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I'll rate a few of the top Facebook games, in each category, on a scale of 1 to 5. The ratings will be focused on user experience and potential for popularity. Business considerations, such as marketing and monetization, are arguably independent from the objective of strong social game design and will omitted here.
Virality: 5. Invites come in the minimally invasive form of "gifts". Wall posts are both competitive ("I leveled up", etc) and "lost animals" which catch attention by playing to human compassion. Combine this with cute colorful artwork and a clear physical metaphor and it's no wonder FarmVille spread so well, particularly in non-gamer demographics.
Persistent Society: 3. The game is persistent in that players are encouraged to regularly check back in to harvest crops, but the social experience is weak and does little to improve the basic gameplay.
Social interaction predominantly comes in the form of trading gifts with friends, which pays off handsomely until it gets old (or everyone has had their fill of plum trees and goose topiaries), and "helping out around your friend's farm" -- which pays a cash sum so nominal, it quickly becomes irrelevant.
Maintaining Discovery: 2. FarmVille makes a steady drip of new crops available to the player, but these seem only to offer an aesthetic incentive. New crops don't really behave any differently or provide any form of tactical advantage beyond higher cost and higher payouts.
Some amount of user expression is available to higher-level users in the form of decorative props and the opportunity to create "hay bale art" -- pixel art images created using colored bales of hay.
Total - 10 (5 viral, 5 retention)
Virality: 2. Pet Society is subtly viral. It occasionally pops up a prompt to invite your friends, but otherwise all virality is user initiated. Changing your pet's "status" triggers a wall post prompt. "Sticker Packs" are gifts you can send to your friends, but they seem like a secondary consideration to new players.
The most that can be said of Pet Society's viral strategy is that it provides an immaculately clean, visually attractive game with ample opportunity for self-expression; effectively, it is striving to be a game that players want to share with their friends, and leaves the task of spreading it in their hands.
Persistent Society: 2. There is very little that is persistent about Pet Society -- if you're away for even a small amount of time, your pet will be hungry and dirty, but otherwise nothing really changes while you're away. If you want to maximize earning money, you'll have to return once a day. There is also very little interaction between players -- an attempt is made to create a sense of relationships but this is really nothing more than a mechanic to grind out coins.
Maintaining Discovery: 4. Pet Society has an immense wealth of personalization options, from clothes, to furniture, to plants, wallpapers, and exotic fish. The art is lush, stylized and consistent, giving even artistically inept users an infinite space of creative possibility. Unknown items like fish and plants must be caught or grown, instilling an element of surprise. Yet, in order to acquire anything, the user first needs coins. Coins are earned through the tedious chores of visiting friends' houses and running races, both of which seem to pay out pocket change.
Total: 8 (2 viral, 6 retention)
Virality: 5. There are "Send Food", "Free Gifts", and "Invite Friends" invites as well as what may now be an industry-standard "Rescue the Endangered Animal" wall posts. The art may not be all that impressive, but the aquarium metaphor is about as direct and accessible as you can get.
Persistent Society: 2. The danger of algae growth and sick fish keeps players coming back regularly, but Happy Aquarium does nothing to innovate on the basic
"visit friends to earn money" mechanic.
Maintaining Discovery: 1. It may be that this game is new and the developers plan to expand the selection of available items for your aquarium, but currently there is not much to keep a player engaged long-term. Typical aquarium decorations can be placed on the bottom of your tanks and increasingly more expensive fish may be bought, but very little has been done to prevent high-level fish tanks from all looking the same.
Total: 8 (5 viral, 3 retention)
One additional observation worth making is that social games are not tied to their designs -- they can conceivably change over time. Just as content can be added to expand the potential for discovery, a game geared towards virality can sacrifice annoying viral tactics in favor of a more satisfying user experience, as it reaches market saturation. Considering this, evaluating an app at one moment in time does not necessarily describe its past or predict its future.
It's a rare social game where all three of the above features (spread the game virally, build a persistent society, and maintain consistent discovery) are utilized to good effect. This is not because the three are mutually exclusive but simply because they are served by distinct game mechanics that have evolved separately. It will take conscientious designers, willing to take cues from predecessors as diverse as Farm Town and WoW, to evolve the medium to the next level.
In particular, I believe that the context of cooperation still has much room for exploration. A vast untapped gamespace exists between the insultingly simplistic gift-giving interaction of Farm Town and the dauntingly choreographed combat interaction of WoW.
Our daily lives are so rich with layers of social dependencies that it's a wonder the social gaming space is determined to cannibalize the same narrow range of ideas. For years now, we've seen games that create discovery and there is now a wealth of games spreading virally across social networks, but the real key to compelling gameplay is in cooperation and the foundation of truly persistent societies.
Social gaming has tremendous potential and, if we can look past the picture-perfect clones long enough to see the big picture, it may not be long before the tables turn and games begin evolving the way we think about social networks, instead of the other way around.