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Tag Games' Paul Farley on five transitional challenges in moving from single player to social game development

Tag Games' Paul Farley on five transitional challenges in moving from single player to social game development
Paul Farley is the managing director of Tag Games, a Dundee-based developer that recently released Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time on iPhone.

For a device that is inherently connected, why has it taken more than 15 years for mobile games to become more social in nature - and why is 'social' now the hottest buzz word in mobile?

Actually, social is nothing new for mobile. Almost fifteen years ago, mobile game pioneers such as Digital Bridges (now I-play) were offering simple WAP games with leaderboards and in-game messaging.

In more recent years, Digital Chocolate launched a series of social café games. These predated the emergence of mobile social gaming networks such as OpenFeint and the widespread adoption of Facebook by, well… everyone.

Now there's a crowd

Without access to a critical mass of players and their social graph however, these games peaked too early. They relied on building their own social networks rather than being in the enviable position of today's developers who can simply tap into existing social networks.

And it works. Take a quick glance at the App Store top grossing charts and you'll find that Tap Zoo is still there at number 1.

A remarkable achievement for a game that many arrogant console gamers and producers would consider at best simple, and at worst an abomination. But it's no surprise that Tap Zoo and six out of the top 10 grossing games rely on social gameplay mechanics to draw a player into the experience and keep them there.

The fact is people want to play games with their friends and family. They always have done and always will. The past twenty five years of video gaming, with its focus on the single player experience, will I'm sure, go down in gaming history as an aberration. A short blip in the long tradition of predominantly social gaming experiences.

Into the breach

Social mobile games are clearly here to stay, but understanding how to make your games more social presents a huge challenge to both developers and publishers in this space.

In a few months time, Tag Games will launch its first mobile game designed from the ground up for social play and the freemium business model. Our transition from a single player game developer to a social one has been very difficult and we still have some way to go yet. I doubt all mobile game developers will want to make this transition but once you've had a taste, you'll never turn back!

Here are a few things we've found so far that may be helpful.

1. You must make the effort to understand social game mechanics

Despite what you might have read, social gaming does not begin and end with FarmVille.

Social mechanics encompass a wide range of human interaction such as competition, collaboration, communication and reciprocation. Games like FarmVille are a good start but even Zynga is barely scratching the surface of what's possible in terms of incorporating social elements in games.

At first it may seem overwhelming but the good news is you don't need a degree in human psychology to understand the basics. Once you're up to speed I strongly suggest you check out Raph Koster's excellent GDC 2011 talk (40 Social Mechanics for Social Games) as a taste of what's to come.

2. Freemium is not social

It's no surprise that most social mobile games use the freemium business model, but it's important to understand that social does not necessarily mean freemium. Quite often you will see 'social' and 'freemium' used interchangeably in this context but this is plain lazy.

There are lots of freemium games that have absolutely no social features in them and vice versa. Freemium works well for social because it removes the barrier to entry any price point, no matter how low, presents to the potential player. With success reliant on the viral appeal of a game, freemium makes trying the game zero risk.

3. Put metrics and data analytics at the heart of your business

If you are serious about providing your players with the best possible gameplay, whilst ensuring you turn a profit then you must put metric gathering and data analysis at the heart of your studio.

It's only through understanding your players' behaviours and identifying problems that you will be able to improve customer retention and lower your churn rate. Data analysis is a professional and highly skilled field; it is not something you should enter into lightly but the rewards for getting this right are potentially huge and will define success or failure.

4. We aren't in Kansas anymore

Forget the old ways of developing a game, launching it and forgetting about it; we aren't making product now. Social games have signalled a move from a product to a service approach. This is good news but make sure you budget beyond your live date and plan to support your game longterm.

Live teams can, in many cases, become bigger than the original development team and you'll also have to think about customer support, community management, payment processing and many other production, marketing, legal and financial aspects you don't need to worry about in product development.

5. More change than you can shake a stick at

Assuming you're still reading, I'm sure you're thinking this is a lot of change. You're right! There is just no easy way to shortcut your way to success in the social gaming space. You must be prepared to completely restructure the way you run your studio, have the balls to embrace freemium as the future before the masses catch on, hire team members from fields outside your knowledge base such as data analysis, web technology and customer service, and quite probably you're going to have to find the working capital to make this happen.

On top of this you can't just rely on one platform for success. You may choose to start with iOS if that's what you're most comfortable with but taking a thin native client approach, the opportunity to go multi-platform is too big to ignore.

To find out more about Tag Games, visit its website.

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