Montreal International Games Summit 17 November 2009

Long-Tail Game Design
Building Successful Games for Social Networks

Scott Jon Siegel @numberless http://numberless.net scottjonsiegel@gmail.com Hi! My name is Scott Jon Siegel and my topic is this: so-called “long-tail game design,” which will focus on creating awesome games on social networks (Facebook in particular).

A Brief Disclaimer

The opinions expressed here are those of the presenter, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.
Just a teeny disclaimer. Nobody told me to place this here, but I’m doing it anyway. Just in case I say something irrevocably stupid. Which I don’t plan on doing, by the way.

but first...

A Brief History of Our Topic

Before I begin, I want to do a very brief history lesson on my topic.

March, 2003

In March of 2003, Friendster.com launched, and promised in bullet point form to help its users meet new people.

August, 2003

August 2003, MySpace followed suit. Bigger bullet points, smiley pawns, now with the promise of *sharing*, beyond simply *connecting*

February, 2004

February 2004, TheFacebook.com launches exclusively for Harvard University students.

October, 2006

and by October 2006 it was open to everyone.

May, 2007

And in May of 2007 the Facebook Platform is launched, allowing for the development of applications. Anyone know what the first game delivered on the platform was? Yeah, me neither, actually. I’d love to know though.

Jetman

Regardless, games started appearing. And a lot of them were bad, but some were good. But even the good ones didn’t feel that substantial.

Lexulo us
Scrabulous

But then a few appeared that felt a little more substantial.

Parking Wars

And then Parking Wars appeared and all the game designers started paying attention because holy crap something was happening. Something was actually solidly fun and *original.* And that was December of 2007, and that was basically when I began writing this talk.

This space intentionally left blank

A whole bunch of other stuff happened too, but this talk isn’t concerned with that.

The Topic

SOCIAL GAMES

So, yes, two years since the launch of Parking Wars I’m here to discuss the now massively successful genre of social games.

The Topic

SOCIAL GAMES

And I might as well go ahead and throw the air-quotes on this right away. I don’t entirely love the term, but I’ll get more into that in a moment.

What We’re Talking About

> designing “Social Games” > case studies for successful design > game design disciplines and their role on social networks

My talk today is going to cover game design, specifically as it applies to the new “social games” genre. I want to focus on traditional design tropes and discuss what changes in this new territory, with a few key examples.

What We’re NOT Talking About
> business > numbers > money > Chris Anderson
There are a few things which I’m not really able to discuss. The business side of this industry is incredibly nuanced, and there are people much more qualified than I to talk about it. My title might also be slightly misleading. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail served as a great inspiration for some of the game design principles I discuss, but again, the numbers side of my industry is another talk entirely.

Scott Jon Siegel

I’m really happy that you (all) are here for my talk, and I wanted to take a moment to let you know who you’re listening to. I’m a game designer based in San Francisco, and probably one of the only people you’ll meet today who started using their middle name for the purposes of search engine optimization.

Scott Jon Siegel

WIN
before “Jon”
You really can’t argue with those results.

after “Jon”

What brought me into this industry, and what really interests me about games is interaction -- what the emotional effects of working within a game system are. And games are, in a lot of ways, an extension of the same ideas expressed in user interface and user experience design.

Some of my favorite game design books actually have nothing to do with game design.

Playdom Zynga The Escapist area/code
As a result of this focus, a lot of the titles that I’ve worked on have really intense focus on the moment-tomoment interactions that make an experience memorable.

Unannounced Title (Lead Designer, 2010)

Café World (Contributing Designer, 2009) Word Scramble for iPhone (Lead Designer, 2009)

omg hire me (Lead Designer, 2008) The Filler (Lead Designer, 2007) Magic Numbers (Lead Designer, 2007)

Chain Factor (Contributing Designer, 2007) Sharkrunners (Contributing Designer, 2007) Sopranos Connection (Contributing Designer, 2006)

And I’ve ended up working on these sorts of projects at various companies over the last several years.

area/code is a 15-person studio in New York City, and area/code’s focus has always been the interplay between real space and virtual space. And I had the distinct pleasure of working with an incredible team, including game designer Frank Lantz, on some really great products.

Sopranos featured real-time communication between your game board and televised episodes of The Sopranos on A&E. Sharkrunners used real-world telemetry data from actual sharks in the ocean. So when you’re hunting Betty, Betty’s real. Chain Factor was a casual game component of an alternate reality game developed for CBS’s numb3rs. Built to converge the addictive nature of games like bejeweled and tetris with the compelling pseudomath of Sudoku. Chain Factor was so popular that it actually spun off into an iPhone game, called Drop 7.

The year following I worked in conjunction with Escapist Magazine, doing monthly non-digital titles for a column called Game Design Friday.

The great thing about this gig was it let me step back and really focus on my two passions in game design: Rules and interaction. And I used pre-existing game tools -- dice, scrabble tiles, more dice, cards, meeples -- to create simple, hopefully fun, games.

The great thing about this gig was it let me step back and really focus on my two passions in game design: Rules and interaction. And I used pre-existing game tools -- dice, scrabble tiles, more dice, cards, meeples -- to create simple, hopefully fun, games.

The great thing about this gig was it let me step back and really focus on my two passions in game design: Rules and interaction. And I used pre-existing game tools -- dice, scrabble tiles, more dice, cards, meeples -- to create simple, hopefully fun, games.

The great thing about this gig was it let me step back and really focus on my two passions in game design: Rules and interaction. And I used pre-existing game tools -- dice, scrabble tiles, more dice, cards, meeples -- to create simple, hopefully fun, games.

The great thing about this gig was it let me step back and really focus on my two passions in game design: Rules and interaction. And I used pre-existing game tools -- dice, scrabble tiles, more dice, cards, meeples -- to create simple, hopefully fun, games.

These really let me get comfortable with compiling rule-sets, and each game drilled down on a particular theme or moment in the interaction.

In 2008 I joined Zynga, where I worked on both iPhone and Facebook products. Word Scramble was an iPhone port of Zynga’s popular Facebook word game -- and is still doing quite well, actually. Café World is a culinary-themed title that to date is one of the fastest growing games in Facebook’s history.

...
Most recently, I’ve joined a great company called Playdom in Northern California. I’m working as Lead Designer on something really great, that I can’t actually talk about yet. But I’m looking forward to discussing it when I can. Playdom had a really incredible week last week -- announcing a significant and sizable first round of funding and two major acquisitions -- and I can tell that this is really only the start of our success in this space.

twitter.com/numberless
linkedin.com/in/numberless

del.icio.us/numberless
facebook.com/numberless

flickr.com/photos/numberless
foursquare.com/user/numberless
In addition to my fascination with games, I’m also a bit of a social media junkie. You can find me all over the place, usually associated with the username “numberless”, which is intended as less of a handle and more of an adjective. I don’t like numbers, which some might say makes me a bad game designer, but I say just makes me a weird one.

SOCIAL GAMES

So, let’s get back to “social games.” The biggest problem with the term, is that it kind of already existed well before this Facebook thing happened. The word “social” referred to a very specific genre of games, defined by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen back in 2004.

Social Games are those which evoke “emergent social play”
- Zimmerman/Salen, 2004

In Rules of Play, Zimmerman and Salen define social games as those which evoke “emergent social play.” The examples given aren’t computer games, but rather the seemingly trivial schoolyard exercises, or classroom distractions.

Red Rover

Benign at arm’s length, these are actually games in which the rules really push the players toward interesting decisions with social implications. Red Rover is a fantastic examples, as the game is basically about natural selection. Who’s the strongest of the bunch? Who is the weakest in the chain? Each decision carries with it this element.

Telephone

Telephone is about the fallibility of communication chains, and the breakdown of information where your only conduit is subjective. A lot of times, there’s a sort of intimacy to these social games. Physical connection or personal knowledge that often screws with the minds of adolescents.

Seven Up

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Seven Up, a schoolroom game about hidden information, physical connection and intimate knowledge. Seven children are specially selected, while the rest put their heads down on the desks and put their thumbs up, like this. While no one is watching, the seven quietly move around and each touch one person’s thumb. When they’re finished, the seven stand up, and try to guess who their selector was. A correct guess placed them in the seven. Incorrect guesses generally led to embarrassment.

Mafia / Werewolf
Mafia and Werewolf are, in a lot of ways, the epitome of social games. The investigation and identification of the various characters is rooted in the pre-existing social structures. The better you know Jerry, the easier it might be to identity him as a Mafia member. Or, you know, a werewolf.

Even Poker is, in a lot of ways, a social game. Ignoring for a moment the probability engines at play, the biggest moments in Poker come from the social “sizing up”.

Mafia

Poker

So, social, yes? The interesting thing that’s happened here is some of these motifs have actually carried over quite directly to this new genre, but there’s an obvious disconnect between this....

Mobsters 2

Poker Palace

And this.

k twor ne SOCIAL GAMES ^

Hence the problem. It’s not that social games aren’t social (because they are. Big time). But the title refers less to this and more to the platform. A social game is a social game because of how it plays and interacts with its social network. And it’s reconciling this misnomer which I see as fallacy number 1 in social game design.

And each of these social networks has a unique structure -- specific types of player behavior that have to be considered in order to make a really great game. Though for the purposes of this talk, we’re going to focus on Facebook.


(omg enough with the airquotes)

GAME DESIGN

Before I get into the core of social game design I want to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of what game design entails, because I think I might approach it from a slightly different angle.

Warning

Gonna get academic.
I’m really going to geek out here, so I want to apologize in advance. I’m a reformed academic, but sometimes the hat comes back on.

An imposition of rules onto the chaos of play, in order to elicit a desired player behavior.

I mentioned rules earlier, and this is why. Game design to me is really about imposing rules and limitations, in order to create something intentional out of a more chaotic form.

game

play

I’m betraying my anglo-saxon roots here, but the heart of this definition is a conscious divide between the terms “game” and “play’ -- a differentiation that’s nonexistent in other languages like French and German.

play

The idea here is that play has no structure. It’s defined as boundless interaction. But it’s not meaningless. Play is a crucial part of development for children, and is notably a form of interaction that most species have in common. Humans play just as much as dogs.

game

But what separates us from the dogs is our ability to take play and give it structure. And we do so by imposing limitations on the activity. And when play exists within pre-defined, agreed-upon limitations, it becomes game.

play is anarchic

Limitation doesn’t sound fun, but it actually is. Without rules governing interaction, the potential for play is limitless. We’re inundated with choice. And we have so many decisions to make that we often make none at all. We float.

game is rule-based

When rules are introduced, a ground is established. Perspective is defined, and interesting behaviors are then allowed to emerge.

</academics>
The role of the game designer then is to create rules. To take interaction and leverage it. In this way, as a craft it bears actually less resemblance to alchemy, and more to sculpture. Carving away at formless mass to attain shape and meaning. Thus endeth my academic rant. Back to reality!

SOCIAL GAME DESIGN

So we can extrapolate that the goal of social game design is to drive player behavior within the confines of the platform. But what are our confines?

reverse chronological order emphasizes new content comment threads on each post

one-to-many “stream stories” share content across entire social graph
Facebook is built to maximize social engagement in a relatively short period of time, but promise new content at each visit. The site is extremely good at giving users new information, and encouraging them to take actions that in turn generate new information for their friends and encourage those friends to take action as well.

> check up on friends
> profiles > news feed

> interact with friends
> comments on feed > wall posts > friend requests

> come back soon
> seeking updates > alerted to updates
So interacting with this platform is largely focused around friends, and updates of information. And the interesting behavior here is that a lot of this information loops around on itself. The passive experience of checking information leads to interactions -- comments, wall posts, messages -- which drives messaging encouraging other users to re-engage to address. Perhaps most interesting, all of this behavior can be nicely contained within very short spurts of usage. This makes Facebook the ideal procrastination machine. Satisfying experiences can be had in very short sessions.

> play > interact with friends > keep coming back

So social games, then, need to integrate with the platform, and exploit these usage patterns. We, of course, want players to play. But we also want them to have meaningful interactions with their friends, and we want them to keep coming back. In short, we want our games to become part of their Facebook routine.

And in order to build our games as part of the social network routine, we need to adhere to the usage patterns. And I also want to stress that for social games, all three of these are the concerns of the game designer.

Single-Session Engagement

The first being the engagement of the user over a single session. And this is perhaps the biggest commonality between traditional games and social games, and the most obvious focus for game designers. But the biggest difference here is the ideal session length.

The Nielsen Company

Single-Session Engagement

31 minutes / session

80 minutes / session

Big-box console and PC titles, for instance, have been pushing longer total play times, and therefore longer play sessions. A study released in August by The Nielsen Company clocked the average play session of casual gamers at 31 minutes. Non-casual gamers, more than twice that at 80 minutes per session.

Deeper single-session engagement means more friction for re-engagement.

The problem here is that demanding that level of high engagement from users means demanding that same high level of engagement out of every session. And walking away from a title for a time makes it increasingly difficult to return -- remembering the intricacies of the story, and the puzzles and elements to which you were engaged proves troublesome.

15 minutes

15 minutes

For social games, you’re probably looking at something closer to 15 minutes for an average session length. And if you’ve designed intelligently, you’re ideally getting at least two sessions out of the average user every day. This is low engagement by industry standards. And I think the concern here is, how can you entice a player to come back after such a short session length?

Case Study 1:

BEJEWELED BLITZ

Popcap Games, 2008
To answer that I want to bring up my first case study. My current favorite game on Facebook: Popcap’s Bejeweled Blitz.

developerAnalytics.com

Bejeweled Blitz is currently number 11 of all Facebook games, and commanding over 3 million unique users every day (a metric we call DAU, or Daily Active Users). So, it’s a worthwhile case study, I feel.

familiar gameplay

persistent leaderboard

1 minute timer

weekly score reset

Bejeweled Blitz is ostensibly a port of Bejeweled 2 to Facebook, with two key gameplay changes. The first is a few score multipliers, rewarding players for chains and rapid play. The second is an aggressive time restriction of 1 minute, with no means of extending the time per round. Now THAT is potentially short session length. But the core gameplay is only part of Bejeweled Blitz. The other parts are the ever-present leaderboard comparing you and your friends’ top scores, and the weekly reset of said leaderboard, occurring every Tuesday morning.

Scott just beat your high score!

User-to-User Notification 1:1 communication between two users.

The leaderboard has been reset. Play now!

Dave just got over 125,000 points!

App-to-User Notification Application communicates directly with user.

Stream Story One-to-many communication between user and social graph.

Adam’s playing Bejeweled Blitz!

One-Liner Appears on user’s profile page.

Alone, these additional features wouldn’t muster the traffic. But it goes beyond what’s simply on the screen. Remember, communication is at the heart of the Facebook platform. And as a highly competitive game, Blitz creates ample opportunities for users to be brought back in through significant social messaging. These are all communication channels defined through the Facebook API, each serving their own purpose. (explanation of channels)

Retention

OFF

ON

So the complement to short session length is heavy retention. Blitz provides this by creating ample opportunities to broadcast to users via platform features. But another trend here is user-defined retention loops. Letting a user decide when they will return to the game, just before ending their current session.

Case Study 2:

MOUSEHUNT

HitGrab, 2008
And I want to use MouseHunt as an example of this user-generated retention. MouseHunt is the flagship product of a small Ontario-based social games developer called HitGrab.

developerAnalytics.com

Comparatively, MouseHunt’s not actually much to squeak at, though it is super significant to see the consistency of their little horizontal blue line. Look at how long, and tail-like it is...

developerAnalytics.com

expanding a bit, we see that there has been growth. But since March or so MouseHunt has hovered consistently in the range of 130,000 users. And I feel fairly confident that this is a low churn situation. That this is the same 130,000 users, with few abandoning, and few coming on as new users.

my trap

mice I’ve caught

silly mascot
So MouseHunt is an interesting game. Riffing off the Pokemon “gotta catch ‘em all compulsion.” The fictional concession is that you are a mouse hunter in a magical kingdom overrun with mice. The king’s orders are to hunt and capture these mice, and pays handsomely for each mouse incarcerated.

The mice, adorably rendered, differ from region to region, and as the player progresses the mice become a bit more... intense. The harder the mouse is to catch, the bigger the payout.

In order to catch the more hardcore rodents, the player will need to up the ante, so to speak -- using the money they’ve earned to purchase fancier cheese, and increasingly elaborate, grandiose traps.

15 minutes
The process of catching mice is actually entirely passive. The only action players take to catch mice is sounding the “hunter’s horn,” this button/icon at the top of the screen which attracts mice to your trap. Each blow immediately results in one mouse encounter, which either goes successfully or unsuccessfully. But here’s where it gets interesting: the horn can only be sounded once every 15 minutes.

MouseHunt Average Session
1) sound hunter’s horn 2) buy more cheese (if needed) 3) upgrade trap (if needed) 4) craft items (if possible) 5) kthxbai (see ya later)
Asking players to come back every 15 minutes would be unreasonable if the barrier to entry was high, but it’s actually incredibly low. In fact, there really isn’t a whole lot for a player to do. So re-engaging in MouseHunt essentially has around the same amount of friction as checking email or using Facebook. It’s a casual check and click, and occasionally you need to take a modicum of additional action.

I CAN HAZ LONG TAIL?

What’s happening is MouseHunt is caring less about the length of a single session, and more about the overall lifespan of a player. Creating sticky gameplay and a guarantee of a mouse catch attempt every time you launch the application -- as long as it’s been at least 15 minutes since your last fix. THIS is the long tail.

X
^ too meta?
So finally, we’ve wound our way back around to the title of this talk. And we can see that it’s ended up as less of an economic theory, and more of a game design theory.

Session Length

Lifespan of User

We’re not concerning ourselves with sales or unit numbers, but instead time vs. retention. Again, lots of love to Chris Anderson. Ironically, at 4pm there’s a talk that’s *actually* about the long tail business model, as it pertains to micro-transactions and digital distribution.

developerAnalytics.com

Let’s look at this chart again. I mentioned earlier how I feel confident that MouseHunt’s stability is owing little to churn. The reason I feel this way is that I’m honestly not sure how new players would even find out about the game, because for every thing MouseHunt does correctly, there’s one thing it does fairly poorly. And this is virality.

Dave just got over 125,000 points!

Adam’s playing Bejeweled Blitz!
Stream Story One-to-many communication between user and social graph. One-Liner Appears on user’s profile page.

Virality

For positive growth of social games, virality is an absolute must. This is a term that my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize. My iPhone constantly confuses it with virility and vitality. And once upon a time this apparently nonexistent term referred to offline “word of mouth” communication. Now, it’s a communication channel. Anytime a player uses the application to communicate with uninstalled users, it’s viral.

Invite

Stream Story

Request

One-Liner
The channels for this are obvious. Invites, Stream Stories, Requests, One-Liners. Explanations of these. The design of these channels is actually quite crucial. Communication between users is not insignificant. A compelling message -- one which carries either explicit or implicit social relevance -- is more likely to be received favorably.

retention

engagement

virality

And that’s the sort of key takeaway of all this platform integration nonsense. If you’re a game designer building social games, then these communication channels are inherently part of your design.

You should be considering how best to create significant interactions not just between the player and system, but between the player and his social graph. Between these countless individuals with which the player has already established a social rapport.

So we’re actually now closer to the original notion of social games than we once were. If you consider that a primary motivator for gameplay in both is the perceived or sincere significance of interactions between players. Receiving a gift in Treasure Madness could potentially carry the same social weight as touching my thumb in seven up. Especially if that selection is designed to be valuable, and not simply throwaway. Even separated virtually, we acknowledge on social nets that these same people exist on the other side. And that’s socially significant design.

Pro-Tips

Wrapping up, a few concluding pieces of advice for social game designers.

Short sessions are not a bad thing
> provide return incentives > keep low friction > social incentives for retention are strong

don’t be afraid of allowing users to walk away, as long as you provide reasons to return later. Just make sure your friction for re-entry is low, and the compulsion is strong enough. Building social incentives for re-entry (needing to beat a friend to an item, or responding to a friend’s request for help) will also help here.

Know your platform
> notifications are being deprecated > stream story platform policies changing > 1:1 inbox messaging being introduced > new “Games” page in Application Directory > late 2009 / early 2010
http://wiki.developers.facebook.com/index.php/Developer_Roadmap
Remember some of those platform features I talked about earlier? They’re going away.

Design for communication
> think about platform early > include platform integration in GDD > assert ownership over all interaction

from day 1 of your design process, you should be thinking about the platform, and about the communication channels and their role in your game mechanics. Be hands on about the process. It may feel like it’s not your problem, but if you’re doing it correctly will only make your game stronger. Speccing out these touch-points and writing preliminary copy will help you assert ownership.

Seriously, know your platform.
Lastly, it’s important enough I’m going to say it twice. Platform changes are coming. Be on top of them. Don’t rely on product managers to design that part of your game. Design with platform in mind, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in the API. Write test applications. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable. But own this responsibility.

</presentation>

Questions?
and that’s all I have. Time for questions?

Thanks!

Scott Jon Siegel numberless.net twitter.com/numberless linkedin.com/in/numberless foursquare.com/user/numberless scottjonsiegel@gmail.com

...and I’m friendly and approachable!

photos I stole borrowed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/diabetesisfun/2512910652/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/masterslate/2529062829/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulsid/617875096/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/rckyhillsd/274116353/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/deadhorse/1413682138/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/swannman/462237433/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolves68450/3699568894/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/f1rwb/864680735/ that session length report I mentioned:
http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/report-americans-serious-about-casual-game-play/