Four social strategies developers must consider when crafting the next great game

If Facbook were no longer a social network, but rather a game, it would likely be just as addictive, engaging, and successful. That’s because it expertly employs many of the most crucial social elements, and executes socially engaging strategies to near perfection. For developers looking to tap into the growing social game market, or the curious everyman, we look at five core components of a social game.

1. Converting friends into game tokens.

A “game token” is a broad term for virtually any type of in-game currency. You could literally collect loot called “game tokens,” or it could be gold, magical talismans, or purple donkeys.

When a game successfully turns your social network’s friend list into a treasure trove of game tokens, engagement is high. Facebook game “Friends For Sale” was an early adopter of this method, which basically transformed your friends list into a stock market of humans: your friends could be bought, sold, and traded, with rising and falling values (and even dividends). On a grander scale, Edmonton’s Empire Avenue has taken this concept to an entirely new level and reactions have been very positive.

This component is great for viral potential and player retention. Players think more about their friends, and how they can band together to develop virtual wealth or power to better themselves in-game.

2. Friend-ly rivalries.

You seldom want to impress anyone more than your best friend. The people who are closest to you, who you care the most about… you want to beat them, defeat them, conquer them! It’s a peculiar aspect of human nature, but it’s scientifically proven fact: you use those you know the most about as benchmarks for your various successes or failures in life. So, naturally, if you get friends competing against one another in-game, things are gonna heat up.

It’s daunting for any player to try and be the world’s best, but if you can be the best on your social networks leader board, it’s a much more achievable and still extremely satisfying goal. There are countless examples of this, Playfish and Geo Challenge among them. And even the aforementioned Empire Avenue embedded this feature—is your virtual worth the greatest of your friends?

3. Forced interactions with friends.

Nobody wants to be forced into anything, but successful execution of this strategy creates a highly engaging and collaborative environment. Games like Parking Wars require you to interact with friends to advance in the game. Whether it’s by destroying them or by collaborating with them to overcome obstacles, players think more deeply about their friends—who would they most want help from, and why? Who would they rather abandon, or even turn against, and why? This engagement is rich and meaningful because the game isn’t saying, “you have 300 friends, so you earn 300 copper.” It’s saying, “you have 300 friends. Who do you want to forge an alliance with, and who will you declare war upon?” That gets most players quite excited.

4. Public social expressions.

Sub-strategies like gifting, puppeting can become the x-factor to your game that takes it to the next level of success. Players often want to release relevant news to other players or in-the-loop people through in-game validations. Manually updating their status, “Giving my pal Tom here 25 relics,” is pretty lame. So if you let your players reward each other, toss in an option to tweet it out or trumpet a game-wide announcement. Empire Avenue lets you automatically tweet out when you’ve purchase somebody’s shares. Friends For Sale also incorporated this tactic.

Beyond that, you can “puppet” players, where you manipulate a relationship between two other players to spark drama, trigger havoc, or otherwise send a message indriectly (but boldly). Other sub-strategies include nicknaming, where you can choose names, taglines, or physical attributes of friends’ players as their appear in your game log. When you can control the visuals of another player who is your friend, suddenly you think a lot more about them. And if they are able to see your influence, it can often create further social engagement: “Why is my warrior’s shield hot pink, John?”