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Asynchronous Socially Networked Gameplay

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Asynchronous community-based games are an entirely new arena of play with amazing potential.  After reading Soren Johnson’s Game Developer article on asynchronous gameplay, it became clear to me that the dialog in the development community is still very much in its nascent stages.

Competitive asynchronous community-based game design is an exercise in balance; these games seem to demand conflicting directives and, all too often, the servicing of one directive breaks another.  For example: Do you reward dedicated players with advantages or do you leave open ‘shortcuts’ to keep new players from being discouraged? 

It may seem impossible to design an asynchronous community game that does everything right, but the reality is, the requirements behind a balanced experience are not mutually exclusive.  What the designer of an asynchronous game needs to do is simply keep these directives clearly defined and at the forefront of the decision-making process.

There are many decisions to be made when designing an asynchronous socially networked game, but at the highest level, there are two pairs of conflicting directives:

Give incentive to return often
   but
Allow the option to return infrequently

Reward dedication with greater progress and advantage
   but
Allow beginners the chance to ‘win’

Give incentives to return often

The driving force behind social games is player participation: the more people playing, the stronger the community and the greater the chances of overlapping experiences.

There are two ways to keep the community robust –reach out virally to new users and keep people playing as much as possible.  To keep people playing, you need hooks to draw them back in on a regular basis.  Virtual pet apps have caught on quickly in the social networking space because they are already built on this model –the player needs to check back regularly on her pet to make sure it is fed, bathed and happy.  Other games place timers or limits on the actions you can take –you’ll have to come back after the timer has expired to take your next action.

The key to achieving this objective is really in experimenting with new methods of driving incentives and the answer may be found in looking back to the original asynchronous games –board games.  In board games, you wait for the other players to take their turns; your next move is then influenced by the change in the shared gamespace.  The incentive to return to an asynchronous game could be the opportunity to reevaluate the gamespace for changes and then take advantage of them; the more often the user returns, the more opportunities there will be.

Allow the option to return infrequently

Social network-based games are inherently ‘casual’ and, more than anything else, this is a description of the time requirements demanded of the game.  A casual game can have complex rules (online Texas Holdem and Travian/Ikariam are examples) but what makes it truly casual is the player’s option to walk away at any time.  The player should be able to abandon the game for days and pick it up, roughly where he left off.  A game that doesn’t allow for this, will lose users.  Only the few, most dedicated players can keep up a constant back-and-forth with the game world.

Therefore, in order to accommodate everyone, socially networked asynchronous games need to limit the capacity through which dedicated players can dominate the gameplay experience.  One solution is to create a game word that is not really competitive.  Many games do this, even games that are ostensibly all about competition, such as Mafia Wars.  In these games the users are really only competing against themselves and the interactivity is almost entirely imagined.  Another solution is to create multiple ‘tracks’ of success; dedication to the game may move the player along one, while only skill and luck (or real-world money) manage another.  Dedicated players may find motivation in the first track while casual players connect with the second. 

Yet another options is a game played in ‘rounds’ where, following each round, the advantages are cleared and the players start over again on even terms.  A history of victories and the aesthetic trappings of rank, may be all that is needed to reward the veterans.

If a game is based on the shared-gamespace model I described in the previous section, frequent usage would reward itself through increased opportunity: a dedicated player may not necessarily be growing any stronger through frequent play, but his heap of victories, accolades and achievements could grow with each opportunity he seizes.

Reward dedication with greater progress and advantage

I’ve already been touching on this topic above: how do you reward a dedicated player?  A dedicated player needs to feel as if he is making progress.  The most obvious method of rewarding progress is to give rewards that facilitate making more progress.  This is what many social network games do right now, but it should be obvious that this creates a feedback loop of success –soon the dedicated player is vastly beyond the level of the new player. 

Another option is to reward the dedicated player with ‘non-functional’ prizes; things like trophies and fancy hats. 

More clever designs create multiple layers of gameplay where the reward for success at the lowest level is entry into the next level.  For example, winning 50 tokens in the bumper cars game earns you one entry to the big spin game, where the ‘real’ prizes can be won.  In this situation, a dedicated player may be having a different experience from the lower players (more time spent playing the big spin and winning flashy prizes) but it doesn’t ruin the experience for anyone in the bumper cars game.  Of course, giving advantages to experienced players isn’t always a bad thing; it all depends on how they are handled.  Using the previous example, a prize from the big spin may be a ‘nitro-boost’ that can be used once per game in the bumper cars.  New players will notice the advantage, but it is not so significant that it unbalances the gameplay; in fact, it may actually act as an incentive to new players to play enough to reach the big spin.

Allow beginners the chance to ‘win’

When designing any game, it is critical that the game reward the player soon after his first session begins.  This establishes a good association with the game and encourages more play.  In a multiplayer game, experienced veterans with lots of advantages may crush the new players and rob them of this much-needed encouragement.  Many games try patch this issue by creating, what I call a ‘tutorial win’ –the player is taken through a controlled environment and allowed to see how the game works and experience what winning feels like.  This is a nice start, but most players will recognize that it isn’t real.  Soon the affects will wear off and a ‘real’ win will be needed if the game is going to sink in its hooks and establish a pattern of repeat play. 'Wins' can come in the literal form of competitive challenges or in the personal form of benchmarks or achievements.

Games that include features like custom-built avatars add another layer of up-front bonding but ultimately, if a game isn’t engaging all the way through, the only people who will play it are the people who don’t have anything better to do with their time.  Granted, these people are not a small demographic to be scoffed at, but why limit yourself when you could design a game that sinks into the recesses of the user’s mind and won’t let him go for more than a few hours at a time?

Another aspect of the beginners-veterans question is the concept of a ‘ceiling’.  A ceiling puts a limit on the advantages of an experienced player so that he can never reach a level of complete dominance over beginners, and prevents beginners from being overwhelmed by unobtainable measures of 'success'.  The obvious problem with ceilings is that a player reaching them may lose interest with the game.

A solution to ceilings is segregation –break the gamespace up into groups based on experience level.  The problem with this method goes back to the nature of social-networked games: how can a user invite a friend to play, if he’s been segregated into a higher level group?  Social networked games take their strength from overlap, not division.

Conclusion

The ultimate solution lies in creating gameplay environments that cater to both new and veteran players, casual and dedicated.  An environment should be built that allows constant and meaningful changes to be made, that in turn provide opportunities for players to make responsive decisions.  The designer should be careful to always address both sides of each balanced set of directives.  For more information on virality and social networked games in general, see my article here.