Trending Now: Simple Social Game Mechanics and Design Choices Gaining Ground

As social games grow and evolve on Facebook and other networks, we’re observing emerging gameplay trends and ideas in many of the more popular titles today.

The trouble with highlighting these individual components is that it tempts people to cry “clone” whenever one social game introduces a mode or a technique that closely resembles something another social game already tried. There’s also a compulsion to determine “who wore it better” whenever two or more social games replicate the same mechanic made popular by a third video game that isn’t even on the Facebook platform. We can’t really be blamed for these behaviors as there is no shortage of copycat games out there, even with the market being dominated primarily by original games.

On a fundamental level, however, certain ideas or design choices just make for a better overall experience no matter what game in which we see them first. As these components surface and are adopted on a large scale by major social games, it becomes a norm that players look for in each new wave of social game.

With that in mind, we turn our attention to the simple game mechanics and design choices that trending in the current generation of social games:

Mouse-over Item Pickups Instead of Click-Fests

As seen in: FrontierVille, Lucky Space
A year ago, item drops in social games were usually collected by the player actively clicking the item or by waiting for the game to automatically add the item to the player’s inventory. Some games incentivized the clicking behavior by adding a bonus bar that rewarded players with larger amounts of in-game currency for each item clicked in a certain amount of time. While engaging, the rapid-click activity could sometimes frustrate players if they accidentally clicked on something other than the item drop or if their computer was slow to register individual mouse clicks made in rapid succession. Now games are introducing a mechanic that automatically collects dropped items when the player mouses over the item — no click necessary. This creates a much smoother experience for games that rely on a harvest mechanic (which produces at least three item drops per action in the form of currency, experience points, and a in-game resource).

Deeper Matchmaking

As seen in: Tetris Battle, the upcoming Idle Worship
Games that pit players against one another in head-to-head challenges or combat used to arrange matches only within player friend groups or by completely random pairing. As the strategy genre evolved, developers began to arrange matches only within certain level limits — discouraging or totally disallowing higher level players to attack lower level players even if they were friends on Facebook. The next evolution in this process is true matchmaking, where a game sorts players not only by level range, but also by additional factors — like number of matches or tournaments won, gameplay style, or by which skill sets the player has unlocked or advanced within their game.

Leaderboards, They’re Not Just for Pac-Man Anymore

As seen in: Triple Town, Hero Generations, and pretty much everything with a score counter
Leaderboards came to Facebook hand-in-hand with arcade games where the entire point of the game is to achieve a high score for other players to see. Other games genres have begun adopting them, however, as a quick and easy way to make a solitary game feel social. Two genres in particular — puzzle and role-playing — have been especially active in introducing leaderboards, sometimes even marrying them to the traditional neighbors bar displayed along the bottom of the screen. The catch is here is in introducing a scoring system that reconciles various factors (how fast a player completes a puzzle or quest versus how many moves or items it took to complete the activity, etc.) into a single score that can be tracked by leaderboard.

High Quality Soundtracks

As heard in: Ravenskye City, Mafia Wars 2, the upcoming CastleVille
Remember when Facebook games didn’t even have music? Those days are very much done with developer investing larger amounts of money into crafting game soundtracks. Part of this is a quality arms race among developers — if Ravenskye City gets vocals, Mafia Wars 2 needs several rap songs, then CastleVille has to have a full orchestra and so on. Part of it is also a theme concern, because who wants to listen to heavy metal while playing a farm sim? Soundtracks, however, are also about reflecting the personal style of the developer; Lucky Space developer A Bit Lucky told us it went out of its way to create a soundtrack that the entire team felt it could listen to endlessly.

User-Generated Content, Where the Player Does the Work for You

As seen in: Heroes of Neverwinter, fashion games
Now that social games are capable of more advanced mechanics, developers are able to expose certain tool sets of their game to players and then turn around and incorporate what the player makes into the game. This creates a virtual economy of trade and reputation similar to what we see in the traditional video games industry among the modding communities. Though not as advanced as, say, LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3, the user-generated content in some games is sophisticated enough for developers to incentivize it with routine contests and virtual currency prizes or payouts for the most active players. This works to the developer’s advantage because players create and promote new content on their own, without much need for oversight from the developer (in contrast to player versus player-focused games that frequently need moderators to clamp down on griefing).

These are just a handful of the smaller-scale game mechanics and design choices we see trending among popular social games on the Facebook platform. Alas, we cannot break out the actual traffic impact each feature can or does have on social games before and after. Even without the numbers to back it up, however, it shouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that a better gameplay experience makes for a better game.