Layton Hawkes - Game Designer


Exploring Social Games

Originally published on March 21, 2011.


The face of the games industry over the the past five years has changed significantly. Platforms such as the iPhone and Facebook have provided unprecidented areas of growth for games. Due to the nature and popularity of these two platforms casual games have been the main avenue of expansion, the grand ‘notion’ of games is no longer constrained to the PC and consoles. What constitutes a ‘gamer’ is now broad, encompassing all genders, ages and nationalities, including whole family participation.

Social games are the most popular sector of the casual games industry. The company that is arguably synonymous with social game is Zynga. Zynga was formed in 2007 and focuses on the development of social games, and now in 2011 could be valued as high as $10 billion according to a recent article by the The Wall Street Journal[1]. In as little as four years Zynga have shown the amazing potential of the sector. Their latest game CityVille has over 90 million average monthly users, or in a more steady figure over 20 million people play CityVille every day[2]. It is currently the most popular game ever on Facebook. Social games have captivated a wide international audience.

With such huge numbers of players being attracted to social games, it’s hard to ignore that this sector will be a big part of the future of not only the games industry but the entertainment industry as a whole. This paper will explore social games, and what design principles are used to create them, including the mechanics and psychology at play behind them, what a social game is and to whom they appeal.  Specifically focusing on the social games of Facebook. What makes popular social games captivate wide international audiences, what are some of the keys to their success?

What is a Social Game?

In the world of design, and especially game design, definitions are rarely agreed upon and are evolving with the industry. There is continued argument among game designers as to what constitutes a game, let alone a social game or anything in between. Furthermore, to have a proper context for defining social games, one must first know what a casual game is, for a social game is often also a casual game.

A casual game focuses on accessibility as it’s defining factor. Casual games are often made for families, providing a low entry point for the skills required to play. These games are often also designed for shorter play sessions in mind, the player does not need to devote a significant portion of time to be rewarded. As a result normal goals in casual games are completed quickly allowing the player to achieve much in a short amount of time. Many games on the iPhone adopt this design approach as the average user will only play for a few minutes at a time. Coupled with this, the price of failure in many casual games is low. Faux-challenge (from french false) is used to give the illusion of challenge where there is little punishment for failure.

An inclusive approach is required to create a definition for social games for we must take into account the broader definition from the views of many different designers and the elements that have been adopted from casual games. An article by Nicholas Lovell published on Games Brief poses the question ‘What is a social game’ to over two dozen prominent games designers, producers and writers[3].  In this article many viewpoints are put forward. John Romero, game designer describes social games as “taking advantage of your friendships in meaningful ways” whilst Tom Chatfield, author says they are “[games where] the most important mechanisms of reward and pleasure come attached to explicitly social aims”. Margaret Robertson, game designer argues that the definition is not descriptive of the game, but rather the “mindset of the player” at any given time. The overall theme is one of sociability as a main goal with many in the article including social networking websites, such as Facebook into their definition, they are closely linked.

What then is a social game? A social game is a game which promotes social interaction through gameplay goals and rewards and uses elements of the social web to propagate and facilitate play. Adding the defining qualities of a casual game; a social game must be accessible, and often has little punishment for failure.

Examples of Current Popular Social Games

CityVille, Zynga

Zynga’s CityVille is currently the top played game on Facebook (metrics in introduction). In CityVille players are tasked with building a city of their dreams. They must build homes, stores, government buildings, different attractions and decorations. Almost all the rewards in the game can be shared with other friends who play the game. Neighborhoods can be formed when two or more friends link their cities and bonuses can be gained from sending friends gifts and offering assistance. It’s interesting to note that this is Zynga’s latest game in the ‘Ville’ series, their other games have had great success as well; FarmVille and FrontierVille to name but a few.

Ravenwood Fair, LOLapps

LOLapps’ Ravenwood Fair uses a similar formula to Zynga’s CityVille and currently boasts over 11 Million players per month[4]. It’s an interesting game for study because from these similarities we can see which game mechanics have been adopted from CityVille to make Ravenwood Fair successful as well. In the game players build a fair and attract visitors. To do this players will build food stalls, attractions and various other ornaments. To encourage sociability the game is made easier then friends band together to share rewards and visit each others fairs.

Mafia Wars, Zynga

Zynga’s Mafia Wars currently has over 12 Million users a month[5] on Facebook alone, although this figure is undoubtedly much higher as the game is also available to be played on many other platforms including Yahoo, Myspace, and the iPhone. In Mafia Wars players create a mafia persona for themselves and form groups with friends, take on rivals and complete jobs. Social goals are at the heart of the experience with cooperation and sharing are an integral part of play.

The Design of Social Games

Now that we have a definition for what constitutes a social game, and have seen some popular examples, we must ask the question – why? Why are these games so internationally popular and what game design principles are used when building them? Game designer, teacher and consultant Tadhg Kelly provides some interesting insights throughout his four part writeup titled ‘CityVille Explained’, some of which I will refer to in the following discussion[6].

Basic Gameplay in Social Games

Every game must have basic gameplay, and since a social game is often a casual game it must be accessible to a wide variety of people. Thus the barrier for entry must be low, the control scheme must be simple. If we look at any of the popular examples above performing actions requires no more than clicking the mouse, no complex key strokes required. Kelly in his article describes CityVille’s defining gameplay element as “click-to-do”. This is also true if we look at Mafia Wars or Ravenwood Fair, click to build, restock, collect rewards and interact with the environment. In Ravenwood Fair when an attraction is built or a tree chopped down coins and other resources drop to the ground, the player can click these items to pick them up or wait for them to be automatically be collected after a set time. I noticed that this rarely happened, it’s hard to stop the players drive for the collection of these items. These clicking actions satiate the players hunger for interactivity and deepen immersion. Players feel they they are making a difference within the world by empowering them, even if in effect the task itself is unsophisticated. Mafia Wars uses similar techniques of unsophisticated click-heavy gameplay tasks to collect rewards. This drive taps into the hunter gather instinct, our natural drive you gather and collect. There is an immediacy developed from clicking, it feels good to see the reward in front of your eyes a mere click away, the player is in control. These click actions provide a casual interface to deliver the empowerment that games impart as a medium.

A social game must focus on drawing players back to the game indefinitely. Timers are a widely used solution. Without timers the click-heavy gameplay would soon become frantic, it’s essential for pacing. Timers limit the players actions, so that they can’t complete every task immediately, leading to anticipation of the reward to come (goals and rewards discussed in depth later). An example is CityVille’s timers, there is certainly more than one. Some complete every few minutes, hours and some over days. Energy, an element used in all the social game examples above is a resource that’s used up when you perform certain actions – read click. Energy is on a timer of 5 minutes in CityVille limiting the number of actions you can perform each play session of the game, although not all actions require energy. Players can share energy with their friends or buy more for real money from Zynga, partially how the game is monetised. Alternatively, the player can perform limited actions whilst they wait for energy or leave the game for awhile (to be lured back by energy or other timers later). As Kelly puts it ‘the use of multiple timers creates the sensation that there is always something to do while waiting’ or how I would describe it; there is always stuff to do while waiting for better stuff to do. Many popular social games use timers as a possible solution for the the retention of audiences through anticipation as a key design element.

Goals & Reward Systems in Social Games

Once the basic gameplay is established players need to be challenged. Central to any experience of play is the achievement of completing a specific goal and being rewarded for your efforts. This is where fun occurs, all of the hard work through gameplay finally pays off. In social games the system of goals and rewards is linked closely to the social aspects of the experience. The most basic short-term rewards are gained from collection, mentioned briefly above, or taking a more generalised approach; short-term rewards are gained easily and directly from click actions. No explicit goals are given by the game for the completion of these specific rewards because completion is an intrinsic part of gameplay. The goals pertaining to these rewards are made by the player according to the feedback the game gives them, sometimes called ‘immediate’ goals. Short-term rewards are a powerful motivator on their own because they happen often over short time intervals.

Intermediate goals, sometimes called medium-term goals, form the basis of play in many games. They are the bread and butter of a single session of play. Intermediate goals in socials games such as CityVille and Ravenwood Fair take the form of tasks and quests, whilst in Mafia Wars they are called missions. All these goals work mechanically the same however, they are designed to be completed in a short play session and often have under five steps. These goals are stacked meaning the player has a wide variety of tasks to complete at any given time, and importantly has a choice. Intermediate goals provide players with something to aim for each an every time they play. What makes these goals differ in social games is sharing of rewards. Almost any intermediate goal the player completes will give them the option of sharing the rewards amongst friends and family. Sharing and gift giving as a key element will be discussed later.

There are also a huge array long-term goals to complete, and thus be rewarded for. These come in a number of varieties. In Mafia Wars the players persona gains levels, which in turn unlocks the ability to go to different countries. In Ravenwood Fair and CityVille you unlock new buildings and more land to build on. Long-term goals often take two or more play sessions to complete. In social games these goals have two major areas; social goals and individual goals. Social goals help players to fulfill individual goals, but often don’t stop them for completing one. For example in CityVille if a player builds a city hall they must hire staff to work in the new building. These staff can be hired with the games currency or the player can hire friends and family to fill the positions for no cost. In this manor the game encourages social play through these goals. If this is true, we can conclude that a social game must provide long-term goals that promote making new friendships and using those the player already has.
I touched briefly on the retention of players previously, and that the anticipation of rewards was a driving factor in this area. Timers are one method used in popular examples. Ravenwood Fair and CityVille also use the a daily bonus reward to encourage players to play consecutive days. These rewards gradually increase each day they return. Like all other rewards, these bonuses can be shared. The generation and retention of players is a key problem for any social game to address, for without other people playing it wouldn’t be a very social experience.

In his article Tadhg Kelly talks about what he calls open loops, or tasks in our lives. We as humans try to close these loops and to neatly finish them off. Kelly says “Games tap into our need to close loops. Social games like CityVille are expert at doing so because what they create is a never-ending series of open loops. No matter how quickly you play or how much money you spend, there is always something to do, some gate to unlock, some task tree to complete, some daily bonus to claim, some new set to gather, some crop to harvest or some level to attain”. The goals and rewards of social games tap into our desire as humans to complete tasks in our lives. They provide an infinite number of tasks to complete and rewards to attain as well as linking these rewards to others through social mechanics. Isn’t the desire to reciprocate a gift given a loop in itself?

The Social Tapestry

Weaved through the game mechanics are the social elements. As the author Tom Chatfield said in a lecture on social games “the biggest neurological turn-on for people is other people”[7], and no social game would be complete without gameplay used to expand and encourage sociability amongst friends and family. The most basic way Mafia Wars, Ravenwood Fair and CityVille promote social gameplay is through the use of reminders and prompts. CityVille asks you to share rewards with friends, share news of your accomplishments, invite friends to be neighbours, send trains to a friends city, give a friend a gift and so on. These act as a reminder to the player that they are not alone.

As I touched on earlier resources play a major role in social games, for without them there would be nothing to share. Giving gifts to your friends and sharing your resources with those in need becomes a common action, in all three examples after every accomplishment the player makes there is often a button on the screen which will enable them to share the reward. In an interesting twist CityVille further reinforces this by making many gifts free to the giver. For example, if one of the players friends has run out of energy and needs more, giving them some energy will not detract from the players own supply. In this way people learn to work together encouraging a mutually beneficial play experience.

Friends become a means to success. Players can send invites to friends for all sorts of activities, or even to join the game and play with them. This acts as both a reward incentive (more friends, bigger profits) and as free promotion for the game. Players in CityVille and Ravenwood Fair also gain benefits by visiting a friends town. A visiting player can help out their friend by completing tasks for them such as clearing trees to free up room for construction. In CityVille, players not only have a personal level but a social level that is gained by doing these actions. This cooperation becomes essential if player is to gain the maximum rewards.

With all this collecting, helping friends and building bigger cities it is a natural question to ask what can the player do with all of these accomplishments? The answers lies in the social games connection to social media such as Facebook. Users in all three games examples can publish a wide variety of things to their wall (their main Facebook page) or post to a friends wall with their permission. In this way players can share achievements or inform a friend that they have visited their city. In the same way invites work this also helps with promoting the game and keeping players engaged in what each of their friends is up to. Many social games including Mafia Wars, Ravenwood Fair and CityVille also take advantage of Facebook’s notification system. Notifications are used to alert players, when they are outside of the game but logged into Facebook, of any requests they receive in game. For example if one of the players friends requests some energy, the player will be sent a notification to their Facebook page. Thus, a social game must utilise the features of social media to promote the sharing of game information.

However, despite these social elements we can see that social games are inherently played for selfish aims. In Tadhg Kelly’s article he concludes that “It’s all incentive-driven. One of the ironies around social games is that they aren’t particularly social. They don’t encourage deep social interaction because such interaction is useless to the developer. Social games are not trying to be connections or meaningful experiences for players. That is a wholly different kind of game, and not one that they can easily become given the environment in which these games are played.” This is the key, the environment in which they are played. Facebook is a platform built for quick and easy communication, and thus social games provide quick and easy ways to play socially with other people. This is not necessarily a bad thing, social games teach us that more people cooperating can achieve more than the individual.

Visual Design & Interface

If we look at many social games including Mafia Wars, Ravenwood Fair and CityVille we can see that the visuals support gameplay.  As to how essential high-quality visuals are remains disputed. James Zhang, CEO of Concept Art House summarises “…great graphics remain a subjective factor for social game developers. To help further refine the argument that it is valuable… [art is important for] retaining initial installs of new players, better monetization of virtual goods, and extending game-play durations. These areas all play a large part in a games’ success or failure in an increasingly competitive market. The question then becomes not whether high quality is important, but the level or value of that importance.”[8]

Social games must first have a firm basis in the design principles used to create them. Zhang argues that in such a competitive market visuals must also be made to a high standard. The visuals have the power draw new players in and keep them playing beyond the limitations of gameplay. We must then conclude that visuals are not an essential component, but must be considered if a social game intends to be a global competitor amongst a market saturated by similar games.

Likewise interface needs to be considered. In any game the interface (feeback systems) the aim is to  provide the essential information needed to play. Simplicity and clarity need to at the forefront of a social games’ interface. If we look at CityVille, the interface is crisp and clean whilst also providing depth of features. Whilst the game can feel busy there is always a clarity, the player always understands what is happening and how they are progressing towards their goals. Prominently featured on both Ravenwood Fair and CityVille’s interfaces is information about the players friends. Social games need a clear and accessible interface that prominently features information on friends and family to encourage the pursuit of social rewards.

Audience and Profit

The audience for casual social games is massive. Zynga alone has over 250 million[9] people play one of their games each month, more than half the current users of Facebook[10]. From these figures it is clear that social games appeal to many different people. This is partially why social games are so successful, their target audience is – everyone. According to a study by Richard Absalom a consumer technology analyst, over half of social games players are women[11] and additionally that middle-aged groups of both genders are more attracted to social gaming; between 30 and 59 years of age. Social games are adept at catering for the largest audience they can, and keeping them, through many of the design principles we have discussed.

Now that the game is designed properly and the audience is playing it, how do these games make a profit? Social games often use a business model coined ‘Freemium’[12]. The implementation is simple. The game is free-to-play, but players can spend a little money to get ahead. If CityVille is used as an example we can see how social games use this business model effectively. There are two types of currency in the game, one easy to obtain used for almost all the basic actions such as building roads and houses, and one that is very hard to obtain which can be used for special actions. In CityVille the former is coins and the latter is cash. Cash is only obtained (freely) when the player ‘levels up’ their city and can be used to complete goals without having previously met the requirements. One goal might be to harvest 10 crops, the player could proceed normally or pay 4 cash to complete the goal instantly. Cash is a powerful resource, players want it. Zynga provides players the service of being able to purchase this in-game cash for real money and therein lies the profit. Although the number of players who will actually purchase these items are low, the amount of players drawn to social games make up the difference. According to Kelly’s article “The average game makes $0.25 per [monthly average user] per month in revenue.”


Social games are a massive market and their audience is broad. Popular social games that captivate wide audiences are designed with very specific principles in mind that allow them to succeed. A social game must use accessible controls that empower the player, adopt firm methods such as anticipation to retain audiences, provide many goals that reward players with resources, and provide social options to share those resources or cooperate for greater rewards. Social games need clear visual design and must find ways to monetise their audience. Finally a social game must connect to the social web and allow players interact and share their achievements with others. Social games are allowing wider international audiences including friends and families to communicate in new and different ways.

Whilst researching social games I am overwhelmed by this sectors size and complexity, and the short time in which it has risen. I have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon. There is a bright future ahead for the convergence of games and social media, and I for one am excited to be a part of it.


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