Archive for January, 2011

Community-Centric Products: A better term for Social Media

I use the term “Social Media” a lot. I make social media games, I talk about how social an application is, the term “social media” itself is the official buzz word of 2010- it seems this single term has become ubiquitous in the tech industry.  The problem is, the word “social” is one of the more poorly defined and widely overused words of recent memory. The games industry had a similar catch-all term a year ago with “Casual” games (which was anything not AAA model), and I think the same problem can be applied to “Social Media”.

This kind of catch-all misnomer seems to happen when a disruptive product scales and becomes an accepted standard for that type of product. The problem is while everyone has an idea as to why the product became so successful, few actually understand it (even/especially the people who were fortunate enough to scale the product in the first place- a “right place, right time” kind of scenario). I assert that the term “Social Media” suffers from this Catch-All Misnomer Syndrome. In this post I intend to demystify the meaning of Social Media, and hopefully give some insights on how to do it “right”.

The problem with the term “Social Media” is that I don’t believe it’s an accurate description for what we do. It’s kind of close- people interact with each other… kind of. But it certainly doesn’t tell us anything about our product, or the people using it- it seems “Social Media” doesn’t really tell us anything of use at all. So it’s with this in mind I humbly offer my personal choice for a replacement for the term “Social Media”.

SOCIAL MEDIA = COMMUNITY-CENTRIC PRODUCTS

The “Community-centric product” may not sound as sexy as Social Media, but it is a term that is a lot more informative- something that can be broken down and understood. At the very core, this term is defined as a product that leverages its community. In most cases this translates to product developers using networking tools (Facebook, Twitter, forums, etc.) to interact with the products community of users. But why are they doing this? What is it that they are trying to achieve? Let’s drill down a bit deeper into what a Community-centric Product actually means, and how to go about creating a product that leverages its community of customers.

The first step to understanding a community-centric product is define what a Community is. People (me, you, your current/potential customers) have the ability to Interact with each other. As people interact, they become socially bonded to each other, effectively forming a Community. As more people are added to the interaction, the community gets bigger. In a sentence, I am defining “Community” as People Interacting at Scale.

The obvious question arises- Why are these people interacting? It seems that the only reason people would interact with each other is because of a shared interest. This interest can really be anything, from the exchange of goods and services (the shared interest being the necessitation of said exchange) to a common personal interest, such as a shared taste in music. In essence, a shared interest between people allows for a community to be formed, because it gives a reason for people to start interacting with each other.

So, we have a group of people interacting around a shared interest. But, what is the Shared Interest in the terms of  a “Community-centric Product”?

YOUR PRODUCT IS THE SHARED INTEREST

Your product, the service or good you provide, appeals to customers. In other words, customers are interested in your product. A community is simply a group of people interacting around a shared interest, your product is that shared interest. Your product can be pretty much anything. In my context, the product is a game supported by a virtual economy based on microtransactions- but your product can be virtually anything, as long as satisfies three things:

i. Availability to Engage the Customer

Your product needs to be available to potential customers- this entails both getting a potential customer to realize your product exists, and being able to scale your product to meet customer demands. Entire articles can (and have) been written on both acquisition of new users and the technical problems of scaling to an exponential userbase, so I won’t go into much detail here.

ii. Trigger to Engage the Customer

When the customer knows your product exists, and you have the ability to serve the product to the customer, you have to trigger that first-time purchase. If a customer has never used your product before, its very easy for them to continue to not use it. Having the right hooks to engage the user for the first time is so important to foster a successful product. Usually this involves triggering feelings of instant gratification for the customer- as soon as they choose to engage the product, they need to feel empowered by that decision. We’ll put out future articles drilling into this subject a bit deeper (keep checking VSG, we’re always pushing new content!).

iii. Reason to Return

Finally, once you have people using your product, you usually want them to come back. This is where brand awareness, positive customer support, and product quality/stability come into play. Note that marketing also comes into effect- sometimes you’ll need to remind your customers that your product exists, and that the feeling of instant gratification will be satisfied when they reengage with the product. This is also where your customer starts to invest in the product- not just financially, but emotionally as well (This is the only brand I use for X). Satisfying this is one of the hardest things to do when establishing a product- especially for new IPs in a crowded market-space. However, this is the critical point to make for long-term growth, because this is where you can turn your customers into a community.

So, we have a product, which is a shared interest among a group of people. But how do we turn this shared interest into a shared experience- how do we get this group of people to start interacting with each other? In other words:

HOW DO WE TURN OUR PRODUCT INTO A COMMUNITY?

I posit that this is the core question that “Social Media” is trying to ask. I posit that having a Product that is driven by the community, a community-centric product if you will, is what “Social” means in todays tech industry.  It is a “social experience”: defined as a group of people interacting with each other in the context of your product. But how do we do it? I offer three points that need to be satisfied in order to create a community:

i. Avenue to Express Individuality

It would seem obvious, but having an outlet to express yourself is important to creating a community. The thing YOU, the product owner, need to think about, is what that outlet is going to be. Do you use a forum? Leverage existing social networks and outlets such as Facebook/Twitter? Build your own community site with multiple forms of expression? There are risks, advantages and trade-offs for all of these options, and no one option will be perfect for every product. The general rule of thumb though, is that the more ways your customer can express themself, the better.

ii. Trigger to Assert Individuality

Similar to the importance of triggering the customer to engage your product for the first time, you also need to trigger the user to interact with the community for the first time. The difference here is that this is usually less dependent on product-side marketing, and more dependent on customers engaging  each other. However, clever hooks can be implemented that rewards this user-to-user interaction. Note that this is the essence of “viral” growth, and is the core growth mechanic behind many online products.

iii. Ability to Author Individuality

Having the ability to author your expression goes hand-in-hand with being able to express yourself.  The more control you give your customers, the more engaging your community becomes. Giving the customer the ability to shape their experience, the ability to craft and control content, offloads the content creation from your payroll to the community itself. You don’t need to pay someone to create a daily article, because you have customers writing the articles for you!

Notice that all of these points specifically address the individual. At each level, you need to address the personal experience of the customer. When you think about “me”, it’s usually the most important thing in the room- “my” needs, “my” opinions, “my” personality- that is what your product is interacting with. A community is simply a group of these “me’s” interacting with each other. Remember, the product will always come first- which means satisfying the needs of each customer. Forming a community around the product is supplementary. Community is a secondary goal, a potentially exponential secondary goal, but always at the will of core business needs.

To conclude, a Community is People Interacting at Scale. They are interacting around a shared interest- that interest being your product. If your product is available, scalable, and engaging, you can use it as the catalyst to form a Community around your product. Perhaps I’m missing the meaning of Social Media here, but its become such an ambiguous term that it can really mean anything relating to the internet. At the very least I think I’m on to something- Connecting People to the Product seems like an important thing to think about. I hope this helps- at the very least I hope it sparks some discussion.


Story In Social Games

Image of a pen

Story in social games are different from other game mediums. In hardcore games, the story is closer to the classic narratives of yesteryear: The player takes the role of a protagonist who drives the plot of the story. Character development is presented by sequence of non-interactive cutscenes, broken up by interactive gameplay sessions- gameplay sessions where the player drives major plot events of the Story.

Story in social games, however, is slightly different. In social games, the story is light, presented in small chunks, and specifically designed to drive the user to rewarded behaviours. How can Story in a social game drive growth?

Story and Acquisition

Initially, the Story gives the player a frame of reference, telling them who they are, what they’re doing, etc. This initial backstory is usually very light and simple. In most social games, the story is presented in one/two-line sentences.

You are the leader of a Space Empire, seeking to expand across the stars.
At this point the Story becomes the tutorial. The user is given their first mechanic to learn, framed using the tone/language of the story. (Some games personify the tutorial via an in-game “Advisor”; a non-playable character that gives you the directions in the game. This Advisor is the developers voice to directly communicate to the user)
Spaceguy McAdvisorman: “Your first task as Supreme Commander of the Omniverse is to collect 30 space sheep
–> [Collect Sheep Button] <–

After the task is complete, the user is given a reward, and the next task  is presented. Each core game mechanic is introduced in this fashion. By using Story, the user is taught the core gameplay mechanics in a fun and unobtrusive way.

Story and Retention

Using the tutorial, the user is natively taught that the game is driven forward using this task feature. Each task is framed through the Story, (and delivered through the Advisor) giving a set of criteria the user must complete. The user complies by doing each step in the task and is rewarded. Each step of the task should be laid out, using the language of the Story, so that the user constantly knows how to go forward and be rewarded.

Trigger Tutorial
–> “You must defeat the evil Gathbof in Battle, but to do so you need a Silver Spear”
–> Button leading to Store
–> “Welcome to the Store, young warrior of the twilight, the Advisor notified me of your arrival”
–> Button to Buy Weapon
–> “You are learning quick, young warrior, now face Gathbof in Battle!
–> Button to Battle
–> “You defeated Gathbof and received GOLD!”
–> Receive Gold
–> “There is too much loot for one person, SHARE the bounty!”
–> Push Viral

As the user learns the core game mechanics, naturally they can start to learn more complex and unintuitive game mechanics- especially if they are taught the same way the core mechanics were. Tasks makes learning new, complex mechanics easily, because the user is guided at every step. As the mechanics become more complicated, the tasks become more complicated, however the user is never overwhelmed because each step is always laid out, and the flavour of the Story continues to drive them forward. To put it simply- Story allows the user to have fun learning game mechanics!

The Task/Quest mechanic becomes especially useful when new features are added to the game, as users are already trained to do as the tasks direct. As new features are introduced into the game, they are done so via the Story. As the player progresses to the later stages of the game, the Story becomes less about teaching users mechanics, and predominantly becomes a way to continue pushing the user forward and reinforcing learned/rewarded behaviour.

Story and Monetization

How can the Story directly monetize a social game? CLASH: Rise of Heroes does this well in their Campaigns.

After the initial tutorial, the user is directed to play through the first “free” campaign. Each campaign is a narrative driven by the user, presented much like traditional AAA stories: Cutscenes are broken up by gameplay sessions- the cutscenes develops the characters and sets up major plot points; the Gameplay Sessions allow the user to interactively act out said plot points.

After the campaign is finished, they must purchase additional Campaigns (Stories) via premium currency. Users are only willing to pay for the additional Campaigns if they are sold on the story. CLASH does this very well because of the old super-hero comic book style it adopts.  Target users (anyone that read comics as a kid) are filled with a sense of nostalgia, and are given the opportunity to do exactly what they did as a kid- pretend they are a super-hero like in the comics.

Wrapping Up

Currently, story in social games are short, non-obtrusive ways to drive your players to learn or reinforce rewarded behaviours. Few, if any games really have stood out and implemented compelling story with a social game. I feel that as the industry matures, games will come out where there is more emphasis on Story. Until then, Story will be little more of a side-note in social games.

Enter the Social Media Mindset

When social media games became the Cinderella story of the games industry, it caused quite a stir among the top players in the industry. From EA laying off 1500 employees while acquiring Playfish for $300 million to Zynga’s recent valuation of over $5 billion dollars, this new genre has created more controversy and has been more disruptive than most people would have believed a few years ago. But how have these small scale, fairly low-tech games taken such a commanding presence in the games industry? What makes these social games different? How do I make a successful social game? To answer these questions you need to Enter the Social Media Mindset.

What is a mindset? It’s a way of thinking- in this context, a way of thinking about how you develop, grow, and monetize your game. It’s how you think about your customers- both paying and non-paying. It’s how you think about your development team, your studio, your entire business plan. What does it take to make a successful social game? Although this genre is still in its infancy, a few trends have already been established by some of the top players.

1. You are Always Iterating
Social games uses post-launch development at the very core of its’ business model. You are always, always, always iterating. Its not uncommon to push multiple builds a week- sometimes pushing multiple times a day. Once you set it up, it’s actually not that hard- the web development community has been doing this for years.

There are tons of reasons to deploy: Fix bugs, make enhancements to features, implement new features, implement back-end optimizations that players don’t even see. The easier it is to deploy, the more agile you will be, and social games are all about being able to respond quickly and easily.

If done correctly, continuous deployment will become core to your business, and will allow you to start experimenting with your game without the pain points.

2. Data Rules All
Once you can easily deploy, you have to know what to deploy. In order to know what you want to deploy, you have know what your users are doing. You do this using metrics. Ridiculous amount of metrics. The more data the better.

I cannot stress how important this is. Every decision you make about your game is based on Data. In the games of yesteryear, design is ruled by intuition and/or experience. You’ve heard it before: “On my last game we did this and it was really cool” or “You should make it purple, people love the colour purple” or “People are saying the Puppy Collection is really popular, lets raise the price by X%”. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who are really good at this, who have a good idea of what’s popular and what people want. The only problem is, its not exact. More people are going to get it wrong than those who are going to get it right.

However, if you base your decisions on Data, you take the guesswork out of the decision-making process. If you measure everything in your game, you have the numbers to back up your decisions. If you have the numbers to back up decisions, it makes it much easier to defend the change (to stakeholders, fans, etc). Instead of going off what the vocal minority are saying, you actually have the numbers to back up your intuition. In other words, instead of saying “People are saying the Puppy Collection is really popular” you will be saying “the Puppy Collection outsold other collections by 13.7% over the holidays!” If you can say that, you can justify to investors why making more Puppies is a good idea.

3. Designed to Monetize
One of the biggest problem I see when wading through the glut of social/casual games is that the game is not specifically designed to monetize. Since the recession, it’s fair to say that making a good game is not enough anymore. You have to make a game that is going to support itself, if not make you a little profit. A lot of the games you will see try to tack on some money hooks post launch, if those hooks exist in the game at all. To be profitable, however, you need to design the game to make money from the very beginning.

Monetization is the holy grail for game developers, and it also happens to be the trickiest things to do successfully in a social game. A virtual economy has to be built in your game from the ground up, from the very beginning. You are not relying on Week One sales, as AAA game business model calls for. Instead, you have hooks that allow players to pay- as your game gets more popular and starts getting that critical mass, the amount of people paying increases as well.

The kind of games that have become profitable usually have multiple forms of currency, some of which can be purchased for real money. People will generally invest money to enable them to advance in the game faster, for a scarce in-game item, or for a way to customize/stand out from the rest of the user base. Do note that you can have things that hit all three of these points at the same time- a unique, rare item that makes you better/faster at the game, available as a one-month grind, or five dollars cash money. You could look at it as trading time for money.

Wrapping Up
Entering the social media mindset, once done, can strike a fine balance between the low cost associated with indie development, while finding profitability in your game.  VancouverSocialGames.com is a blog dedicated to demystifying the theory of this explosive new area of game development, and spotlighting some of the regional up-and-coming players that will quickly become household names. Stay tuned to our articles, keep giving us feedback, and keep your creative genius flowing!