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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

The Next Generation of Social Networking Games

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on July 9, 2009


Approximately two years ago a variety of social gaming companies geared up to build and operate a new generation of products: social network games. The most famous is Zynga, whose representative title “Mafia Wars” can be found on Facebook  and MySpace. These games are not delivered on disks, nor via downloads, nor by visiting a website. Instead a player can access the game directlyi from their Facebook or MySpace page. The games have been wildly successful, with 3-4 million people logging in to Mafia Wars every day. The game has been tried by over 12 million people.

Many of these games share common elements, including the same core gameplay mechanics. For example, Zynga’s Mafia Wars, Fashion Wars, Vampire Wars, Pirates, Street Racing, Special Forces and Dragon Wars are all very similar. Some distinguishing characteristics of these games are listed below.

(1) Instant Play: Games are accessible and often entirely playable within Facebook or MySpace. Players can enter the game instantly. While server loads and page refresh times occasionally cause freeze-ups, it’s a minor frustration that tends to plague advanced players doing a lot quickly.

(2) Solo Play: Core gameplay mechanics are entirely solo-able. A player selects actions that make them richer, stronger and more experienced, yielding a level-up. This in turn unlocks new actions that make them even richer and stronger, so they can level up again, etc. You can play whenever you want, but pace of gameplay is controlled by the time needed to recharage your action points. Initially a full recharge of action points takes less than 30 minutes, but as you level-up the time grows to hours and ultimately days.  “Constantly win, constantly advance” play distills to its essence the core element of traditional RPGs.

(3) Competitive Play without Losers: Most games allow players to “attack” other players, but the potential opponent list is randomized from all other players of the same level and the amount any player loses is trivial. Actual combat is never face–to-face. It always occurs while the defender is logged out. Competitive players build a won/lost record while non-competitive players can ignore these attacks.

(4) Involves Social Network Friends: You can “include” people from your friends list in your game. Each friend you “invite” becomes an automated henchman. If the friend also plays the game and levels up, their higher level means your henchman is stronger. Having such henchmen not only increases your strength but also unlocks special activities and equipment. Friend involvement allows the game to advertise itself in a regular stream of gifts and wall postings.

(5) Microtransactions & Advertising: Each game has its own microtransaction currency, which can be purchased with real-world dollars (typically via credit card). In addition players can acquire game currency by agreeing to various “trial offers” for everything from Dish TV service to Netflix. The game currency allows players to acquire powerful equipment and levels faster. There are also opportunities for traditional web advertising within and around the game.

(6) Gameplay Familiarity: Many games use the same “action points” mechanic. Players familiar with one game can easily learn a new title. In fact, the similarities are so great that customer cannibalization is already a problem.

(7) Graphical Limitations: Great static webpage designs are vital to these games. Both current status and game options are presented through a combination of static images, text titles, short phrases and key numeric values. A few titles use simple side-scroller or isometric graphics with simple animations.


Retaining a Competitive Edge

The main problem with the current generation of social network games is the ridiculously low barrier to entry. Building these games takes at most 1-2 man-years. Of course, nurturing an online game to large and lasting success requires careful attention to customer needs. The most successful developers all follow the “Continuous Development” and “Customer Development” methods preached by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. (For the strategy, see Blank’s book The Four Steps to Epiphany; for practical implementation in software development, see Eric Ries’ blog “Lessons Learned”)

To remain competitive, forward-thinking firms are increasing their gameplay sophistication. For example, Playdom’s Sorority Life incorporates paper-doll style dress-up avatars. Some game actions go beyond a simple choice and result. These actions invoke puzzle or hidden object minigames. A player’s success in a minigame affects the result of their chosen action. Other Playdom games incorporate strategic maps, with different actions available in different map locations. As a player levels up, they unlock new map locations with new actions. Meanwhile Tyler Projects is experimenting with animated combat sequences.

The larger companies in social network gaming are moving to the next level of development, operation and sales. Zynga is literally flooding social networks with advertisements for their products, above and beyond the “viral” advertising inherent within the game. Leading companies are plundering traditional computer game firms for talent. In June 2009 Mike Verdu, GM of EA-LA, became Zynga’s VP of Game Development while Brian Reynolds (of Civilization & Rise of Nations fame) became a Chief Designer. In the same month Playdom announced that EA’s COO, John Pleasants, became their CEO.

Games following “traditional” social network design formulae have already graduated from a “New Market” (as defined by Steve Blank in his Stanford lecture) to a “Resegmented Market” where niche customer identification, branding and marketing play major roles in company success.


The Next Generation of Social Network Games

The game business is one of continual invention. It takes just one or two very different and very successful games to create a “New Market” in Blank-speak. The design concepts of that game can be refined and improved in successive titles to create market blockbusters. In online gaming there is no need to create a new title – customer metrics can guide expansion and/or revision of an existing title.

Highly creative game designs are frequently built from gameplay features found in earlier products. For example, EverQuest’s gameplay is a combination of solo computer RPGs and online MUDs, both of which owe their origins to the paper game “Dungeons & Dragons.” EQ’s graphical approach was  borrowed from first-person shooters.

When recently asked what I would suggest for next generation social network games, I adopted a similar approach. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I elected to draw upon the vast treasure trove of great past games, suitability revised, improved and adapted for the social network environment. Curiously, games from  the golden age of paper gaming (1970s) and the early days of computer gaming (‘85-‘95) provide many paradigms of elegant, successful mechanics to inform social network game design.


Exploration Games: A little-known but greatly beloved boardgame, Source of the Nile, had players take the role of European explorers of Africa. The map started 99% blank, with just a few known areas along the coastline. A player drew cards and rolled dice with each move to discover the terrain in front of them, which was then marked on the map. The party could move by boat upriver or overland on foot. Natural disasters, disease and hostile natives slowly took their toll on manpower and supplies, requiring fine judgment regarding how far to push into the unknown before returning to civilization, getting credit for various discoveries, and financing their next expedition.

Dani Bunten’s masterful The Seven Cities of Gold for 8-bit Apples, Ataris and Commodores took this “move and discover” motif to the conquistador era of the 1500s in the New World. I seem to remember Dani saying that she’d been influenced by SPI’s Conquistador boardgame as well. In any event Seven Cities generated a different unknown “new world” each time for endless replayability. Explorers gradually uncovered terrain, made discoveries, met friendly or hostile natives, etc.

A social network exploration game titled, say, Christopher Columbus would make each player a global explorer seeking lucrative trade connections in distant places, yielding everything from spice to silk. Each expedition that returns home contributes toward leveling-up, allowing players to command bigger expeditions with a wider range of options for discoveries, diplomacy, trade and combat. Successful expeditions also earn profits that can be spent on better equipment, ships, caravans, etc. Naturally some of the best items are only available via the microtransaction game currency.

Socially players can share discoveries and trade connections with friends, or use “dirty tricks” attacks to hinder rivals. Technically the overall world map needs to be vast – more than any one player can ever discover. Each player only sees a scrolling window into the region around their current expedition. The remainder of the map is nothing more than a server-side database. Early versions of this game can metric various mixes of discovery, trade, diplomacy and combat. The game can be adjusted to target player preferences. If players enjoy overland exploration over sea travel,  expand land travel and simplify naval movement. If players prefer founding colonies and fighting natives or each other, the game could be slanted more toward European conquest and colonization around the world from 1550 to 1900.


Data & Function-Driven Adventure: Back in 1981 I was surprised when a small solo boardgame I designed won the industry’s Best Fantasy Game of the Year.  The game was “Barbarian Prince.” If you don’t want to follow the link and paw through its myriad details, in this game the player starts alone in the wilderness as the exiled “Barbarian Prince of the Northlands.” The player tries to survive and acquire sufficient strength to reclaim his throne. Each “day” the Barbarian Prince can try to travel to a new square (hex). Assuming he doesn’t get lost on the way, he will forage for food and frequently has an interesting random encounter. Part of the game’s charm was the wide variety of possible encounters and events, all based on which square was visited and how the dice rolled. For example, if the Barbarian Prince moving along a road encountered a swordsman, this might occur:

e003 Swordsman

You meet a swordsman adventurer. He is mounted on a horse with combat skill 6, endurance 6, and wealth 7. Sitting there on his horse he takes an active interest in your party. Your options are:

  die roll talk *evade fight


converse r341 escape mtd r312 surprise r303  


converse r341 escape r315 attack r304  


looter r340 hide r317 attack r305  


hireling r339 bribe (5) r322 attacked r306  


hireling r333 pass r325 attacked r307  


bribe (10) r332 pass r325 surprised r308  

* if your party has winged mounts and/or flying ability, you can use escape flying (r313) instead of rolling the die for the evade option.

Each “r000” reference above is a different rules section that explains how to resolve that action. For example, a bribe is successful if appropriate gold is given. If the bribe fails, a fight may result. Ownership of certain items may modify the results, e.g., owning a mount (horse, etc.) makes escape easier. In effect the entire game is a data-driven design supported by multi-variable result functions.

Obviously significant design changes are needed to make something like “Barbarian Prince” successful in a social network environment. Dice rolls need to be replaced by player choices. Random henchmen are replaced by friends from the player’s social network. Random encounter characters are other players in the game. A player could select “be a bandit today” to attack other players of a similar level.

Games like this require an over-arching storyline to engage and push forward the player. Quests work best if tied to the player’s level rather than map locations. Additional random encounters are still needed to make the game world seem alive and the player’s travel choices meaningful.

Another requirement for bringing such a game to a mass audience is evocative graphics. A good illustration for each encounter is infinitely superior to lengthy hunks of text. Simple pencil sketches are adequate starting for a first release. If the game is successful, they could be replaced with more polished and costly artwork.


Driving Games: The core of a next-generation driving game would be a 3D Flash application for driving your car around a racetrack. Lliterally hundreds of “indie” developed Flash driving games demonstrate that this is possible. If Flash proves unsuitable, there are other lightweight 3D platforms available.

The critical technological issue is that competiting cars cannot be driven by other players live. This cannot be a head-to-head realtime racing game.

Why? First, internet lag makes head-to-head driving very problematic, especially when cars are very close. There are no good ways to handle collision detection. Second, even if enough opposing drivers of similar skill can be assembled to start a race promptly, during the race drivers can and will drop out while others may “grief” via collisions, road blockages, etc.

The best solution is an AI drive for all opposing cars. These AIs operate best if they know a “perfect line” to follow through the racecourse. From this it is a small step to recording each player’s path through the course as they drive it. This enables a player to race “against” their friends after all, with an AI following that friend’s path and car on the course.

A satisfying car driving experience is not the entire game. Customer-driven development can determine which of the myriad gameplay options and rewards from other race games appeal most to social network players. These options are pre-race choices such as type and model of car, mechanical adjustments to engine, suspension, tire selection and more. Post-race rewards are equally important, and may include rewards for just finishing the race, placing better than the last race, beating a specific rival driver, or beating a specific team. Racing points can be accumulated toward a “level-up” license that unlocks new tracks and cars. All these pre-race and post-race activities can be done without recourse to special Flash applications.


Risk and Reward

It is easy to imagine grandiose visions for a social network game. Unfortunately, big ideas and big games take vast efforts to develop. This leads to the tens of millions needed for AAA console or MMO PC titles. Customer-driven development doesn’t happen during the traditional phases of prototyping, pre-production and production for such a big title. When beta finally arrives18-36 months later, major gameplay choices have been ossified by vast investments in 3D assets and level design. Most of the development money is spent, reducing beta inputs to tweaks and minor adjustments.

The social network game business allows invest in a much larger number of easier, faster games like the three ideas above. Whichever game proves most successful is rewarded with additional investment for gameplay improvements, expansions, graphic upgrades and interface revisions. In the continuous development world of online games, instead of big gambles on potential success 2-4 years away, a company can try out many cheaper games and build on a proven winner within the year.

3 Responses to “The Next Generation of Social Networking Games”

  1. aldisrolf said

    Good to listen about the New generation of Social Networking games but a lover of Driving games. Driving games are the best to play.

  2. I kept this blog as a bookmark. i really appreciate this blog. thanks.

  3. Stephane said

    I’m so glad I came upon your site: I learned English with games like Barbarian Prince and The Fantasy Trip adventures.
    I loved your game :)

    Brilliant ideas too. I would also surmise that asynchronous collaborative building/crafting will be huge, whatever the genre.

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