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Rethinking social games (Part 1)

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Social games are usually working on standardized formulas which longevity right now seems way more questionable than what it were years before, when loads of reiterative patterns and blueprints were copied (successfully or not) using every single feature that was making competence’s stats grow in charts significantly higher. New times may usually demand changes, and thus may be inspired by applying available techniques to create more richer, powerful, energizing, meaningful and substantially more emotionally connected than the feeling of void that some crucial social game amalgams actually have.

For the times that this genre has been populating Facebook and the mobile ecosystem, we’ve seen far enough schemes of games (drinking beforehand from some classic formulas) growing up and lately disappearing, or just succeeding and causing an enormous growth of side-titles with far less innovation than a reshape of the art. But its success is impossible to be ignored: they found its target, and suggested new players to take action, spending increasing times inside the game and experiencing high engagement periods for short times (in which we may actually refer from a day up to months).

But this success had a double edge, from one side, suggestion and highly marketed products available, and a lack of further developed (in terms of emotional deployment or connection), created a funnel where player’s where only given a set of social games capable of little but deeply engaging features with high monetization schemes deployed on its top layer. So social is getting each time drained from its roots, and several developers are trying to seek new paths for reinventing the actual conventions that the media has built upon them.

fishville

Perhaps is the time to ask some social tendencies for something way…deeper

Thinking about reinventing the wheel of social games, I found what it was a framework in which I actually trusted to be sufficiently powerful to improve them in a way that could help players to get a greater experience out from them, and to give social play a new dimension, but far from this statement, what I really intended is to break the boundaries that actual measurements are being done in a range of social games and show the capabilities of applying a psychological methodology focused on the player’s experience alongside the currently used data metrics. This model was PENS, abbreviation of Player Experience of Need Satisfaction, developed by Immersyve’s  founders Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan, that holds an unique set of tools able to make developers reshape the future of social gaming.

The Framework

PENS is a model and methodology whose aim is to understand the key components of the player experience and benchmark it in a field hardly developed in terms of analysis that games (and even more in their experience side) are. When it comes to creating or designing the player’s experience inside a game, it is more probably that developers wouldn’t even fall into any theory with enough psychological background as PENS show, and just keep on playtesting with the current ask for the player about if a game is just fun or not. The fun factor evaluation is a procedure criticized by PENS as it tries to show its weaknesses when comes to define how the player performs in terms of the overall experience and in every detailed situation. This fun factor method focuses on a very weak layer which aim is to analyze data coming from outcomes based on emotional (measuring fun based on emotional reactions) or behavioral (based on the observation of player’s behaviors) metrics.

PENS authors Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan do state that we need to look deeper and understand the psychological experiences that form the building blocks of fun and deeper satisfaction in the context of games. That is getting a wider and more detailed study about the basic psychological needs that player’s need to satisfy and that he expects from a real successful game, both in terms of player’s enjoyment and positive economical outcomes.

PENS define three different psychological needs that players need to be satisfied when they engage in a play behavior. Depending on the genre and purpose, these different kinds of needs can get unbalanced due to the importance that players give to them and the different outcomes they extract on specific products. These three intrinsic needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness; each one with a unique way of deploying tools and ways to tackle them inside titles and systems, which helps designers foremost to optimize the results when it comes to designing gameplay.

Is such methodology really needed?

When it turns to social games, the way loads of developers started focusing into metrics/benchmarking and leaving aside the player’s experience grew considerably much since the very first successes, making hard to establish if any was really taking into account the player’s experience and the satisfaction of their needs as much as they researched and took decisions over the big data analysis of their performance. Whereas retention, revenues, play sessions, stretching techniques, funnels, whales feed and viral spread factors were (and still are in some cases) the way to go, how to tackle players and therefore bringing them the optimal experience for an enjoyment of their activities were constantly diminished, offering weaker systems of low to medium engagement value, with less key factors and points for overcoming the fun factor delivery of games.

There is no doubt that some successful formulas are populating the market right now, and grossing incredible amounts of money out from their features, in which include an attractive monetization system paired with key mechanics and dynamics which makes players more able to purchase specific intangible in-game products. But these same formulas are showing that players are developing defensive skills against new titles which only aim is to copy such workflows and funnels, and asking for something way deeper and meaningful in terms of an experience.

An article I found clearly decisive to take a step onto applying a deeper framework to social was Laralyn McWilliams’s The Metrics Aren’t the Message, in which stated how developers were taking too much into account numbers in charts and leaving barely attended the player’s experience and the emotional connection created between the game and the player, quoting:

When it comes to social/mobile game “best practices” and especially friction-based monetization, I believe there’s a better way. Players stick with your game because they made an emotional connection. They pay money for your game because that emotional connection is meaningful to them.

McWilliams words assessed successfully the dichotomy that developers face in the never-ending debate of weighing experience against monetization and vice-versa. If is really worth to invest on richer experiences or just try to keep focusing into the same old patterns by stretching the game recipes that blasted charts.Is it really good to keep on shaping the current community of players towards games that aren’t as much as satisfactory in terms of experience as they could get, allowing them to constantly think that social game’s environment may not also go further than what they’re actually seeing in the available list of top titles?

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We could tell that harvesting crops has been a fashion way to stretched in the past few years, are developers still thinking thet users are still be ready for a re-skining of the same aged formula?

If social keeps funneling experiences in way more drastic terms, it is probably that users may migrate to those sections where experiences are way richer in order to help them develop greater connections between the game and themselves, creating solid and more versatile titles. And it is happening: titles which offer deeper social relationships, new ways to interact with players, softer grinding techniques and less strict monetizing pay walls are currently grossing in number of players, creating more satisfying activities where they can spend their time. It is a practice that will be continuously growing both by technology allowing to create larger and more detailed games and a community formed of old but new players created out from social networks and mobile; making necessary the application of methodologies way more intense than we could actually think of that suits the mark of social.

In order to apply PENS framework, we’ll try to focus inside the three key motivational  needs and how they can be applied inside social games, first describing what they’re about and later trying to reach a common point where both forces of current social gameplay and PENS approach may collide for creating optimal experiences.

Competence

Competence is the intrinsic need to feel a sense of mastery or effectance in what one is doing.

Skills are the crucial factor when it comes to surpassing any challenge that we face in games. Whether such skills are merely physical and based on quick reflexes, or they’re based on memory/strategy deployment, they are the core and the bridge between the player and the game. Learning quickly the game mechanics is crucial for a game which aims for the optimal experience for players, and making it enough easier for avoiding possible failures when players may retake the game after a period of time, making them to be an effortless and barely unconscious set of actions of their play rather a constant reminder of which button comes next.

Later but in the same field, comes challenges where mechanics alongside player’s skills are deployed in order to surpass every single stage. All of the procedure that players makes is called gameplay and such thing maximizes the engagement value if it gives player’s the opportunity to express their mastery, rather than just overcoming challenges. Instead of trying to put extremely hard challenges on top of standardized ones, a slow but safe procedure will usually work way better, making the player able to experience the mastery in action which PENS identify as a powerful contributor to the player’s desire in order to return to the game. A powerful meter that works together with mastery and increases its energizing value is feedback, being immediately responsive to the player’s actions as long as it is correctly implemented.

So the more the player is able to keep track of his performance instantaneously, and the better the optimization of challenges is done by increasing the player’s mastery and facing it with matching challenges, will lead to better experiences related to Competence, and therefore with better results in terms of engagement and fun.

 On social games: With fun comes mastery or with mastery comes fun?

What first comes to our mind when hearing about competence are skill games. The incredible amount of social skill games that actually populates Facebook and mobile devices is large enough to make an outnumbered page document with them. But in these cases of pure skill games where we’ve seen several times that actually the randomizer factor of level creation (call it luck, call it algorithms of impossibility) of some successful formulas that struggles directly with the ability of players to manage their pain tolerance, a question comes into the set:  with fun comes mastery…or with mastery comes fun?

Social games have significantly weighed the balance into providing fun after mastery and not the other way around as commonly suggested by game’s standards.  We’re not here to discuss if it’s a bad practice or not, results have shown that popular games based on fun after loads of mastery turned into mass market success formulas, with nothing less than players wanting to overcome a level in which they’ve spent loads of time, though its mastery level is still the same one way or another, and only luck is capable of letting them surpass such barrier, therefore making them advance.

The closest match between their level of ability and the game’s challenges makes players to feel a strong satisfaction and experience of competence.

Another well done implemented formula is direct and well-timed feedback, allowing players to keep track of their actions and feel rewarded by “kind” words about their performance. Streaks, number of hits, combos, winning messages: there are enough resources in the field to probably assume that this feature hasn’t been undermined by any other feature, keeping mechanics rewarded by the fast adaptation that every user makes.

comeptence-satisfaction

Here’s a chart I made based upon the models of optimal challenge (standard successful games) and hard luck generated ones, the difference is clear: while one emphasizes on keeping the players mastery and engagement, the other uses a pay wall or blockage breaking the opportunities of the player to test his skills progressively.

Rethinking the workflow the other way around may be tough as a possible nullifying of the monetizing factor that skill games hold. If we do always provide a next challenge matching the player’s skill, his ability to progress will never be suggesting a paying method for advancing sideways, and we won’t be constantly tuning the game for making them vulnerable to hard stages after a set of greater ones. But still the model seems to be applied during some early stages, as some examples (Such as Candy Crush, or Pet Rescue among others) state: making players to satisfy their competence needs to energize themselves by surpassing pretty well adapted stages, to end up facing another completely different no longer based in this close-tuning-to-skills one, and merely based in hard luck to win unleashing anxiety rather than flow. The last part of it is a powerful claim for users to spend and acquire boosts or second chances to end such stage, and unlocking another set of such competence satisfiers, making a cycle where some principles of PENS are applied, by suddenly are teared apart and replaced by a pay wall formula that challenges users until the very last moment where luck matches skill and matches challenge or else there is needed a purchase for advancing.

Mastery in action and optimal challenges

Mastery in action may not be an updated consequence for most social games, provided monetization asks for a funnel where the player is unable to see his skills paired with the challenge presented in front of him, leading to highly exponential breakdowns on its play behavior. The main problem that we could assess, is that provided the main formula that social games implemented by adding such hard constraints when it comes to mastering player’s skills, will lead to a demand of such effect sooner or later on the community.

When the same funnels are constantly applied, the player’s interest to migrate to another close-pattern based (or re-skinned) title will be consequently diminished, seeking another unsuccessful results game that feels unable to make the player progress even though he has learned enough to show what he is capable of without any result. When it comes to real life, any skill well developed helps us to overcome any difficulty we may find, and thus when they should get higher, will end up in training such skills in a better way. Why shouldn’t this be parallel to games? One of the main reasons for unsuccessful titles is the reiteration on funnel stretching techniques often called “friction” provided one of the causes of such player migration is often caused because of the avoidance of such hard pay walls presented in other titles. If forthcoming social titles are unable to seek beyond this schemes when it comes to apply engagement features, the possibilities of retention when it comes to the first minutes of play will be nullified.        

So what we shall ask for? A better apply of the mastery of action running constantly through the game that also is able to work altogether with monetization. Formulas that may apply better to the player’s progression and help him to realize that the game is still managed as it should be and avoiding several hard pay walls. Instead of collapsing the gameplay in half by a constant failure, offer always the opportunity to always keep on playing by any other means: if the player is unable to get past a level, offer him the opportunity to play another ones which will make him able to realize he still is in need to empower his skills, but not to rely only in boosters, skips or unlocks to advance. The need to keep the action of play constantly flowing will help to increase retention, making players able to stay longer and decide by themselves (rather than impose) if it’s really needed to purchase different items to help them progress. Placing a constraint in such core feature that gameplay represents is way too risky for new titles wishing to have a portion of the cake that players leave in order to try new titles.

In the next part we’ll tackle the two other pillars (intrinsic needs) of PENS and their possibilities when applied to social games, as well as a few key points on how the social may be reshaping in a future. If you felt interested in Immersyve’s PENS methodology, you can downlaod their original paper here.


 

This article was originally published in Games For Breakfast and is the first of two parts from the series.  


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