[Designer Joshua Dallman dives into 10 critical factors in the redesign of Wild Ones, which saw the game transform from a failure into Playdom's top social title, and offers up a comprehensive picture with concrete examples on how to do it.]
One year ago I went to work for Playdom, joining as the studio design lead for an internal studio led by co-founder Ling Xiao after doing contract design work for months for projects such as Social City. My first project in the studio was to fix a game that wasn't performing well -- that game was the turn-based artillery shooter Wild Ones.
Wild Ones currently Playdom's #1 game
Through game design alone (no marketing tricks and no ad spend) I increased DAUs by 44 percent, increased MAUs by 25 percent, and quadrupled revenue, at a time when policy changes put all games on Facebook in decline.
It's now Playdom's number one game, comprising a quarter of its entire daily traffic. Here's how I did it.
Normally, the rule in social games is to direct by metrics. This is considered evolution, the next wave, modern. We think of the days before metrics as the dark ages, brute, unsophisticated.
Yet companies that evolve to use metrics then direct by metrics alone find success only in optimizing what can be perceived by metrics, which is often just the tip of the iceberg.
Playdom's Wild Ones today
Bad game design is imperceptible to metrics; you have to play something to know it's bad, and you have to know bad design when you see it. Metrics can show that something is broken, but not what is broken. I say this because although metrics will indeed take you to the next level as a designer, they amplify your design sense, not replace it.
When I looked at Wild Ones, I saw so many crippling mistakes of bad design that I didn't have to look at a single metric -- nor did I -- to determine what was wrong, or how to fix it. I only saw how the game was performing overall and knew from my experience that it should have been doing way better.
Why was I so confident it should have been doing better? Chiefly, because the concept behind the game has such broad appeal and historical precedent. The genre itself goes very far back as a casual game. Its ubiquity is almost that of Snake. I'm not going to do a history of the genre, but its history includes Artillery, Human Cannonball, Scorched Earth, Worms, iShoot, Angry Birds, and dozens of successful others in the artillery trajectory genre.
The Worms series in particular has been wildly successful, with many sequels and ports, and ranks as a consistent bestseller on Xbox Live Arcade.
Worms has done a great job of softening the aggressive war aspect with cute cartoon characters and cute weapons and themes to draw a wider audience and more casual player base in. Meanwhile, the game was still skill based and challenging enough for more strategic core players. Everyone loves Worms; it has universal appeal and is fun, casual, and accessible. I wanted to see Wild Ones hit the numbers that a Worms-like game would.
However, in its original state at the time, Wild Ones was far too intimidating, difficult, and unrewarding for a wider audience to play. The high level goal I set out for myself was to grow the game by reaching out to a larger audience by increasing the game's accessibility. My secondary goal was to grow retention by increasing game accessibility. My final goal was to monetize the game by designing a completely new monetization strategy where there was none before, and making sure that the monetization was as completely accessible as possible.
Why the focus on accessibility? Like most designers and those in the game industry, I come from a common shared hardcore game background -- MUDs, Dungeons & Dragons, Doom, Half-Life, MMORPGs, etc. When Bejeweled and Diner Dash defined a generation of casual games, I eagerly jumped ship to the promise of "games for everyone" instead of a small hardcore fraction of the market.
I see the primary difference between hardcore and casual games being that of accessibility. Hardcore players will recompile their Linux kernel to make a game compatible with their system; casual players are so sensitive as to drop out of a funnel in significant numbers if asked to make just one extra click to get into the game.
My background informed my area of focus. Historically, Skee Ball was the first amusement game to benefit from accessibility improvements -- its original form was designed with a huge, long bowling lane, and a large, heavy ball, making it difficult to play. A decade later, it was redesigned to be the tiny size you still see in arcades today, and that's when its popularity exploded. I wanted to make the ball easier to throw in Wild Ones, and the game easier to play to capture that same explosion in popularity through simple accessibility and game design improvements.
Here were the ten big design changes I made to accomplish these goals:
1. Unlimited Life
Problem identified. In the previous design, players would spawn on a map, and once killed, would remain permanently dead in that game, unable to perform any game action other than exiting -- which players did. This was an innovation in Counter-Strike, adding tension to the FPS genre where unlimited respawns were previously the norm.
However, this tension and resulting punishment is highly inappropriate in a casual game where the rule is to reward, praise, and offer opportunity to interact. My first and most important design decision was to offer unlimited life to players that they may play continuously through a timed round and never be punished with the inability to interact.
Solution. When players die, their ghost now floats to the top of the screen (inspired by Toe Jam & Earl) and then they respawn. That's it. Dead simple (excuse the pun). However, this has a number of positive effects.
First, the player is engaging throughout the whole round, instead of only part of it, which drives up engagement (duh), but also drives up retention (keeps them from quitting while waiting and bored watching) and as a bonus drives up monetization, because the player is shooting the whole round instead of only part of the round, and the more they shoot, the more they consume, and need, and spend.
However, there is an echo effect, in that the more players kill each other, the more antagonistic they get about killing each other, upping their weapons grade tier -- thereby upping the ante for all players in the room. This also provided the benefit of releasing constraints on what weapons you could bring into the game (restricted before to keep games from ending too soon), and allowing weapons to do bigger and even one-hit-kill damage as death was no longer a big deal (humiliation being the biggest punishment).
Another benefit was by changing the winner determination from last man standing to most points scored, it made all players who scored any points (any hits) feel like winners, instead of a purely binary one winner/all other losers. This one change had so many benefits it could practically be a whole article unto itself.
Suffice to say, it was the right thing to do, and no metric could expose that (short of post-release A/B). A minority of hardcore players vehemently opposed this change, but the feature opened the game to wider player base by making it less punishing and more engaging while still rewarding skill with points all in one stroke, and was a big "single reason" for the rebooted game's success.
N.B. Social game designers may look at giving unlimited life to drive engagement a cheap tactic, akin to giving unlimited energy to an energy-based game to drive engagement and calling it a success when it's a foregone effect. The difference here is that the player who died ("ran out of energy") did not do so based on their own action or inaction; it was another player's action that forced that game state, making it feel potently unfair to a casual player.
There is also no way to pay past it, nor pay or engage to increase your potential to avoid future death so quickly. It was also doled out universally to new players and engaged players alike, whereas with energy you do not want new players to run out of energy before they have a chance to get engaged.
Monetizing the valuable commodity of life directly was tempting, but doing so would gut the engagement you need to get players playing long enough to be motivated to monetize in the first place. Instead, I wanted to make life an unlimited commodity so that the weapons used against that unlimited commodity could be similarly dispensed in "unlimited" fashion -- each shot consuming ammo and making us money.