Evolution of Sharing in Social Gaming

Facebook game developer Zynga has more than 250m monthly active users, and its top game Cityville peaked at over 100m users  earlier this year, having launched in December 2010. Such vast audiences are largely possible due to the way that social games spread virally from user to user through wall posts advertising the games.

Typically such wall posts advertise the fact that the user has completed some in game milestone, needs assistance from friends to proceed (requiring friends to sign up and play themselves) or has a reward that the user has chosen to share with their friends. Social games tend to send out such notifications at every opportunity, and just a few friends playing social games can soon drown out other activity in your Facebook newsfeed.

Whilst this has been great at spreading social games initially, I tend to find that people who are not gamers loath the constant updates about a subject they have no interest in. In time I would speculate that people would get increasingly desensitised to such updates, and eventually start blocking the games, or even the friends that are playing them, to keep their newsfeed free from what they consider spam.

This isn’t good for the virality of the games, the gamers, or people that are put off social games due to their spammy nature. People share plenty of content willingly though, and this is well received by their connections, so it’s not the fact that social games publish content, but WHAT they publish is out of kilter with users. Looking at the primary motivations for people sharing ANY content on social networks should suggest ways that social games’ sharing will evolve to provide more value to gamers and non gamers alike.

Paul Adams, formerly a Google social researcher and now at Facebook, outlines four main reasons why people update their status on social networks:

–       To shape how others perceive them.

–       To share content that others might find valuable.

–       To maintain and grow relationships.

–       To source information.

(The full presentation is excellent and can be found here)

To shape how others perceive them

E.g. sharing photos of some great cupcakes you made.

Although vanity is commonly attributed as the reason for sharing, if you look through your Facebook feed you should realise that this is relatively infrequently the sole motivation for status updates. People do share for vanity reasons and to change how people perceive them, but it’s often more complex than posting proof that you are a great cook, are at the newest bar, or just completed a marathon.

The issue for social games is that very few people want to be defined as gamers by their friends. Therefore, social messages need to communicate other qualities to those reading them. Games where this sort of sharing feels much more natural are ones like Words with Friends, where sharing your recent victory implies your intelligence. Games that can imply creativity or real world knowledge can also make great effect of this sharing mechanism.

In the future I would expect to see an increase in the prevalence of games that have this quality. A look at Canv.as shows the type of “game” that might result – a creative platform where people can build on each other’s images in creative and amusing ways.

To share content that others might find valuable

E.g. Sharing links on twitter or posting to Facebook a particularly cute video you saw on youtube

People share a lot of this sort of content, and it is the primary way that people discover essential content, such as news articles, video clips and online entertainment. People share this sort of content when they like it (in the broadest sense) because they recognise that other people are likely to like it too. It also makes them look better by association – share a particularly insightful news article and you look more erudite as a result. This effect is the same for people that go on to further distribute such content by retweeting it or liking it on Facebook.

Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti recognises the power of this motivation for sharing and outlines in this presentation how it revolves around people having an emotion reaction to content. Unless you think “wow”, “OMG”, “WTF?”, etc. then you probably aren’t going to share the content (yes, there’s a reason for those acronyms being so prevalent).

The difficulty for social games is illiciting this type of response more than once, or in any other context apart from in the sense of a genuine recommendation that people should play a particular game as it is such good fun. These are powerful single shares, to be sure, but without being repeated are unlikely to have as strong a viral effect as games seek, due to the ephemeral nature of social media.

One way that social games might tap into this motivation is by being creative platforms, rather than too linear – search for anything Minecraft related on youtube and you soon realise that a good creative game can create emotional responses (“OMG, how did they build THAT?!”)… if appreciated mainly by people already playing the game.

To maintain and grow relationships

Example: sharing status tagging other friends. Sharing photos with friends in.

People often share content publically that is meant for a very selective audience. When you share photos of a party, you are really sharing because you know the other people at the party want to see them, not because you want your mum to know what you were up to on Saturday night.

This is clearly a motivation that social games tap into, and playing games with other people keeps them front of mind, and precipitates messaging and other social contact. However, I don’t think that social games tap into this motivation all that well at the moment. Checking out someone’s city on Cityville is an order of magnitude less social than building a guild with them in World of Warcraft. Social games will inevitably transition from experiences where people can play alongside each other with small amounts of interaction to highly social activities. I may well harvest my neighbours crops in Farmville if I have nothing better to do and I like him, but that motivation is nowhere near as strong as harvesting OUR crops if we are running a virtual farm together, and indeed it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine me getting upset if I didn’t feel my partners were pulling their weight in this case.

To source information

E.g. Asking your friends: “What is good book to read?” or “What album should I listen to next?”

People source a lot of information from their social networks, because they can calibrate the recommendations that people give them based on what they know about the person giving the recommendation. People like giving advice too, as it plays to the motivations outlined above, influencing how people perceive them – most people want to look helpful and knowledgeable.

The problem for social games is that if you share a request for someone to help you out with your game (e.g. “Help harvest my crops”), there is very little value for the giver. They don’t get the opportunity to show that they are knowledgeable, just that they have too much time on their hands. No one wants to be perceived that way by their friends, even if it’s true. People also recognise that there is a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect – sending out too many requests for trivial things in social games erodes the attention you will have when you want advice for something important.

It is unlikely that social games will be able to prevent the use of requests decreasing in efficacy for this reason. The only exception is should such requests become normalised, because a sufficient proportion of the population is playing social games. In this case the value to the giver is that they can expect their own requests to be met on a reciprocal basis, so there is value for both requester and giver. Indeed, with 100m people playing Cityville at its peak, it is highly likely that this kind of network effect did kick in.

Wrap up

The most popular social games of the future will be those that tap into four core motivations for people to share things with their social network. As the social games industry matures, this will have an increasing effect on the way that social games encourage players to share, and increasing influence on the structure of social games themselves.

Annotated screenshot of my Facebook newsfeed 28.9.11