Rethinking social games part 2

This is the second part of the Rethinking social games’ series, in this article we’ll focus on the two left intrinsic motivations of the player (Autonomy and Relatedness, both based on the PENS framework from Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan) and the way they can be boosted in social games for betterment, in order to create a richer experience and to extend the features that they actually hold. Can social games be re-thought and re-invented from their actual formulas to be both profitable for enterprises and users? Check it by yourself down below!

And if you’re actually feeling lost, take a look at the first entry here. 


Is the experience of volition or choice in one’s decisions and actions. In activities in which we feel we have the freedom to choose and create the experiences we want for ourselves, we are more likely to be energized and intrinsically motivated to engage in those activities.       

 Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan

Freedom of choice, variety of actions and meaningful outcomes: ingredients for success when it comes to fulfill the player’s need of autonomy. A sense of freedom is a part of games which game designers actually have in mind when creating the patterns that will fit their games. Even though actions are designed to be in just a directional way, they usually be managed to be shaped in order to give the player a powerful sense of freedom. And even more in RPG titles, where often player’s decisions are wide but even more, they’re way to powerful to reshape the history in different ways, therefore creating new experiences out of meaningful decisions.

And in social: meaningful actions equals to better outcomes

First of all let’s give a look at what  Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan says about a decisive key factor of autonomy in games called Oportunities for action:

The options the player perceives as available to them at any given time during gameplay. They are a function of a)the interactive objects perceived by the player and b) the choices the player can make about how to meaningfully interact wit those objects in order to achieve goals or create new opportunities.

Are enough meaningful choices given to the player in social games? Due to several factors, and being some of the most powerful the technology in which such games are display, seems there is a lack of deep meaningful choices which shape the player’s experience regarding the majority of social games. PENS show that in some cases, such as strategy games, this experience of autonomy is a clear determinant of the fun and enjoyment the player gets from the game, and its even way more present in RPGs where long sized dialogs and a deeper thinking of choosing who-to-be helps to achieve goals.


A,B or C? Rock, paper or scissors? Creating meaningful choices can look dangerous for the simplystic aim some social games have, but sooner or later they will be more than ready to include them.

Far as we’ve seen, some social games have found way difficult to add a layer of meaningfulness above choices as PENS figures in its framework. Sometimes, given the nature of the game and the aim for a wide public, and for avoiding more complexity such experience shapers based on the player’s performance are usually avoided. But it doesn’t mean that players will be unable to learn anything way deeper than instant feedback after clicking on an object and doing a simple action. Social is a powerful tool for constantly reminding players that their actions are able to reshape their own experiences and their characters constructs, as well as the other ones. How about farming and grinding for a greater meaningful outcome? Such as creating a communitarian building or army for stopping an enormous enemy that may decide how the game evolves in a future.


¿Could harvesting crops lead to a meaningful outcome inside a game?

How about adding player’s the ability of choosing which ones to interact with and therefore making them participle on the history of his belongings? How about adding an intangible goal at the very end of the game (even though it is unreachable) rather than adding no one? Such different things may help players to think about the power of their decisions, rather than void actions related just to grinding. If the player manages a village of monsters, a farm, a zoo or a fish tank, let him know that every important action he does is meaningful and represents the means to an end, whether if it is becoming the world leader of fish tanks or just defeat the evil forces of corruption and pollution by building farms elsewhere.

Autonomy needs satisfaction is particularly important for titles that achieve perennial value (from when players return to again and again for many months and even years)

Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan

We could asses that social game’s aim really isn’t much of a long sized retention, provided that developers give them, from its start, a determined life period from when it will have full support until its depletion and therefore focusing on another new titles, in some sort of a quick rush (even though this rush can last more than a couple of years). Though players will hardly come back over and over again to the same title, creating enjoyable moments based on the player’s choices is not that bad to be put into the overall feeling that pure social facebook games have.


Mafia Wars as continuously adding new cities for players who reached up max levels. How could it help player’s sense of autonomy if such new fixed places could be driven by player’s choices or at least dressed to look like it?

Though autonomy may not seem the heaviest weight of the motivational balance the player actually holds when playing social games, is still important to be progressively adding layers of significance to extend the feeling of the game. Actually, though players may establish significant bonds with such browser games, its style and mechanics doesn’t leave much space to feel some sort of immersion and even more an autonomy able to change the “destiny of the world”. We may not be aiming to extremely sentimental-boundary kind of games, but asking for a greater commitment and to suggest the player that every significant action taken is the way, and thus may lead to a further effect that will keep him a)intrigued, therefore more willing to keep on discovering the rest of it;  b)motivated to cooperate and collaborate for a greater purpose based on the community actions or c) having an extended play in which his strong commitment (driven by this practices) may particularly lead to a greater spend.


Between them all: Immersion

Immersion or “presence” is an aspect of games which means how much the player feels to be “truly in the game”, involving him emotionally and drawing him in to the world it creates.

Social Games (in its casual branch) will hardly try to move towards such abstract and deeply structured scenery of a world where the player may feel immersed, and where the main engagement line will flow directly from making him being able to be emotionally and physically on it.  The strategy genre(often present in social games for its unique set of features that allow the asynchronous and re-takeable play over time and the slow-paced progression) is not a one to blame and developers aren’t guilty for avoiding charging games with deep storylines, consistent scripts, and emotional npcs and so on… when we talk about casual.

Social is a powerful tool for developing far more intricate formulas beyond the actual ones and casual is just a portion of the cake.

Casual stands for what it is: just a pass, short streak and fast paced kind of games, made for quick fun providing, small play sessions and a widespread range of players. But social doesn’t have to be casual, and the constant evolution of the formulas are suggesting that sooner or later, we’ll see something pretty much outside from what we call a simple short time play event inside social networks and/or mobile games. For some developers, seems that “immersion” and “social are two forces that, when they collide or run on the same track,  aren’t able to produce anything profitable in terms of revenue or retention for the public it is aimed to, keeping the fear to innovate inside a genre that is asking for more solid variations and dynamism than the one that actually is treated as a formula of success.


We shall not forget that social isn’t always meant to be casual, both concepts are usually merged together due to the treatment it has had recently. But MMOs actually created before networks where players could interact as well.

Therefore, will immersion be something to take care of inside social games? We could assess that yes, that the media streams will start to promote deeper experiences and more demanding players, out of the current new ones which are entering in the circle (and we always thought they would never do it), and that possibly ,such community will start demanding for something far from a fast trigger and explosive-run feedback, and develop an interest in experiences way richer than bejeweled or farm-like games. Of course, it’s hard to make such statements without any supporting background to reinforce that immersion will be successful in social games, but nothing far from reality the MMO success on the last 8 years has been enough powerful to bring players a new dimension to create another egos alongside virtual worlds, and using them for unlocking unique experiences never though before. Social environment helps incredibly to asses such things, making players able to keep in touch easier with each other and to help them build their personalities stronger and more consistently with an way higher feedback from the community of friends the player actually has.


Deep Realms (Playdom) was one of the first Facebook games that offered a plot layer which gave significance to the player’s background.

When a player finds opportunities in such circles of social networks, fear shall be the last thing to keep in mind when it comes to engage deeper in the creation of titles with something far more elaborated than just a weak plot with a dull character. It is not a call for freedom and to reinvent the wheel, casual is and will always be, a genre with an easy number of players, and with loads of techniques to be deployed; but social is a powerful tool for developing far more intricate formulas beyond the actual ones and casual is just a portion of the cake.

Could we ever find some examples of reinventing social games for a deeper immersion? Nothing less viable than adding a meaningful layer of storyline and engaging it deeper into the roots of what social is: a community. A powerful circle of relatives whose boundaries hold enough significance to contribute to an end that can be to play, but way more decisive:  to be. Helping users create their characters, or build their personalities, add an small plot or storyline, treating users as meaningful subjects inside a virtual world and leaving him attended as they were important to the overall course of the game, these kinds of things, actually misunderstood or rejected because of the prime childhood stage in what social actually is found, will perhaps be a common ingredient for some upcoming formulas. If the player’s experience is created on a more solid base of immersion (though as we’ve seen not everything at all is needed of such deep procedures) retention will significantly increase, as PENS states that such experiences contribute both player’s ones and commercial outcomes as well.


Relatedness is the intrinsic desire to connect with others in a way that feels authentic and supportive.

 Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan

In social games: community is the key

Provided is definition, everyone should be thinking that relatedness is the key motivator for social players, just because the main breeding ground of social wouldn’t ask for anything as much as it does from players interaction between each other.

But a branch of social games are constantly diminishing the quality of such relationships, and creating null or void interactions between players that feels kind of useless when the opportunity is offered, and what seems more important: the environment offers an incredible system way richer to be left aside and only used in a superficial way. Player’s need to feel inside a surrounding circle of belonging, the need of relatedness, and the availability of meaningful interactions are way helpful to maximize the energy games could provide to them ,and therefore increasing the time player’s may spend in a game.

For what we’ve seen so far, social interactions (on top of the notch games) are just focused on a) asking players for aid without anything more substantial that just clicking a thing (instrumentalization of relationships), b) interacting with each other in some sort of PVP system and c) capture new players and, rarely but seen, d) creating guilds.

In the new environment, and thinking about the player motivational needs and past formulas of AAA games we could see some other points such as:

1. Using players for creating a collaborative meaningful history between them: how would it be if the overall network in which players are distributed is contributing to some changes in the game? They can range from deciding a new type of unit based on polls placed weekly or monthly up to a more intricate reshape of the overall continuity of the game: making the players able to decide how the history surrounding the game is going to advance and therefore placing art changes and history-related things (such as quests) based on that. Since the first apparition of social games the closest thing we’ve seem if the current prize giving based on the community performance (which is a powerful way to make the viral factor to increase if the rewards are enough attractive), but they seem to have stopped there. AAA games, such as Defiance, tried to have an approach to leaving the community a huge freedom to reshape the history based on their votes and thoughts.


Community prizes in The Simpsons: Tapped Out are a powerful way to viralize and on of the first installments of relatedness in social games, offering rewards for the overall community performance: I need to play, you have to play, we must play.

Our answer lies within the middle of both: whether the reward is just not simply an item, isn’t as well a reshape of the overall lore of the game, is a minor tweak but a significant change to make player’s feel that their sense of outonomy is being treated as it should be, and that their actions helps to change the environment in which he is, always, for betterment. It is possible to think that therefore newcomers could feel lost by such practices, and that most developers woul probably reject it by the sense of losing potential users, increasing their user adquisition costs, but it is as simple as introducing the new player to this new way for reshaping the world in which he plays. Events could be more heavily distributed if they ask for quick rushes in order to, as an example, stop an outrageous force that is invading the world, and asks for the player’s commitment to perform certain actions to stop it and therefore evolving the envirnoment or the plot a step further.

2.Having roles on players to make richer the interactions available: based on MMOs (and even more MMORPGs), the ability to place roles on players is a tough decision and even more a deeper development for designers, and not always works the way it should when it comes to constraining the players range of choices. But when they work, they are able to create a community in which every player has something to do, in order to contribute to the game progression, receiving in exchange the reward of a) helping others and b) advancing, gaining reputation and experience. The way is not to create a deep ingame market with stock rules and so on where players place their offer and wages (we could also know that such feature will possibly hurt significantly games based on premium currencies, requiring for an economy system redesign that will end up in something chaotic).

The answer lies within the ability to offer players a range of things they can do if they chose to apply to a specific role. It doesn’t matter if it’s related to a class (being a merchant, or being proficient at building) or to an amount of actions done that places them into a preset one. Roles will aid players to discover new ways to interact with the whole community and even more, expand their experience by having a feeling of dependency to other roles if the design is made properly. The sense of becoming something more adds a layer of significance and makes the player able to formulate the statement of I am something else than just a player”. Roles can also be a key factor to make players seek for specific users to get into the game in order to complete their team or they ring of relatives in which they can rely into. Just the same that happened on the friend groups when they decided to take part in an MMORPG, deciding which role could be more convenient in order to aid his friends and progressing faster and in a more enjoyable way, with less anxiety given by the empty position left by a left unchosen class.


We’re not asking to develop an EVE market, but to learn from the basics that this designs have: roles, interactivity and meaningfulness.

In the actual market, by convention, skill games  feel les able to apply such features unless a masterful reinvention of the wheel is done (it could be hard imagining playing roles on a bejeweled game, though Puzzle and Dragons is an step forward), and that’s perfectly understandable. But the overall strategy-related ones have placed a fertile ground where players are ready to perform interactions more elaborated and that tend to a greater commitment to the game. Players can aid friends, have loans of units (both getting done), choose to collaborate in specific quests or objectives, fight against a menace together, create guilds with key positions, have a key role in the progression of other players, sharing purchased goods from the store(unthinkable by lots of developers but possible if well designed).

3. Allow players to collaborate or to gather, reunite and create groups with different purposes such as guilds, factions, etc. which increases the sense of belonging. The sense of belonging to a community is one of the intrinsic needs that players actually seek when they think about a massive multiplayer game. We cannot forget that mobile games with an emphasize on community are also massive multiplayer, even though this feature is asynchronous and the overall feel of being surrounded by players is not as alive as we could see in AAA titles. Nothing helps better to creating subcommunities than placing the ability to gather friends or players inside a group and therefore pushing it towards a rank for betterment. Inside a guild or group players can work as an incredible subsystem with its own rules, where they can aid each other, offer tips and tricks, create events, take decisions, have roles (it’s possible!), and so on.


We’ve seen it coming, Clash of Clans has masterfully took a step further in social features, allowing players to create guilds (clans), hardly seen before in a mobile environment.

Gathering has always been an inherited historical technique that humans have, from political parties up to facebook friend groups, the need to belong often surpasses some other ones, and people can feel from upset to anxious if they aren’t inside a specific circle that supports and contributes to their feelings or interests. And games provide a more volatile solution for such groups: exiting from one is as easy as may get, entering in another is as well, and if the amount of players is somewhat significant (talking about number of active players) there will always be offers for newcomers as well as for midcore and for elite players.

 Social networks do provide an incredible set of tools that help to drive the creation of such circles, even though they’re not specific games from them, they can offer connections to such networks in order to import friend lists and to keep them in track, in order to send invitations and to start a guild, just the same way somebody launches an start-up with a co-founder, it’s all about knowing and upgrading, talking and reacting, and extending gameplay for those who need something else to manange rather than the actual activities placed on strategy games. A few years ago we couldn’t though of World of Warcraft thinking about implementing features in facebook in order to extend the interactivity that users do outside the virtual world, and offer some sort of APIs or support to make players able to talk in social networks and find people to play, they relied on forums created by subcommunities in a game that took years to be developed. But when it comes to volatile titles that the mobile environment holds, using facebook as a tool to find people with an interest on belonging to a group is a fantastic solution for those who seek to start a virtual enterprise with roles, which provide a wider set of decisions and a deeper commitment, translated into more fun opportunities.

In the end…

So far so good, the ability to change social in social games is always up to the designer, and fulfilling the players motivational needs is a way to go when it comes to adapt the experience the best available way. We’ve seen how the three key factors work around and how some techniques can be applied in order to see an evolution of the genre, could we seen them applied in further titles? I wholeheartedly believe that there is a huge chance, and that social games are actually at a young, not to say child, stage.

The tools that social networks provide are enough powerful just to be diminshed into the few instrumentalizations of the interactions we’ve seen so far. Though they’ve worked, they also have created a resistance barrier on what we call social-veterans, the community of players that is growing significantly and that will end up demanding richer in content titles. Technology will come in a parallel road, pushing forward the chances to create more intrincanted and complex systems in small devices and browsers, leaving a white canvas with almost an uber-set of tools in order give creativity a broader chance.

Though before that casual is not social, we should be seeing, in a not so distant future, titles with immersion, competence, relatedness and autonomy, in which player’s decisions aren’t meant to be the wheel of destiny or voidless interactions, they can just be rewarded equally with a significance layer, making the player feel in a network in which his acts have a reward that matches the spirit of it. We could see challenges adapted to every different kind of player, and social interactions that asks for collaborative requests and to give the concept friends the place it deserves in the world of games.

I wish all the best to the ones who will push towards this path, which I clearly undestand that sooner or later will be the majority of developers, from small studios up to the cosmo-giants.

Social has just got started to be.

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