The Game Design Conference was in San Francisco on September 17th, and yours truly gave a talk! My talk was titled, “Mechanics of Casual Social Games”, and now that I’ve found some time, I want to share it with you all. The talk was a “lightning talk”, meaning that it was only meant to be 20 minutes long. I’m going to condense it even further, and give you the tl;dr; version.
What are Casual Social Games?
Before I dig into what makes these games tick, lets go through some examples of casual social games, because we’ve all played at least one:
- Words With Friends
These are all in the genre of casual social games. Just the phrase “casual social” should give you a strong hint as to what types of games these are: easy to play games, that you play with friends, where a single turn shouldn’t last more than a minute or two.
In creating Pickmoto, we studied these games closely, as Pickmoto was meant to be a casual social game for sports fans. We picked these games apart, and tried to answer the questions of what these games have in common, and why they’re so popular. Without further ado, here is what we believe make for a great casual social game.
1. Simple Rules
The most popular games have simple rules. Imagine learning how to play Risk versus learning how to play SongPop. When the rules are simple, the cognitive load required to get started is much lower. Simple rules lower the barrier to entry, and therefore make it more accessible to a wider audience. Simple rules make for fast gameplay, so you can get that sense of satisfaction from finishing much faster. If Risk is cocaine, then DrawSomething is crack.
There is one exception: games with rules you already know from childhood. We all know how to play Scrabble already, so the jump to Words With Friends was mentally easy.
2. Asynchronous Gameplay
These games move at whatever pace you want. You are not beholden to time with these games: you can play as often or as infrequent as you like, and the game will always be ready and waiting for you when you return. You can play your turn in an hour or a week, and the game won’t move until you’re ready.
3. Leverages your Social Network
Casual social games usually require you to connect your social network, and for good reason: your friends become objects of play in the game. They can act as opponents, or aid you in completing some action. Your friends become the chess pieces you’re moving around.
For game developers, this helps to solve the difficult issue of how to distribute and discover your game. If friends are required to play the game, a very viral discovery and distribution loop is available - assuming, of course, that you game is fun enough that people want to play.
4. Fast Gameplay
Game designers tend to talk about game loops, meaning the actions required to complete a single turn of a game. Casual social games generally have very fast game loops. You should be able to play your turn in under two minutes.
5. Small Victories
With these types of games, there is no big boss in the end. There is no Princess to save. There is only an endless string of small victories: the corn has grown, you’ve beat your friend, or you’ve acquired a new badge. These victories feel good, which provide an endless series of positive emotions. This is one of the reasons people keep playing these games: they make you feel without too much time or effort.
6. Light Commitment
Part of the casualness of these games is that it’s easy to drop-in and drop-out of these games without affecting your relationship with the person you’re playing with. There seems to be a cultural understanding with this genre of games that if I stop playing with you, it doesn’t mean anything.
This allows an important action to take place: it allows the player to quickly filter their friends to determine which opponents are fun to play with. Not everyone is at the same level; nobody likes to be slaughtered in Scrabble by someone who knows every 2 and 3-letter words like the back of their hand. It’s important to discover who is a good opponent for you, and the light commitment empowers the player to start and play multiple games at once. Once the games are underway, the player can start filtering and pruning the games and players that aren’t working out, without any sort of guilt.
With Pickmoto, we’re trying to emulate these traits to create a game that people love to play. We’ve created a simple ruleset, fast gameplay, small victories, and light commitment. It’s a game that’s meant to be played in 1-on-1 challenges against your friends. I don’t think we’ve nailed it by any means, but we’re definitely trying. If you have any feedback on this talk, or Pickmoto, feel free to reach out to us anytime!
Posted by Ryan Gerard