In the first part of the article, I argued that designing games for online social networks, such as Facebook, can benefit from mixing methods of game design with interaction and service design approaches. I also identified symbolic physicality, inherent sociability, spontaneity, and asynchronicity as aspects of social network games that can be set as design drivers in a project. However, they are high level concepts – in this, part two, I begin to elaborate a number of them into an evolving framework that helps in thinking about design decisions.
Game Design for Social Networks – Part 2: A Design Framework
The design framework is a result of analyzing a number of Facebook game apps. My focus has been on games, which have either been among the most popular in Facebook (Lil’ Green Patch, Mafia Wars, Who Has the Biggest Brain?), or interesting in terms of their game design (Parking Wars, PackRat, PhotoGrab).
The analyses will be available in detail later this year in my Siggraph conference paper. The paper will also include an in-depth discussion of what follows.
This article will focus on summarizing how the analysis results can be translated into a framework that can inform design decisions, and how that framework can also be used as an inspiration and tool for thought when brainstorming social network game concepts.
A Design framework for social network play dynamics
As a quick takeaway, here is a framework of design drivers in visual format. I will elaborate on its various aspects below.
First of all, I have added another design driver to the ones introduced in Part 1: Narrativity. As one looks into how popular social network games’ play dynamics work, it becomes evident how fundamental it is for the concept that various player actions and play results are narrated across the network. That is why I argue that Narrativity, in this sense, deserves to be identified as an important aspect in the framework.
Asynchronicity permeates play in social networks: Play takes place in turns, or in individual time units (‘ticks’) per player which then get acknowledged by the game as a system facilitating networked play. That is why it is pictured as an orange, cyclical path of game play along which players repeatedly go through. Furthermore, their progress, network standing, and reputation evolves parallel to this cyclical process of core play mechanics.
In the visualization, the clouds between individual play moments specify some consequences for player experience, or ‘PX’ as Nicole Lazzaro calls it, that the particular transitions bring about. Therefore, the idea of the framework is that design solutions affecting and producing such transitions can be put into specific focus, and some perhaps emphasized over the others, thus giving the play the game facilitates potentially a different flavor.
Now, let’s start identifying design patterns which relate to the four aspects of playful interactions: Spontaneity, Symbolic Physicality, Inherent Sociability, and Narrativity.
Design patterns for social network play
The illustration below unravels a number of design patterns that can be used in supporting a particular aspect of social network play. Various specific implementations of each pattern can be found already out there, especially in Facebook, and without doubt, new ones will be introduced. However, such design solutions are constrained by the particular network they are implemented within, to varying extent.
I feel these patterns are rather self-explanatory, and as this article presents ongoing research, I will not describe them in more detail here. This piece is meant to start discussions, and put designs in motion.
Future R&D in the form of continuing observation of social network games, and prototypes and applications in personal and collaborative projects – don’t hesitate to drop me a line to propose a project! – will be used to validate, reconsider, and develop the framework.
Designing social network play: Unlearning game design and embracing network play
To end with, some observations about particular aspects of game design for social network games. In a way, many of the observations in these two articles imply that certain ‘truths’ about game design, as we used to know it, do not hold anymore – or, the design space has changed qualitatively.
I argue that models that are extremely useful in other game design contexts, such as the MDA framework, do not quite cut it here – or, one has to shift the perspective, at least.
To elaborate my point: Design topics traditionally held as integral to good, successful games matter less – they are there to pay attention to, but they do not necessarily break your game. For example: game balance, i.e. designing the goals and rewards in a balanced way for each player to guarantee satisfactory play experiences, seems to matter less in social network games than with board games, or computer and video games.
Another aspect to unlearn, to an extent: Subtlety of game mechanics, and the dynamics they create, are not that important, when we are designing networked social play. This is largely due to the fact that it is the network, and its whimsical and contextual factors, including players with playful dispositions, that substitute such design sophistications in creating fun (enough!) experiences.
As a game designer, it can be hard to break from the above-mentioned tools of the trade, as they can be the very reason that games and designing are fascinating. But online social networks, and how people play them, is fascinating as well, right?
The near future of innovation in social network games
The above is not to say that new game design innovations won’t be seen in social network games – however, it is to say that the innovations will more likely take place in the aspects that characterize the network, rather than the game as a design object.
As an example of this I will use an anecdote: In a recent GDC talk, area/code’s Frank Lantz described their stand-alone network game for Electrolux, Kelly’s Bags, which aimed to model fashion and trends into its game mechanics – i.e. into its verbs, goals, and the network as introduced in the model in Part 1. The game proceeded to the point where players started switching friends, i.e. their network contacts, rather than bags, the game objects that embodied the game’s goals of having the trendiest set of bags.
A design research question from this play incident might be, for instance: ‘What does it take for people to start untying their online social relationships in order to win a game’?
This example gives evidence that games in social networks are events and services, and they should be designed as such. This means being sensitive to the constraints and possibilities of networks, and the online human interactions – and creativity – they facilitate.
At your service,
Contact me through this form
In the works: ‘Game Design through online APIs’ – a look into the different APIs of online social network platforms, and how they can be leveraged for game design purposes.