I've always thought that calling games like Zynga's FarmVille and Mafia Wars "social games" is a bit of a misnomer. If a friend continuously pesters me in real life, it's bothersome. Why would that be different if I'm on Facebook or Google+? Even if it's put in gentle wording like "Luke needs your help in CityVille," the notification is just spam in my mind.
To grab my attention, a social game needs to challenge me. Telling me that my friend just beat the high score that I was so proud of will make me want to jump back into a game. If I can do that on the go, even better.
Ironically, one of the best examples of a game that manages to pull this off takes inspiration from solitaire: Big Fish Games' upcoming Fairway Fever. How could Zynga and others emulate the game's appeal?
Make me care
I don't care when a *Ville game tells me that a friend needs gold or just found a special radish. That doesn't affect my gameplay experience at all: Unless you're one of those people who actually pays for Zynga games (poor souls), you always need more gold, and you're always discovering novel-but-useless crap.
How could developers convince me to jump back in the game? Make the social aspect contribute to the gameplay in a meaningful way. Fairway Fever does this by adding competition to the mix: Instead of just trying to beat your own high score, you can see where your friends are and play using the same hand that they played with. In this way, your score gives a direct comparison with their skill. I would play social games on a regular basis if more of them made me say things like: "Jeff just beat me on that last hand? Well, now I have to go back and show him who's boss!"
Developers could do more than just add competition to improve their social experiences. For instance, why not introduce real collaboration to the multiplayer of CityVille? Instead of simply completing goals for each other (which is really just more of what you'd be doing if you were playing by yourself), maybe players could all pitch in resources to build some kind of mega-structure in one person's city, and each would then receive the benefit from the output of the new building.
Don't waste my time
Unless I'm sitting in lecture, I probably don't want to spend more than a few minutes on Facebook. Thus it seems odd that social games seemingly require huge amounts of time to accomplish anything. There's usually a timer for completing an action and then a cooldown period before another action can be taken. It's like a real-time strategy game where you've maxed out your action queue, only all the time.
Fairway Fever avoids this by making the gameplay extremely concentrated. Every round is exactly one minute long, and you can log off after that round feeling like you've accomplished something. If you want to play more than one round, there's no wait, and it generally means you're having fun and/or improving you scores in comparison to your friends.
Of course, some games can't do this because of their business model: They either want you to spend a long time playing so that they can have a high number of ad impressions, or they want to annoy you so much that you break down and pay for the in-game currency. Simply having a more player-friendly revenue steam would make a world of difference for games that make their money this way.
Let me play on the go
Doing it right
Despite the fact that their main method of interaction is clicking things on a screen, most social games have not been ported over to smartphones and tablets.
This discrepancy has always confused me. These games are rather simple, have back-ends that are up-and-running (people already have a Facebook account to log in with and a city/farm/gang ready to go), and many have graphics that would need little-to-no changes to be ported over (especially to tablets). Some developers take advantage of these points: Fairway Fever and Zynga's Words With Friends both provide nearly the exact same experience whether playing on Facebook or iOS/Android.
Would Words With Friends be the hit that it is without the mobile version? I personally wouldn't carry on a game if I only made a move every time I logged on to Facebook, but I can afford to spend a minute every few hours to take a turn on my phone. This would also apply to the *Ville games: I wouldn't mind those damned timers and cooldowns if I could just make a move when I'm bored on the subway.