Players Who Suit Social Games: Identifying, Analyzing, Expanding, and Progressing

[This was a featured blog post I wrote that was originally published on the front page of on 10/19/11]

With each passing month, social games are growing. Growing in userbase, growing in revenue, but possibly most of all, growing in ambiguity. The term “social game” is pretty vague. Most board games involve far more social interaction than games on Google+ or Facebook! However, since sites like those have become the most pervasive locations for online social interaction, “social game” has come to mean any game played on a social network. With everyone and their mom, kid brother, and next door neighboor on Facebook these days, just who is the “social gamer?”

Statistics and stories from the last few years demographically place the average social gamer as an aged 43 female. (See this Gigaom piece that references a PopCap survey.). However, this assessment is far from set in stone, and new data, research, and surveys are constantly reexamining the social game audience. One is a RockYou survey (shown below) that attempts to frame the social gamer as a younger, more male, and more achievement-oriented player; three things that go against what almost anyone whose studied the demographics before would tell you. What is unfortunate about both studies is that they establish a fairly static precedent of the current social game audience. Now, being aware what a specific community of players is currently attracted to is not at all a negative. Marketing depends on it. However, in that strategy lies the the unpleasant feeling that social games are already being designed specifically for the historic demographic of the social gamers, when instead they could be branching out into untapped demographics.

Another perspective comes from a Tim Rogers piece entitled “who killed videogames? (a ghost story)” on His essay discusses the mathematical average of a ghost player that companies talk up, but only exists as a fusion of those who actually purchase in game items and those who enjoy the game for free. Percentage wise, 90-95% are the latter who will never spend anything, and 5-10% who will spend an average of 60$. The average of all the money thus far made by social games divided by the amount of people who play them comes out to $1.70. The person who actually spends $1.70, of course, is Rogers’ ghost.

The numbers behind the mysterious ghost player here are potentially dangerous and misleading. The math, as Rogers points out, is riddled with extremes, outliers, “five-digit numbers,” and “sprawling oceans of zeros.” It’s important for social game companies to understand the reality behind where the money comes from and why. It is also critical to understand why some players actually pay to play, and why some just pick the game up once or twice to get their feet wet. For instance, take this image from a great VentureBeat piece on whales in social games:

While whales make up only 4% of the spending user, they make up for 60% of the revenue! The minnows, the 79% of spending users, actually only make up 8% of the revenue. Why is this extreme so prevalent amongst social games right now? If only 4% of social gamers are becoming invested enough in social games to regularly pay for the experience, than what can be done better as social game designers to ensure that more of the minnows are willing to invest on the experience? Perhaps we should stop banking on that extreme 4%, stop trying to come up with some miracle data that claims we’re actually appealing to all gamers, and instead make more interesting games that can allow a larger percent of the players to become more immersed in the system for longer durations. Would we rather have 3% of a million users fully invested in our games, or 20% of 200,000?

It’s shocking at first to hear that a goal social game companies aim to get only 3% of their playerbase spending. Regardless, this notion of a tiny percent should serve as a massive red flag to social games developers.  It’s as Tim Rogers says: “[Players] are coming for the cute characters, and staying for the cruel mathematics.” Well maybe cruel math is good enough to get us 3% of players spending a decent chunk of change, but why should social game developers be satisfied with that? What if instead of cruel math, we had compelling, beautiful systems? We’d probably get a lot higher percentage of players paying a more reasonable amount, and we’d all be better off for it.

Well, how do we do this? Tim Rogers himself recently penned a piece for Kotaku setting up some simple mechanical steps in the right direction. However, I’m going to take a step back, and look at a piece I personally find more relevant: Richard Bartle’s “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS,” which examines the four archetypes of players he observed in the Multi-User Dungeons of yore and how to balance a game to suit the needs of each. The RockYou survey also tried to split social gamers into four archetypes, with some of the characteristics seeming to descend directly from Bartle. Furthermore, MUD grinding and socializing are in many ways the philosophical ancestors to the social game mechanics of today, so it feels all the more relevant to look back to that genre.

In Bartle’s classification there are Achievers, who he describes as players who “give themselves game related goals and vigorously set out to achieve them.” There are Explorers, who try to find out as much as they can about the world and its systems. There are Socializers, who make the most of communicating in the game and see it as a context for social interaction. Finally, there are the Killers, who prefer to impose directly upon other players. Whether hurting or helping (mostly hurting in modern gaming history), its multiplayer game action that drives the Killer. In many ways, we can say that the current experiences in Facebook games are balanced towards Achievers and Socializers, with tendencies towards interacting with players and acting upon the world. A few years ago, with Mafia Wars being amongst the top games on Facebook, Killers could be said to have held more of a presence, but it seems much less so today; a notion we’ll consider again later. Anyways, take a glance at this nifty abstract graph Bartle setup:

What social games need is for the scales to tilt a bit in favor of accomadating players acting upon other players (“killers”), and people acting with the world (“explorers”). Bartle suggests some ways to balance aMUD for specific scenarios and most of his general themes are highly relevant to social games. It’s sort of tricky to tilt the graph to the upper-left and bottom-right simultaneously, so for now let’s approach these adjustments one at a time.

For titling to the upper-left I’ve selected some relevant suggestions from Bartle:
• Add more player-on-player commands
• Make communication facilities easy and intuitive
• Increase the connectivity between rooms
• Add more communication facilities
• Raise the rewards for achievement
• Have an extensive level/class system
• Make commands be applicable wherever they might reasonably have meaning
• Have large puzzles, that take over an hour to complete
• Have many commands relating to fights

For tilting towards the bottom-right, I’ve created this subset:
• Make building facilities easy and intuitive
• Maximise the size of the world (ie. add breadth)
• Produce cryptic hints when players appear stuck
• Maximise the effects of commands (ie. add depth)
• Produce amusing responses for amusing commands
• Have lots of small puzzles that can be solved easily
• Allow builders to add completely new commands — [ an aside from me: USER GENERATED CONTENT !!!]

Now some of these, in Bartle’s initial piece, were suggested as opposites, but out of the ones I’ve selected to display here, none are mutually exclusive and should be exempt from the contemplation of the social game designer. Themes clearly arise: allow for more meaningful social interaction (as Rogers points out, right now Skype is a much more meaningful more social experience than Sims Social). LittleBig Planet uses real-time multiplayer, puzzles that require teamwork, and user-generated content to create a brilliant, meaningful, social community around a game that is incredibly simple and casual at heart. Add more depth and breathing room to the systems of a game, while at the same time keeping the commands intuitive and easy to learn. Inputs should be simple and have somewhat predictable initial responses, but the system should be complex enough to allow the players to learn and discover new things as they go. Triple Town, a game on Kindle (and now Facebook too) does a brilliant job with this. There needs to be a balance of smaller goals with larger ones. Nathan Drake, of the Uncharted series, can see the temple with the stolen idol in it miles away, but first he needs to kill the badguy with a gun two feet in front of him. There’s no reason for social games not to employ that same dichotomy of tasks.

Focusing the balance more towards Killers may be the trickiest of all the changes I’m recommending. Bartle often discussed how they were a group that never gained much popularity and tended to isolate themselves. Non-killer players simply did not want to play with them, and in many ways the same is true today. There were a plethora of examples from players in Empires & Allies who wanted the player vs. player mechanics removed. Segregating servers for killers to play on their own (much like how World of Warcraft has with PVP or PVE servers) is a possible solution, but there ought to be a more subtle and effective one out there. We need to rethink how we harness the killing mechanics in this space. Empires & Allies had a very nifty solution to this, which was the ability for a player to pay some in game currency or use some item to enter a temporary neutral state where they could not be attacked. Then if they forgot to renew their neutrality, they might be punished in the same way they might be punished if they let their crops wither in Farmville. To me personally, this seemed like a step in the right direction.

The most important theme to derive from all of these suggestions, however, is that social games need to allow for meaningful decisions to be made.

As a designer at Guerillapps, currently working on Trash Tycoon, I’m not going to claim this game has all the answers, but I do believe we are taking worthwhile steps forwards, and keeping all of this in mind as we progress. In Trash Tycoon you can decide to sell, store or upcycle various objects. You can sell trash to a landfill, or invest in more dumpsters to store it for future recycling. These choices are inherently interesting and meaningful. The players are not hand-held through any of them, but are given enough information to make an educated, or at the least an experimental, decision. We’ve employed real-time, synchronous multiplayer with in-game chat. We have short term goals that take five minutes, and ones that you’ll have at the same time that might take a day or two. We’re building up our achievement and end-game systems constantly, working to make them meaningful and interesting. We’re working on minigames that will provide an outlet for a more micro-level of strategy and fun within the context of our overall structure. All the while, we’re keeping a close eye on our own insights and metrics to see who we have playing, and not only what we can do to make them happier, but what we can do to attract other types of players as well.

Tim Rogers on Insert Credit
RockYou survey 


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