The Early Game
I’ve talked a bit here about the need for depth in social games — the need for an elder game that keeps you playing after you’ve grasped the primary gameplay. This need is showing up in the “dangerous curves” we’re seeing in many of the first-gen social games topping out and drifting downward as people tire of the same-old gameplay. There’s no doubt that it’s important to “avoid the VOID” in game design — where VOID is Varies Only In Difficulty (coined by Dan Arey, I believe). In other words, if all you do is dial up the difficulty as the game moves along, it gets boring pretty quickly.
But on the other end — the nearer end, the one you have to get through to be able to worry about an elder game — things are heating up too.
As more social games come out and as the quality of gameplay and art in them gradually inches up, it’s becoming more and more vital to have a great early game experience . This may not sound like rocket science, but it’s surprising how many games really don’t impel the player forward and miss opportunities to convert mildly interested visitors into evangelical fans.
A lot of social games walk the player through the first few actions of the game very carefully, with now-ubiquitous big green arrows pointing at what you should click on next. While these sometimes get in the way of getting to enjoy a game quickly, they appear to work: Inside Social Games recently reported on some results from Mixpanel, saying that if you can get someone started on a tutorial, there’s better than a 90% chance that they’ll go to the next step — each step having that kind of conversion rate (which means you need to keep your tutorials short and sweet too!).
While I think tutorials are vital, I wonder about other ways to improve the early experience. For example, on one project (upcoming!), we tried even making the typically boring “loading bar” more interesting and playful, adding to the feel of the game. It seems to have worked well.
This is another area ripe for growth and innovation in social games. Given that the success of these games — where there is as little friction as possible to pick up the game, but also little friction in dropping it again if it’s boring or daunting — social games need to have a killer entrance, to grab the player right away: make them feel comfortable, engaged, intrigued, and excited all at the same time. Even more difficult, these games need to not try to hang onto the player forever: with short play sessions you have to let them go — but in a way that will keep that first-time visitor coming back.
What are the best examples of early gameplay in social gameplay that you’ve seen? What are some ways you think we can improve?