Sunday, May 10, 2015

Social Games and their opportunity frontier

When I first downloaded Clash of Clans, I deleted the game a short 15 minute session later. Despite the cute graphics and sleek interface, the city building and battle elements seemed too shallow compared to the deeper games I grew up playing. It wasn't until a few months later that I started playing again, with a clearer goal: I needed to unlock the clan castle so I could join the clan my coworkers wouldn't stop talking about. I’m happy I did, because I've being playing for two years and have discovered a fun game that takes many months to expose a surprising amount of depth. But had it not been for the social element, I would never have given that game a second chance.

Later, when I started working for Supercell (the developer of the game), I was further exposed to a fascinating amount of social activity, both inside and outside the game. What stuck the most with me was how a small amount of dead simple game rules encouraged and shaped a wide variety of social organization and behaviors. I spent an entire summer moving somewhat randomly from clan to clan, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the social dynamics that drive the game. What I found was a varied collection of "societies", many of which had structured their own habits and norms in profoundly distinct ways. I found myself in some "my word is the law", strong leader dictatorship-style clans; in some "we're just here to have fun, no pressure"-style democracies; and a lot of complex political variations in between.


What, exactly, is a social game?

At the end of the last decade, Facebook games somehow gained the right to be called "social" games, possibly as shorthand for "social network" games. The "social graph", the vast, interconnected list of relationships between Facebook users, was touted as the next frontier for designing new, unique social experiences in games. By getting access to a person's real life relationships, the thought went, we can design meaningful game experiences around those relationships. What happened in practice was very different. The vast majority of developers who flooded into the scene were blinded by Zynga's wild early success, making copycat games they would never want to play themselves, using extremely short-term metrics as their gospel, and abusing the social graph so it served their own virality needs, rather than providing any sort of value to the player. This all led to the well documented decline of Facebook games (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/203912/with_the_luster_of_social_games_.php).

But to call the decline of Facebook games as a general decline in "social" games is a mistake. Defining a "social" game as a game that is played on Facebook sounds to me a little bit like defining a "platformer" as a game that is played on the Nintendo NES. Since I will be using the term frequently both in this and in future posts, I'd like to clarify what I think of as social games.
A social game is a game that provides at least one type of social structure.
A social structure (within the context of a social game) is a persistent, dynamic, well-defined group of human players that can interact and participate in meaningful in-game activities together, either synchronously or asynchronously.
Persistence is an important element in my definition, and is one of the key elements I use to distinguish between social and merely multiplayer games. A social game to me is something that supports repeated interactions between players in the context of the social structures they belong in. An RTS game with only a lobby where you find random opponents to play with each time is therefore not social, just multiplayer. However, in many cases players can and do form social structures even if not supported directly inside the game (i.e. Clans in the early Quake years). The more such social structures are encouraged (both in game and outside of the game), the more social it is under my definition.

Guilds, Alliances, Clans are the most obvious and common in-game social structures. A game like World of Warcraft is a social game, since a guild is a social structure and raiding is a meaningful in-game activity in the context of that structure. The early Facebook games may or may not be considered social under this definition, depending on the kind of interactions they allow between friends, and our definition of "meaningful".

With the definition out of the way, the next questions I'm interested in answering are: what makes a *good* social game, and what how do we keep improving the experience in future social games?  Here are some of my current, still evolving thoughts on these questions.

A good social game uses the appropriate channels to discover other human players in a way that maximizes the chance for meaningful, long-lasting social bonds

Among the people who saw promise in the Facebook social graph were some prominent game developers who I think genuinely thought about the problem, and tried to provide value to the players by using their real life social connections (instead of abusing those connections for self-serving virality). Despite those efforts, I have not seen a game that uses the real life social graph in a ground-breaking way, that provides real, never-before seen value to players (if I missed them, please let me know and I’ll be happy to add such games here).

This does not mean that it is impossible to achieve player value by using their real life social network connections in game. But it does mean it is very hard. It also means that not all game experiences benefit from the social network connection – I actually think that many of them not only don’t benefit, but actually are hurt by them. Here’s a screenshot from Empires and Allies:



I don’t know about you, but for me, even if my real life friends were actually this cool and good looking, I would still find it awkward that they have to invade a fictional game world in this manner. Seeing my mom, my baby cousin, my University professor, my accountant, and that guy I met once at a conference and never really talked to after, being an actual part of the game world, not only does not help my game experience in any way, it kind of ruins it completely. Why are those people there in the first place? They would never be interested in such a game anyway.

For most people and games, the optimal in-game social graph (i.e. the lists of connections to other players that provides the best in game experience) will have little overlap with the real life social graph.
So what would a good primary mechanism be for discovering the players in the game that make up this optimal in-game graph? This, of course, depends on the game itself. We need to think about what experience we are aiming for our players to have in the game, and then follow up with more thought and experimentation on how to enable them to find others that will enable that experience. Some games rely a lot on randomness: you are thrown into the game world, along with everyone else, and given the tools to communicate with them. Who you interact with first will depend a lot on random factors like where you are placed in the world and who happened to be near there at the time. While that’s a reasonable starting point, we may be able to do better with both in-game and out of game tools that assist our players find exactly the kind of people that would enhance their enjoyment of the game.
The real life social graph can still be very useful in-game as a secondary discovery mechanism. It can help which of my real life friends are already playing the game I’m interested in. That reduced form of the graph is the simplest, most practical and useful application of it I’ve seen so far. In many games, teaming up with or fighting against people I already know is more exciting than doing so with strangers.

A good social game uses social structures and game rules in unison, in order to create deep, meaningful, primary emotions

During the summer I was visiting various clans in Clash of Clans, I experienced one of the most intense feelings I had while playing any game. I was preparing my troops for a crucial war attack and chatting up my clan members who I had a rocky relationship with (apparently joining the clan and immediately telling them they're wrong about what troops are good for defense was a social faux pas). Regardless of our petty differences, I liked some of the members of that clan and considered myself close to them. Besides, shouldn't we all be worried about the other clan who was, up to that point, winning the war? A couple other guys and myself were formulating a come-back plan and felt pretty good about our chances. And then, during a chat exchange where I must have been slightly more snarky than I should have, the combative elder who was against me joining them in the first place, kicked me out of the clan. To my surprise, that felt extremely devastating. The next hour was filled with wild thoughts that maybe the other elders who liked me a bit more would reverse his decision and invite me back before the war ended, so we could win that thing (I was pretty high level, and because of how wars work in Clash, they had no chance if I wasn’t able to do the attacks as part of the clan. And winning a war is a significant time investment for the Clan, most of them consider it a big deal). But... no such luck. The “Come back” message I was expecting never came. The feeling of betrayal was real, and it stung. I caught myself thinking about the incident for days after, and even tried to return to the clan for a quick chat to get some kind of closure.

I've had similar moments and feelings in other multiplayer and social games like Neptune's Pride and OGame. No single player game has ever come close to generating the same intensity of feelings, including the ones that have carefully crafted stories specifically intended to bring out similar feelings. The difference in intensity is pretty clearly caused by the fact that in the social games, I am personally the one being affected by the game events. In Clash, I myself was betrayed and kicked out of the clan –not my in game avatar. I had worked hard to give the team a fighting chance in the war, and instead of a thank you, I was backstabbed right at the end. This is a completely different thing than seeing your in-game avatar get betrayed in a scripted single player story (even on the ones where you don’t actually see it coming).  

Daniel Cook has written on the difference between such "primary" emotions (caused by things that happen to you), and empathy-style emotions (caused by things that happen to someone else you relate with), here:

Like Daniel, I would love to see our industry focus more on these "primary" emotions, because they seem to be something that is making our medium unique. No movie or book has ever reproduced the intensity of such emotions for me. The only thing that came close, the Red Wedding, was likely similarly intense only because it was elevated to a primary emotion because of the fact that my wife was 9 months pregnant at the time I watched it. Worse, the storytelling techniques we seem to be disproportionally borrowing from movies and books can backfire badly in an interactive setting, where the player is supposed to be in control of their agent's actions. The Last of Us was completely ruined for me because at the end, I was forced into multiple decisions of vast consequence that I would never have done had I been in the protagonist's shoes. If it was a movie instead, I would go "ah, I get why he did all that, poor guy," think it was a pretty good movie, and move on. Now, I’ll never forgive the game because it severely violated my sense of agency with that character.
My own experience has been that the "primary" emotions we can experience in games, the feelings of gain, loss, betrayal, desperation, hope, are greatly amplified in a social setting. This is not always a good thing for the game developer. Very often, the emotions are so amplified that people are actively driven away from the game in shame, anger or frustration. I witnessed a lot of people quit Clash of Clans completely because they couldn’t handle the social pressure of having their war attacks watched and judged publicly as they happened. Regardless, I believe more research here is an area of opportunity, especially for niche developers who don’t care about appealing to the mass market. An intense social feeling that may be a turn-off for most players could be the unfulfilled desire for a particular niche.

A good social game does not require complexity to drive depth

The social experience I discovered in Clash of Clans and described in the opening paragraphs was, of course, nothing new. Good social games, many of them MMOs and MUDs, have been growing these kinds of varied societies for decades. But what was news to me, what I was not expecting, was specifically the amount of variety that was enabled by Clash of Clans’ very simple gameplay and rules. Compared, for example, to Star Wars Galaxies, a game where the depth of the social interactions are largely driven by the complexity of the game's locations, professions, races, factions, in Clash, the very simple Clan Wars feature, was enough to also create social interactions with depth. Being able to observe the kind of social interactions that occurred in clans, before and after the Clan Wars feature was implemented, was very enlightening. Rules and game context shapes social behaviors, and this was my eye opening moment where I witnessed a relatively simple game feature completely change social dynamics. It certainly got me thinking about what other behaviors we can drive as game developers, what other distinct social game experiences we can create, without piling on complexity.


What will the next generation of social features look like?

I would love to see our discussion of social games move beyond the social network platforms and meaningless terms like casual/mid-core, and start talking about the social structures themselves. How can we enrich the experience in existing social structures, by adding new or different rules and interactions with gameplay? How can we create all new, interesting social structures, and what do they look like? How can we incentivize players to create their own types of informal structures? How can we manage our communities in order to drive positive behavior in these in-game social structures?
In an effort to move the discussion towards that direction, I am providing my list of social feature ideas that I’ve been developing over the past few months. These are semi-random thoughts on features I would personally like to experiment with, both as a developer and as a gamer. Where applicable I list games that I think have adopted these features to some extent. I’m sure I’ve missed many, so please let me know of other ones you know.

Government Types

Alliances/clans/guilds/neighborhoods are a key social structure and we should always keep looking for ways to make them more meaningful, interesting, and diverse. One such way could be to allow the clan to choose between predefined governments, with different options allowing different trade-offs on how the clan is operated, what roles it offers its members, what kind of benefits the members get, and how the clan progresses and gathers fame within the game.
For example, familiar government types could work in some games: Monarchy could boost the participant’s army strength at the cost of higher taxes, or democracy could allow higher resource production but weaker defenses. The choice of government type could also be a status symbol for the clan, telling the rest of the world what the clan’s worldview is in the game.

Governance of the entire game world

Single-shard games can take advantage of their non-compartmentalized world by allowing a very powerful Social Structure that can affect the entire world for all other players. As a very simple example, each season, the top X players in the world could be assigned to the Senate, where they can vote among a set of proposed boosts that will apply to every single player in the game for the next Y amount of time. This is interesting and engaging not only for the top players who compete to enter the Senate, but also for the other social structures the Senate members belong to (other players or groups will want to approach Senators and influence their decision, perhaps via incentives the game allows them to offer).

Secret Societies

The feeling of belonging to a “secret” organization is very powerful. A game could evoke very unique bonds and excitement by allowing the creation of either formal or informal secret societies that are separate from other regular social structures. These secret societies could have their own agenda (which could lead to some very interesting combinations with other social structures, i.e. the Senate discussed above). The Secret Society would seek to spread fame of the organization among regular game members, while concealing the identity of its members. Other non-members could be given the incentives and tools to try and expose the secret society members - especially high ranking members. Some would try to infiltrate the Secret Society in order to spy on them, adding to the overall drama and excitement.

Role Conflict

Roles are important in any social structure, as they give meaning and purpose to all members of the structure. A good social game focusing on roles reinforce certain social roles by making them more desirable via game rules; promotes diversity by making social roles balanced (so people of different skills and interests can be happy in different roles); and provides guidelines on appropriate behavior for each role (even though it's sometimes perfectly acceptable for some of those rules to be broken). 

Role conflict can add an interesting twist here. Any game that allows an individual to hold an important role on multiple social structures can create interesting dilemmas/conflict of interest type situations. For instance, a player who is part of both an Alliance and a Secret Society could be thrown in Alliance War against a member of the Secret Society. How will they react?

Diplomacy

Traditional 4x strategy games owe a lot of their depth to interactions between the player’s faction and other AI- or player-controlled factions. Social games with mechanics that support players or groups of players playing cooperatively or against other players/groups may benefit from the ability for both sides to be able to communicate with each other and negotiate terms for war/peace/assistance/betrayal. The communication functionality itself could be as simple as in game chat, but the game must support potential negotiations with the appropriate features such as donating units, releasing captured units, exchanging tech, or ability to surprise allies and enemies with concealed actions. Supporting such diplomacy features between actual players is a huge untapped area and vastly more promising than diplomacy between a human and an AI - humans have the ability to surprise, remember, hold grudges, scheme, in a way no AI will achieve any time soon.

Neptune’s Pride and Subterfuge are two games that provide extremely deep diplomacy using an extremely bare-bones in game chat screen. The depth comes from in-game features designed to support diplomacy (i.e. gifting part of your army, directly funding weaker players, freeing enemy heroes taken prisoner in battle).

Ad-hoc groups/Social Events

Most social groups are intended to create long-lasting bonds between their members, and so naturally are intended to be permanent. For some kinds of games though, creating groups in an ad-hoc way (perhaps as part of an event) could mix things up in an interesting and fun way. These temporary groups can also create bonds, especially if it leads to the formation of another, permanent social structure.
For example, imagine an event-based strategy game. As part of an opt-in event, certain players are put in a group (Defenders) and are required to defend their bases against a much larger group (Attackers). After the end of the event, and regardless of the outcome, it's likely some of the defenders or attackers who liked each other will form separate, permanent bonds (i.e. join the same alliance).


I’d love to hear more from other developers on the subject. What are your favorite social games? What’s the most exciting moments you've experienced as part of a social structure? What are the areas you’d like to see further experimentation in social games?