By Jonathan Drysdale, Publicreative.com
For the purpose of this article, social games are games that are enhanced by online social interaction and use platforms of the social web to propagate.
Mechanic, theme and genre?
The dominant social games in the past two years have tended to use similar mechanics - time return, visiting neighbours, decoration and personalisation and applied them to certain themes - farm, pet, fish, business and city building.
But in many ways these sorts of games should be avoided due to this space being extremely competitive and dominated by the likes of Zygna and Playfish/EA. Also social gaming has moved beyond the traditionally-held view that players only want simple games that are played for a few minutes at a time, to also include sport, strategy and shooting games that share more with traditional games in terms of mechanics.
Make the viral features social
A criticism often made of big mass-market social games is that they are not actually particularly social, in the sense that the degree to which you are actually “playing with” friends is limited.
This presents an opportunity to stand-out, and as such the ultimate aim must be to create a viral mechanic that is genuinely social. Then the game spreads and the players’ experiences are enhanced at the same time. Coming up with such a hook is of course the metaphorical $64,000 question, but in an increasingly competitive market it’s these hooks which help a new game to succeed.
Be prepared to advertise or partner
Last year Facebook made a number of changes to their policy meaning it’s now harder to acquire players through viral channels like notifications. And as competition increases, you should be pragmatic and prepared to spend money on advertising, or partner with a company with a large advertising inventory. In a perfect world the viral/social mechanics would be enough to drive the games usage, but it’s unrealistic to plan for this alone.
Consider multi-platform game play
A key point is reach, and a way to achieve this is to develop across multiple platforms. This increases the chance of capturing a player in the first place and has potential to increase player gaming experience by allowing them to play in a more flexible way.
This is already happening - you can play the Farmville on Facebook, or outside Facebook on the web or an iDevice. Although developing games for multiple platforms is expensive, technologies like Unity and Titanium are allowing development of one code base then deployed to multiple platforms (not forgetting future potential of HTML5).
Measure success and monetisation
If in-game monetisation is suitable (not the case for all games) there are a few well-trodden paths to explore. The selling of virtual goods, or in-game advertising are probably the most common. Less common options include charging the user to play in a credit system, or selling real items through the game. An example includes Charles Chocolates selling real chocolates through PlayFirst’s Chocolatier game.
Whatever the goals, player interaction within a game and monetisation are potentially trackable, so metrics like number of installs, plays, returning players, drop-off points, revenue per user, player spend within a game, and so on, can all be measured and carefully followed in relation to ongoing updates to the game.
Integrate with a broader marketing strategy
Clearly a social game shouldn’t be created in isolation from the broader marketing campaign, and should be planned from the beginning with all other elements of that campaign.
Cross-promotion between channels should be considered but it isn’t suitable for all games and campaigns. Any cross-over that moves into the game play must make sense and can’t be at the cost of game play otherwise there is a risk of alienating players. Rewarding players ‘out-of-game activity’ with exclusive branded functional content can be successful, as it can add realism and functional player benefit to the game.
An important aspect is not to view the launch as the end. It is very unlikely you’ll hit upon the perfect mix of design, gameplay and social mechanics with the first iteration. Post-launch, analyse usage and tweak the game to improve the key metrics that you’ve set.
If you use Facebook as the platform, be aware of Facebook’s terms of service at launch and be prepared to react quickly to future changes to the terms of service. What’s considered best practice now could be banned tomorrow.
Social gaming is growing rapidly and presents opportunities to engage with large quantities of users, but don’t under-estimate how competitive and time-consuming it is to create, promote and support a game. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid. The most successful game, viral and monetisation mechanics for 2011 probably haven’t been created yet, meaning there is opportunity for the right new game to find success.
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