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Lessons from the leaders – Engagement in social games May 11, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, social games, social gaming.
6 comments

On Friday I moderated a panel at the social gaming summit featuring speakers from Zynga, Playdom, Playfish and Crowdstar on the topic of engagement best practices in social games. Socialtimes has a brief writeup of the session:

Social gaming giants tend to focus on hits. An under performing game can be a cause for concern and even shutdown in some cases. Mark Skaggs jolted the crowd by stating that Zynga aims for a 60% same-day repeat engagement of a newly released game but their core focus is on long term retention of around 30%. Zynga manages to attain 1.5 million DAUs on the first day, upwards of 3 million DAUs at times. Zynga’s game Mafia Wars saw signs of stagnation in players repeatedly doing jobs and diversified the experience by adding an array of places players could visit, instilling adventurous emotions in the adventurers.

Sebastien emphasized engagement as a key point of focus for their games along with mass appeal. Sebastien also discussed Playfish’s shutdown of one of their previous games Quiztastic, stating, “one of the ways to create engagement in Quiztastic is through highly relevant content that’s only relevant to a narrow set of friends. However, it turned out to be massive engaging for the active contributors but not others.” Another game Playfish shutdown was Minigolf Party because too much was being demanded of the players. The panelists agreed, concluding that a balance is necessary to engage a mass-audience.

Christa brought in her unique perspective as CFO of Playfish, commending the rapid success of their game Social City. She attributed growth to additions of surprise mechanics – specifically random animations that rewarded users with an aesthetic and delightful experience, encouraging them to return frequently for more.

Since I was moderating I wan’t able to take good notes, but here are some of the other points that were made on the panel:

Appointment Mechanic (also known as farming mechanic) suits the casual gameplay style of social games and brings people back. Good to offer different timeframes of “harvest” to match way people play the game, typically in multiples of two hours. Four hour timeframe good for players logging in at beginning of day, lunch and end of day. Two day timeframe good for players who play primarily at work who need to deal with the weekend

Whether you apply a “hard” penalty to the apppointment mechanic (e.g. crops wither, no reward) or a “soft” penalty (e.g. collection bucket full, no incremental reward above cap) depends on the style of gameplay.

Plot can also help drive engagement and retention. This can be both plot secondary to gameplay (Easter eggs in the game, animations that change over time) or primary to gameplay (e.g. Mafia Wars/Mobsters narrative arc).  Players come back to find out what happens next.

Special Events can drive engagement, which sometimes translates into increased retention. These special events can be both in the game (e.g. the Weekend of “superberries” on Farmville, which added 3 million DAUs for a week and an incremental 1.5m DAUs permanently) and outside the gmae (e.g. the Taylor Swift dress in Sorority Life the day after the AMAs).

Real Life relationships, love, flirting and friendship, can drive special actions which support long term engagement. e.g. Pet Society and Restaurant City drive tens of millions of virtual roses, and many real roses, to be exchanged on Valentines Day.  Friends For Sale (launched by Lightspeed portfolio company Serious Business, now part of Zynga) is the prototypical example.

Low latency is important. When users have to wait a long time for pages to load, they leave.  This can be improved both by optimizing web ops, as well as by modulating the complexity of graphics etc based on browser and OS type.

DAU and DAU/MAU (Stickiness) are highly correlated. The causality arrow flows both ways.  It isn’t enough to just build a good game, nor is it enough to get frequent posts to the feed. Both need to be balanced, and feed posts need to be “reasonable” from the point of view of a user. You need to understand and accept the motivation of the post.

Viral channels are now more about engagement/reactivation than about growth.

Key metrics are 1 day, 3 day, 7 day retention, then long term retention. 1 day retention target is 30-60%, less than 30% and you may not have a fixable game.

If you were there and had other important points that I missed, please add them in comments.

Which games will go the way of Pinball machines? November 27, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in economics, game design, game mechanics.
10 comments

It is interesting to note that while MMOGs, time management games and real time strategy games have made the jump to social games, First person shooters have not. Why not?  I find the current generation of FPS very hard to pick up, and that may be part of the problem.

The Cheaptalk blog has an interesting post on an economists view about why pinball peaked and died out. He blames it on the transferability of skill from one pinball machine to another, combined with adaptive technology. This caused the market for pinball machines to bifurcate to experts and newbies, with most effort going towards building games for experts.

Pinball attracted a different crowd than video games like Defender (my new pal designed Defender and Stargate too,) and this is the fundamental theorem of pinball economics.  Pinball skill is transferrable.  If you can pass, stall, nudge, and aim on one machine you can do it on any machine.  This is both a blessing and a curse for pinball developers.  The blessing is that pinball players were a captive market. The curse was that to keep the pinball players interested the games had to get more and more intricate and challenging.

Pinball developers struggled with this problem as pinball was slowly losing to video games.  Video games competed by adding levels of play with increasing difficulty.  Any new player could quickly get chops on a new game because the low levels were easy.  This ensured that new players were drawn in easily, but still they were continually challenged because the higher levels got harder and harder.  By contrast, the physical nature of pinball, its main attraction to hardcore players, meant that there was no way to have it both ways.

Eventually, to keep the pinballers playing, the games became so advanced that entry-level players faced an impossible barrier.  High-schoolers in 1986 were either dropouts or professionals in 1992 and without inflow of new players that year essentially marked the end of pinball.

What game genres have similar characteristics? First Person Shooters come to mind. This challenge is magnified in a mutliplayer environment – it’s not fun to get fragged within seconds of starting a game. It’s the same experience that a new paintball player gets if they wander onto an average paintball course today – most players are now experts.

I highly recommend reading the article if you’re involved in the games and social games industry. I suspect that there is a risk that the competition for players in some popular social games genres may take us in a similar direction if we are not careful.

What other genres of games do readers think may be at risk in the same way?

Casual real time strategy games August 6, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games.
3 comments

Gamasutra has a nice writeup of the game design behind Corpse Craft, a causal RTS (real time strategy) game on Whirled:

In a traditional RTS, resource gathering is largely automated (players send designated resource gathering units out to harvest materials and bring them back to base, and they do it until either they’re killed or the game is won), and it’s the combat that has to be managed. Conkling decided to invert this model in order to eliminate the need for unit micromanagement. In Corpse Craft, resource gathering is micromanaged through the match-3 game, and new units that are created behave autonomously based on a very simple set of rules.

In other words, players spend resources to create undead creatures but don’t actually control them. There’s no base to manage, and no map to explore; all of the action takes place on a single non-scrolling screen.

According to Conkling, traditional RTS games typically keep combat interesting with a simple unit ecosystem, and battles are most exciting when they’re epic and unpredictable. Corpse Craft maintains that feel through a basic rock, paper, scissors relationship between units, where each unit has an obvious strength and a weakness that can be mitigated by sending the unit onto the battlefield along with other units that offset that weakness.

“Each unit behaves predictably, which is important because they’re not under player control, but when you throw lots of units together into a battle, there are interesting and unpredictable things going on due to the huge variety of interactions between those units,” Conkling said. “Battles are emergent in the sense that there are a few basic rules that drive the combat units, and from that you get chaos, unpredictability and interesting gameplay.”

Web based casual RTS games are a very interesting genre to me because they offer so many opportunities for virtual goods based monetization. We’ve seen several MMOGs make the leap from hardcore client based games to more casual web based games and retain their ability to monetize through virtual goods, and I think RTS is the next category to make that leap. That’s why we invested in Casual Collective last year, which has developed a number of such casual RTS games including Desktop Tower Defence, Flash Element Tower Defence, The Space Game, Minions and Desktop Armarda.

Casual Connect panel on designing, balancing and managing a virtual economy August 3, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in economics, game design, game mechanics, games, mmorpg.
2 comments

Freetoplay.biz has raw notes taken from the session on Designing, Balancing and Managing a Virtual Economy. Some good quotes include:

On inflation:

Gaia

  • did not manage economy when they started
  • want ppl to earn quickly for initial wow experience
  • down the line, someone who has been playing for months and months get really rich – what is left for them to buy?
  • need to manage these disparities correctly from the beginning
  • company has one full time economist balancing it

3 Rings

  • don’t screw up
  • mudflation – overinflation of currency is easy to introduce if you are not being rigorous about sources of attention currency
  • need to have some level of instrumentation… need to pay attention and be set to react when something goes awry
  • it is a discipline that is tough to master

On creating one time currency sinks to battle inflation:

3 Rings

  • incredible opp to take fantastic amounts of wealth and turn it into a one-time exclusive item
  • when we shut down alpha server we challenged people to throw Pieces of 8 into a hole… winning group got their name on top of a list

Gaia

  • we wanted to redo our amazon-like stores within the site, so we created a fiction inside Gaia that stores were getting shut down because of recession… asked users to help donate to help build higher quality stores… we created a concept of leaderboards… where largest donating teams got their names in lights… they felt as though they were getting status within the site

On pricing and maximizing ARPU:

Nexon

  • you want your players to spend all the money they have so they need to get another payment card, etc
  • you should offer your players lots of diff ways to spend their money
  • players are not buying 1 item at a time… they are batching… buying $10 of virtual currency at a time… so you need lots of options for purchase so people don’t have money just sitting there

2 Fish

  • i love pricing… counterintuitive in some places
  • barrier pricing… i.e. everybody wants one of the cooler cars
  • initial thought is that cars should be expensive
  • but really they should be cheaper as they are a barrier item
  • once they have a new car they can spend more on customizing it
  • think about what kind of behaviours you want and price to encourage that

Nexon

  • we actually do sell cars for $10
  • we sold 120,000 cars for $10 apiece
  • agrees re: barrier
  • but barrier for ppl in game is not 10c, but $10 for initial payment… so you need enough items to justify that
  • if you have 100 ppl playing game, what % are going to pay and how much
  • what items can you create to get to a $15 ARPU

Gaia

  • we do exactly that re: modeling an ARPU
  • interplay between getting ARPU up vs getting percent of people who pay up
  • clearly they should be complementary
  • but fascinating thing is that we are not really clear on which one matters more, we go with what is easy
  • getting dollars per player up is always easier
  • people who want to pay are willing to pay a lot of money
  • relatively easy to find small % of ppl who pay and pay
  • more interesting thing is how to get a higher percent of ppl to pay
  • that has more ramifications on long term business health
  • barrier is getting the money into the game via cc or payment card

On dual currencies and managing fraud and chargebacks:

Gaia

  • we need to be clear… if you can get your money out, then it is a big issue
  • SL has a currency where you can invest your time and get it out in real dollars
  • as soon as you do that, you can run into regulation issues, but more primarily, people will try to game the sytem… bots, farming, etc
  • if you are going to go down that path, plan on having half your dev team working on managing exploits for the next few years
  • you have then become the best target for money laundering
  • we chose not to do that… greatly simplifies life… branding decision as well – is your site a place where you can spend time and earn money? a career? or is it a fun experience where you put in your money but don’t expect to get it out

Gaia

  • ways to avoid hitting the 1% chargeback
  • not allowing you to purchase on day 1
  • maxing the amount ppl can spend in a month
  • making sure ppl can’t pull money out

3 Rings

  • we hit chargeback problems … we hadn’t switched on address verification… turned it on and problem went away
  • WoW has big chargeback isseus as people farm on stolen CCs

Some game design considerations for a free form eldergame May 21, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games.
1 comment so far

Last month I posted about Bartle’s thoughts on how to build an eldergame, principally, to allow for free form play following the Eve model.

Jame Portnow recently posted in GameSetWatch about some of the elements of game design that you should bear in mind when thinking about such a free form world, or as he describes it, a single server MMOG. It’s long but worth the read.

Erik Bethke on game balance in free to play games March 28, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, virtual goods.
1 comment so far

Interesting quote from Massively‘s GDC coverage about how to design for Real Money Trading:

Bethke imparts some advice on how the common mistakes can be fixed in terms of balancing. You can charge for things that are defensive in nature and the less skilled players with more money can buy them, while offensive items remain free of charge. The more skillful, more time-rich players won’t resent the advantages the other type of players has, as it won’t really stop them from doing what they want. Some companies have buyback programs for overpowered items, but this can set a bad precedent.

Lots of other interesting perspectives came from the panel – worth reading the whole thing.

Tips on designing layouts for games and virtual worlds March 23, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, mmorpg, virtual worlds.
1 comment so far

Raph Koster has some useful tips on laying out maps; some of these are probably not too different from urban design planning best practices in the real world. I’m repeating them here (aggregating and paraphrasing some of his points)

1. Always make sure users can tell which way to go.

Starting a newbie at a dead end and giving them only one way to go is a classic way to deal with early confusion. Large landmarks that can be seen from a distance can serve a similar purpose.

2. Don’t use invisible barriers. (Form should give an indication of function)

3. Mazes suck.

4. Make zones that have a sense of place

– Create characteristic qualities to a linked zone so that it is easy to recognize that these areas are related to each other
– Enclose these zones
– Create “gates” between places that visually convey a transition from one place to another

…moving from one pocket to another should feel dramatic: a tight passage revealing a wide vista, coming over the crest of a mountain and revealing a valley, discovering a door behind a waterfall, a big bold gate with guards. You want to signal that the user is entering a space with its own framework and rules. There are a lot of visual cues that are used, but most of them carry some sense of “gate” to them, even if it is as simple as a path that winds between two hills: a passage between two tall things.

– Build in modules. Connections to neighboring zones should be few and obvious.
– Have a defining activity.

ure, every city has to have the same amenities, and every zone must have monsters. But get creative. This wilderness zone has the pool you can swim in that is perfect for picnics. This other one has the great layout for ranged combat. This inn has the trivia game; that one has the chess board. Users will self-select into the spaces which feel culturally comfortable to them.

5. Watch where people want to walk, and put roads (and important places) along the well worn paths.

6. Social spaces point inwards. Keep the center empty to avoid a “ring” instead of a “plaza”

7. Adventure spaces point outwards.

In general, if you are exploring you want a horizon (or more than one) to head towards. Where social spaces create a sense of security, adventure spaces should create a sense of uncertainty and the unknown to prompt users to keep going.It isn’t about endless vistas; it’s about interest.

8. All this is fractal. Apply the same rules at each level of map layout.

As always, read the whole thing.

Applying game design principles to the real world – new Honda Insight February 20, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics.
9 comments

Popular Science has an interesting article about the new Honda Insight and some of the ways that it helps drivers drive in a more fuel efficient manner. Two of the techniques show a very strong game design influence:

Achievements:

Kudos For Being Green
The Insight’s Eco Guide makes sensible driving as entertaining as playing a videogame. Starting with empty graphical “stalks” shown on the multi-information display, efficient drivers can earn “leaves” that fill out the five branches. Over the car’s lifetime, a thrifty pilot can accumulate a second tier of leaves, then a flower on each branch. When a driver grows all five plants, the screen displays a trophy.

Achievements for good driving

Achievements for good driving

Real Time Visual Feedback:

One of two driver-feedback systems on the Insight, Eco Assist displays a glowing arc above the digital speedometer. The arc’s color varies from blue (wasteful) to blue-green (somewhat efficient) to green (efficient), depending on how a driver accelerates or decelerates. A separate screen near the tachometer displays twin bar graphs that show drivers how their starting and stopping habits affect fuel consumption.

visual feedback

visual feedback

Interesting stuff!

Game design tips from top game designers February 2, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games.
1 comment so far

Two good recent posts give some useful game design tips.

Raph Koster talks about ways to make your virtual space more social, including specific design suggestions to prompt downtime and an opportunity for players to interact with one another.

Soren Johnson gives some success and failure examples for balancing an in-game economy.

Both are worth reading

Why do people buy virtual goods? January 13, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, game design, game mechanics, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
13 comments

I recently read a paper by Vili Lehdonvirta about what drives the purchase of virtual goods. I’ve suggested three use cases for virtual goods before:

1. Attention in a noisy environment (usually digital gifts)
2. Self Expression
3. Increased Functionality

and later proposed a fourth use case, convenience.

Vili proposes a different taxonomy:

Purely “utilitarian” or use-value0based attributes can be divided into two categories: performance (simple numerical advantage) and functionality (new abilities and options). Virtual goods also have attributes capable of generating emotional or hedonic responses, particularly their visual appearance and sound, but also any background fiction or narrative associateion with them. Hedonic attributes are difficult to distinguish emperically from the conceptually different social attributes, which refer to attributes that make virtual items suitable for creating and communicating social distinctions and bonds. Such attributes are provenance, customisability, cultural references and the “branding” of an item with a known commercial brand. Rarity is perhaps the most socially oriented attribute of virtual goods, because its value is strongly associated with its ability to distinguish a (small) group of owner from non-owners

In the paper he gives examples of each of his classes of virtual goods. He also summarizes some previous research on digital goods. In particular, he notes advice from Oh and Ryu to game designers based on research on Kart Rider and Special Force:

- Balance between items that can be purchased with real money and items that must be earned through gameplay, and build synergies between the two categories
– Allow players to keep “ornamental” items permanently, but make “functional” items consumable
– In the case of items that ive the player a performance advantage, do not disclose the exact numbers;provide approximate descriptive texts instead
– Introduce items linked to specific events and communities (e.g. Christmas decorations and guild emblems).

It’s useful to read the whole paper (around 15 pages)

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