How Facebook games can be deeper by design

We've all heard the claims leveraged against social games that they are barely games. And let's face it, those accusations ring true even when looking at some of the major league Facebook games. But it doesn't have to be this way--Designer Henric Suuronen has his own methods of adding layers of depth to social games in a way that doesn't bog them down in complexity. Coined "Smart Depth Theory," Suuronen provides five tips on how Facebook games could be more game-like.

While these tips are geared toward designers, we can learn a lot about the games we play from what's going on in designers' heads. Here's what Suuronen had to say about his theory:
a. Novice or beginner players should not need to consciously think about the feature until they figure it out or realize it on their own accord.
b. It should not require dexterity or hand-eye-coordination. Strategic thinking with variable solutions and outcomes is best. Compare Tower Bloxx, which requires users to time clicks in rapid progression to score higher, to a game like Angry Birds which has strategic elements but requires less coordination.
c. It should add a new "layer" on the existing game loop not create a separate one.
d. Players should be able to do it on a basic level almost by accident and feel smart for completing or solving the problem.
e. After doing it once and gaining the rewards players will carry on trying to find an even better solution. It is here the greatest retention effects are achieved.
Basically, Suuronen claims that social game design should be sneaky. We shouldn't be aware of the features until we happen upon them. They shouldn't have to be explained in some lengthy tutorial, but learned and mastered through just playing the game. For instance, the Bonus Bar in several Zynga games like FrontierVille is never explained, because its a self-explanatory feature--the faster you pick up Food, Energy and XP, the more coins you're rewarded as the meter fills.

Business bonuses
In fact, all of these tips point to features like the Bonus Bar, but Suuronen points out another design trope in Facebook games that briefly follows this theme: building bonuses. Just look at the amount of strategy that goes into maximizing Business payout in CityVille through decorations. That feature was briefly explained in a short Goal and now has become one of the game's major hooks. According to his feature, Suuronen appears more interested in these types of strategic layers of game depth, but I'd say ones that are more action-packed are far more interesting.

It's times when you're clicking frantically to keep that Bonus Bar going or shooting balls at rapid speed in Zuma Blitz to rack up the high score that you forget it was all intentional. And is that not the Goal of good game design--to cover up that fourth wall as much as possible? The more within a game that comes as second nature, the more time can be focused on just playing the game and moving on. This is why games that are bogged down in features, statistics and tutorials explaining all those unnecessary layers generally don't do well.

Blazing Speed
Yet that doesn't mean that the best social games have to be dumbed down. When you're maximizing Business payout in CityVille, aren't you thinking critically about space constraints, the right decorations (and the right Businesses)? Or how about when you're in the heat of the moment during Bejeweled Blitz, accurately switching gems at breakneck speed. Something has to be firing off in that gray mass inside your skull. Yet it almost comes as second nature at this point. Now it's not as if Facebook games don't have more work to do in the design department. But if developers keep this up, we're in for far more entertaining experiences in the future.

[Image Credit: Faelixian, Clubbing 9ine, User Styles]

What do you think about the current state of social game design? Do you think these are effective methods designers could use in the future? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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