The presentation is subtitled ‘The Engines Behind Everything Multiplayer’ and traces a path from single player games through to different kinds of collaborative or competitive multiplayer gaming.

I find the emphasis on multiplayer odd. In a number of places (Twitter mostly) I’m reading opinions from developers and players that the next stage of social game development is great connection between players. Everyone from Mark Pincus on down has talked about increasing the social dimensions in their games, but if you actually look at the games that work on Facebook, practically none of them are multiplayer.

Pretty much every successful social game is a parallel game (a variant of the single player game). The typical uses of social aspects in parallel games is purely incentive-driven. As I wrote about in my analysis of CityVille, the key to understanding social in this context is to realize that these games are selfishly social. They’re like a networking event rather than friends hanging out: Everybody has an agenda.

The core of successful social game design thus far has been to focus on the player playing her game effectively alone, and then allowing light, incentive-driven collaboration. Poker is pretty much the only exception to this, and is not even that much of an exception. Poker lets players join and leave tables very quickly, and although they are playing against strangers, the game is actually about building stacks of chips. It is played multiplayer, but in effect Poker is only one remove away from any other role-playing game.