[In this in-depth Gamasutra feature, Digital Chocolate (Safari Kingdom, Nanotowns) lead social designer Aki Jarvinen discusses the complexities of attracting social gamers with little patience -- and still teaching them to play your game both effectively and appealingly.]
As the freemium business model is becoming de facto standard in social games, the key design features factoring into acquiring and retaining players are shifting. Developers can no longer trust that their players will make the effort of learning the ropes of their game through a set of challenges, just because they have spent tens of dollars to get the game at their hands.
Because players of social games do not fork out money to have the chance to try out a game, their time is of precious quantity. Therefore developers need to catch and hold their attention both through viral spread and gameplay itself. The core mechanics and social benefits of the game need to be sold to the players in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, they might never come back.
This of course is not entirely new, as we are familiar with tutorials from a variety of games. Gameplay tutorials have come in various forms, ranging from HUD walkthroughs to quests that showcase the world and mechanics of the game.
Furthermore, free playable demos are marketing material that function not only as teasers, but also as tutorials.
What is then particular to the importance of tutorials in social games? One answer lies in the spontaneous nature of Facebook as a distribution platform: With the constant flow of friend updates, news items, and so on, an online social network is not inherently captivating to the degree that even a Flash game portal is.
Yet it is an environment based around social proof: our tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it. If someone I regard a friend with whom I share values, opinions, or other social factors is playing this game, maybe I should try it too. A tutorial is the bite-sized dose of play that I can invest my time into, and in the best possible case, it might even turn out to be worthwhile in terms of fun.
The goal of this article is to give an overview of social game tutorials, and identify general structural principles for their design. I will look at tutorial design from the perspectives of user interface (UI) design, play experience, funnel analysis, and service design. The observations are based on analyzing tutorials of social games, research for my forthcoming book on social games, and my work on the design of the tutorials of social games, such as Safari Kingdom.
Introducing a tutorial is a way to facilitate overcoming the familiar cold-start problem of a social game: Often a literally empty grid and possibly empty friends list. The image below shows our game Safari Kingdom. A number of user interface indicators communicate its core mechanics, enticing players into executing them. Some players might get on with this, by pure exploration, but for those regarding themselves as non-gamers, a tutorial is in place.
Kick-starting the empty farming grid in Safari Kingdom
In fact, the image depicts the end state of completing the tutorial, rather than the starting point of launching the application within Facebook. Later we will take a look at a number of popular Facebook games, and how they orchestrate similar core game mechanics into a tutorial sequence.
In their book Designing Social Interfaces, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone write about "onboarding", i.e. the process which helps people to get started and oriented with a web site. Much of their points are valid in social game development as well: When a Facebook user follows a link to the game, he is essentially taken a leap of faith, and needs to be guided by hand to get on board with the game -- something especially relevant for non-gamers.
The notion of onboarding originates from human resource management. Crumlish and Malone identify three key steps in onboarding: accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate. In terms of games, accommodation is about giving the necessary tools to the player, i.e. the necessary game mechanics and resources to start with.
Assimilation gains a specific meaning from the context of the social network: It accounts for assimilation into the progress of one's friends playing the game, and the benefits from playing parallel to your friends. Acceleration then is about getting the player to engage with the game's full feature set and its possibilities.