What is a social game?

Social games were the flavour of 2010 and look likely to continue to be the flavour of 2011. But what exactly is a social game, and why is it so special?.

To answer this question, I asked more than two dozen gaming luminaries. Here are their definitions of a social game.

John Romero, game designer

John Romero

My definition of a social game is a game that has a very gentle learning curve, easy-to-understand UI, and lives on a social network, taking advantage of your friendships in meaningful ways within the game.

We’re at the beginning of this style of game, and we’re learning so much at a breakneck pace about the play patterns and desires of the largest gaming segment any game designers have addressed, and it’s very exciting. These games are predominantly free-to-play and employ microtransactions as a business model, which presents very interesting challenges for game designers.

John Romero is the Chief Creative Officer of Loot Drop and father of Doom. He recently launched Ravenwood Fair on Facebook, which has 4.9m MAUs

Heiko Hubertz, CEO, Bigpoint

Heiko Hubertz

A social game is one that is most fun when you play with your friends.

You can choose to play with them or against them. Most important is that in a social game you have the most fun playing with others!

A social game doesn’t have to be on Facebook.In the future, you will play “social games” at home with your “real” friends, on mobile devices with people who are close by, or on the internet through any portal.

Heiko Hubertz is the founder and CEO of Bigpoint, a provider of free-to-play browser-based games with over 150 million registered users.

Ian Livingstone, industry luminary

Ian Livingstone

It’s not that simple. Should you include social network games (Farmville, etc) and/or social video games (Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, etc) and/or social casual games (Words with Friends, etc)? I think of social games as those where there is more emphasis/enjoyment playing with friends than there is playing against them. It’s more about a shared, fun experience with bragging rights than classic ‘winning’.

Ian Livingstone OBE is life president at Eidos. He founded Games Workshop and wrote many of the successful Fighting Fantasy series of books.

Tom Chatfield, author

Tom Chatfield

12 Because almost all games are enhanced by a sociable element, if you single out something a special group of “social games,” it seems to me that you’re talking about a deliberate intention on the part of the designers: that the most important mechanisms of reward and pleasure come attached to explicitly social aims. And these aims will tend to involve sharing, competing and cooperating with other players, as well as harnessing existing social bonds and networks as part of the game’s fundamental mechanisms of progress an achievement.

In practice this means planning from the very beginning to build a game around social relationships, and deciding that it will be the different ways in which people relate to each other that will drive the play experience for people: sociability will be the main hook, and the main engine of progress and continued interest.

In some senses, I think this begins to take you away from the idea of a game completely, and towards something that can be playful more in the sense that a toy or hobby is playful: an occasion for mutual enthusiasm and interest. So a lot of “social games” seem more like software toys or puzzles to me than true games. And the social structures that emerge around many games can have conventions and patterns that are pretty much distinct from the game itself, and that can potentially be removed and applied to other games—or even just removed and sustained as an independent social structure.

I also think it’s fair to say that games played a significant role in establishing digital social structures in the first place, in part because they were some of the earliest shared digital environments that less hardcore computer users got to hang around in and talk. If you look at a lot of MMOs, the chat channels can be like a mini-game in themselves: a separate frame of reference. And well before there were such things as social networks, chat from early games (MUDs and so on) was spilling out of game environments, and starting to establish some of the basic conventions and tropes that you still find in a lot of online sociability.

Tom Chatfield is the author of Fun, Inc.

Jens Begemann, CEO, wooga

Jens Begemann

Social games take advantage of the social graph to include your real life friends into the game experience. They are easy to get into, challenging over a long period of time and they create a highly competitive atmosphere among our real live friends.

Thereby they are changing the games industry: So far only ca. 10%-20% of the population regularly play digital games (called “gamers”). Social games are for the other 80%.

Jens Begemann is the founder and CEO of wooga, the 7th largest developer of social games worldwide (and the largest in Europe).

James Wallis, game designer

James Wallis

Solo games are an aberration that (with the exception of Solitaire and its ilk) have only been around since the late 70s. The vast majority of games are and always have been social. What we are seeing with the rise of multiplayer systems like Xbox Live and social games like Farmville is the reestablishment of a norm, not the creation of a new paradigm. So ‘social games’ a is meaningless phrase. Games are social by definition.

There are three ways of answering this specific question.

  • The etymological: a social game is a game played on and using the infrastructure of a social networking website.
  • The current: a social game is a game played with, against or alongside social-network friends, often asynchronously. Elements of cooperation and competition are either rudimentary or absent, and the social nature of the game barely rises above ambient intimacy. Games are open-ended and lack win-states or fail-states: the only way to win or lose is not to play.
  • The idealistic: a social game should be a scalable game played with or against friends, synchronously or asynchronously, online or in the real world. While the organisation of the game should transcend the existing social order, the gameplay strengthens social bonds and encourages interaction inside and beyond the game. Good examples: Werewolf (see Margaret Robertson’s excellent article in Wired a few months back); Journey To The End of Night (SF0); En Garde! (Game Designers Workshop) and, I hope, the forthcoming products of Hypergame Ltd

James Wallis is a director of social games startup Hypergame Ltd, He has run pen-and-paper RPG publishers including Magnum Opus Press and Hogshead Publishing.

Toby Barnes, game entrepreneur

Toby Barnes, looking moody

Over the last few years social games have become known as those games that link or tie in to social networks. Adding “Friends”, sharing scores, boasting about achievements all on an interconnected social network site from Facebook, to Twitter.

“What is a social game?” depends very much on the audience. My mum thinks playing Wii at Christmas is a social game, my gran thinks it’s Newmarket after her sunday roast, my cousin thinks it is Farmville, I would say most of my Xbox time now is social – I only play multiplayer games (where has that term gone?) across Xbox live with a group of real life friends (the modern day game of golf, or darts).

But in industry terms it is a game that relies on social and behavioural economic interaction - boasting, comparing, co-operating, guilting, gifting, and sharing. Usually wherever the audience is largest from Flickr, to facebook.

Toby Barnes is managing director of Mudlark Studios, who are currently running Chromarama, a game using the London transport network.

Ian Bogost, videogame designer and media philosopher

Ian Bogost

A social game is the last unicorn in the vacuum of space.

Ian Bogost is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games. He launched satirical Facebook game Cow Clicker in 2010.

David Hayward, organiser, World of Love

David Hayward

To me, social game used to mean a game that takes place in the real world. That could be anything from a board game to the kind of running around the South Bank things that Hide and Seek do every year, or the live action zombie games played at IGFest this year.

The label “social game”, as it currently seems to be applied, tends to refer to games designed to work with social networks, mainly Facebook. That troubles me somewhat, as compared to other types of game, and other interactions on social networks, these games tend to feel very asocial, turning people into resources rather than friends and agents you have to negotiate and communicate with.

David Hayward works at Mudlark Studios and organises indie games conference World of Love. World of Love 2 takes place on Friday 28th January in London.

Jon Hare, game designer

Jon Hare, before he grew a beard

A social game means a game that relies on wireless or online communication with other remote players in order for one or more of the driving mechanics of that game to be fully experienced.

There is some irony in this as social game playing used to mean multiplayer experiences in the same room like Monopoly, Darts or even Pro Evolution Soccer played at lunch time in development and publishing companies across the country. However the new kind of social games are generally relatively simple, less directly competitive, more feminized games designed for people to play on their own and then interact with their ‘friends’ by means of keyboard and mouse, without ever leaving their own bubble.

Key elements to these games are: progression within a community “Keeping up with the Jones’s”, micro-transactions, trading, competition without great punishment for failure and collection driven game dynamics. These games are often designed to appeal across sexes and age groups, the result of which is simple interface design and slower paced gameplay with very little (if any) time pressure. These games are best when they do not require players to be on line simultaneously in order to socialize but rather leave automated messages for each other in order to keep their arms length communication in contact and keep the game going.

Jon Hare is the creator of Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder.

David Braben, game designer

David Braben

It is a much abused term, I think, as most of these so-called ‘social’ games are nothing of the sort. I think the best definition is “games played via social media like Facebook”

I think it has been extended a little to include games like ‘Angry Birds’ (which are not, or are no longer Facebook games). As with anything, the original meaning becomes lost. Most “films” these days don’t go near a celluloid film, for example.

David Braben is chairman of Frontier Developments and the co-creator of Elite.

Andy Rogers, managing director, enteraction

Andy Rogers

A ‘social game’ is any game which uses the social graph to increase and improve the gaming experience, while utilising game theory and psychology to generate revenue from the active user base from a combination of virtual goods, advertising and offers.

We basically don’t count casual games that happen to appear on Facebook (and post high scores etc…) as ‘social games’; for us social games have to have a commercial remit (this could be for marketing purposes as well as revenue generation) and they usually, but not exclusively, adhere to the freemium model.

Andy Rogers is Managing Director of enteraction, which makes social games for brands, broadcasters and media owners. Its most recent game is Corrie Nation, a social network based on UK soap opera Coronation Street.

Alice Taylor, former commissioning editor, Channel 4 education

Alice Taylor

A social game is simply a game that uses your personal social graph to a) make the game seem more compelling and b) easily promote the game across audiences“.

In practice, this means Facebook games (while MySpace and friends try to come in second place, everyone thinks of Facebook).

It’s also become synonymous with easy-to-play games designed to sell you virtual goods.

And as Zynga owns the top 5 most popular social games on Facebook, synonymous too with Zynga.

The future will be more interesting of course, as social games are now two-a-penny, and Zynga’s games are all established and somewhat predictable: so where next? More complexity (in the games), more variety (amongst genres and play style), and more quality (fewer blatant copies?). Also, more mobile and more sociable: synchronous multiplayer, in other words, playing wherever you might be.

Alice Taylor was the commissioning editor for Channel 4 Education responsible for games such as Privates, The Curfew and Trafalgar: Origins. She has recently left to form her own startup.

Tadhg Kelly, game designer

Tadhg Kelly

‘Social games’ are games that use the platforms of the social web to propagate. Most commonly this means Facebook. The games have access to a player’s friend list and Wall, and they prompt players both to invite their friends to play and to boast about their game activity. In exchange for which the player earns rewards. This generates a lot of free marketing for the game, and the resulting visibility generates installs. That is why social games spread so far.

What drives long term play is click- and task-driven activity that generates constant rewards. This kind of play is rationed using timers: Players can only play in short sessions, but the games invite repeated visits. The resulting loops of activity can be quite compulsive, but if set up well they are entertaining amusements that you can check into as a part of your general Facebook day.

People get caught on the word ‘social’ and think that the term ‘social games’ implies some sort of socially connected games. They might think that this means social games are like worldwide family boardgames. The social game experience is actually more like a single-player Sim City played in parallel by millions of people. Players may harvest each others’ crops, for example, but they do so more to earn game rewards rather than a sense of community.

Tadhg Kelly is creative director of Simple Life Forms. His series of blog posts on what makes Cityville work are a must-read for anyone interested in social games.

Jussi Laakkonen, CEO, Applifier

Jussi Laakkonen

Social game is a misnomer, but it’s something we’re stuck with. More accurate, but awkward, would have been “social network games”. In that vein it is a game being played within a social network using that network’s social connections and communication APIs.

Given what’s happening with social becoming an infrastructure element, I believe social will be everywhere, a bit like online multiplayer, so strictly speaking SNS games will be a subset of social games similarly to PS3 online games are a subset of online multiplayer games.

So a social game of today/future would be a game that provides a game experience using pre-existing social connections,.i.e. a game to which you can bring your existing connected friends into. Typically this would involve light weight, asynchronous interaction between the friends, which is something that is fundamentally different to the traditional core gaming multiplayer experience. That to me is the key innovation and differentiation of social games in addition to embracing real mainstream genres like farming, pets, bars, etc.

Jussi Laakkonen is CEO of Applifier, a tool that helps social game and app publishers of all size to grow their social applications through cross promotion.

Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO, nDreams

Patrick O'Luanaigh

‘Social game’ is a phrase that seems to have a slightly different meaning to everyone. My definition would simply be ‘a game which relies on social interaction between players in order to be played’.

This would include MMOs, multiplayer disc-based console games where the family plays together in the living room, multiplayer-only FPS games as well as the more normal use for Facebook games. socially connected iPhone games and so on. It would also include two-player games like Facebook Scrabble which rely on two people interacting via Facebook together. It’s a game, it’s social, people are communicating in order to play the game together.

Patrick O’Luanaigh is CEO of nDreams, a publisher of virtual goods for virtual worlds

Jonathan Smith, Head of Production, TT Games Publishing

Jonathan Smith

All games are social to some extent, and are trending towards increasing sociability. That is to say, players are encountering more and more low-friction connections with other people, both active and passive, in the games they play.

Jonathan Smith is Head of Production at TT Games Publishing, the creators of Lego Star Wars, Lego Harry Potter and Lego Batman

Noel Llopis, game developer

Noel Llopis

That’s a pretty loose term that can mean many things the way people mean it today. I would say it’s a game with several of the following characteristics:

  • Asynchronous
  • Involves some for of interaction with friends (even if it’s just visiting their “game state”)
  • Probably free
  • Some kind of persistent game state

Things I would not consider part of the “social” definition because I think they can change a lot:

  • Platform
  • Time as a resource

Noel Llopis is an indie game developer and founder of games start-up Snappy Touch. He launched iphone game Flower Garden in 2009.

Jesse Schell, game designer

Jesse Schell, plural

In my mind, a social game is a game where the primary interactions are with other people.

Does that mean that monopoly, basketball, Farmville, and Team Fortress 2 are all social games?

Yes… yes it does. I also think those games have more to do with each other than most people realize.

Jesse Schell is Asst. Prof. of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Schell Games.

Brenda Brathwaite, game designer

Brenda Brathwaite

Games are, by their very nature, social. Baseball, bowling, WoW, Ravenwood Fair are all social in that they encourage social activity. Some games do this by pitting player against another, or by forming a community around an existing team or by encouraging players to work together to reach particular goals. The single player games that came into prominence during the late 70′s, 80′s and 90′s were an abhoration, really, when you take into account the whole history of games.

We call the style of games that appeared on social networks “social games”, and the name stuck. Oddly enough, the games are really more about fake, asynchronous socialization than they are about anything else, but that will evolve with time and with the medium.

Brenda Brathwaite is creative director at LOLApps, a developer of social games. Previously, she worked on the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series, two of my favourite games.

David Thomson, founder, Ludometrics

David Thomson

A social game is a game; an activity engaged in for amusement. It just happens to be played via platforms that didn’t exist five years ago.

I don’t believe FarmVille is a new genre of game, it’s simply a twist on something like Harvest Moon, using the specific attributes of the platform.

David Thomson founded consultancy Ludometrics in 2010, having spent over ten years in the Scottish games industry with Denki, Slam and as founder of mobile games developer, The Games Kitchen.

Margaret Robertson, game designer

Margaret Robertson

From a principled point of view I think I feel the same way about ‘social’ as I do about ‘casual’ – properly it’s not descriptive of anything about the game, but instead about the mindset of any one player at any one time. You can be a hardcore Bejewelled player or a casual Left4Dead player. So, lots of games can be played in a ‘social’ way.

I’m currently playing the single-player Venetica purely as a social experience – I’m playing it through for a friend in the US who ended up with a PAL copy and can’t play it on his machine, so I’m playing it for him and we’re talking it over on IM. Lots of fun, very social, not a game which would ever be called a ‘social’ game. It’s back to Miyamoto deliberately designing the Water Temple to force people to talk to each other and compare notes – the whole power of social interaction is that it transcends the mechanics and hardware of any particular game project.

Similarly, there are lots of games designed to be social that people experience otherwise (I solo’d more than half of WoW, for instance). And, if you want to be picky, there are games which enforce joint play in a very antisocial way – there’s no social interaction of any meaning at all in the stale list of Farmville gifts clogging up my inbox, sent by people I don’t know and never speak to, for instance.

But, I appreciate that that’s a point of principle not praxis. The label has come into being to help us talk about games that fill a particular niche, which most of us can recognise even if none of us can empirically define it. So: games with a low barrier to entry which are deliberately designed to be poorer experiences unless you involve other people? Low barrier to entry encompassing cost, complexity, hardware requirements, palatable theme/style etc, time commitment needed to play – all that stuff.

That’s bald, but as accurate as I can manage.

Margaret Robertson is development director at Hide and Seek and a former editor of Edge.

Kristian Segerstrale, CEO, EA Playfish

Kristian Segerstrale

A social game is a game where the main reason why you play involves direct interaction with friends (competition, cooperation, expression, gifting and so on) as opposed to interacting purely with imaginary characters in an imaginary world on the screen.

Kristian Segerstrale was the one of the founders of Playfish in 2007. He sold the company to Electronic Arts in 2009 for up to $400 million.

Klaas Kersting, founder, Gameforge

Klaas Kersting

In a social game the key game design elements are based on the interaction between the players. The social interaction between the users has to enrich gameplay, contribute significantly to the game experience and might even influence a relevant part of the game´s rules. This is independent from platform, technology or genre.

So the first REAL social game is something I´m still waiting for and hope that it will get out some day – and if I have to develop it myself.

Klass Kersting is the founder of Gameforge and is currently working on a undisclosed project.

Michael Acton Smith, founder, Mindcandy

Michael Acton Smith

All games are social games – they have been since man first started rolling knucklebones in caves thousands of years ago. The only exception is the recent phenomena of one-player video games that have dominated the games scene for the past few decades, but that era is fast coming to an end.

Michael Acton Smith is the founder of Firebox and of Mind Candy, the creator of Moshi Monsters.

Paulina Bozek, CEO, Inensu

Paulina Bozek

A social game is a game where the interactions involve people I know and become more meaningful because of the additional emotional and contextual ties that exist between us in the real world. i.e. when I beat my boss at a trivia game – I have not just won the game, I am playing with status and other meaningful context. Similarly seeing my Dad play ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba on SingStar is more entertaining because it’s Dad…

But I think the definition has two manifestations which are not identical:

  • Social on console is a living room experience which moves games out of being a solitary experience and gets people playing together in a casual and fun way.
  • Social social networks is not social in the same way, but uses existing relationships in the real world to underpin the interactions in a game to make them more meaningful, funny and relevant.

Of course there are also non-digital social games that we’ve played together for thousands of years!

Paulina Bozek is the CEO of INENSU, a social game startup making games for web and mobile. Previous to starting INENSU, Paulina was the Executive Producer of the SingStar franchise for PlayStation.

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