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Persuasive Games: Words With Friends Forever

October 2, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

What lessons can we learn from Zynga's popular game, Words With Friends? In the latest Persuasive Games, video game researcher and designer Ian Bogost examines whether social games can find room to grow.

Imagine that you were a big game studio that had built your business around free-to-play social network games. Say that you had recently gone public, but your stock was down sixfold from its IPO price. And let's also imagine that the social network facilitating most of your business was also taking a hammering on Wall Street. Imagine too that analysts had suggested that an underdeveloped and under-executed mobile strategy was cause for worry among investors in both cases.

Oh, and just for kicks, also imagine that you'd recently spent a couple hundred million dollars to acquire a smaller studio with a red-hot mobile title, but that said game's performance had declined rapidly in the quarter after the acquisition. In the meantime, imagine you had let your most successful mobile title wallow in disregard since acquiring its creator more than a year before.

Obviously, this isn't a hypothetical scenario. It's the recent story of Zynga. With its stock down and its prospects in question, the company has faced multiple executive resignations and fielded tough criticism from financial analysts.

Even if the shift from web to mobile social games is still just a theory, Zynga seems to have all but disavowed a proven, continuously successful game that performs well across both platforms: Words With Friends.

History With Friends

Some history is in order. Words With Friends was the second title from Dallas studio Newtoy, which first released Chess With Friends on iPhone in 2008. That's the same year an infringement lawsuit from Scrabble's North American copyright owner Hasbro had driven Scrabulous off of Facebook after a year of intense popularity on the platform.

Newtoy thus had a number of things going for it in advance of the release of Words With Friends: a technology infrastructure for facilitating asynchronous play for mobile devices; a brand-name for such games ("With Friends"); the untimely demise of an incumbent competitor (Scrabulous later relaunched as Lexulous and Hasbro dropped its lawsuit, but the game never achieved its former glory); and a helpful reminder of the legal obstacles that the studio might face if it didn't offer a substantially different audiovisual presentation from the genre's ur-game.

Still, Words With Friends was hardly a sure thing. Electronic Arts had managed to get an officially licensed iPhone version of Scrabble to market in 2008, and with the downfall of Scrabulous it seemed impossible that an upstart like Newtoy could upset a game with a 60-year head start.

But amazingly, it did. We'll never know exactly why, but for once design may have triumphed over marketing. Not game design, either, but visual and experience design.

Visually, Newtoy's crossword game wasn't very different from Scrabble or Scrabulous in play, although the developers wisely revised the appearance of the tiles and board along with the position of bonuses and the value of individual letters.

These alterations partly helped the game avoid copyright infringement challenges, but they also recast the familiar crossword formula in a new visual light. Next to EA's faithful recreation of Scrabble's staid wooden tiles and pastel board, Words With Friends' bright, rounded, plasticy look felt fresh, clean, and well aligned with the minimalist mobile devices on which the game was first played.

From an experience design perspective, Newtoy did an expert job with the app's startup and "onboarding" experience. Back in 2009, EA's iPhone Scrabble displayed a lengthy animated splash screen (it still does), then required registration to start games with friends.

Newtoy not only made its app load quickly, but also allowed users to start a game just by entering another player's username. The friction was low, so playership increased. Over time, Words With Friends has added many more layers of UI and registration, but did so after gaining enough users and mindshare that the network effect helped overcome a bulkier experience.

Given Zynga's ongoing interest in buying studios for their users as much as or more than their game properties, it's clear that these two decisions were central to making Newtoy an appealing acquisition target for the social game Godzilla.

Zynga With Friends

Since becoming Zynga With Friends, the studio has released three new "With Friends" games: Hanging With Friends, Scramble With Friends, and Matching With Friends. The first two follow the same course as Words and Chess, adapting popular folk- and board games (hangman and Boggle, respectively) for asynchronous mobile play.

But none of the studio's subsequent titles match the popularity and influence of Words With Friends over time. It boasts 13.4 million monthly active users (MAUs) on Facebook and has held the #1 top paid app spot on iOS as recently as last week (it's down to #72 this week). Of the other titles, Scramble With Friends has performed best, with 4 million MAUs on Facebook, and an iOS ranking of #25 this week. By comparison, Draw Something is down to 11.2 million MAUs on Facebook and is the #251 paid iOS app.

It’s tempting to ask why Zynga With Friends hasn’t managed to produce a "With Friends" like Words, but that answer is somewhat obvious: hits are rare and hard to predict, and previous performance doesn’t guarantee future success. A more interesting question is this one: what lessons can we learn in advance from Words With Friends about the future of game development?

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Andrew Pellerano
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Trying out words before submitting is one of the core game design successes in Words With Friends, not a feature in need of improvement as you suggest. In physical board game manifestations players are forced to arrange letters in 2D space in their head. An expert player has a good vocabulary and knows a lot of 2-letter words, yes, but they've also developed the skill of visualizing the game board so they can mentally try out a lot of moves. If I had to choose which skills make for a great word game I would keep the vocabulary and strategic placement elements, but I see little value in a requirement to visualize game spaces except to limit your audience. By allowing players to test out moves in private, the game board becomes the player's own personal space for experimentation.

It's weird to suggest removing this improvement while simultaneously complaining about skill disparity between your family members. Every turn in Words is an attempt to mimic what an expert board game player would have done and you're free to take your time. It's more like homework and less like a test. Since players are able to navigate the immediate problem space so effectively by trying out multiple board futures, this actually dampens the skill difference between two players so that they can have a closer and more exciting match-up. It also has the side benefit of making you better at the game faster, because one digital turn contains the life lessons of a dozen physical turns. If your daughter isn't taking advantage of this, maybe she isn't playing Words to win; she might just enjoy some 1-minute quality time with pops on the go.

This design improvement -- problem space exploration during private turns in a turn based game -- is actually a great example of the kind of contribution social games are making to the art of game design. The economic forces in social games drive social game designers to find interesting complexity, and then make it highly accessible. If it seems incredibly simple and elegant it's because it is; just like every other great design nugget. Hero Academy took this nugget and made one of the friendliest turn based strategy games I've ever played. The strategy is deep, and /despite/ this the game remains approachable because you can try and retry your turn until you get an outcome you like.

Sorry if this wasn't completely on topic with your article which was a good read.

Ian Bogost
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My examples were just that--examples. They're not necessarily good (or bad, I hope), but clarify a small portion of the immense design space possible in WWF. In other words, the meat of the article is sustainable, deep design and cadence-done right, and from that perspective my examples are paradigmatic at best, incidental at worst.

Some of this comes down to taste, and some of it relates to the presence of multiple design branches in WWF and similar games. That in mind, if you ask my opinion, the trying-it-out-before-submission approach is probably helpful for onboarding and novice play, but for advanced players it makes the game a word search and demotivates rather than remotivates. There's probably an in-between solution, and in fact I suggested one, that of partial revelation.

Fwiw, there's no reason the design approach to a feature like this couldn't change with player expertise. It's just that then we're in baroque territory, and that turns many designers off.

And actually, the permutational nature of matchups illustrates the point. You suggest that my daughter just enjoys the 1-minute quality time, and I think that's right. However, I don't enjoy that time (well, I do, but I don't enjoy it *as game play*). There's no reason we couldn't find a way to match up asymmetrically if the game allowed or encouraged it. But again, it's just one example, not a take on one right way forward.

Luis Blondet
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It was doomed the minute they decided to sellout to Zynga, just like it happened to Duels and Warstorm.

Ian Bogost
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Well, I'm not sure it was or is doomed. I think it's been subjected to a number of different forces, many of which are blackboxed and hard to make certain claims about. (In fact, it's worth noting that none of Zynga's financials give any clue as to which of its studios let alone titles are more or less successful). No matter the case, WWF is not just an invitation for its owners but also for the rest of us.

David Fox
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Nice analysis. WWF and, more so, Draw Something, are so successful at compressing time and space -- at allowing you to feel the living, breathing persona of the friend you are playing with in a cadence that matches our (to sound like a 50s ad) busy modern lifestyles.

So I totally agree that these games need to evolve and deepen over each build, but the ideal place to do that is not really in the interaction design or mechanical design, but with features that expand the feeling of social presence.

Cow clickers let you know your friends are wasting their time doing the same thing you are and feel like a friendly "Heya" scrawled on your dorm door whiteboard -- not a lot of room for social deepening there. MMOs let you make tactical decisions with your friends, and can feel like a team sport -- once a sport works, you don't want to mess too much with the format. But the "With Friends" style games let you actually see your friend's choices and _character_, which feels like true conversation and comes incredibly close to inimitable loveliness of actually being the same space, playing board games together. But there's also such a long way to go... which means a-plenty of room for innovation.

My new games studio, Double Coconut, is founded on this premise, and taking it even further. Our first game (Photo Phrase -
t=8) is an evolution of Draw Something and uses photos as well as sketching, which gives you an intimate and literal snapshot of your play partner as he grasps to create a picture that entertains as well as expresses. We also make much ado about seeing and sharing past photos so that the sum total of your game sessions tells a nice story about yourself, a la Instagram. As we iterate on new versions, achieving better social presence will be the overriding principal of our decisions.

Ian Bogost
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Hmm. One of the premises of this piece is that there is no simple answer to "the ideal place" to deepen. Social presence is, after all, a trend more than it is a truth. The idea I'm trying to advance would suggest a whole lot of openness in design practice over time for a particular game, rather than (or at least in addition to) matching the current fashions.

Bart Stewart
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To the overall point: it's nice to see a counter to the prevailing view (from designers, techies, and biz-types) that creating a "new proven genre" usually trumps iterative improvement of particularly satisfying designs. Conventional wisdom needs the occasional challenge.

One thing I might add, as someone who's played a fair bit of WWF, Scramble WF, and Hanging WF, is that I'm a little surprised that the latter two games have not already significantly exceeded WWF.

SWF and HWF both feel conspicuously faster than HWF. The number of rounds is usually something like 7-12 in Hanging, and only 3 in Scramble. Maybe more importantly, the possibility space in a Scrabble-like game is much larger than in HWF or SWF -- there's much less straining per round of those games to find the Killer Word than in WWF. The combination of fewer, shorter rounds makes games go much more quickly.

This pace would seem to be more in line with how people want to play mobile games. So it's odd to me that SWF and HWF aren't kicking WWF's butt. Are there some advantages in the Scrabble-like design that make it more satisfying to more people than Hangman or Boggle mechanics? Or has there just not been enough history for these games in their new mobile clothes to know yet who's really more popular at a deep level?

Ian Bogost
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Good questions. We'll probably never know the answers (Zynga is really tight-lipped these days), but we might speculate. What if, in fact, people want to play mobile games the WWF way rather than the SWF way? A lot of people play these games in fixed locations but on their phones, after all (rather than in transit, etc.). But honestly, I don't know. I bet ZWF does, to some extent, but I bet they are also distracted by having so many titles and can't pay as close attention as they might do otherwise.

Scott Sheppard
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I don't have a lot to add to the discussion, other than that I am fascinated with the concept of making a game that lasts "forever" in the same way someone would make sushi for 75 years, or a violin master could hone his skill to become the best at their craft. I'm happy to see someone else kicking around this idea. It's refreshing.

On another note, @Bart, I have found that the folks I play WWF the most are the people that played a lot of Scrabble in the past. Namely, my grandma, aunt, and mother, the youngest being in their late 50s. The familiarity (and certainly percieved "maturity" required) lends itself to making WWF an extension of Scrabble. As opposed to HWF, etc., which I'll assume are perceived more as games to keep kids entertained.

Steve Fulton
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I was really into playing these types of games online until a friend told me that "everyone" just uses to cheat between each turn. For a while, I did the same, but it became a sad, hollow exercise. I can't see any way to stop cheating in this way, so "word" games have become less about trying to use your mind to rearrange letters, and more about how quickly you can find a way to place the 6 and 7 letter words the cheat engine has spit out.

Ian Bogost
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I considered talking about but decided it would have led me down a rabbit hole. It's an interesting problem though, and one that there are probably no pure design solutions for. Certainly there are some: WWF could downplay or remove the bingo bonus (it's 30 pts in WWF instead of 50 in Scrabble), which would minimize that particular exploit. However, I can imagine ways of playing the game, or modes of play that would minimize the opportunity. Another way to end-around would be through better/different dictionaries, although perhaps the website would adjust in time.

Interesting to note that SpellTower doesn't have this problem, because it's a word finding game and can't be solution searched in the same manner.

Steve Fulton
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We have created an unscramble word game engine for a couple iOS apps that thwarts this by:
1. Being strictly timed
2. When you pause the game, all the letters become invisible.

Of course, it's single player, and the puzzles are canned, so it might not be a good comparison.

I still love Bookworm Adventures and I hold out hope that PopCap can take that engine and make some kind of non-linear RPG out of it. I promise to not cheat if they do! :)

Chris Hendricks
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A good word game player will still usually do better than a novice with scrabblefinder. There's an art to finding the appropriate spot on a board, and considering all possibilities.

If things like the bingo bonus was removed, I would consider that an incentive to stop playing, as that's something I naturally try to go for.

Vin St John
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It's outside the scope of this article, but I'd be curious to hear how your opinions about WwF's stagnation are affected by the facts of which teams have been working on which games. Browsing Zynga with Friends's company blog is pretty revealing about this information. Some tidbits:
ZwF (Newtoy) worked on Matching with Friends and Gems with Friends.
Zynga Toronto has been maintaining Hanging with Friends since June 2012.
Zynga San Francisco has maintained Words with Friends since Oct 2011, and Chess with Friends and Hanging with Friends since as early as Jan 2012.
Zynga San Francisco developed Scramble with Friends.

Ian Bogost
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Yeah, good point. Obviously WWF is now Zynga's rather than Zynga With Friends. Another aspect of the games' development we'll probably never know about except through rumor.

Ozzie Smith
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An interesting thing to note about StarCraft if that Blizzard took a pretty hands-off approach to design in StarCraft 1/Brood War. They stopped patching the balance of the game after ~2001 and stopped making maps for it around that time too. But importantly they let the community have control over how they wanted to play the game by shipping a pretty robust map editor with the game.

The community pretty much single-handedly "balanced" the game for competitive play since 2001 by map design alone (blizzard released a few technical patches since then, but no balance patches). All observer versions of maps are hand-made as well (there is no "observer" feature, map makers have to make a special version of the game with blank player slots for observers to join in and have no units to control). By giving players the map editor Blizzard allowed a competitive scene to flourish for over a decade as well as created a strong "custom games" community that led to the invention of several genres (tower defense, MOBA games, etc).

With StarCraft 2, Blizzard has taken a very hands-on approach to balance and has consistently released balance patches for the game since release. In fact in the 2 years since release blizzard has already patched SC2 more times that it did for SC1 since SC1's release! While it is true that SC2 has just as strong of a map editor as SC1 did (in fact much stronger), Blizzard controls the competitive scene by forcing tournament-runners to agree to license agreements and forces all games to be played on their servers (since the game doesn't have LAN support).

Time will tell if the more hands-on approach will work out in the end for SC2, but to this day the community agrees that the balance has never been perfect (or at least as close to perfect as SC1 was).

Overall what I'm trying to say is that maybe games will only "last forever" if you let players play the game how they want to play it, even if it's not how the designer originally wanted the game to be played.