As the online game landscape becomes less black and white, social innovation requires more work. When we established Kingdoms of Camelot as an early hardcore MMO on Facebook, we had a clear point of differentiation from previous games. Since then, the Facebook landscape has become more MMO-oriented, and there are more PvP games available. Even heretofore strictly casual game developers like Digital Chocolate and Zynga have joined in with titles like Army Attack and Empires & Allies.
Map screen in KoC.
At the same time, the non-Facebook landscape has become more "casual" (or at least more broadly social). Players now expect ALL online games to offer full multiplayer functionality and interactive support features. This is evidenced in recent developments in AAA MMO social mechanics.
For example, World of Warcraft made major updates to its raiding features with Cataclysm to make group PvE less onerous and more accessible. Star Wars: The Old Republic, the latest and greatest MMO on the block, allows players to work on their personal class quests even while adventuring in mixed-class parties.
This is an important concession to social accessibility, as class story quests are a key differentiator in SWTOR.
Lastly, the free-to-play business model is really flexing its gaming muscles. Most of the older subscription MMOs -- Dungeons & Dragons Online, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online -- have all moved to F2P. Even some non-MMO, hardcore games like Team Fortress 2 are now F2P as well. In fact, Sega just announced the first true F2P title for the PlayStation Vita, Samurai & Dragons, based on the top-grossing F2P iOS game Kingdom Conquest.
This diverse landscape means that it's harder to differentiate your social game (or should I say "your game, socially") from the competition -- yet more important than ever to do so.
The three heuristics we've described are not a panacea for all social game design -- but they can be very instructive. You can use them to both help evaluate existing games or design new ones.
For existing games, break down your social mechanics against these heuristics to determine your true mix of synchronous/asynchronous, symmetrical/asymmetrical and strong-tie/loose-tie relationship features. Ask yourself if your approach fits the needs of your audience, gameplay, and platform. For example, an older audience might not take to synchronous play, while a younger audience might demand it; a "twitchy" arcade game might not be suitable for strong-tie relationships; or a mobile game might be most social if relationships were low friction and thus primarily asymmetrical. So ask yourself: what would you change, and why?
The greatest value of these heuristics can be realized when designing new social games from scratch. Proper use can move your game beyond the binary casual/hardcore approach to incorporate novel, multilayered patterns of social interaction. It's always easier to build a strong social layer into a new game, where it can be tied deeply into the gameplay, than to try to graft new social features onto an existing game.
In translating your business and user goals into game features, put the greatest focus on the social mechanics your particular players will interact with most often. Even a well-designed social feature will have a smaller impact on users -- and ultimately your business -- if it is buried in the interface or peripheral to core gameplay.
Also remember that a mix of social mechanics often yields the strongest results. Kingdoms of Camelot likely would have been less successful if we had used elements solely from the Facebook or MMO side of the social mechanics ledger. A mix of features leveraging Facebook channels for viral acquisition and early retention plus MMO social interaction for deeper engagement and monetization was what worked best for us and our players.
Finally, remember that these heuristics are rules of thumb, not absolute guidelines. Learn the rules then break them as long as it works for your game and your audience. Good luck!