(If you are finding value in these articles, show your appreciation with a retweet!)
In the first part of this article, I talked about the Zynga phenomenon and proposed to answer the question of how Zynga keeps doing what it does so well. I first described what CityVille is, and then made the case that visibility through advertising, cross-promotion and free marketing sources is the secret to making social games splash.
In the second part, I talked about retention, and how context matters. I then explained how the game dynamics of CityVille (and other games of its type) create constant activity. I talked about how timers create a never-ending sequence of overlapping open loops, and reward the player constantly through pellets and unlocks that keep them engaged.
Now let’s move on to the social features. I already touched on publishing as an example of how social features increase visibility, and how they are used for unlocking gates. But they also play a key part in building retention in the game.
There are three kinds of social activity in CityVille: prompts, suggestions and visitations.
CityVille asks you to invite friends, share your latest accomplishment, or ask your friends to send help so that you can complete a task. In one ten minute session of CityVille that I played yesterday evening, the game prompted me with a question three times, and that is not unusual.
CityVille is constructed to routinely prompt users to take an action. The actions are in the form of a response to a question. Although there may appear to be many variations, there are actually only four types of question that it asks:
- Would you like to tell your friends what you have done? (as in the image above)
- Would you like to ask your friends for help?
- Would you like to send a friend a gift?
- Would you like to grant a friend’s request for help?
The game asks these questions mostly in relation to specific events. However because of the way that the game’s activities, timers and open loops work, those events happen very frequently. Here are some examples:
- When you attain a level
- When you run out of energy
- When you build a building that needs employees
- When you leave the game open in a browser window for five minutes
- When a particular task needs friends to complete
There are also prompts that it asks only at certain points during the game. The following image is from FrontierVille because I missed the chance to screen-grab the one that CityVille asked, but the same function is in CityVille:
This is a cross-promotion prompt. At the start of the game it asks a lot of these sorts of questions, but they tend to trail off into the more routine questions by the time you’ve reached level 5 or so. Other kinds of prompt include gameplay tutorials, guides, reminders and game crashes.
The purpose of a prompt is to get the player to either broadcast to all of their friends, or send a request directly to another friend. There are fairly stringent rules over prompts and how they can be used: They have to clearly ask the player to share or invite friends, for example. The reason is to prevent developer abuses. (See Channels below for more).
Suggestions are buttons, links and tabs in the game that remind the player that they can interact with other players or Facebook friends if they choose. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the friend bar at the bottom of the game:
This bar allows you to travel to your friends’ cities, and also to send them gifts. If you click on any of their images, you will see a Gift button.
Suggestions centre around giving gifts. Most of them are free to the giver (you can give someone energy without it costing any of yours), and they generate publishable stories that the player can share, to let the receiver know that they have received a gift.
The result is an attempt at generating reciprocity. The goal of the gift economy in CityVille is to make players realise that they can actually progress much faster in the game, at no cost, if they give as many gifts to each other as possible. An economy-of-favours emerges, and everyone wins.
One of the most interesting social dynamics in the game is the ability to set up businesses in other players’ cities. It requires their approval of course, but the general idea is that you can apply to set up a franchise of one of your businesses, and this generates pellets for both of you:
Your friend can treat it as a rental opportunity and simply collect coins and experience points from it, like any other building. And you can visit it to do likewise.
Another kind of visit is the performing of game activity in another friend’s city. When you visit, you can harvest or collect on behalf of a friend, and they in turn can choose to accept your help:
This is an example of accepting help. If I choose to say yes, both of these friends’ images will move around my city, harvesting crops and generating resources. Helping friends out in this fashion costs the helper energy, but it also generates coins, XP and, most importantly, reputation points.
Reputation points are like a social form of level (represented by the heart icon on the right of this image). Reputation acts as a secondary requirement on some game activities, just like levelling does, but its primary purpose is to do with XP and coin generation. The more reputation you have, the more XP that someone who hires you will get, and the more you will get also.
In a similar vein, players can send requests to each other to become neighbors. Neighbors can more easily find and send gifts to each other. Also, some city buildings and tasks require that a player has a specific number of neighbors. Neighbors thus become another kind of gating mechanism.
The objective of all social activity in the game is to generate publishing actions. Publishing, as I’ve already mentioned several times in the article, is the act of getting the player to spread the word about CityVille out onto Facebook. Simple publishing is the act of broadcasting your game high scores onto the platform, but there are more sophisticated channels that can be better used to gather attention.
Specifically, CityVille wants players to generate one of these four kinds of action:
- A Wall-publish
- A Cross-Wall Publish
- A Notification Request
- An Email
Wall Publishing: Wall publishing is the most straightforward social action to understand. As I wrote in the first part of this article, wall publishing most commonly takes the form of high scores announcements, or high scores with incentives.
All wall publishing is governed by a specific policy to which a developer must adhere: A game must clearly ask the player whether they want to share a game activity, and then must proceed to a second Facebook screen (see above) that once again asks if the player wants to go ahead and publish this story to their wall. Only then will the story actually be published.
Unsurprisingly, this creates a lot of fall-off. Moreover, a recent change in the policy by Facebook has restricted the visibility of wall publishing such that only players who have already installed the game can see stories published from the game. This change was brought about because Facebook noticed that many of their non-gaming users really disliked these kinds of stories cluttering up their walls, while gaming users disliked stories from games that they were not already playing.
Cross-Wall Publishing: Cross-wall publishing, on other hand, is where the game publishes on a friend’s wall rather than your own. It has the same restrictions as regular wall publishing, but has the advantage that it generates a notification to the player who owns the wall (so they’re more likely to notice it).
CityVille uses cross-wall publishing to tell players when a friend has visited their town. The friend still has to choose to actually publish the story, but as you can see from the screen-grab above, the result is a game story that is more relevant to me than a general achievement publish would be.
Notification Requests: When Facebook introduced their first major redesign of users’ home pages from a narrow to a wide format, they included a feature called notifications. Notifications tell you if a friend has commented on a status update, posted on your wall, tagged you in a photo, or other similar activities.
Social game developers, including Zynga, abused notifications utterly. If you had ever installed Mafia Wars, for example, you would receive notifications from the game every day asking you to come back and play, offering bonuses, inducements and so on. Notification spam became a huge irritant for users, and so eventually Facebook turned off the channel for developers.
More recently, Facebook appear to have partially relented. While games are still not permitted to advertise directly to players through the notification channel, requests from players to other users are permitted (see above). This includes users who have not installed the game.
Requests have always been a feature of Facebook, but since they started appearing in the notification stream they have become much more visible than before.
Email: Last but not least, email from the game is a valid channel. Email has been available to developers for about a year, but it is often under-used. The hazard with email is that players often consider it to be more personal and private than, say, notifications. So the use of email needs to veer away from spam and more toward relevant communications. CityVille is currently using email as a way to spread requests, not for large scale advertising. This makes it more useful to read (Although on a personal note I think I will soon add a filter to my Gmail to junk those mails).
Some of the restrictions around how you can publish, or when, can be overcome by extended permissions. In order to email players, for example, the developer must get their permission to do so first. In order for the developer to access their social graph information, likewise. Other permissions are more added-value types. Players can give you permission to automate the process of wall-publishing, for example, to reduce it to just one step rather than two.
There are several ways to ask for permission. Some games try to make a mini-game out of it by inviting players to complete several steps in a social bar at the top of the game to get a prize, like this (taken from Pet Society):
Others, like CityVille, bundle their permission question in as a part of the install question when the player first enters the application:
And some do both.
The mandatory method is more effective of course, although there is the possibility that if you ask too much of the player at installation then they might get put off.
To understand the social dynamics of CityVille, realise that they are selfish.
In each case, the dynamics exist to tantalise a player with a tangible reward. If you visit your friend, you get a prize. If you send them a free gift that costs you nothing, they might send you one back. If you set up a bakery in their town, you will both gain from that. If you harvest their crops for them, you will gain reputation points.
It’s all incentive-driven. One of the ironies around social games is that they aren’t particularly social. They don’t encourage deep social interaction because such interaction is useless to the developer. Social games are not trying to be connections or meaningful experiences for players. That is a wholly different kind of game, and not one that they can easily become given the environment in which these games are played.
Instead, they are built as amusements. Socialising in amusements is more akin to having spare Poker chips at the table that you give to someone else, and maybe they’ll give you some back later. It is reciprocal trade, assistance for incentive, not charity. While this does not preclude the possibility that some players will engage in acts of charity for personal reasons, the social dynamics are not created with that in mind.
They are built to work with self-interest.
(That concludes the third part of the CityVille Explained article. The final part is available here. If you are finding value in these articles, show your appreciation with a retweet!)