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To say that social games are booming is an understatement. After having been in existence for only a scant few years, games on social networks like Facebook and MySpace are gaining users explosively. There are now over 200 million monthly users playing the top 10 Facebook games alone -- up by 50 million from August to September.
Investors have certainly taken notice and, even in the depths of a recession, startups have been popping up left and right. With competition comes conflict and social gaming has been no exception -- already the space is a mire of me-too clones and lawsuits, with companies so busy looking over the shoulders of their neighbors that they've lost sight of the bigger picture.
Rather than dashing headlong into this new space, throwing money, resources and litigation blithely and blindly, it may behoove us to pause for a moment and consider: just what is a social game? A little critical thought up front might open more opportunities and alleviate some of the pressure to borrow from the competition.
The term "social" is perhaps not very descriptive. Pong was social and so was Super Mario Kart and a thousand other games played by more than one player at a time. So if "social" doesn't mean "multiplayer", what does it mean? Does it imply something larger and more persistent?
Well, large persistent games aren't exactly very new either; as long as there has been an internet, there have been games like MUDs. As the internet evolved, these multiuser games evolved right along with it, giving us games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. These games are undeniably social, so why all the recent talk? If social games are nothing new, what's changed?
In some ways, nothing's changed -- games are still engaging and fun for all the same reasons they've always been -- but in other ways, everything has changed. Social networks like Facebook are bringing games into a completely new context: where, up until now, the user was compelled to find the game, now the game is able to find the user. With this new power, comes exciting potential, game-changing potential.
Social games can be defined by three implicit objectives, which I will first list as mandates to the designer, then cover in more detail.
1. Build a persistent society -- promote cooperation
Beyond just allowing players to leave messages and compare scores, the goal of a social game should be to build a society. To achieve this, interdependence needs to exist; a true virtual society will only arise from a game environment where players can't fully succeed without the help of others.
2. Maintain a consistent sense of discovery -- promote user advancement and expression.
This feature describes a game environment where the user is continually discovering, building or nurturing new things into existence. Players should feel as if they are evolving both their in-game persona as well as influencing the game world around them.
3. Spread the game virally -- promote recruiting friends
This facet of social game design is made possible by the widespread adoption of online social networks like Facebook. Social networks provide a pre-existing web of low-barrier-of-entry connections.
Games that tap into the trust and familiarity existing between friends have the opportunity to spread effortlessly on an exponential scale. Once a game finds a new user, however, if it is going to continue spreading, it needs to retain and convert that user into a new evangelist.
On a social network, virality takes two forms: Direct and Indirect.
Direct -- the request
A direct invitation to join the game, given from one user to another, often takes the form of a request (i.e. "come join me in this game"). Because of their unsolicited nature, direct requests are often perceived as intrusive and it helps if there is both a strong motivation and an innocent context, to facilitate the process as much as possible.
The Facebook hit Farm Town hides its requests under the guise of giving gifts. You are allowed to give gifts to your friends and gifts are free to give, but you can't give them to yourself. Thus, gifts inspire a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" dynamic.
Gift-giving interactions exemplify ideal direct viral contact because they simultaneously fulfill selfish motivations ("if I give my friend a gift, maybe he will join the game and give me one back") and maintain a sense of altruism ("I'm giving my friend a gift, I bet she'll love it") so senders feel less like they are spamming and receivers feel more like they are receiving something of value.
Indirect -- the broadcast
The other major advantage social networks is the ability to broadcast. In Facebook this is the wall post. A wall post is nothing more than a public declaration made by an app on behalf of an individual. Almost any event in-game can be used to generate a wall post, but, if it is positioned as a call to action, it can serve as a means of reaching out to friends and spreading the game virally.
In FarmVille, a common and effective wall post is the "lost animal", a post which declares that you have found a lost animal in need of a home, and won't someone please adopt it? In game terms, this functions just like a gift --the only difference is the positioning: lost animals are served to a larger yet less direct audience than gifts.