In a GDC China talk in Shanghai on Tuesday, XEODesign president Nicole Lazzaro, best known for her work on game usability, emotional reaction and interface design for companies like Electronic Arts and Playfirst, discussed her views on creating massively social online games and what she called "viral emotions".
Lazzaro discussed her research in "the choices that players make and the emotions that they feel", created from her background as a cognitive psychology graduate and programmer. She commented of the 'massively social game' trend, which she's been speaking about for a couple of years, suggesting that only in the past few months have Facebook titles started to fulfill that promise.
But there's further we can go. What would it take to make a game that would be played by 6 billion people? Lazzaro showed her research comparing MMOs like World Of Warcraft to 'MSOs' - which at the time were services like Twitter and Facebook, but are nowadays better showcased by Facebook games.
She pointed out that social media has zero barrier to entry, is incredibly viral, and full of 'social tokens', whereas bigger MMOs are a very immersive experience with high barriers to entry and sometimes limited themes.
Lazzaro's thesis, which looks particularly prescient given the massive rise of Facebook games from companies like Zynga and Playfish, is that social and experiential elements are becoming key in gaming. She noted that the Wii has been -- to date -- the most successful current generation console "created a new sensation in the body", and this was key to its success, because people love the experience the games create.
The XEODesign president firmly believes that the emotional output of the player is significantly underappreciated when considering how to design games, commenting after showing a video of two gamers having fun playing a Rayman Wii minigame on a couch: "We're not really designing the boss monster... we're designing the experience that [gamers] have in playing together."
She then went through some of what she consider to be 'The 4 Fun Keys', particularly highlighting fiero - an Italian word for "hard fun of accomplishment"; curiosity - the "easy fun of imagination"; relaxation - the "serious fun of creating value", and amusement: "the people fun of socializing."
Going into more detail, Lazzaro feels that fiero is particularly key because you need to balance difficulty carefully between frustration and boredom, allowing for regular spikes of fiero-style accomplishment happiness and relaxation. For the 'easy fun', she suggested an amusing definition of the positive emotions felt here as "a combination of Fantasy Island and bubble wrap".
As part of this section, Lazzaro showcased her studio's upcoming iPhone game Tilt, intended to showcase some of her concepts in action, and which uses no buttons at all, only the iPhone accelerometer. It's an update -- starring a carbon emission-eating lizard -- of a hack of the same name that Lazzaro and colleagues worked on just after the iPhone's release, and which was the first game ever to use the iPhone's accelerometer.
As for the hardcore game and MMO sector, the XEODesign founder believes that it's "chasing about 15% of the market". She cites research about technology in general that "the people who first jump on to a new technology have a very different set of things that they want compared to the mass market." So, social games on Facebook and online games like Free Realms and Puzzle Pirates "are some of the first games to take advantage of this".
What 'viral emotions' or other social game mechanics really work on social networks? Lazzaro notes: "The stuff that rises to the top are ones about friendship - you're already there for friendship, so it matches the friendship that you feel."
But on the other hand - "friendship and money don't mix", so you have to be careful to not get in the way of people's friendship on social networks when trying to monetize them. In addition, things like gifting and mentorship really help Facebook games succeed by social means, Lazzaro concluded in a lecture which looked at the rise of social gaming from an intriguing psychological and emotional angle.