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GDC 2011: Koster's Big List Of Social Mechanics For Social Games
GDC 2011: Koster's Big List Of Social Mechanics For Social Games
February 28, 2011 | By Kris Graft

February 28, 2011 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, GDC

Social games today might have the underpinnings of various real-world social mechanics, but for now they are "primarily single-player experiences," according to Raph Koster, VP of creative design at Disney-owned Sorority Life developer Playdom. And there's plenty of room for improved player-to-player collaboration, he said.

He identified 40 social mechanics (slides of all 40 mechanics are available on his website [PDF]) that are used to varying extents in social games.

It's some of the less commonly-used social mechanics -- such as election, rituals and others -- that present some compelling opportunities for game makers.

Koster said of elections, "American Idol is the biggest social game there is. ... You could hold an election in your social game for a position that means nothing at all, but players will go bananas, because that's what we do during elections."

Rituals are another uncommon mechanic in social games that could have a big impact in the category if properly implemented. "When people change roles ... there's a ceremony to it," explained Koster. "We put rituals on all kinds of things when people change roles, and these are powerfully social."

Social game developers have explored rituals to a small extent by letting players post accomplishments and changes in role via wall posts on Facebook, but rituals could serve a much larger purpose in social games. "There are rituals all around us," he said.

Koster also said he was surprised that not many social game makers have introduced racing mechanics in their games. He said, "[Races are] actually the oldest form of game that we can find, historically."

Tournaments are yet another under-utilized mechanic. "By and large, social games have barely scratched the surface of what can be done with bracketing," Koster noted.

The idea of a gamesmaster that closely directs a social game - i.e. the game developers themselves - is another little-used concept. "We don't do a lot of directing in social games, but we certainly could," said Koster.

And assigning roles to players - a concept embraced by class-based shooters like Valve's Team Fortress 2 - is another area of opportunity for social games. "The fact that we don't use team roles or classes ... is actually really, really fascinating, because it could happen. ... This is guaranteed to raise retention," he said.

In all, the mechanics of today's social games are just the tip of the iceberg, and developers should look more closely at human behavior to find out what really drives social interactions.

"This is the first time in history that we are able to work on a canvas the size of a country. Think of the havoc we can wreak!" Koster said.

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Glenn Storm
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Many thanks for the PDF link!

Jonathan Osborne
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Chuan Lim
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Something was bugging me about the tone of the PDF after reading through it.

I think for me at least it comes down to the fact I do not see the best qualities of my real social relationships being reflected in Raph's ideals for "social mechanics". It's kind of what that Derrida quote was actually hinting at -- as convoluted and opaque as it seems! Relevance to self: on an practical, emotional, meaningful level is of more import than the mere shape of things.

Sure there's a kind of humanity at play in MMO game design but it's a total straw man.

Without consequence or connection to what we might learn or take into our own lives, away from the screen. Jobs and roles in both gaming / real life operate like this too. They can become an abstract layer for fulfilment and achievement, though at the cost of your own time and concerns. Of course this begs the question re: purpose of games / purpose of life as well.


Rousseau is interesting:

"Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. In the degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while also becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law."


But then as "authors of the law";

do game designers have people's best interests at heart?


"The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people nave enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754


Ps. I liked you better when you were talking about aesthetics ..!

-- Chuan

Patric Mondou
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I'd like to point out that all the mechanics beyond 'Massive Groups' that Koster identified as 'uncharted territory' are in fact very present in older social games: Utopia, Dominion, Archmage. These were all text-based massively multiplayer social games from the late 90's (way before Facebook :)

They used many of the most peculiar mechanics in Koster's lecture: Guilds, Contracts, Elections, Reputation/Fame, etc.

They're worth studying if you're serious about making Social games ;)

And thanks for the PDF, it's a good read! The definition on slide 180 is the best definition of 'game' I've read yet.