Papaya's Oscar Clark asks: Are we heading for a Social Games Hangover?

Let's get this party ended

Papaya's Oscar Clark asks: Are we heading for a Social Games Hangover?
Oscar Clark is an Evangelist for Papaya Mobile, one of the leading mobile games social networks.

Social games have always courted controversy, whether on Facebook or more recently on mobile. Traditional games designers have even questioned whether they are games at all.

Richard Bartle, the British game researcher and the author of the seminal Designing Virtual Worlds notably said, "...social games are not only not social, they're not games either..."

At the same time, we have Jonathan Blow, creator of indie console hit Braid, calling social games "evil".

So are they right, and do they know something we don't? Does this mean we're heading for the terrible hangover after the social game party crashes to an end?

Even the words we use to describe the game design mechanics - such as compulsion loops, addiction, whales - have negative connotations. These are all techniques used in gambling and can leave others suspicious of our motives. But is that really fair?

Emotional transference

Social games appeal to a wider audience than ever before, including many people who would have previously rejected games altogether.

They allow people to share their experience in a simple way without the emotional commitment needed to set up an MMO raid or team deathmatch session.

Players can instead make a simple action, like watering crops, knowing that the other player see it. Just like a Facebook 'poke', it sends a packet of emotional data that's unique to your relationship.

Perhaps this is an ideological view. Increasingly developers are finding ways to increase revenue and retention, even to extent where some suggest we are teaching players to exploit their friends as resources for our games. Will players wake up to this? Will they eventually rebel against these mechanics and simply stop spending money with us?

Right now we don't see a decline in the revenues for social games. Instead, we actually see remarkable growth.

However, there is also a significant increase in the costs of marketing, discovery issues and increasing competition in this market. Is this the start of the end of the party or just a consequence of success?

Unseen dangers

New data metrics allow us to quantify as never before the viral spread - or "K-factor" - of a game, churn, conversion rate to paying, and even ways to measure the game's stickiness among users. However, I believe that underneath this information overload there are some unseen dangers.

In order to understand the complex range of customer experiences, we end up simplifying the data points, in order to look for trends and averages.

This is common in the games sector, as well as other industries. However, it limits us - because we stop looking at individuals, and look instead for common patterns and we can only understand behaviour we can measure. Once the player stops using our game - they become invisible to us.

Players adjust their attitude to our game over time: they will in time tire of the repetitive nature of our puzzles and eventually will even cease to value your virtual goods.

In short, all players have a lifecycle, which needs to be understood. If we don't acknowledge the player's changing attitude over time we'll start to alienate them. They'll start to see the game experience as a burden, as work, or even something exploitative.

The hangover

This is what I mean by the "Social Game Hangover": it's like recovering from a party where you forget how much fun you had, and instead focus on the dull throbbing pain in your head plus your noticeably lighter wallet.

When this happens, who does the player blame? The other players? Themselves? No, the game exploited me!

These players have been loyal and valuable customers who have invested their time and/or money in our product. We want them to leave the game happy, to continue to recommend our game to their friends and to anticipate our future games.

The pick-me-up

So how can you avoid this negative consequence and give help transition? As usual there is no magic bullet, but you can:

  • Focus on entertainment - make it fun to play every time

  • Segment players based on what motivates their behaviour

  • Monitor the lifecycles for each of the segments and listen to their changes

  • Plan future events for each segment - new items, features, offers, characters, etc

  • Use consumable goods wisely to help players get started quickly

  • Offer one-time purchase items which reduce the nagging for ever more payments

No more alienated users - ever!

These tips are not groundbreaking - you could even call them obvious.

Building a great social game is a blend of good design, delivery and listening to your customers.

If you only focus on the addiction cycle of your game and forget the long term entertainment value, don't be surprised if your player ends up with a social gaming hangover, and leaves the party uttering "never again!"
For more on PapayaMobile, you can visit the firm's website or follow Oscar on Twitter.

PocketGamer.biz regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.


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