Eliminating Energy

In my previous post Understanding Energy I explained the reasons that designers include energy systems in their games:

  1. Habituation
  2. Content Pacing
  3. Monetisation
  4. Strategic Choices

I also noted that energy systems aren’t particularly elegant systems – they rarely blend well with the setting of the game, and this disconnect makes them disliked by players. Removing energy systems from mobile games is no easy task. There are some directions that bear consideration and further investigation though.

Pacing through quests

Hearthstone-quests

Energy systems pace players by limiting the amount that they can play. This clearly prevents players progressing too fast through a game’s content. However, it is possible to limit the rate of progression directly, whilst leaving play unlimited. The way to do this is to decouple the main source of rewards in the game from play, so that rewards can be limited independently of play time.

The best case of this is Hearthstone. Here the quest system is the main pacing mechanic, as it is the main way that players can earn in-game currency. Players get one new quest each day and each quest requires perhaps three to ten matches to complete. Once the player has exhausted their missions, they can continue playing for rank or pleasure, but their ability to earn coins is negligible and so the game economy is protected.

For most mobile games this route is likely to be the easiest and most satisfactory route to removing energy and timers.

Session length and synchronous PvP

Another way of pacing players is to increase the amount of play time required to progress. The pace that players can progress is then limited by the number of hours they can sink into the game. The big caveat to this is that it is much easier to do this on console / PC than on mobiles.

Mobile games are designed to fill the gaps in people’s days – when they are waiting for the bus, queuing for their coffee or avoiding work on the toilet. A mobile game needs to have a satisfying session possible in 1-3 minutes to fill these gaps. For a mobile game it is very difficult to give players a satisfying session in just a few minutes without bombarding them with rewards if they decide to play for a few hours – perhaps 50-60 sessions all in one go.

PC and console games have it easier as they are designed to be played in stretches of 2-3 hours at a time. A Hearthstone match lasts 5-15 minutes, whilst a League of Legends match lasts 30-45 minutes, so a few hours play is a handful of matches. This means that the base rate of progress can be extremely slow. These games get away with such slow progression because they rely heavily on synchronous PvP battles. The excitement of facing off against other people in real time compensates for slow progression in the meta game.

World-of-Tanks-Blitz

Mobile games typically have problems with synchronous PvP because people want to pick up and drop mobile games at any time, and there is little commitment to stick with match, which combined makes for a poor user experience. That said, World of Tanks Blitz has managed to be successful in spite of these challenges. Although the battles are typically only 4-6 minutes, the game still manages pace progression slow enough to avoid an energy system.

The problem that World of Tanks Blitz has is that whilst it covers off content pacing just fine, it monetizes very poorly compared to most other successful mobile games. Indeed seems unlikely World of Tanks Blitz would be successful without a PC product to support its brand awareness. 8 Ball Pool has also managed to be successful here with even shorter play sessions, but faces the same issue with revenue. Being the dominant digital version of a hugely popular real world game seems to be a major factor in 8 Ball Pool’s success.

Limited progression and asynchronous PvP

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Another small set of mobile games have managed to be successful without energy systems by limiting the amount of progression available to players. Games such as Words with Friends and Draw Something offer players an asynchronous PvP experience that is incredibly viral, and where the costs of creating content are minimal.

As content is generated by other players, there is no need to limit play time. However, in order to keep the playing field fair and prevent the games becoming play to win, these games have very little to offer in terms of progression and hence to sell to players. Both Draw Something and Words with Friends rely heavily on in-game advertising to generate revenue as they have so little to sell themselves to players.

Framing

If eliminating energy altogether is not possible then framing it correctly to players can greatly improve the player experience. World of Warcraft experimented with their pacing system, primarily to habituate players into certain play patterns. Their initial mechanism halved the XP that players could earn after a certain point, encouraging them to end their session.

Players universally hated it. Blizzard responded by reframing the system, turning “normal” XP into “bonus” XP that still halved at exactly the same point, but now instead of dropping down to a penalized level, it just dropped something they called “normal” XP. Suddenly players loved the system; although the numbers were exactly the same players felt rewarded instead of punished.

In the same way, timers usually feel better than energy points. If it takes me a certain amount of time to build a building, travel somewhere or train troops then that fits with the narrative of the game and feels better than it costing energy, which appears to be (and is) an arbitrary cap on the amount I can play.

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Another way to make energy feel better to players is to give players some control over it. Basically, make a game out of spending energy. In Brave Frontier and Puzzle & Dragons the amount of energy that each levels costs differs. Players have to figure out how best to spend their energy, and not leave a small amount left over and wasted.

In Boom Beach players only need to train troops if their troops die in combat. Players can therefore attack lots of different opponents in the same session, as long as they pick them carefully. The game is obviously balanced to players playing in this way, but they feel a lot smarter because of the control they have over the timers presented to them.

TL;DR

Eliminating energy is not an easy design challenge for mobile games. Pacing player rewards is one obvious route that more games should investigate. Some games may be able to rely on PvP play and user generated content to limit the rate of progression, though monetizing these games is generally a challenge. For many games the best they will be able to do is to frame their energy systems in ways that make them more palatable to players.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Understanding Energy Systems

Energy seems to be hated by designers and players alike, so why does it endure as the hallmark of casual F2P games? The fact is that whilst it’s a crude mechanic, it’s also an efficient one, delivering several functions in one easily implementable feature.

This isn’t a defence of energy systems – I’ll follow up with a post on ways of replacing them – but without something fulfilling these roles then it’s unlikely you’ll make a very good game. I’ll talk about energy and timers fairly interchangeably here as they are both pacing systems that function remarkably similarly.

The four main reasons that mobile designers use energy systems are:

  1. Habituation
  2. Content pacing
  3. Monetization
  4. Strategic choices

1. Habituation
The primary reason that designers use energy systems is to encourage players to play as long and as frequently as they would like. The amount of energy gives an easy way to fix the length of the play session, whilst the energy refill rate determines the play frequency. Energy systems do this by providing the player with closure – the feeling that they have done everything they need to in a game, and that when they return there will be new, fun stuff to do.

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This is why crop and resource production timers work so well. Players coming back to the game harvest all the crops that have grown whilst they are away – a hugely positive experience. Then they can use the crops to complete deals, craft things and improve their farm. Finally they plant their crops so ready for their next session. As they leave the game there is nothing more for them to do in their farm, so it feels like a natural point to stop playing; but they also know that when they return they can get the satisfaction of harvesting their crops again.

Designers need to be able to control session length and frequency because it allows them to integrate their game into their players’ daily routine. Any activity that becomes part of your daily routine is likely to be something that you keep doing a lot longer than you otherwise might, and long term retention is highly correlated to lifetime value.

Think of the game as chocolate. If you had unlimited chocolate (and limited willpower) you might binge on it to the point you were sick of it. At this point you wouldn’t want to eat chocolate again for a while. Imagine if you got a small piece of chocolate every afternoon with your coffee break though. Now the chocolate enhances your coffee break, but at the same time, you never have enough in one go to get sick of it. Instead you look forward to the chocolate enhanced coffee break, and would miss it if it was taken away from you. As with chocolate, so goes gaming.

2. Content pacing

The second main reason that designers use energy systems is to pace their content, and to ensure that players consume content at roughly the same rate. Once players have run out of new content to experience, they usually have little interest in a game. It is vital therefore, to ensure that players are not consuming content faster than you can produce it.

Energy systems are crucial to minimising inequality in game economies; they ensure that players all consume content at roughly the same rate

PvP games often have an advantage here because their players effectively produce content for each other to consume. In Clash of Clans, each player’s layout of their base is unique and interesting for other players to attack. But Clash of Clans still needs to bring out new units, upgrade levels and features on a regular basis to keep their most engaged players.

Energy systems also help to reduce the “distribution of wealth” in games that exists between highly engaged and less engaged users. By capping the rate that the most engaged players can play, they cannot get too far ahead of the less engaged players. This is important for balancing, as a game should remain interesting for both types of players, and setting a progression rate that is interesting for the slowest players and yet doesn’t allow the fastest players to run out of content can otherwise be a challenge.

3. Monetization

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Making money is the third reason that designers use energy systems. In casual games energy might typically represent a third of bookings. This is not insignificant, but there are better ways to make money out of games, and monetization alone is a poor reason to go with an energy system. Energy doesn’t typically make for a very exciting or satisfying purchase, as it gives players something that they could get if they waited a bit longer. Most mobile designers realise this and despite the perception of energy systems as a cynical way to extort players, it is rare to see them if they are not needed for habituation and content pacing as well.

4. Strategic choices

In some games energy systems also provide the player with a strategic choice that they need to make. This comes from having a limited number of energy points to spend each session, and a greater number of possible actions. Players must decide what to spend their energy on, and because of this they usually need to set themselves a longer term goal that they are working towards over several sessions.

For example, in Clash of Clans, because I can only upgrade 2 or 3 buildings at a time, and each one might take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, I need to work out what I prioritise. Do I upgrade my resource generating buildings first to facilitate further upgrades, my storage space allowing me to raid more, or my defensive buildings to protect what I’ve got? In prioritising my current session, I also create a mid term plan for my future sessions as well, which builds off this. In games where the energy system doesn’t allow the player any real choice in what they do, the system typically feels even more arbitrary and restrictive.

 

TL; DR

The reason that F2P designers use energy systems is not because they hate players, it’s because energy systems are efficient mechanics to encourage specific play patterns, pace content, monetize a game and provide a player with strategic choices. Designers should be wary of releasing any game without features that cover all these bases one way or another.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Content Hunger and How to Sate it

The cost of content

Games are content, and so the economics of games are largely the economics of content. Content is what players pay for, and content is what takes time and money to build, with both the quality and amount of content increasing production costs. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and having a great time. I’ve already sunk just over 20 hours into it, and if friends and reviews are to be believed, I have at least another 30 to go before I finish the main storyline.

DAI-Dragon-Attack

Dragon Age Inquisition has a huge amount of high quality content to explore

The world you can explore is vast, filled with scripted missions, side quests, wild beasts, roaming bandits and hidden secrets. Romping across the landscape from rocky deserts to dank marshes I am both awe struck at the variety and volume of content in the game, and slightly sickened by it. Sickened, because now I work in the industry I know how much time will have been invested into producing everything I see, and how countless days must have been put into dark corridors, rock formations and other mundane details that give the world authenticity, but will be largely forgotten and ignored by players.

Mobile is some way behind the production values of consoles. Partly the hardware isn’t as good yet, and so cannot support such high end graphics. Partly developers have not needed to deliver such high quality games to win customers. But mobile is rapidly catching up, and whilst the quality of content may not be as high, the amount of content needed is already probably larger. The F2P business model dominates mobile, and success here is highly dependent on retaining your players for months or even years. Having something for players to do a year after they start playing your game is no mean feat. Wooga’s hidden object game Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content – something that few if any console games can match, and as a result of this the retention in the game is phenomenal.

Content is a key competitive angle

It’s clear on both console and mobile that the amount of content you can deliver, and its quality are key factors for success. It’s hard to imagine an RPG without the amount and quality of content that Skyrim or Dragon Age has being a success. For a competitive  HOG you need to deliver a similar amount of content as in Pearl’s Peril – something that only one or two developers apart from Wooga can hope to do. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft has become so entrenched is the amount of content that it has built up over the past decade is now almost impossible for other MMOs to replicate.

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Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content, each with 5 hidden object scenes and a point-and-click adventure scene

For many games the number of man-hours that have been put into content determines the production quality and amount, together with the efficiency that this time is converted into content, given the tools utilized. The older a genre is, the higher the production values are – by pushing the content bar ever higher, developers shut out competition and establish themselves in franchises for the long term. With each game developers up the stakes, both because they can due to improving tools and existing assets to start from, and because they must to continue attracting players.

Maximizing content

To be successful developers must therefore invest in their tools and production pipeline to match the incumbents in the genre they are going head-to-head with. Failure to do this sort of preparation can only result in failure. Indies and smaller developers that cannot match the content output of bigger companies must innovate on the gameplay mechanics more to succeed. By innovating they can produce a new experience that players will not directly compare with established games. No one compares Realm of the Mad God to World of Warcraft, or Faster than Light to Mass Effect. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to stretch content for as long as possible, and all developers, regardless of their content output are wise to use as many of these as possible.

Randomness: Games with randomness are far more playable than those without some element of randomness. In Candy Crush Saga, levels are different each time they are played due to the random way that gems drop into the board. Players replay levels effectively waiting for the right combination of gems to drop. Imagine the game without this randomness and each level has a solution that can be found by trial and error relatively quickly, and the levels become boring.

Alternative choices: Allowing players to customize their play experience in different ways allows them to go back and replay the same content to explore how their decisions influenced the game. Whilst this requires some additional content that not all players may see, it allows die hard fans to play through most of the same content several times with minor variations. A good example here is how Telltale games allow you to replay episodes making different decisions each time. These decisions allow you see how the other characters react and the story pans out. In Dishonored the skills you upgrade give you different ways to complete each level, and the amount of violence that you employ throughout the game affects the way the story pans out to give replayability significant appeal.

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The way you play Dishonored affects how characters interact with you, the overall ending and even the weather in levels.

Events: Most successful mobile games run timed events of some form. Often the mechanics of the event are very similar, but the appearance of exclusive content that is only available for a limited period engages players extremely well. For the chance of getting a new unit, building or item players will happily grind through a lot of content that they have already seen before, and the most active players will often only be playing for the events schedule, having already exhausted the other content in the game.

Difficulty levels: In games where the difficulty of levels can be increased, then replaying the same content is fun because it requires players to master a higher skill threshold than before to complete. Changes in difficulty can often be made with config changes that are cheap to implement, and the players will still enjoy the content. Guitar Hero or Rock Band use this mechanic to allow you to replay the same tracks again and again at a level that is always challenging.

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Rock Band lets you play through the same songs at several different difficulty levels

User Generated Content: In Clash of Clans, players spend most of their time attacking the bases of other players. As the layout of each base is set by the defending player then an incredible amount of variation is generated by the players. All Supercell needed to do was to give players the tools reason to vary their base layout and the players take care of the rest. Different bases require different tactics to attack and so even though additional buildings and units are released only very slowly, players stay engaged in the game.

Wrap Up

In any genre, games compete on the amount of content offered and its quality, both of which drive up the cost of production. It is important to recognize the demands of producing this content before starting production and only choose genres where you can compete. Having chosen a genre it is vital that developers build the tools and pipeline to deliver the required content, as well stretch the playtime from their content however possible.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Beyond Fun: Real Drama

We don’t tend to typically think about games as emotional experiences, and perhaps because of this, the most interesting talks I saw at GDC 2013 were about games that had made people cry. Crying is not something that we expect from games, yet if a book, film or play made us cry we would think that a great achievement. Instead, we expect games to be fun, which whilst pleasant, is not a deep emotional experience. However, the games that do go beyond fun to deliver real drama are some of the most interesting, memorable and successful games out there.

Here are some four techniques that games can use to deliver hugely engaging, dramatic experiences.

Jeopardy

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One of those talks at GDC 2013 was on DayZ (the other was about Journey). Dean Hall, the lead designer talked about creating a consistent world where things had value. The game is an FPS in a zombie apocalypse setting – so far, so generic. But the game is also permadeath, has scant supplies, and as well as zombies, has other players who may or may not be friendly. As well as avoiding zombies and bullets, you have to keep your character fed, watered and warm.

The zombie apocalypse does not itself generate tension and danger, it just provides the backdrop for this. The game boasts incredible levels of tension from the unpredictable way that other humans will act in a world without strict rules, and where killing you for ammo is just as likely as agreeing to team up. Staying alive is a painstaking process of amassing equipment from match boxes up, and all of which can be snuffed out in a moment from a sniper you never saw.

Players have been quick to share their stories on the forums. Many are the early triumphs of new players surviving more than a few minutes to gather some food and set up camp. Others are more heroic, inflicting revenge or justice on rogue players. Most make some reference to the feelings and ethical dilemmas that players experience – how a miscommunication can lead to unintended bloodbaths, or the acceptability of sniping noobs.

As with so many other Rogue-like games, it’s the danger of loss, the jeopardy, that makes the experience so rewarding. When things in the game are hard to come by and easy to lose, players place a huge amount of value on them. It’s the same reason that players love FTL or Dark Souls, where every encounter is a story and a chance to be a hero, because the risk of failure is so real and tangible. (Here is another great review on DayZ).

Empathy

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A sense of loss is also prevalent in X-Com, though to a lesser degree. Here your inevitable squad casualties from taking on alien invaders can be replaced for the next mission. However, a number of details make you feel each death of a soldier under your command more keenly. Some of this is down to the mechanics – troops gain experience and become more powerful as they survive longer, gaining unique special abilities that are crucial to your long term success. But beyond that each solider has a name, a nationality, and their own physical appearance.

These cosmetic details build on their varying stats to give a surprising amount of individuality that you empathise with, even in the absence of scripted dialogue. Pierre from France might be a craven sure to break at the first sign of danger, whilst Brad from the US is your favored sniper with a history of saving you from impossible situations. As a player you start to fill in the gaps and elaborate on their characters and backstories. If your troops survived long enough they also earn a nickname that further endears them to you, and if they die, their names are remembered in the in game memorial.

These details mean that when a soldier dies, it is not only a setback in your progression to build up an experienced team. It is a much more personal testament to your personal failure to protect your squad mates, who trusted you to command their every move. X-Com is a great example not because it is the best game at showcasing empathy for digital entities, but because it manages to achieve so much with so little.

Context : Half Life

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When you start Half Life, you don’t get a gun, and you don’t kill anyone. It’s an incredibly mundane start to an FPS, as you walk around a research facility going through the daily routine of the protagonist Gordon Freeman. But few games are as feted as much as Half Life for their quality of narrative. The slow start has a couple of beneficial effects on the rest of the game.

Firstly, you know that at some point, very shortly, Bad Things will happen. Just as Tarantino cranks up the tension with long, drawn out conversations that you know will eventually end in a blood bath, anticipating the upcoming excitement is every bit as good as actually experiencing it.

Secondly, once the facility is infested with aliens trying to chew your face off, there is an added gravity to the drama that you are going through. The dead bodies aren’t just decorative as in so many other games. Here they are fellow scientists you were exchanging pleasantries with a short while ago. You haven’t been born into carnage a hero, but thrust into the role of a reluctant hero as a survivor of an attack on the world you knew.

Agency : Game of Thrones

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Telltale have been making games giving player big choices for 10 years. Their games are dialogue heavy, with players deciding how to respond to other characters from a range of predefined options. Their latest offering, Game of Thrones, has some exquisite moments, such as when you are interviewed by Queen Cersei. Squirming through her questioning was on a par with any similar scene from the TV series where some piteous underling is pulled apart, and I found new sympathy for the impossible situations that minor characters often find themselves in.

This scene works so well for the same reasons that many game choices of this nature fail. As an avid fan of the franchise I knew the political landscape and dangers I was traversing, and also had strong views on the type of character I wanted to play. Without this background knowledge and the sense that the choices offered would actually make a difference, my choices would have felt hollow.

In the same game there are breaks in conversation where as the player you are given the choice to say the same thing in three different ways. This adds nothing to the experience apart from slowing it down, and in reminding you that you should be identifying with one of the characters, that in actual fact you’re not.

I recently came across the other problem, of insufficient knowledge to inform a decision, in the otherwise excellent Dragon Age Inquisition. Here I had to choose between allying with one faction or another, but could explicitly not choose both. Although both factions were well known to me I felt I was still getting to grips with the world lore, and could not fully grasp the potential implications of the choice I was being given. Frustrated I resorted to the internet to understand what I was getting myself into in each case. Again, instead of deepening my immersion in the experience, poor agency had broken it.

Giving players choice to direct the story in a game is one of the defining attributes of the medium, and can be extremely powerful. However, it needs to be both a genuine choice and the player must understand the choice they are being given, or it can risk backfiring.

Wrap Up

Games are often thought of solely in terms of fun. But engagement and memorability often peak when there is more than just fun, and they deliver real drama. Increasing the drama in games can be achieved by making things have value, getting players to empathise with the characters, giving the story context and allowing the player agency.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

3 Flavours of Social: Facebook, Guilds and Beyond

Facebook has had a big impact on games. Before Facebook, video games were seen as an antisocial activity for spotty boys hiding in their bedrooms. Together with the ubiquitous usage of smart phones and Nintendo’s family marketing of the Wii, the perception of both the gender bias and social nature of video games is gradually shifting.

In fact, arcade games originally followed the distribution of pinball machines in bars where adults would socialize, before spreading to family friendly venues such as cinemas and malls. Reacting to a dire recession in the early 80s Nintendo decided to focus its marketing of consoles as toys for boys, rather than entertainment for all, and in doing so set the popular view of video games for the next 30 years.

Now, finally, the industry is beginning to come full circle, and it’s the social aspect that I want to focus on here. It was on Facebook that the term “social games” was coined. Of course, games were social before, whether you were playing Mario Kart with your friends or raiding with your guild in World of Warcraft. But now, even as Facebook is steadily replaced by mobile as the new platform for gaming, everyone is still talking about social.

It’s not hard to understand why. Kongregate spoke convincingly at GDC 2013 on the importance of social features, and particularly guilds. Their talk highlighted the dramatic ways that guilds can improve retention, engagement and monetization. A few facts summarized from their presentation:

  • Every one of their top 10 games has some form of guild structure
  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

But guilds are only one part of “social”, just as Facebook and your real life friends are. Humans are social beings, but their social interaction can take many different forms depending on the context. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to social in games, and each game must work out what is appropriate for its own audience and mechanics (and the same is true if you are building an app). I believe that the nature of social interactions depends on whether your game is really about your Friends, the Mechanics, or the Content.

 

Friends

When you play a game with your real life or Facebook friends, things work best when the experience is about your friends, and not about the game. Playing with people is a great way of strengthening your relationships with them. Games are appropriate for the majority of family gatherings, whether it’s Risk or Charades.

For the experience to work out well for everyone, then the game needs to be right. The game should facilitate building relationships, and act as a backdrop to this, rather than be the main event. Games of low skill typically work best as they allow participants of all ages and abilities.

This is why games like Draw Something and QuizUp work so well, and more complicated simulation games have quickly fallen out of favour on Facebook. In the former, the experience is more about your friends, and in the latter it is more about the game. Real life friends and family are not the way to drive distribution or underpin retention unless your game is about the people you are interacting with. As we all know from the complaints about people’s newsfeeds being spammed, it isn’t that common for our friends to share our taste in games.

 

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Mechanics

In this category I would put everything from people who like playing otherwise family games to a competitive level, to immersive experiences such as World of Warcraft or Clash of Clans. If you are REALLY into bridge then you don’t invite your real friends over and grind them into the floor. You are going to have an unsatisfying time both in terms of the quality of gameplay, and social experience. Instead you either play a friendly match where everyone can enjoy the social aspect, or you join a bridge club and enjoy the gameplay.

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans

This latter case is still a social experience of course, but it’s unlikely to be one with your immediate friends and family. It’s more appropriate to share it with other people that share your love of bridge. This is exactly what Netflix and Spotify have realized as they’ve shifted their recommendations engines from showing you what your friends like, to what other people like you like. Generally we do not really care what our friends have been watching. But if we enjoyed The Godfather and The Departed, then we are interested in what other people who also liked those films would recommend.

For games that rely on their mechanics, adding in a social layer can have some powerful effects. Initially, players can even be taught how the game works by more experienced players and this knowledge flow continues as players exchange thoughts on more advanced strategies. A social aspect can enrich the gameplay by requiring the coordination of several different players such as in raids in World of Warcraft or Destiny. Finally, as these interactions build new relationships between players, they develop a sense of duty to each other, which leads them to keep coming back even if they tire of the gameplay itself.

For the social layer to add value to players, and by extension developers, it doesn’t need to involve people who are real life friends. It’s much better to group people together by the intensity that they play the game, so that they can engage at the same level as the others in their group. This is exactly what happens in Clash of Clans and many other clan based games, where the top clans demand a certain level of engagement as a requirement for membership. Not that the developers need to worry about this, as given the right tools the players organize themselves.

 

Content

There is however a third, much rarer way of organizing people. In games where there is a strong narrative and the experience is largely single player and driven by consuming content in a linear manner, it makes more sense to group players by their progress through this content.

This is what happens when people live-tweet TV shows. Using Twitter, viewers can feel part of a larger experience and share in the unfolding drama, regardless of whether they are actually sitting with other people watching the same show. I believe there is an innate human desire to calibrate your social responses, and this fills the same role. It helps people comprehend their own reactions, see if they are appropriate and ensure they understand the situation in full.

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This is the equivalent of catching a stranger’s eye and enjoying a moment of shared understanding – we know it in a diverse set of situations from sharing the frustration of waiting in line to sharing the elation of hearing the opening beats of a favorite song at a gig. The same sort of social experience could enhance games like BioShock and Mass Effect, maximizing the impact of the most dramatic moments. However, most games that would fall into this category do not have any form of social layer, because of two problems.

Firstly, how do we bring together people who are all experiencing the content at different rates and different times? The solution here might lie in something akin to the comments sections on newspaper and magazine articles. Here the comments don’t need to be by people you know, or written whilst you read the article. But they are still relevant to you, because the person commented after they experienced the same content as you just did, and they enrich your experience of the article by providing additional information and opinions.

Secondly, how do we allow people to be social without breaking the immersion of deeply engaging games? The last thing people want after deciding who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead is for the drama of the moment to be shattered by being prompted to see what everyone else did. Luckily TellTale have the good sense to wait until the end of the episode, a natural break point before allowing you to review what everyone else did and connect you to the forums. In free to play games this might in fact be even easier, as the breaks between sessions and timers are natural point to allow people to engage with each other, both savoring recently enjoyed drama and anticipating exciting things to come.

A few games do manage to solve these problems and pull people together in this way, however. Dark Souls 2 allows other players to leave messages as you work your way through the world and narrative. These can either be helpful tips or troll postings luring you to an untimely death. You can also summon other players into your world to help out with particularly hard bosses. These interactions with other players enrich the single player experience by adding a new, social layer to it. In both cases the associations with players work because they fit into the context of your game, not because of the relationship that you have with the other players. Other players appear as phantoms and in doing so stay consistent with the Dark Souls narrative, and do not break immersion.

 

Wrap Up

Social rightly continues to be a buzzword in the games industry. However, there is not a single solution for what social should look like. Different types of social interactions are suited to different game experiences. When designing a game there is almost certainly some way that it can be enhanced with a social aspect, but this needs to be designed according to the type of experience that you are building for your players, rather than the design fads of the day.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

The Joy of Energy Systems

The Theory Bit

I recently watched an excellent short video on Penny Arcade about how energy systems are framed. Watch the video itself for the full 5m08s of insight, but it basically pointed out two things.

Firstly, energy systems (I included any mechanism that paces play here, from CityVille’s energy to World of Warcraft’s rest) are there for three reasons (plus one I add myself…):

  1. To make game companies money
  2. To spread out content for longer
  3. To habituate players to playing games
  4. (To distribute wealth more evenly amongst players – not something PA mention but I’ve written about it before)

Secondly, they point out that many social games don’t frame these mechanics very well, leading to player frustration and resentment.

The Good and the Bad

World of Warcraft is the exception, because instead of limiting how long players can play for, they give them a bonus for logging on after an absence. The game economy used and player behaviour resulting is identical, but the player experience is greatly improved. Players love getting a bonus, where they hated getting a penalty.

So how could we frame existing energy systems in social games to give us the benefits outlined above, but in a way that players would like?

If pacing systems can currently be divided into energy based systems (e.g. CityVille) and time based systems (e.g. War Commander), then I think the answer lies somewhere in between. How about a system where buildings, crafting and other contracts are completed over long periods (like WC), and players have a limited source of “energy” which can accelerate these and itself recharges over time (like CityVille, but inverted into a bonus)?

Reframing Social Games

The Grinns Tale currently employs something along these lines, and despite the game’s other flaws, it’s very good. In The Grinns Tale, crafting an item might take 1-2 hours for a mid-level player, and your wood and metal factories fill up ready for collection over a similar period. These contracts can be completed instantly for hard currency, but they can also be accelerated for “villager actions”.

Villager actions take 2 minutes to recharge, and accelerate contracts by 2 minutes… they are actually very similar to energy points used in other games. The number that you can have depends on the number of inhabitants your village has, but easily 30-40 for a mid-level player without using hard currency, so players have enough to complete a medium sized contract instantly, once per session.

The result is that play is paced to 1-2 hour intervals, but with each session players aren’t limited in the number of actions they can take as in CityVille. Eventually players will run out of things that they can do and be left with a time delay whilst crafting completes, factories refill etc., just as in War Commander. However, as a player you can elect to accelerate particular time delays by using your villager actions.

The resulting feeling of control gives players a satisfying rush, rather than a frustrating obstacle, and is a much more pleasant experience than either pure energy or time based pacing systems. Although as a player you are encourage into regular sessions to maximise use of your villager actions, you feel like you have a lot more control over the way that you use these to plan your production.

The Grinns Tale could probably improve this system further y adjusting the balance between the timed delays and the villager action acceleration – at the moment the former dominates and the latter feels like a bit of a bolt on. To make this system work really well the bonus needs to be significant, and I suspect that increasing the recharge rate and acceleration bonus to 5 minutes, and increasing time delays proportionately to compensate, would leave players with an even better feeling.

Wrap Up

Pacing in online games is important for a variety of different reasons:

  1. Monetization
  2. Content rationing
  3. Player habituation
  4. Distribution of virtual wealth

Framing such pacing is important to ensure that it does not adversely affect player enjoyment. This can be achieved by positioning energy as an acceleration bonus to a time based economy, rather than as a hard limit to the number of actions players can perform in a session.

Image from Monica Vidal’s Flickr stream.