What Really Defines A Social Game?

Social Games are a bit like a ball, they’re inert when they’re in the garage and not much fun on when your on your own*. The more people there are the better the ball does it’s job and the more people have fun. Then you’re at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010! It’s ultimately not about the ball but none of that fun would happen without it.

Sound familiar? This is your game so lets explore what really defines a social experience.

*unless you’re John Farnworth.

What I’ve learned

This is a question I often wonder about as I’ve been working with truly social games from a number of years now and it really takes some consideration to make sure you’re hitting a few fundamental points to be successful. Here’s what I think makes for a successful social game.

I’ve learned a lot these last few years whilst homing in one what makes a successful social game, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to meet with a wide variety of people who have all contributed to my world view. I know believe this is one of the contributing factors to way women now play more games as they are inherently more social than men and place a lot more value on those interactions. All of which have been missing until recently.

So, I’ve been for quite a few job interviews recently and I’ve been asked “What do you think makes a social game?”

Pillars of Social Games

I believe there are a few basic pillar measurements you can use to gauge where your game sits on the “social game” slider from, solo offline experience, to massively multi-player realtime action game.

Fundamentally, social games connect people with each other and enabled people to have an entertaining shared experience. These strengthen bonds and enable people to build relationshops.

There are 3 high level examples of social gameplay: 1) Solo Offline - I play in my own world, disconnected and nothing is shared - Red Dead Redemption 2) Realtime multi-player - We share a world, doing the same thing as each other - Call Of Duty 3) Async multi-player - We play the same game separately but our games are inter-twined - FarmVille

Two other principals that are compatible with all of the above: a) Competitive - we compete against each other, one of us is better than the other b) Co-operative - we share the same goal and share in the rewards along the way

As game developers, we’ve known about this for many years and it’s moving forwards well as we explore more ways of enabling people to play together. Most of which has been made possible with the advent of connected games consoles and fast broadband.

As with all game design, it’s not easy to get this right and getting that special something is hard work.

In order to do this, we need to explicitly connect and share but also implicitly have common ground.


This connection is more than just the physical connection between two consoles, PCs or phones. This is about the players, who need to be able to find each other and stick together. Thankfully most of this is taken care of with modern game systems such as Live, PSN and Steam but we’ve yet to see this happen on Apple’s iPhone and iPad. They’ll get there one day but they do have a tendency to take their time on anything other than beautiful industrial design (British Creativity!).

A key aspect of a social game is our constant re-connection with the game and each other. In part, it comes via the discussions we have about the game, the forums we patrol, the Facebook pages we trawl.

Clever designers incorporate a ‘call to action’ outside of the game to bring people back in and raise awareness of a game on their shelf, these can be friends gaining trophies and you just have to have them, new DLC packs (even free as they pay for themselves in other ways) that extend your  time enjoying the game. I would say the best example of these ‘calls to action’ are game items that expire, gifts or help requests.

Expiring items give you an impetus to come back to play the game to complete a delayed action or re-instate something before a timer expires. Good examples would be:

![](/assets/Animal-Crossing-Dog.jpg "Animal-Crossing-Dog")**Animal Crossing** - vendors at specific times of day or even day of month, seasons, fishing at night and fruit that goes bad. Special events on religious festivals.
![](/assets/hustle_kings_ps3.jpg "hustle_kings_ps3") **** **Hustle Kings** - a viral trophy that you can only get by playing against someone who already has it.
![](/assets/farmville1.jpg "farmville")**FarmVille** - crops that need tending in X hours or they perish, limited time offers for 'free' sheep that you must have, receiving a gift that I have to place in the world before it expires, your friends have fertilised your crops for you and got rid of pests.

Shared Experience

Whoah! This alone is a massive topic! Right, lets get stuck in with a big list of things we can share on a system such as Steam, XBox Live, Facebook, PlayStation Network. Each element binds us together and increases our enjoyment

  1. We can see each other as avatars
  2. We can see each others achievements
  3. We have common friends and unique friends
  4. We share games we’ve played
  5. We can challenge each other
  6. We can brag about our success
  7. We can sit next to each other and play
  8. We can talk to each other
  9. We can collaborate on making new worlds
  10. We can join together as a team against others
  11. We can invite each other into games
  12. We can explore virtual worlds together
  13. We can lead others as a group
  14. We can give each other gifts
  15. We can step in and take over when the other isn’t around
  16. We can meet new people through new interactions
  17. We can ask for help
  18. We can grief  people if they’re hurting our experience

Pretty much none of these things we’re around a few years ago and this list is evolving all the time as the weak elements are dropped, the strong ones survive and new things are tried.

Playing a game co-operatively on a 3D enabled TV is something to be amazed at. Clever people use the technology to only show the screen to 1 person at a time so we can both see a nice big picture but not have a clue what the other is doing!

Common Ground

The smart teams have understood this last point for quite a while and it’s something that no piece of tech can give you and it has multiple facets.


As people playing your game, we need to be able to have fair common ground to play on. The old fashioned ways are thankfully long gone such as the fact that it’s no fun dropping into a veteran multi-player match when I’ve only just taken the shrink wrap off the box. I’ll die and I’ll get frustrated and I’ll probably never play; but why should you care? You’ve got my money now but I’ll not buy anything you make. :P

The original Halo for XBox was the first game I experienced that made this work and I later went to one of their presentations at GD Conf where they explained about their skill matching systems. I believe this later went on to form the backbone of the likes of the TrueSkill system  on X360.

Ensuring people have compatible skills isn’t something that’s restricted to hard-core games were lightning fast reactions and dexterity are paramount to your success. You’ll need to understand tactics and about working in a team too.


This is a particular point that I focused a lot on when thinking about true social games. We need common knowledge too. In a similar point to above, even if I’m incredibly dexterous (which I’m not) there’s little point us competing if I don’t know where the weapon upgrades are, or how to play this new game round, the secret short-cut behind the town hall or to KEEP OUT OF THE FIRE in a boss fight (Yes, I’ve played WoW too).

Social games rely on less game specific knowledge and really enable people to use simple things that everyone knows about to interact and connect. We won’t have much of a good experience if there’s a massive gap between the people we’re playing with (not against) and it rapidly becomes a challenge, that we may not enjoy. We can all understand that plants need sunlight to grow, we know that a sheep will walk off if it’s not penned in, we know that an elephant is grey. We will get a whole different experience if we have to sing an obscure song from 1976, or know the population of Jakarta or know that you need 10,000 units of XP to be able to level up your mount.

It takes a great designer to spot these things and provide elegant design solutions to get around these gameplay problems but when it works, it’s a whole lot better for it and then we expect it as the norm.

Social Game = Inclusive Catalyst For Shared Fun {style=”text-align: center;”}

So there it is, a strapline, a byline, an X-Statement for a good social game. It should enable everyone to play by providing us with a common playing field that we all understand,  it should share our experience and enable us to share in the experience of others and of course have fun whilst doing it; and that may be away from the game when we’re talking about it online, down the pub, in the school playground or sharing time with our families.

Further Reading

Nudge Social Media - a top social media agency based in London. Toby is a stellar guy and knows his SM inside out. Game Design Framework for Social Networks - an interesting article on the fundamentals of social game design

Gratuitous footage of John ;)

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