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Some forming social game theories

July 29, 2010

I started this on twitter (@bbrathwaite), but moved it here. Feel free to add to this list, disagree or discuss. Thanks.

The player should:

  • Return to the game to good news (game progress, new content, visits from friends, mail, gifts).
  • Return to the game with a problem to solve (wilted crops, empty supplies, shifts to start).
  • Have short-term problems to solve (in a session) and long-term problems to solve (multiple sessions). Longer term problems/desires may be aspirational goals, collections or quests to complete.
  • Always be able to make progress on longer-term goals and complete short-term goals.
  • Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game. These things should never be nested or “discoverable” if you’re clever. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be discoverable things and surprises. There should be (Pocket God comes to mind). However, the player shouldn’t be confronted with a problem that has no obvious solution – that equals a block and goodbye.
  • Always have an aspirational goal on every screen, if possible (something they want – item/action gated by $, lvl, quest progress), and a clear understanding of what they need to do to reach it.
  • Have genuine motivation tied into the core of the game which makes them want those aspirational goals (if I get X, it will help me do Y faster or will earn me more $)
  • Be rewarded for every single click either visually, through XP, coins or some other measure of progress.
  • Clearly understand how and why every change state in the game occurs. If an NPC suddenly becomes happy, why did that happen? Is it visually obvious? Is the transition from normal state to happy state clear? Is it rewarding? Does the player know what they did (or something in the game did) to make that happen?
  • Feel like they have agency in the game. Through their direct action, something happens. Without them, it doesn’t happen. If you never plant crops, you never get results.
  • Understand your UI instantly. If you need to explain it, you need to redo it.
  • Have a pre-existing mental model of the game before they even play it. I know how a farm, a nightclub, a bakery and a restaurant run, at least at an abstract level. The less you need to teach people about the game, the better. This information should be pre-grokked before they even enter the game.
  • Feel good about posting something in their feed. They believe what they’re posting will help them and help their friends playing the game, too.
  • Have a “feel good” endgame state for a session. This is appointment gaming, and people want to feel like they’ve tidied up this session before moving on to the next. That means that they can finish or, in some cases, optimize until it’s not really optimum to continue anymore. If they leave feeling like the game didn’t really let them leave (because there was always something new to do), they leave in a sub-optimal and unsatisfied state and thus are less likely to return.
  • Have clear dailies including friend grind, playspace grind and bonus progression, if applicable. What do I do everyday when I come back to the game? Do I know that I have finished what I needed to do? How do I know that I need to do it (and no, your last play session isn’t enough).
  • Be reminded of what they need to do. They’re playing for 2, 5 or 10 mins at a time, and are possibly playing dozens of social games simultaneously. They need visual reminders of what they need to do to progress play in your game. Give them explicit and constantly visible goals, badges, or visual reminders of some kind.


  • If you nerf their playstate or playfield, the player better understand why and feel like they could have prevented it (keeping their appointment, getting an item by x time or it expires, etc).
  • Players want direction. Give it to them everywhere: tool tips, quests, pop ups, etc.
27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2010 6:07 pm

    Don’t the first two rules (return to the game with good news and problems to solve) conflict in some cases? When I log into Farmville to see a bunch of wilted crops, that’s not good news, in fact it’s a punishment (I didn’t keep my appointment on time, therefore I lose money/progress). Once I’m in the game I might take action to undo the damage… but if I’m outside the game and I know that I missed a few days and all my crops are wilted, I now have an emotional barrier to overcome because I know that I’m going to get bad news on login. (I haven’t played Wii Fit or Animal Crossing in awhile either, for the same reason: I know that if I do, I’ll feel guilty for neglecting the poor thing. So I don’t play.)

    Or maybe it’s just that wilted crops is a bad example. If you see “give the player a problem to solve” as synonymous with “give the player achievable short-term goals” you can just merge those two rules, say that wilted crops was a partially flawed idea, and move on.

    • July 29, 2010 6:25 pm

      Yes, I view wilted crops as a problem to solve. The good news can be complete discrete from or orthogonal to this.

    • Maugh permalink
      July 29, 2010 7:04 pm

      I see it as a problem to solve preemptively, by tracking crop growth. Planting a 15 minute crop, as you know you’ll still be at the keyboard then. Or planting an 8 hour crop, before going to bed. Or not planting at all, if you’ll be away for an extended period of time.

  2. July 29, 2010 6:28 pm

    Fantastic list. I’d entirely agree on all the points, except one:

    “Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game. These things should never be nested or “discoverable” if you’re clever.”

    This one doesn’t settle quite as well as the rest with me. Doesn’t going this route, where the player always knows exactly what they need to do remove a lot of the potential for engaging challenge? I think I’d tend to go for something more along the lines of “the player should always have an idea of what they should do to solve challenges”.

    I may be misreading the intent here. But it seems that as it’s written, that particular point would remove exploration as a viable gameplay aesthetic where social games are concerned.

    That said, there’s great stuff here. I particularly like the points covering UI clarity, remembering the larger context of how many other games are being played simultaneously, and feedback/progression within and between sessions.

    • July 29, 2010 6:33 pm

      If I have a problem, I better have a very solid idea how to solve it. Uncertainty = I will go play another game. There is no vesting in social games. I didn’t spend $49, so I don’t work harder to accept little problems or solve them. I want something easy and quick as a player.

      • July 29, 2010 6:46 pm

        Good point. Do you think there’s still room for introducing problems that may require a certain amount of figuring-out, provided that there’s enough suggestion towards the solution? Say, a problem to solve, but given the information presented, there’s a reasonable expectation that most players can solve it in, say, a minute (as a hypothetical, arbitrary, short time period)?

        This is all under the premise that the problems presented are part of the game, with the player aware of that, ideally.

      • Chris 'Wombat' Crowell permalink
        July 30, 2010 10:28 am

        Hi Brenda!
        I think that for the FAST tasks, a casual player will certainly want to know what to do and be able to relatively get it done.
        Optional factors that could work: Variable task outcome based on purchased helpers or a skill based mechanic that lets players earn a bonus over the base reward.
        There can be multiple choices of actions impacting the gameplay in imprecisely understood ways, that allow the players can safely explore and discover without feeling frustrated.
        (I think that the long term goals should be visible (light on the horizon) but how to get there can be a voyage of discovery., with many paths toward that goal so that everyone can feel they did it their way. But that might be just my own Columbus syndrome)

  3. Adrienne permalink
    July 29, 2010 6:30 pm

    Great post Brenda.

    This one point “Be rewarded for every single click either visually, through XP, coins or some other measure of progress” is particularly great and massively overlooked.


  4. brooke (chooseareality) permalink
    July 29, 2010 6:40 pm

    Maybe I missed this idea, but I would add. A mechanic needs to exist that rewards a player for helping others and allows them to advertise that help as a wall post. Make it fun to be social and rewarding to have lots of friends.

    • July 29, 2010 10:13 pm

      Brooke: “Make it fun to be social and rewarding to have lots of friends.”

      Shouldn’t those things be inherently fun/rewarding, without tying game elements to them? You know, that whole “replacing intrinsic with extrinsic motivation makes people hate a task” sort of thing…

  5. July 29, 2010 7:02 pm

    “Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game. These things should never be nested or “discoverable” if you’re clever.”

    Not sure I agree with this. Many casual games use exactly this game mechanic to great effect (e.g. Virtual Villagers, where discovering the secrets of the island is a principal mechanic). I haven’t seen it used in social games yet, but I think it could actually enhance the experience by promoting users talking to each other about how to solve things, rather than detract from it. The specific implementation could probably flip it one way or another, natch.

    • July 29, 2010 7:04 pm

      So, yeah, that’s interesting. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be discoverable things and surprises. There should be (pocket god comes to mind). However, the player shouldn’t be confronted with a problem that has no obvious solution – that equals a block and goodbye.

      • July 30, 2010 1:25 am

        Agreed wholeheartedly, but I would generalize THAT statement to games in general.

  6. loren permalink
    July 29, 2010 7:15 pm

    Great list. These things more than anything are what set games apart, it feels.

    While it’s definitely implied in several of those bullets, I don’t think you said it straight out. And maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but it’s totally my #1: “the player should always know what to do next”.

    • July 30, 2010 2:55 am

      Do you mean that in a different sense than “Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game”?

      My addition would be: the player should always have choices of things to do next. Logging in to do just the one thing, again, for the umpteenth time, and nothing else … well, that’s boring.

      On choices though: does social gaming have scope to include “interesting choices”, a la strategy games? Is that asking for too much cognitive engagement for something they’re “playing for 2, 5 or 10 mins at a time”?

      Maybe file that under long term goals/aspiration gameplay?

  7. July 29, 2010 8:41 pm

    Great list, but I do think things are changing. Our Family Feud game pretty much breaks a lot of these rules. Gave a talk a few months ago listing the “Ten Commandments” that I’d compiled about social game design and how, to be true to the Feud brand and keep the game show feel alive, we had to poop all over most of ’em. See Slide 16:

    As it turns out we’re hitting a pretty different audience than X-Ville… but it’s a very vibrant, and not unsmall group.

    The one about making players feel good about posting somthing their feed is the most important one, IMO (and the hardest one to accomplish without a bit of trickery).

    • July 29, 2010 9:11 pm

      Yes, you raise a good point. This list mostly applies to a certain category of Facebook game. Looking through your slides now.

  8. July 30, 2010 2:50 am

    Interesting list. I’m not sure I agree with all of these points, but I have to commend that you’ve looked at social games and immediately picked out some great positive points (at least on the surface). This is vastly different to the kind of reserved and sometimes hostile attitude a lot of traditional game designers have given to social gaming (to be fair, a lot of social game designers have given them reason to).

    On a slightly separate note — and I hope this is not sexist — I’ve been following Jane McGonigal (@avantgame) it seems that women are way better at this whole social gaming thing.

  9. loren permalink
    July 30, 2010 9:18 am

    Not necessarily. I suppose the negative is actually a clearer way to describe it.. the player should never be in a position where they DON’T know what to do next. That is to say, your player should never be stuck in a position of, “what now?”, because that’s when they bail and never come back.

    They should always have a clear idea of what the ‘next step’ is – even if there are options, then technically, the next step is ‘picking one’. Keep in mind that ‘come back in 4 hours’ is also a next step.

    As far as meaningful choices (and forgive me if you’re not directing this question to me, I can’t tell so I’m answering)

    I’d say that yes, definitely. Right away, maybe not. But play any good (or wildly popular) social game beyond the first push (as in come back for few days, give it a decent shot), and you’ll find plenty of meaningful decisions buried beneath the fluff. If you haven’t yet, check out Restaurant City. Where you place those tables is immediately strategic, and yet no one can deny that that game is successful. The key there, versus our traditional strategy games, is to not make the failstate failure.

    • loren permalink
      July 30, 2010 9:19 am

      damn, I replied in the wrong spot? Please delete this =/

  10. King Krak, I Rule the Game permalink
    July 30, 2010 10:16 pm

    Social Games feature Wilting Crops, the Worst Game Design effect in such a long time. It’s like a disease spreading and spreading. (Why yesterday, I found a new space game, and even though farming is maybe 3% of the game, it too had Wilting Crops!). You would think, because we’re using COMPUTERS, we could have something like AUTO-HARVESTING?! But noooooooooo!

    Too many social games are just Clicking Activities. Boring, grinding, constant requests to spam your friends, constant pop-ups to share your micro-achievements to all on Facebook, and oh, ya gotta love those never-ending tediosities knows as Free Gifts. Don’t forget a huge helping of cheesy art. (And so many of the games are the same now, you can close your eyes and play them.)

    In many ways, they’re setting new standards for terrible game design. Yes, some are making a lot of money, but I have to wonder how many are getting permanently turned off?

    Alright, done sounding off.

    “Understand your UI instantly. If you need to explain it, you need to redo it.” – This is so true and I remain amazed at how many don’t get this.

    • July 31, 2010 10:04 am

      It seems as if these points could equally apply to games other than social ones. How closely related do you see these points applying to both the mobile market and children’s games?

  11. King Krak, I Rule the Game permalink
    July 31, 2010 7:55 pm

    @Miles: 1) I find quite a few social games to have a “children’s” feel to them – like they’ve been dumbed down and then dumbed again and again until, well, they’re practically 100% Clicking Activities.

    2) I’ve played a ton of children’s games (more board games than PC, plus some Wii…I have a 7-yr-old)…and few are good or interesting. Some are just activities (an Herb hunting game, a get your creature to the end of the path game, and of course, Chutes(Snakes) & Ladders – there are next-to-no decisions for a player to make – I have a hard time even using the word “game” for them).

    3) The mobile market has the tiny screen restriction and so “Advanced” or complex games seem few and far between. (There’s a lot of retro and retro-like games popping up there instead…something not at all successful on FB (with some exceptions).) But except for farm games moving there (like Farmville and WeRule/WeFarm), I haven’t noticed many social game aspects popping up in the iPhone world. It’s sad that many mobile games have the quality of lesser Wii games or antique console games. I can’t think of anything with the depth and detail of Might & Magic V, or HoMM3, for example.

    Incidentally, my favorite games of the past few years (non-boardgames) have been the browser military sims, like Grepolis and KingsAge. (Evony is an example of that category, too, but I really dislike it and its many clones.) These type of games, with some minor changes, have been resurfacing in Facebook and now, one on the iPhone.

  12. August 4, 2010 6:41 am

    Maybe I missed this idea, but I would add. A mechanic needs to exist that rewards a player for helping others and allows them to advertise that help as a wall post. Make it fun to be social and rewarding to have lots of friends.

  13. August 8, 2010 12:57 am

    Another thing I’ll add is to provide an avenue for player expression. For long term commitment, identification and engagement, it seems that some of the most popular and monetized features are those that allow the player to decorate, arrange, accessorize or personalize. This of course ties in to aspirational goals, social pressure and many other dynamics in the game.

  14. August 14, 2010 6:43 pm

    Great post Brenda! Agree strongly with many of these. Mustn’t forget auditory feedback as well as visual, XP etc.

  15. vchan permalink
    May 1, 2011 12:37 am

    Thank you for this fantastic list. As a game design student, I often wonder if the game principles of social gaming like in facebook would be any different to designing a digital game for consoles or PCs. Your list has brought some interesting points of how players of social gaming would behave and demand different things in social gaming than in other digital games.

    You have brought up an interesting point that the problems shouldn’t be nested and uncertainty should be suppressed because players of social gaming don’t invest in their social game as they do in other digital games. The problem should be quick and easy to solve. I found this interesting as we often thought how to make the game more engaging by allowing for more uncertainty.

    Reading this post, I also learnt how significantly important it is to understand the players within their context and environment. We often overlooked this and bogged down with the technicalities of the games we designed. You have highlighted how different the players of social gaming are to other games in their behaviours and motivations. To be a good game designer we ought to learn and listen to these behaviour changes.

    Thank you again for the great insight.

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