Enter the maze

Gaming together

Cartoon 8-bit pixel people

Computer games are getting all sociable these days. In the past most computer games cost millions to develop, used teams of programmers, were bought over the counter at shops in boxes, had thick instruction manuals, and came with a set of disks to install on your home PC. Now the trend blasting thorough the game industry is social gaming. The games live on social networking sites, like Facebook, where there is no massive download, where they are easy to play straight away and where they are even free to play. What’s more, many of these games are brilliant ideas turned into reality by just a few creative programmers. Their games are loved and played by millions, and yes, there are millions to be made, just like in the heyday of the early games industry. But just what makes social games so compelling?

Playing Mind Games

People love to play games. In traditional games like chess or football there are obvious rules and (usually) a clear winner. This is often the way computer games work: you fight the battles and kill the boss at the end. But look at other very popular games such as The Sims. It is the world’s best-selling PC game, yet there are no obvious winners, just levels of success as you build your character’s lives. Perhaps winning really isn’t important after all: games are better thought of as an experience with rules and goals and which is fun to play.

Games are designed to manipulate human behaviours: to help make us happy, help us learn or even to help us part with our cash. Psychologists know the power of what are called reinforcement schedules, which are methods of affecting behaviours. Positive reinforcement schedules mean that a particular behaviour is encouraged by giving rewards when it happens, like getting praise from your parents each time you pass an exam. Negative reinforcement happens when you’re punished for behaviours when they happen (insert your own example here). What games designers found was that a variable reinforcement schedule really keeps people playing. If you think of a slot machine, every coin that goes in can either win or lose, but you can keep going back because each time you a coin in there is a level of uncertainty in what will come out, and humans seem to like that risk. The game mechanics of popular titles often tap into these reinforcement schedules to keep the players on their toes and engaged. In fact, some games companies employ ‘social architects’ to look at the psychology and sociology of the gameplay to ensure it works the best it can. After all, understanding what players want means they will stick around longer.

In social games you really need three things. The players help to create the game content, so you need a way for them to do that. You also need to give them the ability to communicate and chat with others in the game, and tools to allow them to share the content amongst their friends. These enable the games to take on a whole deeper meaning and provide a better quality experience for players. Other people – your online friends –now provide the many of the reinforcement schedules. What you do matters to you because you are doing it with and for friends.

All kinds of people

Social networks are big. If all the people who regularly used Facebook were considered a country it would be the third largest in the world, after China and India. Think of it: all those people online looking for stuff to do and enjoy. These networks are filled with all kinds of different people, male and female, young and old, experts and games novices, and they all want to play.

So while social games are easy to get into and tap into fundamental human needs, the game mechanic still needs to work. The players need to be part of a social group and they need to feel valued. To accomplish this, for example, a social game might let you earn all-important bragging rights to share with your friends. You might score points as you ‘level up’ or complete challenges challenges, or you might get popularity points from your admiring fans and friends for doing well. Either way, that’s a positive reinforcement schedule. Leaderboards, where players are ranked on a whole lot of different possible characteristics, are also popular, though less so with older players. Another way to pull players in is to realise that people like collecting sets of things, so they might have fun trying to collect a set of virtual items in your games. This social aspect combined with a feeling that your playing is useful means that, in a recent survey, it was discovered that the average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman. In fact 55% of social gamers were women, which is a very different result from the male-dominated market for more traditional games.

Show me the money

There’s one problem for the games developers, though: how do you make money? In the past the customer shelled out for some disks with the game on them. Now that it’s all free, someone has to be able to make a business run to be able to create new games. This is where the industry starts to look at some different ways to make its cash. If your game is free to play, you are giving away all the code and ideas you worked so hard on. The good news is that the marketing is free too: friends tell friends about good games, and new recruits arrive through a process called viral marketing. Your happy players do the selling rather than your company having to take out expensive adverts in traditional gaming magazines. Now that you’ve gathered players, other companies start to want to advertise their products to your audience. You can then start to charge your players a small amount to have the advertising turned off or reduced, leaving all those playing for free to be bombarded by the billboards. Another way is to link things in the game to the payment of real cash. For example, to customise your character you might splash out by paying for some extra virtual bling. There are also ways to trade in virtual money where the cash in the game can be bought with cash from the real world. Paying real cash can also be a way to let your character level up faster, to get more points at each stage of the game to be able to reach the later stages faster and beat their friends. There are even books you can buy that give you strategies to outplay your friends in various social games. No one quite knows the best way to make money from social games, so there may be whole new business models out there waiting to be discovered.

Farming with friends

A good example of a successful award winning social game is FarmVille, based in Facebook with over 80 million players. FarmVille is a gentle online farming game. First you create your farmer, then you grow your crops, nurturing them through the countryside challenges that nature provides. The strategy comes in with the FarmVille coins. You start with 100, and have to use these to buy seeds at the market. Easy-to-grow crops don’t sell for as much as the harder-to-grow crops, so you need to decide how much risk you are willing to take, and how much time you are willing to invest. The crops grow in ‘real time’ – well, real game time – so strawberries take about four hours to grow. You can’t rush nature. As your money grows you can buy trees and animals or even, at later stages, farm machinery like tractors. Or you can use your money to customise your farmhouse, or send presents to your neighbours. You can invite friends to join, and they can run a farm themselves or help out on your homestead. Along the bottom of your screen you can watch how your friends are doing, what level they are on and so on. Inviting enough friends who then play also makes you eligible for extra in-game perks. You can earn ribbons for helping friends, or even adopt stray animals. The stray animal game mechanic is cunning; there are limited edition cute animals you can’t buy. If you’ve been playing online for a while a stray and very cute cow, for example, may arrive on to your farm. You can’t adopt these strays yourself – you need to post this information on your Facebook page and your friends can adopt them, building the social bonds between you. The game designers make their real money by locking off certain perks within the game which can only be used if you pay, like allowing you to pay to skip over some of the daily grind on the farm, or collect new items in the game that have been suggested by players. All this global success and only fifteen people are needed to maintain the game.

What’s that coming over the hill?

Many of the current crop of social games are developed by individuals or small teams of friends. Sometimes the quality of these games, from the graphics to the games controls aren’t yet as spectacular as games with millions of pounds in development backing them, but the new games are massively popular. They are getting better where they need to and many more will follow. There are now very successful companies specialising in social games development, bent on improving the quality of play and game mechanics through their amazing creativity, and the traditional games industry needs to come to terms with this shift. Much like the film and music industry, the web has changed the rules of the gaming business. Once again the field has opened up to a new generation with clever ideas and a cunning business model to make their millions. You could be part of it!