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Closure in Social Games

November 25, 2010

The player of a social game needs to feel closure.  The principle of closure is so important that without it, a game will struggle with low retention and all the problems inherent therein.

What is “closure?”

I will define closure as the ability to leave the game with a feeling of certainty that one has done all one can do and that things will be okay until one returns so long as the player abides by known rules. It’s all wrapped up – or knowingly left unwrapped (ie. the player runs out of energy) – and the player perceives that she understands the complete game state.

To illustrate with any Facebook game, closure exists if:

  • I understand the primary grind of the game.
  • I know when I need to come back to tend to the primary grind of the game.
  • I know precisely what will happen if I fail to come back either because the game tells me what will happen or an implicit mental model exists.
  • I know the things that can modify this stability (being whacked or assisted by another player, for instance)
  • I have a means to protect my game state or enact revenge for things happening in my game which I perceive are beyond my control (and returning in time is within my control).

If players are unable to achieve a state of closure, they leave the game feeling confused at best or failed at worst. Typically, failure to achieve a state of closure results in players feeling uncertain in their decisions or uncomfortable with what they perceive will happen while they are away. Players who leave feeling something in this range are less likely, then, to come back. Why come back for more “confused” or “failed” or “uncomfortable”?

Closure is a tricky thing to identify, too, and it’s closely tied to a word I’ve used several times here – perceive. The player’s perception of the game state is more important than the actual game state.

For instance, during the development of Ravenwood Fair, there were multiple times where I perceived the game state was doing something when, in fact, it wasn’t even thinking along those lines (though I am a designer on the game, I didn’t design the creature AI, so I was free to perceive whatever I wanted). Interestingly enough, when I was assured my perceptions were false, it didn’t actually make me feel much better. My perceptions about the way I thought the game was working and my buy-in of the perception (and the mental model upon which it was based) were too strong. So, instead of saying, “Okay, cool”, I struggled with how I thought the game should behave and felt a strong need to see it rectified. It was an odd moment of dissonance for me, but the resultant design solution gave me closure. The “Protectors” system you see in the game today was Romero’s effective design solution to this problem.

It’s worth going into this a little deeper on two points:

  1. This was a gendered problem.
  2. It couldn’t be a gendered solution.

Not all problems of closure are gendered, meaning that one gender feels a much stronger need for something than the other, but this clearly was. It was something that genuinely affected how I felt when I left the game (and therefore affected my likelihood to return to it). Researching the issue, I found it was a feeling shared by other female players, but the male players seemed completely unscathed by the issue. As its lead designer, Romero worked to fully understand the root of the problem, but his design solution needed to do more than solve my issue – it needed to be fun for all game players. Otherwise, it risked appearing like a Band-Aid on an otherwise tight system. For those interested in gendered issues in game design, I recommend Sheri Graner Ray’s Gender Inclusive Game Design.

So, closure.  In the social space where the player has absolutely zero investment, it’s critical. I must leave feeling that I know what happened, what will happen, and what role I am expected to play in it. I need to know (not merely feel) that everything has gone right. I need to know I have maxed my gameplay session. If I don’t understand your grind, the role of various components in the grind, or what my role is in some part of it, you’ve lost me (and some part of your DAU, too).

Closure allows players to comfortably leave the game with a plan, and that means they are much more likely to return.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010 3:00 am

    But isn’t that “closure” thing you are talking about is just for dropping single player game model on social platform, just to so you, gaming veterans, can feel comfortable with playing in “your own ground”.

    On the other hand, a year ago, when we launched “Juice Empire” on facebook, which uses the same grinding mechanisms, except you could not buy progress for real money, and we did a special April’s fool event, where a player came to the game and saw all his garden destroyed by a giant meteor, there were comments that said “If it isn’t for April’s fool, I’d left the game, because I invested so much and now I lost it”. But that “closure” may be a rule for holding new players in game. The ones who eat all the content and get a bit bored with the state and process of the game, begin to wish for that meteor to be real.

    • November 25, 2010 3:29 am

      Nah, it’s not something we drop in. I think it’s a new thing as applied in this space. People want small games in small sessions. Closure is critical for success in that regard.

      I do agree with you on that “meteor”, though. It’s important to keep games evolving, not just with new assets, but with new mechanics.

  2. November 25, 2010 3:18 am

    This was an interesting read.

    I don’t play social games like those on Facebook but I do have many workmates that do. What I find interesting is that these are the type of people who would never sit to play a rpg like Fallout or FPS like Call of Duty but they will spend HOURS on Facebook playing these games.

    When I asked them ‘why’, it’s the sense of accomplishment they get from doing these little tasks and the sense of a world that goes on living until they return to check up on their farm, restaurant or what have you. It excited them to see their pets, farms, restaurants, cars prosper and that they were contributing to this success.

    So, I agree that closure is very important. The player can leave the game, knowing all is right with their world, or they can leave the game with an agenda (to do the next item on their to-do list when they come back to the game).

  3. November 25, 2010 6:20 am

    “Enough stalling principal Skinner, where is Utter?”

    “We just want closure!”

    I think you’re right about this aspect but there’s another dimension where closure being forestalled can be very compelling, and that’s in the social proposition that a player posting a newsfeed for another player can provide.

  4. November 25, 2010 10:12 am

    Hi. How are you?
    I think this little things contextually what make part of the definition of ‘closure’, can be seen in other platforms, not exactly for social games.
    Maybe I will be wrong, but FUN have to be for all of the people who want to have some fun.
    Am I wrong?
    Btw, awesome post, some day I will do a nice post like yours.

  5. November 29, 2010 10:30 am

    It also seems to me that the closure part of the design is also the part that allows the addictiveness to really take root. As mentioned by babyirl, when the player feels that closure especially a successful closer(ie accomplished a goal or gained a level) it makes it really easy for him/her to return.

  6. November 29, 2010 12:32 pm

    Fascinating. Your post is interesting in a lot of ways, but the primary one for me is to suddenly understand why the Protector system in Ravenwood seems so strangely oblique to my style of play. “Gendered”, indeed – I can see what the system is there to do (allow the visitors to my fair to remain “safe” while I’m away, correct?), but I have never had more than a passing interest in it. I mean, they chose to come to my scary fair, right? If they get freaked out… well, they were _warned_. 😉

    But I can see the other side – if a player was operating from a position of genuine compassion for the fair visitors, then leaving them alone with the scary noises from the woods would seem irresponsible at best, and at worst outright cruel.

    Do I have the concept? The “closure” you are presenting in this case was the emotional closure that the creatures “under your care” would be “safe” as long as the protectors were “charged”, yes?

    Fascinating. I’d love to hear more about how this problem emerged for you – or, specifically, how you managed to turn it from an initial sense of unease into a design constraint for the team.

    • November 29, 2010 3:33 pm

      Great reply. Yes, this is exactly what happened. I ask myself regular questions when I am playing social games:

      * Why do I want to/not want to keep playing?
      * What is fun for me to do? What’s the most fun for me?
      * Do I feel good after a play session?
      * Do I feel like I can get back to my regular routine/job without a problem? Does the game get that and allow me to play in discrete chunks?

      If anything strikes me, I explore it fully to try to get to the heart of the matter. In this case, I felt exactly as you noted – that the little guys weren’t safe. I will ask Romero to comment further, since he designed the solution.

      • November 29, 2010 4:23 pm

        Okay, on further reflection, I’ve realized that my own response to this “closure” need has been to chop down every tree. All of them. And then pave the entire fairground with dirt paths so that the scary trees can’t come back.

        I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but I think that’s at least part of what is going on with my response to the game. When I leave, it’s with this feeling of, “I’ll be back, with more energy, and THEN we’ll see who’s scary.”

        Hey, wait a minute! I’VE BEEN MANIPULATED BY THE GAME DESIGNER!! 😉

      • November 29, 2010 5:26 pm

        Wait wait wait, so there are no consequences of guys getting scared? Or do guys just not get scared when you are away? Either way, this changes a lot of how my money’s going to be spent 🙂

        (Also, I mistakenly placed protectors for a long time because I thought they also kept the forest from growing back within range.)

      • November 29, 2010 5:47 pm

        There is a consequence – they don’t spend money when they are afraid. Also, yes, protectors do keep the forest from growing back in a particular area, so you are not mistaken there.

      • November 29, 2010 5:42 pm

        Well, when you are _playing_, scared guests don’t generate any money (for ~10 minutes). My assumption has always been that the amount of cash you generate when you are away was modified by the protectors… but I suppose that’s just an assumption on my part…?

        I’ve been operating under the model that “no protectors = lower income while I’m away”, in addition to the “I’m torturing my guests” guilt load…

    • November 29, 2010 8:38 pm

      I wanted to make sure the Protector system helped the player feel closure, but also provided a more active dynamic to the gameplay. The Protectors are very overloaded in their abilities. They do these things:
      1) Protect the forest from scaring visitors within their radius
      2) Keep the trees from growing back within their radius
      3) Attack monsters within their radius
      4) Comfort the visitors when they’re scared
      5) Provide a nice loot drop for players who use them

      All these functions make the Protectors really seem like they’re protecting the visitors. This allows the player to feel closure, that their visitors are okay when they leave.

  7. Junkyard Sam permalink
    November 29, 2010 7:33 pm

    Great article!

    What about “end game closure” though? The appointment based Facebook games which have no ending have left me with somewhat of an empty feeling when I realize there’s nothing more to explore or do but redecorate my shop/garden/island, etc. I have to leave the game but yet there was no story to complete. No finality, no closure.

    I know there’s no financial benefit to the developer for a Facebook game to have an end – but this is a big enough issue that I’m not sure I’ll get too deep into another appt. based game. Surely I’m not the only one with this feeling.

    Maybe a solution would be to unlock the ability to buy a neat ending once a player reaches a high level?

    * I’m not referring to Ravenwood Fair – I’m not high enough level yet to know if this applies. I’m speaking about this genre in general.

    • November 29, 2010 8:40 pm

      In general, Facebook games hit a limit where the player is just redecorating and doing the same grind. I’ve designed some exciting new gameplay into Ravenwood Fair that changes this design pattern. It’ll be the first FB game to do this.

      It’ll probably appear in a month or so.

      • Junkyard Sam permalink
        November 30, 2010 4:24 pm

        Oh that sounds great. I look forward to seeing these addition. Hopefully other developers follow your lead in making these games deeper, with gameplay that evolves over time, etc.

        That’s great about this genre – the perpetual beta where the game you love and play is growing and changing in response to player behavior. That feels way more “the future” than trying to get a game perfect and shipping it with fingers crossed.

  8. December 2, 2010 6:48 am

    Hi Brenda,

    Great post about a subject I have been thinking about myself when building Millionaire City. There you can leave your city in a state of complete closure, you assign contracts to all houses and feel good that you are maximizing game progression and not “losing anything” while being away.

    Closure is also linked to the anticipation of maximum reward when coming back. If you have good closure you are kinda exhilirated cause you know:
    a) you maximized gameplay progression and (makes you feel smart) and b) you know you’ll get the maximum reward possible when coming back (collecting the rent from all houses in Mill City).

    I would summarize it that for retention you need closure and the feeling of maximum reward when you get back to the game.

    Thanks again for this Brenda, good stuff!

    • December 2, 2010 2:38 pm

      Yes, you’re totally right about the link between anticipated max reward. It’s interesting – it’s like the closure loop actually closes when the max reward is received. It’s the validation of your effort in the previous session.

  9. December 2, 2010 4:03 pm

    “What is fun for me to do? What’s the most fun for me?” That strikes at the core of this for me. I think for a lot of the majority of the game types that I enjoy the most on Facebook (like Ravenwood Fair), it’s all about what expectations you bring to it. Yes, we can certainly influence and encourage play, but with some of these games, you form your own mental model of what you hope to accomplish each session. A failure of closure means a failure to achieve that mental model. I personally don’t expect to chop down all the trees, but I have designated areas of my fair that I’m cool with trees growing. I do expect that each session I’ll be able to clear out all the trees in the other areas. Perhaps I have more insight into the design of the game and its intentions, but I’ve formed one mental model that I hope to match. I know that my girlfriend started out just restocking everything, then getting out. Now she’s started the process of removing the trees she can and then paving over those tiles. We each interpret the game’s intended success model differently.

    I wonder if a game is more successful the more everyone’s mental models are homogeneous, or if that depends on the audience.

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