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"What is the appeal of social games" Whitepaper


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Ciaran O’Connor

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"What is the appeal of social games" Whitepaper

  1. 1. What is the Appeal of Social Games? Ciaran O’Connor June 2010 Abstract This paper is a consideration of the qualities that go into a successful social game, and a look at exactly how the gamer benefits from the experience. To sell a social game, be it through microtransactions or subscriptions, is to sell emotion. The following is an attempt to clarify the nature of these purchasable feelings. I have divided the paper up into sections according to the varying emotional benefits of social gaming. The opening, however, is a look at the relevance of recognition for attracting gamers. The Importance of Recognition Treasure Island, Big City Life, Family Feud, Hotel City and Bola: these constitute the top 5 games on MAU increase in early May 2010 (1). One of the characteristics that they share, amongst many other social games, is a fast, recognisable link to our everyday lives. The only slight exception is the title Bola; however the logo quickly associates the game with football, something many of us are instantly familiar with. Social games are successful on account of their virality, and those that generate enormous MAUs are those that tap into concepts that can be engaged with on a domestic level; cafes, football, the city, feuds and hotels are all concepts into which we all, by virtue of our citizenship, recognise and feel a part of. Bola demonstrates and interesting manipulation of this. One of the purposes of having recognisable content to your game is to widen the audience; the risk with Bola, indeed any content that encourages exclusiveness amongst its fans (such as football) is that the non-football fan might feel shut out. Bola navigates this problem by adopting a style that is disparate from the intensity and masculinity of football fandom; one of skinny, moustache-wielding cartoon players and laboratories to ‘improve’ your football team. The important lesson here is that the content serves to help the potential player identify, while the style serves to let them know that they don’t need to be an expert or fan on the subject in order to take part (1). This is one reason why Bola has in excess of 2 million MAU, and Baseball Tycoon, a game that allows its content to dominate its style has less than 20 thousand. Low Perceived Effort over High Perceived Reward Some developers that have moved from designing traditional games to social games have learned a number of hard lessons about the fundamental differences between the two. Traditional games have always had an ‘arms race’ mentality to game design; better graphics, better animation, bigger build-up time, all of which undermine the successful social game model (2). The casual gamer (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 1
  2. 2. is not interested in how fantastic it looks, or how much better it is than the last game. This is because what matters more to the casual gamer is ‘doing’ rather than ‘getting’. Lu and Hsu (3) recognise that one of the key differences in the Technological Acceptance Model (TAM) between IT as a whole and online gaming was that while it is important the perceived effort (PE) is as low as possible in both industries, when it came to online gaming, there was not nearly so much need for the perceived reward (PR) to be as high. They concluded that the most important factor of an online game was that it is readily accessible and easy to do. This is where the traditional game developers have encountered a crucial difference in the market; the casual gamer is more concerned about ‘doing’ rather than ‘getting’. This explains the culture of little and often that dominates the casual game industry; the Skinnarian repeat, reward process plays directly into our base learning and survival mechanisms (6). Another important lesson from this is the necessity to reduce barriers to play. Social games need to be as intuitive and accessible as possible; loading time, lag, multiple button clicks, submenus are all barriers to ‘doing’ that can badly damage the social experience. Aristotle (4) described pleasure as ‘unimpeded activity’. Had he played social games, he would have been referring to loading screens when he defined impediment. Pleasure is one of the emotion that social games developers sell. The ‘getting’ in social games is purely a pseudo point to go out and do, a framework within which the user and developer assign purpose to purposelessness. Take Sisyphus (5), if he’d had been told that after he’d pushed the rock to the top a million times he’d level up, he’d have been a much happier damned soul. A final note on low PE is the crucial importance of balancing the tutorial. Tutorials walk a fine line between increasing and impeding accessibility. One the one hand, they help you do the game, on the other, they get in the way. The best tutorials are those that are near on invisible and pervade the game, rather than clutter the start (1). The Sense of Community At the heart of the online experience is the sense of community. Many casual social gamers, particularly women, see social gaming more as playful socializing; the community aspect takes precedence over the game (7). The successful social game has this idea built into it. They have to be, first and foremost dialogic; there must be an inherent back and forth nature to the games community functions. Not only do functions such as ‘publishing’, ‘inviting’, ‘assisting’, ‘sharing’, ‘liking’ and ‘gifting’ (what we shall call Non-conversational Gaming Dialogue or NGD) all serve to increase the virality of the game, they also deepen the user’s sense of being a part of a group. For those outside of the game, it is important to simultaneously express the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the group, ‘we’re a very special club, with very special members, but you can join’, best captures the most attractive form of invitation. The importance of community has evolved from its original implementation in the online world; chatting is now not seen as the primary method of in game dialoguing (8). Ducheneaut et al. In their paper ‘Alone Together’, propose that the online gamer wants to preserve his distance from other users, but be still be able to reap the benefits of being in a group. The quantitative nature of (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 2
  3. 3. NGD allows people the ability to manage and regulate something that is inherently unmanageable and qualitative, that is, the chaos of relating to other people; people gain some of the benefits of being part of a group, with relatively little of the risk. You will find a ’like’ function on Facebook, but no ‘dislike’. To be in a group benefits us in a number ways (3). Firstly, according to the ‘social exchange model’, is the thinking that If I give, then in some way I will ultimately get in return. Sartre comments on the inherent taking that happens when we give a gift (9)(10). To be able to do something for the other is a way of establishing some control over the relationship, therefore it is vital that when a ‘favour’ has been done for you in a social game, you are able to ‘return it’. Secondly is the ‘group influence process’ whereby upon joining a group we are able to reinforce our uncomfortably amorphous sense of who we are (in this instance a member of said group) by reinforcing our membership. Social games that remind us of our being part of their community tap into this sense. This also reiterates the importance for having both a subscription as well as a microtransactions method of payment (11); those that make the commitment to subscribe will want to further purchase their sense of identity through microtransactions. An online game community serves as a powerful vessel for ‘bragging rights’ (8). In publishing successes across your social account, you find yourself with a trapped audience to your inevitable successes (12). The ability to publish and share allows us to claim some sense of standing within our new chosen community. Another big incentive for the sharing trend on social sites, is that not only do we get to boast about our success at the game in question, we also inherently display the expanse of our online connectedness; ‘Likes’, and ‘respond’s all serve to peacock our online social footprint. Gift giving, as one of the main methods of NGD, is interestingly a chiefly female fascination. For men, gifts are generally evaluated based upon their practical application, whereas for women they are more often seen as a method of self expression. Therefore it is generally better for gifts in online games to serve the latter function of self expression more than the former, as it is a function predominantly used by women. As a final note on community is the crucial importance of creating an organic and living game world. This is achieved first and foremost through the constant sense of the world evolving; most commonly the result of frequent updates and added ranges to the purchasable items. Game worlds that evolve make the player feel included and cared for (7). Players start to generate excitement amongst themselves about what is new and what might be new, constituting the bulk of forum chatter regarding social games. Interestingly, cross-promotion serves a similar purpose, with players who have dabbled in several of the company’s games becoming increasingly aware of their deepening immersion into the social group formed by said company. The Desire to Progress and Compete While Hsu and Lu demonstrated that a high PR is not as relevant as a low PE, rewards are still a fundamental tool for social games. To be human is to experience oneself as an emptiness, or as Sartre expressed it, a lack (9). We exist in a permanent state of filling the void, and while much (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 3
  4. 4. western thinking would have us think that a state of completion as an individual is possible (got the house, the car, the girl, the career, no registered disabilities, no diagnosable mental illnesses) we intuitively realise that such a state is, by virtue of our humanity, impossible. Even once we reach a stage of bliss or satisfaction, we find ourselves craving its retention. To be self-aware is to be conscious of one’s own lack. The success of levelling up, the brilliance x-box achievements and the draw of unlockable content is that it gives us that sense of filling the gap. The fact that the product of our efforts is a congratulatory message on a screen makes it ontologically no more or less significant than any other attempt to fill the void; that is to say, we are free to attach whatever meaning we wish to our successes; the success in itself need carry no intrinsic value. Being granted the sense that things are progressing has fuelled the success of many games, as well as toys such as Tamagotchi. Another desire within us is tapped into when we develop things in social games, be it the forest I’m setting up in the top corner of my social city, or my horse I’m breeding in Farmville; we, particularly women, have an urge to nurture. Taking something that we have ownership over (best achieved through customization, see later) and developing it gives us a powerful parental buzz. There is also a strong desire to better oneself within social (and many traditional) games. We also find ourselves playing into our primal need to be ahead of the pack. By investing time, effort or money, I can be quantitavely ‘better’ than my friends. How well we do in any given area is not nearly as important to us as how much better we are doing than the next person (13). Chances to see how well we are doing (not see how badly) are important to social games, as well as opportunities to let our friends in the community know, as mentioned earlier. One of the biggest pitfalls of the levelling up system is the high churn rate it produces (8) as players of lower levels find themselves hopelessly outgunned by existing gamers and faced with an impenetrable wall of effort to find themselves in a position to compete. There are a number of ways in which developers can try to mitigate this; separating players of varying levels into leagues, granting newer players a safe area or splitting up the game world by level all help to include allow all levels to compete while maintaining a vast inter-player power differential. The Social Games Potential to Self-Define We have, at best, an unsteady foundation to our sense of self. We comfort ourselves in the belief that the choices we’ve made define us, when the more stark reality is that we are generally only ever defined by choices we have not yet made; in other words, we can only ever come to understand ourselves in the here and now as someone that we no longer are. Customization and personalization within social games gives us a clear outlet through which we can document some form of identity. This is a very human and natural occupation, achieved as much through arranging the palm trees in Tikki Resort as it is through deciding what colour you want to paint your kitchen. Self-definition gives us welcome comfort from the anxiety of not knowing ourselves. One of the important balancing acts of a social game is to provide choice, but not too much choice. Just as supermarkets counterbalance the vast selection of products with an inherently choiceless route through the aisles, social games work best when you work from a moderately (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 4
  5. 5. limited palette (2). Having 2 shades of wallpaper to pick for your nightclub in Nightclub city would be frustrating and limiting, having 400 would be overwhelming, and force any decision we make to be loaded with anxiety about the other 399. It is vital that we get as much opportunity as possible to display our choice of self-definition to our online circle of friends. Others, and evidence of their own acts of self-definition, constitute the outside point of view through which our efforts become unique to us. They also serve as inspiration; how other friends have chosen to shape their Social City becomes a buffet of ideas through from which we might deviate or replicate. All this serves to entrench us as a unique individual within a group; the security of others and a sense of self packaged together in a game. The Desire to Control and Influence Tomorrow, I may find myself crippled from the neck down, I may lose a family member, I may be mugged. I may even win the lottery. To be in the world is to be faced with chaos on a daily basis, routine serves to mitigate the fear we have of this but, on reflection, we all know how transient and bound up in luck any given state of affairs is. Creatures, on a very primal level, combat the chaos of the world around themselves by seeking mastery over it; we benefit emotionally from having a sense of control over the world around us, be it through our physical strength, our wealth, the knowledge we have or the skills we bring. The majority of social games provide us with a world over which we have near complete control. I decide when to make this tourist happy, I get to throw this guy out of my nightclub, I get to choose when this whole row of houses and their ever-mowing owners is to be flattened and replaced with tower blocks. We generate a sense of mastery over the world outside when we make these forms of decisions. It is from here that the escapism cliché surrounding computer gaming emerges; an escapism that we equally indulge in when we celebrate a promotion, go to the gym or buy ourselves a new motorbike. A very common error in the traditional games industry, one that marks the death of a social game, is to use misuse animations and graphics. Often these are given to us as an impressive display of the game unfolding (as in cut scenes) which often leaves us cold and aware of how much the game is controlling us. Far more important is that these happen as a direct result of our actions. In social games, having impressive animation throughout is a tedious and impenetrable experience, whereas a choice animation to celebrate our efforts is hugely effective (2). Getting to watch our otherwise static bouncer throw out a guest on our command is perfectly pitched. Giving a sense of control to the player is where feedback is absolutely essential (12). While it may be that all has happened because the programmer decided it so, we enjoy the illusion of control over the gaming environment. A good social game reports this back to us on a regular basis, constantly telling us that, ‘you affected this outcome, you are the force that made this happen.’ Hence the successful social games repeated reference to ‘you’, the gamer. Warstorm’s sparkling, presentation plaque that fills the screen declaring that, ‘you’ve reached 4th LEVEL’, with your ensuing reward is a standard example of this being done well. (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 5
  6. 6. The Next Level of Social Gaming Social gaming is a relatively new beast. As a result we are bound to see it alter drastically over the coming few years. How that will unfold is a frequently asked question that many development teams are attempting to address/decide (1). Social gamers include many hardcore gamers, but the rest is made up by the casual gamer. As a result one of the challenges is to create a game that is interesting for the non committal office worker who wants something to do for 2 minutes between tasks, and the gamer who’ll sit down for a 5 hour stretch of gaming. One of the ideas is that, with a sudden influx of casual gamers brought about by the social game market, the potential is now there to ‘teach’ or ‘offer’ these gamers a new depth of gaming experience (1). Other writers comment on how ‘challenge and change’ are what’s needed to hold and develop the social gamer’s attention (12). But how does an increase in the ‘challenge’ and ‘hardcore’ nature of social games fit with crucially low PE model of gaming? One solution comes from the traditional games industry is that social games would benefit from having a tougher challenge curve as the game progressed. Interestingly, games with a higher PE that manage to get a half decent MAU tend to end up with excellent ARPU figures; for example Warstorm. The lesson is that challenge and higher PE leads to commitment, whereas the generally more sought after MAU is achieved through lower PE. Start soft, but get tough if you want committed, spending customers. A final note should be made about the importance of finding a way to bring innovation and artistic definition to familiar subjects (7). While social gaming, as outlined above, needs to remain recognisable and touch on familiar ground, there is a current ‘safeness’ in the artwork and design of these games. There is nothing edgy or innovative about their themes or presentation, and as time goes on and the social game factories wear the formula ever thinner, this will perhaps become one of the marks of a successful game. Conclusion There is a misconception that the social gamer goes online to engage in a ‘free’ game, and then becomes ‘tricked’ or ‘lured’ by the developers into spending money. This implies that the social gamer has somehow less control over his expenditure than if he was to go and spend £40 upfront for a new title on the Playstation3. I would argue that latter is a process whereby the customer is less in control. There is no negotiating how much of that £40 cake he would actually like to eat, or will even be able to eat; this is how it’s packaged, like it or not. The payment system in social gaming provides more control, allowing the customer to more accurately get what he wants. It allows the less interested gamer to spend less, and the more interested to spend more. Hopefully this paper has begun to make it clear exactly what it is that the customer is buying; people pay for a sense of community, control, progression, the pleasure of doing and the chance to self-define. These are valuable human emotions that do not simply happen to us; the social game sells us these feelings. Those games that provide more, will sell more, and the system by which customers can now pay for such experiences allows them far more control over when and how this happens. (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 6
  7. 7. About Clubv3 Club V3 Ltd is based in Douglas, Isle of Man (British Isles). Clubv3 develops for all the major social networks including Facebook, MySpace, Mixi, RenRen, QQ, Orkut, Hi5,VK and Lunarstorm. For additional information onClubv3, in-depth information on the technology and upcoming range of products, please visit the website at or email Clubv3 can be followed on the company Facebook fan page at and on Twitter at References (1) (last updated 2010) (2) (last updated 2010) (3) Hsu, C., and Lu, H., Why do People Play Online Games? (2004) Information and management archive, (4) Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (2007) Cosimo Classics (5) (last updated 2010) (6) B.F. Skinner About Behaviourism, (1974) Vintage books (7) (last updated 2010) (8) Ducheneaut, N. Et al., Alone Together: Exploring the Dynamics of Massively Multi-Player Online Games, (2004) In Proc. of CSCW (9) J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, (1943) Routledge Classics (10) Parker Pope, T., A Gift that Gives Right Back, New York Times 11th December (2007) (11) (last updated 2010) (12) (last updated 2010) (13) Lord Layard, Happiness, (2005) Penguin Press HC (c) 2010 by Club V3 Ltd, Isle of Man. All rights served. 7