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The State of Social in Social Games


October 19, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Friend & Stranger Mechanics

Historians tell us that cooperation and competition have always coexisted in human networks. These two archetypal vectors of social relations become evident also in how social games pit players to play with or against others. Unsurprisingly, it is the games with competitive aspects that pull strangers into the picture, whereas less competitive games stick to the social graph i.e. one's friends. There are no strangers in FarmVille.

Facebook is a particular case in this context, as majority of people do not hide behind the veil of anonymity or fake identity -- presumably this puts a dent to the degree of social exchanges with strangers people are willing to engage into. Still, games like City of Wonder are broadening the players' social graph in the game by giving the option for friendly exchanges or conflicts with unknown players.

Friend lists have become a standard user interface trope in social games, whether the players' social graph is modeled into leaderboards or into a carousel of neighbors. What the friends are called in the game does contribute to the perception of sociality.

In case you are persuaded to invite more "neighbors" to the game, the term "neighbor" sets them into an implied role where they do not necessarily directly access your space. Neighbors are there to provide assistance when needed. In MMA Pro Fighter from Digital Chocolate, friends can be invited to one's gym, thus associating with a communal space familiar from real life.

Besides neighboring and creating alliances, there are various transformations of similar entourage mechanics. Whereas these are largely based on players playing the same role and therefore standing equal to each other, games like Friends for Sale posit players into ownership relations where there are 'pets' and their owners, and the 'pets' can be put to do various quirky chores.

In the process the player is initiating a viral loop that addresses two friends. This is inherently more socially provocative, and potentially elicits more varied emotional responses. The takeaway is that assigning players into differentiated roles contributes to social emotions that contribute to stronger sense of social presence.

Three Frontiers of Social in Social Games: Space, Roles, and Viral

The above discussion can be summarized into three areas that are relevant avenues of development for short-term future of social games. All three hold seeds for creative game design solutions that can incrementally expand the sphere of social.

Space: First Frontier of Social

When parallel play meets asynchronicity, the combination effectively prevents shared space, and thus reduces communication modes available to players. Yet at the same time, it is evident that the shared space is paramount to authentic social experiences. Social game developers need to think how to overcome the most glaring constraints of asynchronicity without breaching into real time interactions. Games like FrontierVille are already figuring this out.

Space can also boost social through recognizable social spaces modeled into the game. In FrontierVille, familiar social events are stylized for the purposes of the game, and they reinforce its "familial" social flavor. Social objects, such as one's belongings on another player's property, can also accelerate the "social grind" -- i.e. motivate frequent visits between players.

Role Differentiation: Second Frontier of Social

Parallel play seems to lock players into roles where the available mechanics are similar to all -- if there is any heterogeneity it comes through decorating or choosing particular styles of play. Role differentiation is minimal, and consequently, so is lack of social variety.

More varied roles would organically pave way to a host of social interactions, such as trading. In MMOs, players can specialize into the role of merchants, which immediately give a specific focus to their social interactions in the game.

So far, social games allow superficial customizations of characters but no role differentiation, which would change the subset of mechanics that are available according to the role. With role differentiation comes reputation, another socially relevant aspect that enables grinding qualitative social capital by, e.g., helping friends.

Viral: Third Frontier of Social

Even if social games' dominant image appears to many as merely annoying spam in Facebook, the fact at present is that the virals are the concrete, in-your-face form of social in social games. Imagine most Facebook games without the viral feeds and ask yourself what would be left -- a somewhat compulsive single player experience.

For the social game designer, the fruit of frequent, incentivized sharing between players is social gratitude that reciprocating players feel for each other. This drives retention from a social angle. Socially acceptable virals, when incentivized properly from within the core mechanics, are both "shareworthy" for their sender and "clickworthy" for their recipients.


FrontierVille's way of taking social "too far".

Still, in terms of the substance of their virality, social games are virally challenged. Their virals seldom resonate beyond the game and its world, thus making them meaningless for non-players. The Old Spice Guy of social games remains to be seen. Truly viral always breeds discussion and thus accounts for meaningful social exchanges.

The Question of Social

What if the large majority of social game audience does not want any more depth to their socializing through the games? What if social games, especially in their Facebook form, present playful excuses and distractions to whimsically interact with friends, instead of creating deeper social engagements tied to the game? If we build more sophisticated incentives for social proof, curiosity, presence, etc. will they come?

In a hit-driven and therefore increasingly risk averse business, few developers are willing to take the chance. Few games take advantage of the social graph beyond stylizing it to a graph of neighbors or allies in a visual carousel -- "your Mafia" instead of "your relationships" constitutes bridging in its lowest form.

What if that simply is the perfect fit for both the social networking mindset and the platform it engages with? Social game gurus are evangelizing the need of social innovation, but it might very well be that when we scratch the surface of social in social games we will, and we should find, more surface.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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