Torulf Jernström is CEO of Finnish developer Tribeflame.
His blog is Pocket Philosopher.
You can read all his weekly PocketGamer.biz columns here.
The way to best use social features in games is changing.
It is now less about reaching real-world friends for virality, and more about forming in-game communities of strangers with retention as the goal.
Let me explain.
The big boom for social games came with Facebook. Games like Mob Wars came in 2008, while Farmville took off in 2009.
This first wave of social games were engineered for virality above everything else. They kept pestering their users to post to their friends, and to get those friends to start playing the game.
Their social features were not really that deep. They behaved like my 2-year-old son.
Here, he has loudly demanded that his uncle plays with Legos with him - only to then completely ignore said uncle while happily playing next to him.
They are both doing the same thing, but with very limited interaction.
This has some value, even though there was widespread scorn for the term "social" when describing those games.
There is social proof in having friends doing the same thing you do.
There is social proof in having friends doing the same thing you do. The mainstream consumer starts doing something only when all their friends and acquaintances are also doing it.
Building an audience
Games such as Mob Wars and Farmville used a variety of ways to get people to invite their friends.
- There were suggestions that you brag about every achievement you got in the game by posting as visibly as possible on your Facebook wall.
- There were walls to unlock more gameplay that could only be passed by connecting to 3 or more friends in the game.
- And there were ways to send gifts to each other, in the hope of triggering the social obligation of reciprocation from your friends.
(Read Robert Cialdini's book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion for more on tricks like these.)
All this was done to achieve a good K-factor, which is the measure of virality.
The K-factor means "how many new customers does every existing customer bring in". There's an excellent explanation of it here.
In short, if your K-factor is above 1, that means that the game spreads on its own. You just need to seed it with some initial players.
Say you bring in 1,000 players through featuring and advertising. If your game's K-factor is 2, they will bring in 2,000 of their friends, who will in turn bring in 4,000 of their friends, etc.
Eventually the whole world plays your game! (Or, what actually happens: the k-factor declines over time).
Even if the K-factor is below 1 (which it usually is), it still means that your marketing is cheaper.
If you spend $3 per download to get people to download your app, you will eventually get 2 downloads for that price is your K-factor is 0.5, bringing your effective cost per download to $1.50.
Long term success
Back in the early days of social mobile games, the focus was on increasing virality by getting people to invite their real-world friends and acquaintances.
However, new games are more focused on retention rather than virality. To get retention, you want to build new in-game connections between strangers.
New games are more focused on retention rather than virality.
Social features are good drivers for retention, but only when some demands are met.
Players can come back to a game for a variety of social reasons. If there are clans or guilds, players will feel a social obligation to play and contribute to their clan. With competitive features, people will be comparing their own progress to peers and try to keep up.
The problem is that both of these only work with players who are at roughly the same level.
Dragging them down
If I start playing any of King's Saga games right now, it will not inspire me much to see my wife at level 245. If anything, I might get disheartened and think that I will never be able to catch up.
Similarly, when I play Clash Royale in my friend's clan, I am actually dragging him down. He's way more interested in the game than I am, and is playing it a lot more than me, as well as better.
In this way, I shouldn't be in his clan. It would be in his interest to have better players than me in the clan because if he remains in this clan, I will quickly become a liability rather than an asset to him.
It's unlikely your friends will be interested in exactly the same games as you are.
He's likely to stop playing, just as I stopped playing. But if he moves to a clan with his own level of players, the social pressure is kept constant, and he is more likely to stick around.
In this regard, you can see that it's unlikely your friends will be interested in exactly the same games as you are, or that they will be equally skilled.
And that's why we need to build games where players invite their real-world friends to provide the game with short term virality, while ensuring we can transition players to social groups with new friends/acquaintances who share their interest in the game, and are playing at the same level.
That will provide long term retention.