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Six degrees of socialisation

By on February 4, 2014

This is a guest post from Oscar Clark (@athanateus) Everyplay Evangelist and Author of Games As A Service: How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games (launching soon)diagram_2

Being playful is an essential part of being human and at its heart we find it’s always been a social activity. Even before we linked Computers together the Video Game had social elements. As a kid whether it was meeting my friends at the local chipshop to play Space Invaders or crashing round each others’ bedrooms to play Elite didn’t matter.  The games were a medium for interaction and the trigger of conversation. This was our social glue and I’m sure none of us would have gained as much from playing them without our shared passion.

After working with games communities for 15 years I like to think that I’ve learnt a trick of two about the nature of how social play works. I don’t just mean what we have come to call Social Games; like the long gone Farmville or the still rampant Candy Crush Saga both of which integrated Facebook into the flow of the gameplay. I’ve also spent a lot of my professional life time trying to understand Online Multiplayer games and, as Home Architect of Playstation®Home, virtual worlds.

What I’ve learned is that there is a fundamental misconception of what social play is about and how we can incorporate it into our experiences. To help us understand how this works, let’s consider social interaction in different stages, or Degrees of Socialization. Each of them represents different levels of connection and along with them there are different levels of effort and engagement involved. Yes I said effort.  It’s important to realize that every relationship has a balance between effort and reward and if the reward isn’t enough then of course we will leave that relationship. Actually, that turns out not to be quite true.  When we study relationships we find that Interdependence Theory shows that it’s more than how satisfied you are in the current relationship, you also have to get more out of an experience than you expect that you could get elsewhere.

Here’s where I have to own up. Interdependence theory is really about our personal relationships and its slightly naughty of me to extrapolate this to social groups. However, from what I have seen from games services I believe the analogy holds remarkably well. More than that I believe this helps us come up with strategies so we can build services which better support social games communities.

The First Degree – “I See You Play”:

When a player downloads your game for the first time they will tend to either be focused on maximizing the value of the purchase they have just made or instead be in that vulnerable ‘Learning’ stage which is associated with FreeToPlay. Players often have yet to decide whether they really want to associate themselves with the game and where the game might make them look bad (e.g. am I skilled enough to play) there may be some caution about shouting about it.

Even in a game like WOW where 34.2% ( say Making Friends is the most important aspect of the game its seems that around  60% of players prefer to play Solo. Why is this? I Actual socialization requires effort and risks embarrassment; and you might end up talking to an idiot. But, it’s still valuable to play in a socialized context. There is also considerable value seeing that other people are enjoying the same game as you; after all you don’t want to be seen as being alone liking it.

This stage of Socialization is passive, almost voyeuristic, but this it’s still invaluable to help overcome any initial disillusionment which often comes when we start the learning curve. Seeing others also helps foreshadow the future benefits which the game has to offer in a way that no tutorial or developer-led process can.

The Second Degree – “See Me Play”:

Once Players become comfortable with their initial experience of the game and start to feel the allure of the social community they will often become more open to sharing their experience with other players as well as their friends.  The motivations vary of course and it’s often interesting to see how finding like-minded people can be just as important than locating real-life friends. It’s not unusual for players to communicate in a broadcasting style than involving any ‘real’ interaction. For example it might be having an avatar that wears an expensive outfit or ‘Liking’ some particular aspect of the game; perhaps even uploading a gameplay video (as long as the game makes this frictionless like with the Everyplay SDK). Generally at this stage we don’t expect or even perhaps want to open up a dialog.

Of course all of this still requires a little more effort on the part of the player than when they were anonymous and for some this feels risky; by putting yourself out there. However, the payoff is the knowledge that someone else might see how clever or good I am, whether they actually see me or not. That makes my actions in the game and importantly the purchases I make feel more important to me.  It adds a level of social capital.  Interestingly during my time at Playstation Mobile and (perhaps more directly) Papaya mobile we saw that the ability to be seen in a game had a noticeable effect on the willingness of players to spend money in a game (often initially on cosmetic items) and more often than not seems to have been the initial trigger for Players who would later spend more than $100/month. Curiously few Whales continued buying cosmetic items and largely seemed to focus on goods to improve their performance in the game, however to be honest there wasn’t enough of a sample size to know if this was statistically significant.

The Third Degree – “I Beat Your Score”:

We move towards simple communication as we enter the Third Degree. By this point players have probably become truly engaged with the game and accepted it as part of how they spend their free time and play regularly; perhaps even paying already. Whilst their communication is now generally two way, it may still be fairly simple.  For example comparing highscores and achievement with their real-life friends or getting advice from other players.  Their relative progress starts to become important even if only a minority of player are really focused on direct competition. However, there is often some kind of bragging element to this (imagine that) from high scores to leveling up, however this is more about players giving themselves a reason to keep returning, playing and tentatively interacting with other players in-game. The classic one in the MMO was the shout out ‘Ding!’ to other players in your location when you leveled up. It was a way to share your progress with others even if you didn’t know them and it was usually rewarded with a number of people sending their congratulations; perhaps leading to grouping up. I remember playing a more recent MMO, perhaps SWTOR, and people were still saying ‘Ding!’ despite the audio cue being a fanfare.

The Fourth Degree – “Lets Collaborate”:

As we build out engagement and reinforce our confidence in the game and the community we start being more willing to get involved. Indeed some games set this into motion early on.  Getting involved with an ‘Alliance’ or ‘Faction’ can even become an essential part of the Tutorial not least because it is usually rapidly rewarding with help and advice from real humans it can build engagement very rapidly.

This leads us to try deeper forms of collaboration and we even start to expect a level of reciprocation from other players. In some games this is fairly simple, such as visiting a friends Farm or playing the same map of an FPS game.  There may well be some competition between players but that’s not really the point. At this Degree we are increasingly relying on the involvement of others to get the enjoyment out of the game.  There is a design dilemma we should be aware of however. If we introduce social interaction too early we risk putting off some players; but if we don’t demonstrate the value of transitioning to social play, perhaps even forcing the issue, many players will simply not do it and we will lose out of the benefits of social engagement. It requires a much greater level of effort to engage in collaborative play and this requires that players (and the game developer) nurture those relationships. Otherwise these communities can quickly collapse.

The Fifth Degree –  “Go Head-to-Head”:

Until now we have largely been talking about simple communications and essentially asynchronous interactions. However, as we enter the Fifth degree the idea of a player’s virtual presence starts to become an increasingly important aspect and at the same time we often see the focus being more directly competitive; if not necessarily synchronous. Think about the level of commitment to a game, and even training, it takes to take on a group of expert players in Call of Duty. Similarly if you want to participate in a Raid in WOW other players will expect you to be able to play your part and know what to do. There is a vast difference in terms of experience when you play real people and players of games which have an offline mode will often discover that their offline experience is essentially irrelevant online.  A critical mass of users is essential to sustain an experience like this and this will inevitably skew your user-base toward players already pre-disposed to the game (and genre). We can’t ignore who are audience is, but we should also try to understand how we help as many players as possible engage with the game at this social level. Too many games ignore the effort needed and the social risks involved and this damages their market potential.

Look at how games like SuperCell have been careful to craft the learning curve, building up players skills as well as their engagement before exposing players to the Superfan gameplay.

The Sixth Degree –  “We Are Guild”:

The last stage of socialization takes us to the point where the social experience becomes more important than the game itself; the game becomes merely the chosen method of communication. At this stage players use manage and schedule their experiences together. The real-world connections they make through their clan or guild can be highly rewarding, but the effort needed to sustain them is equally high.  It’s probably not a surprise that many a divorce, marriage and affair have happened as a result of people connection through playing with guilds. Only the most dedicated of player groups will sustain them, but these are the same groups who’ll be your greatest asset, if you let them. Given the right in-game tools, loyal players will provide the social “glue” you need to sustain interest from less committed players.

It’s the Journey; Not the Destination

The model is something I’ve built through observation and some data, but it’s a way of thinking rather than a formula. What it sets out to do it to encourage designers to think of Social interactions as a series of stages, just like the Player Lifecycle, social engagement is a journey not a destination. By remembering Interdependence Theory we hopefully have the right mindset when we consider the forces which sustain or break our social playing groups.  It takes effort to sustain a community, like trying to balance an upside-down pyramid on its point. The weight of the more committed users risks overbalancing everything else. They are the most loyal, but you can’t assume they will be around forever and you can’t design the game just for those players needs alone; without taking players with you through the different degrees you will never sustain the critical balance.

But if we get this right we unlock the power of our players to welcome and help engage other players and to make our experience even more meaningful. Not because of what we created as a game; but because we empowered our players to be able to communicate through our game.  That’s when Socialisation becomes magical.

About Oscar Clark