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We have a file on you: The tools & tricks of social games

6:00 PM on 10.13.2012 // Allistair Pinsof

This is what social game developers say about you, behind your back

Meet Melissa. She's a forty-year-old mom who has recently become hooked on DragonVale, a free-to-play iOS game. She is what social game analysts call a whale. No, this isn't a comment on her physical stature or deep, raspy cafeteria-lady voice. Whale refers to the type of player she is, financially speaking. Whales are a very good thing for developers, as they are the ones that make the most and largest purchases in free-to-play games.

Developers' analytical tools compile data and profile Melissa, determining if she is likely to be a whale. At this point, the tools analyze whether she will churn soon (read: depart the game) and what would be the best offer to prevent her from leaving the game for the rest of her life.

There is a world of data, audience manipulation, and visual tricks that occur within social games without players ever realizing it. While it's too early to judge where these tool may take the industry, learning how they work does give one some ideas. Let's turn back the veil and see social game design for what it really is, shall we? used to be some site that you bought books at but then analytics happened. In the late 1990s, Brian Lent helped lead the Information Technology team that would create Amazon's recommendation system. The system that would rewrite how the expanding online store functioned. Instead of recommending random items for sale, stores now gain data from users' searches, purchases, behavior, and any other information available to analytical software.

Recommendations covered 14 percent of Amazon's revenue when Lent still worked there; now, it's as high as 40 percent of the company's earnings. The rest of the Internet would follow and, now, so are videogames. Videogame developers and publishers are now reaching out to analysts like Lent, who currently works for Medio Systems. It is one of many third-party companies that offer analytical software which does the heavy number crunching for developers.

Right now, Lent is giving a speech at GDC Online, a gathering of social and mobile game developers in Austin, Texas. His audience is a group of grey-haired businessmen curious to get some of this Facebook cash they have heard so much about through the success stories of Zynga, PopCap, and Chillingo.

He is now covering stage three of how to make a successful social game: monetization.

"This stage is really about optimizing the next best offer," Lent says. "If you have another thing to show the user, what is the best thing (analytically-speaking) they are most likely to purchase next?"

"Metrics" is a word commonly used among social game developers that didn't exist in the industry until analysts like Lent arrived. You hear people say it a lot at a trade show like GDC Online. Sometimes in a knowing way, and sometimes with the excited gleam of dollar signs lighting up the eyes. In 2009, social games made $4 billion a year.

According to Lent's research, the market will reach $30 billion in yearly revenue with downloads rising to 21.7 billion -- over five times what they were three years ago. The market is growing and it's attracting developers like Zynga that are well-versed in the visual design and analytical tricks that have made successful websites tick. Now, they are applying the same tactics to videogames.

Once users are acquired, a social game must engage them. Since not all social games are fun enough to play on their own merit, developers hook players with a carrot on a stick. Analytical tools tell designers when an offer should be made to what player. For example, a whale may be planning to go back to reality and abandon their home in DragonVale. This is when a developers must "figure out how to cross-promote and move people."

"Collect all the data you can!" exclaims Lent. "Location, time of day, offers shown that they didn’t respond to, offers shown that they did respond to, friends they invited into game ... all that data is extremely, extremely valuable. No matter how you work, make sure you are collecting all the data you can. That data is a gold mine."

Once a user is placed into a "clustomer" (a cluster of customers -- yes, they really do use this term), analytical tools evaluate what should be offered and how the offer should be presented. For example, the software knows Melissa is a whale because the data tells the system that whales are likely to use iPhones, reach level 12 in the game, live in Germany, and purchase the golden sword. All of these traits fit Melissa, so she must be a whale.

"Have your product guys look into the purchase path for the golden sword, since that unlocks the game experience and leads them to buy more things," Lent says.

This analytical software has increased developers revenue by five times, according to Lent. Not only does the software tell developers the nature of a user, it can even decide whether something should be promoted as "best price," "hot price," "NEW!" or "50% off" even though these are the same exact offer. However, some aspects of targeting social players will always be in the designers' hands.

Emmanuel Valdez has nearly twenty years of experience in designing videogames, and he comes to GDC Online to discuss how visual design can help drive sales in social games. Since most social games are free-to-play, they depend on real-money transactions in a marketplace. Depending on the game, these marketplace items may alter the way a player's avatar looks or how the game is played, often making it easier on the player. Then, the worst offender: there are energy systems that lock a person out from playing the game until they are let back in via a timer -- unless they pay up.

"It's not the art; it's not the budget; it's the design that makes great games," states Valdez.

Valdez pulls many time-tested design principles from across time and cultures and applies them to games. For example, colors can reinforce what a person should look at. Game designers often color a group of icons to imply they are of a similar nature, but Valdez presents an example where a social game greys out all buttons except the marketplace. This button, and only this button, is glorious, bright, and shiny. How can you not click on it? Why would anyone resist?

"Design for free-to-play games changes how we see design because they are all about getting people to spend money, most of the time," continues Valdez.

Have you ever noticed that many social games apply baby face features to game characters? They often have big round eyes, small noses, and heads larger than the rest of their bodies. Valdez says developer's do this because it makes players more sympathetic. Research shows that they are more likely to pay to level them up. Developers want you to fall in love with their characters and then pay for that love.

Placement is another key design aspect of social games. Leading players' eyes to the marketplace and the most expensive items is a primary goal for many developers and it's a task that has to be dealt with subtlety. Valdez says that placing the most expensive items first in a store will make them more likely to be sold, since these items will linger in the mind of players after exiting. Another principle is the Gutenberg Diagram which shows that player's eyes are drawn from the top-left to the bottom-right of the screen, so of course you are going to place your store icon there!

"A lot of people from Zynga come from the web and that industry has been doing this a lot longer than we have. These principle are second nature to them," Valdez explains. "That's where we need to get."

But where is this place and what kind of place will it be? One where each user is studied by systems, manipulated by artists, and led with a carrot on a stick? Many European countries, such as England and Germany, forbid the kind of data collection these analysts provide for a good reason. That reason is that customers should be served a quality product, not serving developers' research and data mining. Nevertheless, companies like Medio Systems work within a loophole that strips individuals' data and places it into a group ("clustomers"). No one is that unique, after all. This keeps personal data one step removed and the data mining within legal bounds.

Even great game developers analyze test groups, use design principles to guide players, and give players incentive to keep playing. The difference is that developers like Activision Blizzard make a game first and tune it around these tools and tricks, not the other way around. The more I learn about how social games are made and the people that work on them, the more I am fascinated by this new industry and the more I want to stay the hell away from it as a gamer. I'm not a whale. If Zynga has a file on me, I kindly ask for it back.

Allistair Pinsof,
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