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Social players don't want to read your text -- or do they? Exclusive
Social players don't want to read your text -- or do they?
October 10, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

Do social game players want to read in-game text?

Traditional wisdom says that players engaged in quick bite-sized games might not want to read in-game text, but that might be wrong. They might even be engaged with the text -- if it's done right.

Following a talk at the Narrative Summit at GDC Online in Austin, we spoke with Zynga's Steve Williams and Jonathon Myers to find out what they learned from players of Indiana Jones Adventure World.

You work for Zynga, I'm sure you've done a lot of tests. What do social game players like to read?

There's two main things that we discovered that they like. One bit: they like namedropping, especially anything related to an IP. When we announced [for Indiana Jones Adventure World] that we were going to do Marion Ravenwood in Tibet, people just went crazy.

The other thing we discovered: anything that involved a call-to-action. It actually made me question a lot about what we were learning. We would put out a ton of text, and within it there'd be a call-to-action, and people were just jumping on that. Which implied that they were reading all of it, but they didn't seem to be reading it. So it was an interesting thing.

Are they actually reading all of it? Or are they just filtering out the rest?

Yeah, they're probably skimming it to look for interesting Indiana Jones stuff, yeah.

Did you have to learn to refine your text to make those calls-to-action more prevelant?

Absolutely. We had a plan, and we executed it, and it turned out to be wrong sometimes. We had to do a lot of experimentation. We did some focus testing and a lot of internal testing. We had some people who were really important to our process who kind of came from a direction of "I don't want to read a thing," and every time we engaged them with text somehow, it was big. We started off with a fairly passive voice, because we wanted to lay out an adventure. And that wasn't the best move. The best move is short and punchy: This is what I need you to do. Go do this thing. Clever turn of phrase. That's about it.

You mentioned in your GDC Online talk that you're finding that social game players might actually like to read.

Kind of the conventional wisdom is that no one wants to read text. We're finding out that's just not true. I called it a collectible for a reason: people would literally seek out and find text and tell people hey, I found this Easter egg.

So where do we go from here? Can we make text more of a focus for social games than they are now?

I think yes. I think what we're going to see is another branch of our social gaming that is going to try and bring back a lot of old game tropes. And I absolutely think that text-heavy stuff is going to be represented there pretty strongly. I also think this is industry-wide, this isn't just a Zynga thing. I think a lot of people have independently come to that conclusion, that there is a space for text.

It turns out our generation didn't read a lot, but the next generation after us does. They're on their phones reading or texting. The art of writing is returning because of that. My daughter is 9 and she was a much better writer than I ever was. She just writes all the time on her phone and other places. It's going to be an interesting time for games soon.

And that's just because of mobile devices?

I think so. I think people are more engaged with text in their day-to-day life. It's more than just reading stop signs now. When I'm on the train, I have nothing better to do than read text. It's not like the old days, where I'd just stare at the wall. Staring at the wall is now forbidden on a train! People look at you funny if you do. You have to be on your mobile device, reading.

People are reading more, but are they reading less? Are they reading in smaller chunks?

Yes. I absolutely think that. I used to do MMOs. On the second MMO I worked on we had a 512 character limit for our quests. And it was just this unreasonably small amount. It's like, no one can tell a story in 512 characters or less! The third MMO I worked on, we had a 256 character limit. No one can tell a story in that! And of course we did. And another MMO I worked on, we actually called them tweet: all of our text was approximately 140 characters or less. It can be done, and you can tell interesting stories.

So I guess the big takeaway is that game writers should refine their text to be tweet-able.

Yes. You've got to hone that stuff. You don't ever want to be wordy in a social game, you never want to be philosophical or anything like that. There might be a place for that, but not in any games that I can think of.

What's the biggest text count you display?

Jonathan: I'd have to check, but I don't think we got over 150? 150 would be the top. The one we used most was about 123 characters, that was the norm.

It's almost like Twitter figured this out.

Yeah. I absolutely think so. 123 characters is suspiciously close to a tweet, and I think they just realized that two sentences is all you ever need.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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Michael Silverman
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For sale: baby shoes, never used. -Hemingway

Roberta Davies
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Players never want to read screenfuls of text when they could be playing instead.

BUT players are always eager to get information when they know they can use it. That's the point. If they need information, and are aware that they need it, and you give them only as much as they need at that moment, they'll devour it.

Roger Tober
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I think 150 should be the norm, but at certain times it's all right to go over if it's not too often. Also, there is a difference between good writing and bad writing. You can read more of the former.

Carlo Delallana
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I bet I can make you read something for 6 minutes

Chris Hendricks
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People want to read if:

1. They have an unanswered question that is burning inside them, and
2. They believe that the text they are about to read contains the answer.

That's it. Granted, this doesn't mean that they will retain every word of it. Most likely, they will take the path of least resistance to find the info skimming the text, looking for keywords but if you can convince them that a wall of text is chock full of important info, they'll read.

Trevor Cuthbertson
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"One bit: they like namedropping, especially anything related to an IP."

Mola Ram! Prepare to meet Kali... in Hell!
- Temple of Doom

Brian Stabile
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I can definitely attest to the problem of today's casual gamers ignoring all words on the screen. When doing user testing on my iPhone game "The Last Ace of Space", in the tutorial there's a part where the game stops moving, the screen dims, and the words "TAP!" start flashing with an arrow pointed at what the player is supposed to tap. A waaaayyy higher percentage of people than I thought would hand me back the game saying "It's frozen/broken." There's literally nothing I could do to make it more obvious, besides physically dragging their finger to the arrow myself.

Keith Nemitz
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My answer would be to do something completely different. It may fail as well, but you'll learn something that will help you to find something that works.

I started testing the tutorial of my next game, '7 Grand Steps', over two years ago. I was surprised at how effective it was. It wasn't perfect. I made some simple changes and tested it again. Complete failure! Two years later the tutorial is radically different, but it's much more effective than that first attempt. It's still not perfect...

Megan Swaine
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The other thing to keep in mind is that some players do not have English as their first language, which is why you have to design with non-readers in mind, because it may not be an option for them.

"The best move is short and punchy: This is what I need you to do. Go do this thing. Clever turn of phrase. That's about it."

You'd be surprised how hard it was for me to convince some people that a series of several super-short dialogs was more digestible than a big chunk of text in one dialog box. While it might be a bad idea to go overboard with dialog, players are more willing to tap through a series of dialogs if they can read them really, really fast.

First rule of writing for the digital world: CHUNK IT.

Joshua Darlington
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If a player wants to play an arcade game, they don't want text. And players never wants bad or boring text. Direct, concise, on-the-nose game writing can be self defeating.