My checklist for a hit social game
These days games can be much more than buy once single player experiences; they can now be published to multiple platforms with built in social features, and the web brings people closer together than ever before in the age of social networks. Unfortunately many developers who launch on these platforms fail to embrace their game's full potential. In this post I will list some of my thoughts on what developers should consider before launching their next social game (and what I'm considering right now).
Bear in mind that these factors can be mixed and matched - some things will work better for certain games and some might not even be necessary. The objective is to squeeze as much out of _your_ game as possible. Ask yourself if that bit of extra development time is worth it, because I believe it makes the difference between a hit and a huge success.
In other news, I'm at Develop in Brighton for the Indie Dev Day right now. If you're there, come say hi, I'm in a white t-shirt with the TidalWare logo :)
I've also only just announced my indie game, Gravity Animals.
Choose the right platform
You have to ask yourself which platform is sustainable and right for your game - will it continue to grow? Will it generate enough income? Is it future proof? How many people use it? Who uses it?
Target a large audience
Try not to target niche markets, target as many people as you can. If you want to create the next zombie shooter, you're limiting your market and excluding kids for example. Consider that if someone who wouldn't normally play games like your grandma is able to pick up and enjoy your game, you may have the potential to tap into the wider population. Translating it into multiple languages helps too.
Make it easy to learn
Explain how to play your game in a sentence, hand it to a player, then keep your mouth shut. If you need to open it, you've got work to do. Obviously not all games can be that simple, but I'm considering the runaway successes - Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Tiny Wings etc. I also adopted this for our winning game jam title and it worked wonders.
If your game involves more than a few taps and swipes, not a problem, you just need to present the player with a nice tutorial and make sure the they pick it up as quick and painlessly as possible. Players are easily frustrated and get bored within minutes, so if you have a lot of explaining to do, keep the player engaged and make it an interesting and interactive process. Players will not read blocks of text!
Test, test, test, test
The more people you have test your game the better, you will receive valuable feedback on how to improve your game, and it gives you a good idea of what it will be like when launched to the public. Give out plenty of beta keys, (choose your testers wisely). Update, hand back, update, hand back. Do this until they can say no more.
YOUR GAME MUST NOT CRASH!
This is important. If your game crashes, that's instant low rating and player dissatisfaction. I know some crashes are completely unpredictable and edge cases are a PITA, but just make sure any damn obvious crashes are fixed. Plenty of player testing should minimise the chances of this.
Unfortunately you can't just launch your game and forget about it. Bugs need to be fixed, more features need to be added, with extra content. People who might have given up with your game will nearly always want to check out what's changed after an update. It's all about keeping players coming back. Not only that, but they need to feel that their voices are heard if they offered any constructive criticism or suggestions.
Build a community around the game
Players need somewhere to engage with not only other players, but the developers themselves. Build your online presence. Make sure you have a website, a blog, a forum etc. Utilise Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Host competitions. Give people the chance to share their experience with others, keep them talking about your game, and empower word of mouth.
Connect players in-game
Core to the social experience is allowing players to connect and communicate within the game itself. High scores and achievements are the bare minimum. Try to include network-enabled features like co-op, level sharing, LAN, chat, or anything else that might connect players in a unique way. One thing to note is that players love competition, and there's nothing better than to compare progress or battle it out against human opponents.
Make the game sticky
Embrace the compulsion loop - give players a reason to return to your game. Some of the more successful social games use time delay as a means of bringing them back, such as unlocking extra content over time. Another thing to consider is the concept of a never ending game; if it has no end goal and you are able to play the game indefinitely, the life cycle of your game will diminish slower. You could also offer features periodically such as a daily quest or monthly event.
Let players express themselves
Allowing players to express themselves is a powerful tool for keeping them interested in your game. Perhaps your whole game is based around player creativity (Casey's Contraptions, LBP, Minecraft). If not, offering an optional level editor will give players something extra to do. Also try to allow levels to be shared, whether that be allowing players to visit other levels, or even download other levels to enjoy for themselves. Character customisation goes a long way too.
Decide on the right pricing model
This is a whole post in itself, but essentially it comes down to 2 choices: premium or freemium.
If you go premium, you will naturally have less downloads but arguably a more secure revenue stream. Then you need to consider the value of your game: what is it really worth, and what do you think players are prepared to pay? $0.69? $5? $10?
If you go freemium, you are opening your game to a huge audience, but only a really low percentage (0.5-2%) will spend any money on IAP. As Noel Llopis said in his Developer conference presentation, you should seriously consider making your social game freemium. But I would only do that if you are absolutely sure players will have the compulsion to make purchases.
"It's ready when it's ready"
This is one big ingredient for a hit in my opinion, but it's far easier said than done. Don't launch a game with bugs or unfinished features. Make sure that killer gameplay element is implemented. Make sure you are 100% happy, and your testers are 100% happy. Launch your game when it's ready.