A Hopeless Romantic Sim
An Evil Sim
A Great Kisser
In The Sims 3, we made many additions and improvements to the lovable and quirky beings we call Sims. By far, my favorite of those is our character traits system, and I know I’m not alone – it has captured the hearts and minds of our players, too – often even more than our largest feature: the seamless, living neighborhood. So I wanted to describe the thinking that led us to the traits design, and some of the interesting choices and observations we made along the way.
Personality in The Sims and The Sims 2
First, a little background. In The Sims and The Sims 2, personalities were chosen on a ten-point scale along five different personality characteristics:
| || |
| || |
The Sims 2
In The Sims, personality affected the choices a Sim made on their own, affected rates of skill gain, and also altered the speed a Sim’s needs would deplete. For example, a Sim with a high playful score would have their fun drop quickly, causing the Sim to do more fun things than normal.
In The Sims 2, we expanded the system to add special behaviors for specific ranges of personality. The 0-3 range was considered “low” and 8-10 points was considered “high.” Both came with unique animations and interactions for the Sims. Anything in between (4-7 points) was considered neutral, and usually did not have any special animations or interactions. For example:
| || |
- Sloppy Sims (0-3 points) would create puddles when taking showers, make objects dirty more quickly, and could eat from the trash.
- Neat Sims (8-10 points) could get fun by cleaning objects, and could even clean objects that weren’t yet visibly dirty, causing those objects to take much longer to get dirty.
- In Between (4-7 points) didn’t have special animations or interactions. They only had varying need decays, skill rates, and autonomy behaviors.
All personalities worked this way. As you can see, we bundled the special content toward the extremes.
Inspiration and Philosophy for Traits
The problem we found as we were implementing personalities on The Sims 2
was that we couldn’t reasonably create enough special animation and interaction content to make each notch of the 0-10 scale feel interesting.
Additionally, players didn’t understand that there would only be a nominal difference between, say, a 2-point and a 3-point Sloppy Sim, but a huge difference between a 3-point Sloppy Sim and a 4-point Sloppy Sim. We didn’t make that clear in the UI, so players had to learn this from strategy guides and Sims wikis
Around the time we began designing The Sims 3
, I’d been reading a lot about screenwriting, and noticed that in screenplays, characters often have a few glaringly distinct traits. There’s no fuzziness about them:
| || |
- Tyler Durden: Stylish. Leader. Unrestrained. Monster. Rebel.
- Han Solo: Laid Back. Arrogant. Jealous. Street Smart. Rebel.
- Hermione: Friendly. Know-it-all. Mudblood.
- Patrick Bateman: Clean. Ritualistic. Egotistical. Obsessed with Business Cards. Murderer.
- The Dude: Stoner. Low Key. Loves White Russians.
- Marry Poppins: Excellent Nanny. Flies. Sings. Has Magic Bag.
We used this approach as inspiration on The Sims 3, and developed a philosophy of doing away with the continuous aspect of personality. Instead, we wanted to take the extremes from The Sims 2 and package that fun content into discrete bundles of behavior, which we dubbed Traits.
A Friendly Sim (probably waving to Bella)
Scouring the Personal Ads (For Science!)
Now, how would we begin to figure out which traits we wanted? One of the first days we brainstormed traits, my boss called me into his office (Matt Brown, now of Blizzard). Quirky genius that he was, he sat me down and pointed to his monitor, which was littered with personal ads and dating websites. The idea was to see exactly how people described themselves. People said things like the following, which are from real personal ads:
| || |
- Loves Poetry and Chocolate
- Down to Earth
- Enjoys the Outdoors
- Appreciates Classical Music
- Walking the Fine Line between Human Being and Deity
- Mid-Life Crisis Sufferer
- Smoking Enthusiast
- Penchant for Whistling
- Likes Kissing
If you play The Sims 3, you’ll notice some of these from the game with slightly altered names: Loves the Outdoors, Hopeless Romantic, Athletic, Friendly, and Loner. And although Mid Life Crisis didn’t make sense as a trait, we used it as a lifetime happiness reward which could be used to swap traits mid-game.
Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Arrested Development
Then we locked the design team in a room and made a list of the interesting characters we knew from TV, movies, and books. We filled entire whiteboards with names, then scrawled the prominent traits of those characters in any whitespace we could find. Due to the wonders of technology, I was able to dig up a piece of one of those brainstorms. I know it looks like we had an angry chimp scribbling these down, but hey… it’s hard to keep a chimp happy all the time:
One segment of a whiteboard brainstorm of characters and their prominent traits, circa 2005. (Note that there is no spatial relationship between the traits and the characters – we were cramming stuff in everywhere.)
In the end, a handful of fun traits in The Sims 3 were inspired by some of our favorite characters. Here are four:
- Frugal and Mooch: For both of these, we had George Costanza in mind. Remember the episode where he insists on the cheapest wedding invitations in the store, and his fiancée dies from licking the cheap toxic glue on all the envelopes? That’s Frugal right there.
- Evil: Mr. Burns from The Simpsons inspired us, right down to his finger-drumming. What’s not interesting about a guy who decides to erect a giant sky-disc to block out the sun from his town?
- Never Nude: Later on in production, Grant Rodiek, Ryan Vaughan, and I became obsessed with the show Arrested Development, which led us to the Never Nude trait. We still think Tobias Funke is one of the funniest characters of all time.
An Evil Sim, scheming about pool ladders, sharks, and laser beams.
Traits for Gameplay Systems
As we fleshed out the designs for the rest of the game, we continued to add traits that enhanced the gameplay of those systems.
As we designed Fishing Skill, we added the Angler trait – these Sims are natural fishers and have lots of fun while fishing. When designing Gardening Skill, we added Green Thumb – these Sims are great at gardening, and can even revive dead plants. And as we developed the food system, we added Vegetarian – these Sims get special versions of recipes, like Tofu Dogs, and they enjoy longer lives… but be careful: force them to eat, and they’ll start throwing up (players always enjoy new ways to torture their Sims!).
A Green Thumb
Then, there were some traits that were hard to agree upon. Do we want them? Do they fit the “Sims” style? Do they provide enough value? Here are the stories of three troubling traits:
Clumsy. These Sims drop food, trip over their feet, tumble into pools, and generally lack coordination. The trouble with Clumsy was that it had no gameplay value. Some designers wondered why anyone would pick a trait that had no benefits. On the other hand, the argument was that Clumsy would be worth it just for the humor and storytelling aspects. In the end, we shipped it, and many players loved it, often saying that they themselves were clumsy, and so they felt a special attachment to it.
Kleptomaniac. These Sims have the ability to steal objects when nobody is looking. We knew the gameplay for this trait could be fun, but had a hard time agreeing on whether it had a home in the Sims universe. Sure, we’ve had burglars before. But was it okay to give players the control to steal things with their Sims? We typically avoid dark subjects. In the end, we shipped this trait with the fiction that these Sims couldn’t help it. They weren’t bad people, they just needed to steal. And players couldn't tell them what to steal -- you could only tell them to Swipe Something, and they would grab something random in the room... it could be a stereo, it could be a painting, or it could be a used toilet! We also gave them the ability to return stolen items to make amends with the victim. Kleptomaniac ended up being an incredibly successful trait that helped tell some interesting stories and create funny conflicts.
Excitable. These Sims were in the same boat as Clumsy. All they did was get super-excited often, without gameplay benefit. But it was so much fun to have your Sims get excited about everyday things as mundane as checking the mail. (Excitable is actually my favorite trait.)
An excitable Sim! It’s so exciting!
The Great Merge
Eventually, we had a list of over 100 traits. Far too many. It would have been overwhelming for players, and too much to implement. First, we ruthlessly cut the weakest traits. That left us with traits that we liked, but many of them didn’t have enough gameplay, or were too similar. This led us to “The Great Merge,” where we combined a lot of our proposed traits into fewer, stronger traits with more gameplay. This eventually got us to The Sims 3’s shipping set of 63 traits.
| || |
- Scientific + Genius + Gifted --> Genius
- Angelic + Good --> Good
- Bully + Mean --> Mean
- Creative + Artistic --> Artistic
- Confident + Brave --> Confident
A Genius Sim doing some calculus in the air.
Five Traits, Period.
We limit each Sim to a maximum of 5 traits. Early in pre-production, this wasn’t the case. We originally had a system where each trait had a point value, and the player had points to spend. Positive traits cost points, but negative traits returned points as an incentive to pick them, thereby allowing players to choose many traits as long as they balanced negatives with positives. But we quickly realized this approach was far too geeky and inhuman for a Sims game.
Next, we tried removing the points, and just letting players pick to their heart’s content. And that’s just what people tended to do – pick lots of traits. There’s a reason movie characters only have a few big traits – too many and it waters down their identity. We found the same thing happening in our prototype. Ultimately, we settled on a maximum of 5 as a number that was still large enough to give virtually unlimited interesting combinations, yet was small enough that each trait felt like a meaningful choice.
Also, it’s easy for players to remember 5 traits, as opposed to 7 or 10 or more. When a player can remember a Sim’s traits easily, they are more likely to change their play style in accordance with those traits – e.g. My Sim is a Virtuoso, I should practice guitar today or play in the park for tips! That’s the kind of trait-based motivation we want to see!
We settled on this number even before production. You can see the space is limited to 5 trait slots in this screenshot of our 2D prototype. Testing these variations in our prototype saved us plenty of UI re-work we would have had to do if we’d learned these lessons later in production:
Our Sims 3 “Living World” Prototype, with the Create-A-Sim screen showing our 5-trait limit. This prototype helped us learn the right approaches to features like traits early on while the lessons were cheap, rather than later in production when they would be expensive.
And in the final game, it looks like this:
Looks Trump Character during Creation
We wanted to emphasize character, so we considered having traits as the very first part of Sim creation, even before the appearance of the Sim. It was a well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed idea.
We quickly learned that most players don’t even think about the internal character of their Sims until they can see the visual character. If we gave them a random Sim and opened up the traits panel, they wouldn’t pay attention to the traits – they’d feel like they needed to change the look of that Sim first.
In the end, we ordered Create-A-Sim from the most prominent physical characteristics to the least (first gender, weight, & skin tone; then hair; then face & makeup; then clothing) followed by traits. It’s interesting to note that the hair step is even before face; this is because hair makes such a huge difference in visually defining a Sim – more than setting any aspect of a Sim’s face (especially from a larger viewing distance).
The Most Popular Traits
Here are the top 4 traits:
| || |
- Great Kisser
- Family Oriented
A whopping 8% of created Sims have the Friendly trait -- yes, 8% is a considered high when there are 63+ traits to choose from, and not all Sims leave Create-A-Sim with 5 traits (younger ages get fewer). Almost as many Sims have Athletic, Great Kisser, or Family Oriented. I love the uplifting message this sends about our Simmers – our community idealizes positive, wholesome qualities in humanity! (With a little smooching tossed in.)
A Family-Oriented Sim, gazing at her family.
We learned a strong lesson from seeing Great Kisser in the top 3. This was one of the traits surrounded by controversy about whether it had enough gameplay value to warrant its existence. All it did was give your Sims better chances of having their kisses go well with other Sims. It’s not actually a big advantage. In the world of strategy gaming, this would be a poor choice. However, Sims games don’t find their places in players’ hearts because of the strategy – instead, it’s all about the creativity, fiction, and storytelling power – and this is why Great Kisser is so popular.
Players are mostly picking traits based on the fictional character they are trying to make and not focusing on gameplay benefits as often.
In other words, they’re picking the words that best describe themselves, their ideal selves, or the people they are trying to make. Great Kisser sounds awesome. Traits don’t have to have large benefits (or dev time sunk into them), but rather, they need to appeal to a player’s imaginations and aspirations first.
A Case for Negative Traits
Here are the 4 least popular traits:
| || |
It’s no surprise that the negative traits were the least popular. Unflirty
was chosen less than 0.25% of the time. After seeing this data, I often get the question about whether we should have not had negative traits. After all, what was their use if so few people pick them?
There are a few good reasons. First, they are necessary to create a diverse and challenging set of personalities for the NPCs in the town. If everyone was easy to flirt with, what fun would that be? So there’s the occasional Unflirty
Sim to throw a wrench in things.
Second, they can be useful in describing people we know and want to make.
Third, it allows advanced players to create more interesting challenges. Try the Legacy Challenge
with a Sim who Dislikes Children
, is a Loner
, and Insane
And as much as possible, we tried to add benefits to the negative traits in case players decided to check them out. For example, an Unlucky
Sim may burn her home down more often and get the short stick in life, but if she dies by accident or malpractice, the Grim Reaper will feel sorry for the poor Sim and resurrect her.
A Lost Trait
We couldn’t implement every trait we wanted, so I thought I'd share one of my favorites from that cut list. It's the Colorblind
trait, which I thought would be super-neat (and educational). The idea is that the player would have been able to pick a type of colorblindness for their Sim, and then when that Sim was selected, the game would use a shader to render the screen as if through colorblind eyes. Similar to this website
that renders any web page (like Google
) as a colorblind person would see them. A new way to see through your Sims' eyes!
A Final Word on Traits
Character Traits ended up being a very fun, easily extensible system that we’ve had a great time supplementing with each expansion. (Even before The Sims 3 released, the concept of traits as an evolution of character was exciting enough that it inspired The Sims 2 team’s pet-personality system for The Sims 2 Pets.)
A Vegetarian with her trusty eggplant.
The movement from an analog personality system to discrete bundles of behavior gave us and players a creative toolbox to make millions of inspiring, deep, dramatic, and entertaining characters.
And they are The Sims.
An Explanation of Facebook Games to the PC/Console Gamer in me of 2 Years Ago.
Recently, we launched SimCity Social on Facebook, and I’m proud of it. After nearly 10 years in the industry developing hit PC titles for Maxis/EA (primarily The Sims games), why would I be so proud of a Facebook game? What has gotten into me?
Two years ago, before I worked on social games, I just didn’t “get” them. I didn’t want to bug my friends when I needed things. I didn’t want to play on the game’s schedule rather than my own. And I didn’t see any depth or interesting gameplay (and in many cases, there was none to see).
Like many PC/console gamers, I figured that if I didn’t like a Facebook game, then it was a bad game. But that was a subjective view. Now that I understand the types of people who enjoy Facebook games, I understand why many of these games are objectively great.
So I’m writing this post to explain to my past self why Facebook games are the way they are, and to dispel some of the misunderstandings that PC/console gamers have about them.
1. Strategy is Great, But it Needs to Cater to the Target Audience
One of my goals while working on SimCity Social
was to bring more depth of gameplay to mass-market Facebook games. However, it would have been a mistake to try and shove all the complexity of a normal SimCity
game into the Facebook variant because these games need to be easy to learn and quick to play.
Instead, I think SimCity Social
hits the sweet spot – enough strategy that it tickles the mind, but not so much that it would scare away the mass market. Unfortunately, some reviews (like this one
) don’t take the time to understand the game and instead dismiss it out of a general loathing for Facebook games, making comments like, “There was never a moment where I had to sit back and think about strategy.”
The main aspect of SimCity Social
– city layout – is designed around giving players strategic choices. And it has given rise to many forum threads discussing placement strategy
, with carefully crafted suggestions like this:
(the white gaps are filled by roads)
Strategy in SimCity Social arises from a few rules and variables:
| || |
- Homes (residential zones) hold population.
- Attractions and décor increase population in nearby homes (radii and shape vary).
- Attractions can be upgraded to increase radius of effect.
- Homes get a population multiplier from being near coastline.
- Businesses get a payout multiplier from near population.
- Factories also get a payout multiplier from being near coastline (but they may produce pollution, which floats over nearby buildings, rendering them temporarily ineffective).
For example, here’s one player’s comparison of various locations for a business:
Placing businesses in higher population areas gives better payouts.
These rules, combined with an interesting terrain layout, make a complex system. There is no easily solvable optimal strategy, and strategy varies depending on your goals. The layout in the first image of this section may be great for high population, but it doesn’t account for coastline, businesses, industry, shape variations of attractions, or how the catalog of buildings evolves.
As our audience has grown, more players have whipped out spreadsheets and whiteboards to theorize optimal strategies, leading to Excel mockups that look like someone was diagraming CPU memory blocks:
One player’s theory of optimal placement for maximizing population.
In fact, some players are geeking out on the strategy so intensely that it’s what the entire game has become about for them. Not decoration. Not quests. Not collecting for the sake of progress. Not anything – except optimizing. Here’s one Excel mockup from a player who stepped back and tried to give equal attention to optimizing placement of all building types:
(A player-made Excel sheet representing their placement strategy and various bonuses conferred on and by businesses, attractions, décor, and homes.)
And all of this ties into the core loop, which focuses on affording better mechanisms to increase population. Having a complex system that is part of the core loop and that has a simple, understandable interface can add a wonderful dimension to Facebook games and give players a feeling of consequence.
More Facebook games need to evolve in this direction.
A “simple” interface limits the amount of complexity a game can have, but this simplicity is necessary to cater to the target audience – a mass market not typically composed of PC/console gamers.(For more reading on depth, I recommend Smart-Depth: Adding More 'Game' to Social Games by Henric Suuronen.)
Which leads me to…
2. You Are Not the Audience: Half a Billion Other People Are.
Here’s a loose analogy. Compare playing Guitar Hero
to actually playing a real guitar. Guitar Hero
is more accessible, more immediately satisfying, and takes less of a time commitment. But playing the real guitar is more cerebral and, in the long run, more constructive.
Prince even turned down the opportunity
to have his music in Guitar Hero
, stating that it was “more important that kids learn how to actually play the guitar.”
Does this mean Guitar Hero
is a bad experience? No. In fact, Guitar Hero
makes the guitar accessible to an audience who does not have the time nor the initial desire to play the real guitar. It has made 25 million such people happy. And, in fact, it has given many of them a greater understanding of and appreciation for instruments, and led to 2/3 of non-instrumentalist players deciding they’d like to learn a real instrument
Guitar Hero leads to greater appreciation for the real guitar.
Just the same, Facebook games target a wide audience that doesn’t have the time nor desire to play other games. People who were never interested in games before are suddenly seeing the appeal. And the same as Guitar Hero leads to a desire to learn the real guitar, Facebook games can also be a gateway to PC and console games. The light experience of The Sims Social has led to increased interest in The Sims PC games, and many SimCity Social players are expressing interest in trying the SimCity PC games.
On top of this, some Facebook games have had over 100 million players. Objectively, many Facebook games are great because they give so many people enjoyment. I never liked CastleVille much, but now I can appreciate it for what it is: a game that has made many tens of millions of players happy – more players than World of Warcraft ever had – and most of them never paid a cent.
3. Fast Load Times Mean Content is Spread Out Over Time
You can’t play a Facebook game and expect the amount of content to be on the same level as, say, Skyrim. The main challenge is load time. In a Facebook game, we don’t have the luxury of expecting players to sit through a long download with gigabytes of content.
We count our load times in seconds. If the game takes 30 seconds to load, that’s too long, and we’ll lose a lot of players before they even see the game the first time.
Facebook games must load in seconds, or players will leave.
However, successful Facebook games make up for this by releasing new content over time – usually every week or two – cycling new features and object in, and others out. The Sims Social has had thousands of game objects in its catalog over the past year, but only a portion of them are available at any given time. Facebook games really just get started when they launch.
4. Lots of Wall Posts Means More Players. But…
This is an aspect of Facebook games I’ve been conflicted on. When given permission, most Facebook games like to post to your wall or timeline. A lot. This is how they self-market to reach a wide audience. And, used correctly, it also helps share interesting moments from your game.
My designer heart tells me that Facebook games should only post the most interesting moments from gameplay, like when two players in The Sims Social "WooHoo" with each other – the sorts of moments that carry intrinsic value for your Facebook friends and are highly comment-worthy. This would make the overall player base happier. And Facebook agrees (in fact, they use this same example from The Sims Social).
A Sim couple about to “WooHoo.”
Players get a chance to share this meaningful moment.
But the other side of the argument comes from the Product Managers – those in charge of the monetization and the virality of your game. Data shows that a certain high level output of posts leads to a wider audience. And a wider audience means we have a better chance of paying our dev costs. Period.
There’s no way to argue with that unless we can dredge up metrics that show that fewer viral mechanisms leads to better results in the long-term. But in a constantly-updated game, we can’t easily do a test like this and get meaningful results.
Most surprising to me is that there are plenty of players who don’t mind. In fact, they enjoy sharing everything – it’s part of the experience, and so is getting to see everything that’s happening to your friends who are playing. The sentiment is summed up by one player on our TSS
forums who said, “Why wouldn’t
you post everything?”
(Check out my GDC 2012 talk
for more of my opinions on this topic.)
5. Energy and Time Gates are Used for Pacing
A common complaint by gamers who try to give Facebook gaming a shot is, “You have to spend energy to do anything, and it runs out. I don’t want to be limited.” I questioned this at first as well. But there are three good reasons Facebook games are built this way.
Examples of “Energy” mechanic variants.
First, we come back to the intended audience. As one player points out: “Social games are intended for people who do not have 90 minutes to play a video game because they have jobs, children, and other commitments. Playing it for 10 minutes a day, twice a day…” is exactly the sort of experience our target audience is looking for.
We’re asking our players to slow down, take a breather, and enjoy the time with their friends. Many players appreciate the relaxed schedule that these games create. Expecting too much gameplay in a single sitting will shift your game from a wide audience to more niche. In fact, on The Sims Social, some of our players complained about play sessions that were too long because we made activities you could do without needing energy. Imagine that! Players wanted the game sessions to be shorter! That’s the audience Facebook games serve.
Second, there’s a deeper gameplay and design motivation: Facebook games are Games as a Service, which means the developer intends to keep the game fresh with updates over time.
But that means the game needs to be paced. If you drop someone into SimCity 4, they could build an entire city in just a few days. Yes, the most hardcore players would continue to build city after city for weeks, but a lot of players would build a couple, and then be done with the game.
Energy and time gates are the pacemakers of Facebook games for good reason. If we didn’t have them in SimCity Social, most of our players would build up a city and then leave before we had a chance to release more content to keep them interested.
Third, selling energy can be a significant portion of revenue – so significant that it can make or break a game’s profitability.
There are alternatives to energy and explicit time gates, but they typically change the entire game design because they count on systems for creating endless content – like PvP, puzzles, or procedural worlds. And even then, puzzle games with potentially unlimited replayability (such as Triple Town or Diamond Dash) still often use energy-like mechanics because they remain great pacers and the games need to make money.
6. Facebook Games are Hard to Make
Another misconception is that making a Facebook game is easy. Fortunately, Facebook games don’t yet require 4 years and 100-person teams to be successful, which is roughly what it took to develop The Sims 3. However, developing The Sims Social still took 1 year and at launch the team was about 40 devs. Then the team nearly doubled in size after we launched and knew we had a hit on our hands.
One of the biggest hidden dev costs when coming from the single-player space is the server-client structure, which at least doubles dev and QA time and gives far more opportunity for bugs. A simple single-player feature can become harrowing when translated to the online space if it requires a lot of server code and security work to prevent hacks.
The team also inevitably spends countless hours optimizing for fast load times, efficient streaming algorithms, and clean memory management. You might think that because these games appear simple when compared to a console or PC game that we might not have to do all of this – but many of the best Facebook games are pushing Flash to its limits.
On top of this, Facebook games tend to have tons of UI. It’s fast and easy to design crappy UI, but designing and implement a pleasing, easy-to-use, strongly-communicative UI takes a long time with plenty of iteration.
7. Yes, You Need to Play with Friends. But...
Another common gripe is that you can’t play without bugging your friends. Many Facebook games require you to ask each other to staff buildings or give special collectibles:
Example of a standard staffing mechanic that requires friends.
Facebook games do this for 3 reasons:
| || |
- It’s a way to control progress.
- It makes money from players who want to pay and skip the wait.
- Facebook notifications from these mechanics reminds players they have a reason to return to the game. (And sometimes they get new players to try the game out.)
The continual back-and-forth of asking friends for help and then thanking them also serves as a constant reminder of who is playing the game – and this lets you know who you can socialize with about the game when you’re not playing.
But the mechanic is in its adolescent years. It doesn’t scale well.
For players who have no other friends playing, they can’t progress unless they’re willing to spend money. For players who have tons of friends, their game inboxes can get bogged down with hundreds or sometimes thousands of requests, at which point it’s all just noise. And as your friends slowly stop playing, your personal game gets tougher and tougher, like a wick slowly burning down until it dies out completely.
In my GDC 2012 talk
, I convey my personal view that social games need to be more like World of Warcraft
and less like Everquest
, in that WoW
is first and foremost a fun and friendly place for solo players, yet even better with friends, versus the constant impending doom of trying to play EQ
solo. Incidentally, most social games aren’t very social – they need more true social features, like SimCity’s
relationship feature where your cities can develop special standings with your friends’ cities based on how you interact with them:
In SCS, you can build your relationship between your cities by interacting with your friends’ buildings.
The friend bar shows the flavor of relationship with each friend city (Mean, Nice, or Twin Cities).
Back to friend requirements: I would love to try having staffing and other friend requirements auto-fulfill over time, where you could use friends to speed them up, but the solo player isn’t out of luck. I would also like to see easier ways to find active players to team up with, even if they aren’t your friends on Facebook. We’ve seen Zynga making progress here, but it needs to be widespread in all social games that have heavy friend requirements.
8. You Don’t Need to Spend Money to Progress
One final misconception is that you can’t progress without spending money. This only tends to be true if you have no friends who play (but I’d like to change that; see above). Otherwise, it’s easy to play SimCity Social or The Sims Social or plenty of other Facebook games without spending money. A vast majority of Facebook gamers never pay a dime, but play these games for months or even years. Where Value = Entertainment/Cost, players are getting a significant value. We’re effectively creating a singularity of infinite entertainment value.
Part of this “must spend” stigma comes from having pervasive opportunities to spend. Everywhere you look, there’s an appointment to speed up, a worker to hire, or an awesome premium object to buy. There are at least 10 different ways to spend Diamonds (the premium currency) in SimCity Social. To spenders, this represents great choice and power, and it is a very good thing. To non-spenders, it’s a reminder that they’re not getting the whole experience.
Players can pay for game coins, special objects, or more energy, among other things.
The truth is that developing a fantastic Facebook game costs a lot of money. And the overhead costs of running servers to support millions or tens of millions of players is high – especially when most of them never pay a dime. So we need to walk a fine line between adding enough opportunities for players to spend such that we become profitable, and going out of business because we offer too much for free.
So far, the ways we let players spend money are the best we’ve found. We can’t make players pay up front – it will limit our audience too much (and evidence from iPhone shows that free apps with microtransactions tend to make more than paid apps). We also can’t require subscriptions – not many people would trust a Facebook game enough to pay just to try it; instead we have to let you play for free so we can prove that our game is fun and worth spending money on. And we can’t switch to only paid episodic content or stop the game unless you pay at a certain level because again, that would drastically reduce our audience – all the free players would stop, but we need them to keep the social network strong.
I’d love to hear ideas for new ways to monetize a Facebook game that would (1) please the Console/PC gamer market, (2) not severely cut down our audience, and (3) not require more investment. But right now, this is the best we have.
Lastly, a Reflection on Personal Satisfaction
As a designer, I’ve had a (mostly) wonderful time working on Facebook games. After 9 years of developing PC games, it was a welcome change. I imagine it’s like going from writing plays to writing movies. It’s a new experience with some crossover; the challenges are different, and it enriches you.
You learn to respect metrics and use them in harmony with your gut design instincts. You get intriguing insights into the way players interact with your designs, and you get the amazing opportunity to react quickly, so the game evolves into a reflection of your players’ desires. You learn the utmost importance of crystal clear communication and how to design toward it (a skill that more PC/console games need to embrace). And among other things, you make tens or hundreds of millions of players happy – far more than most PC/console games.
A downside is that you get less respect from PC and console gamers – which, being a PC/console gamer myself, can weigh on me. But you get more respect from just about everyone else, including friends and relatives who tend to play more Facebook games than PC/console games and are looking for the lighter experience. My ultimate goal as a designer has always been to delight people. We launched The Sims Social in August of 2011, and one year later 15 million players still enjoyed it every month. That's pretty good.
But most of these design choices I've explained need to evolve, or the Facebook game audience will wither. There's plenty of territory to pioneer, and plenty of tired approaches that need rethinking. If Facebook games can evolve with more interesting gameplay and deeper, true social mechanics that are still appealing to the mass market, then there is hope, and potentially a bright future.
his post is not an attack on Diablo. Quite the opposite: it’s a suggestion from a designer to a game he loves.
I love Diablo 3. I loved Diablo 2. (Perhaps I’m in love with Diablo
in a geeky, game-designer-sort-of way.) And I have incredible respect for the Diablo team. Not only are the Diablo games incredibly fun, but I remember having an epiphany about Diablo 2 that ended up influencing many of my personal design philosophies over the past 10 years. It was an epiphany about the nature of Diablo, and it lies at the heart of this post.
Diablo is a game about collecting loot. It always has been, and always will be. It’s a glorified slot machine with incredibly satisfying feedback
And it’s a slot machine where even the “losing” rolls pay out, whether it’s gold, gems, crafting pages, or even just XP. But that’s not why we play. We’re here for the jackpots: the Rare items, the Set items, or better yet, the Legendary.
I won’t get into the balancing of the existing loot system or its relation to the economy of the auction house (an interesting and somewhat controversial discussion of that here
). It’s a great topic, but instead, I want to offer a new way to excite and motivate players through loot.
I’d like to suggest that the current loot system is outdated because it doesn’t cater enough to the completely online, server-backed world. It’s a single player loot system rearing its head in a multiplayer game
through the auction house.
Currently, everyone can find any loot in the game with the right luck. There is no history. It doesn’t matter who has already found what, or how much has been found. In other words, there is no concept of everyone competing for the same incredible jackpot. (And I’m not saying there should be less loot; I’m saying there should be more. Read on.)
Here’s how I suggest taking advantage of the online setting:
Create a new tier of items: items which are limited across all servers.
That’s it. It’s really quite simple, but it would be an incredibly powerful mechanic. There’s a reason that progressive slot machines
are so popular. Diablo doesn’t even have to give away money! It only has to give away data, which makes it easy to have plenty of these linked jackpots.
Here are some details about how it would work:
| || |
- Mythical Tier. There is a new tier of items above Legendary. This new tier is Mythical.
- Hard Limits. Each Mythical item has a limit to how many can exist across all servers at any given time. (E.g. – If all 20 of The Spine of Anu have dropped, then it will no longer drop for anyone.)
- Number Labels. Each Mythical item is labeled with its “number,” (e.g. 6 of 20). Its number is the order it dropped in. This makes the scarcity real and apparent, and would drive demand.
- Drop Timeouts. Each Mythical item has a timeout on the server. If one drops, another of the same Mythical item may not drop until the timeout passes.
- Tailored Stats. Mythical items are crafted toward specific classes, with only "good" combinations of stats. If a Mythical item drops for you, it is guaranteed to be for your class.
For example, the hovertip for a Mythical sword might look like this. Imagine if this dropped in your game:
| || |
An example Mythical Item. Yes, the stats are verging on insane and would take careful balancing. The most important part is the Limited # display.
You’d want a nice spread of these items. Some lower level, some higher level, many for the end game. Some should have low counts to create extreme demand (e.g. – there’s only 1 World Cutter sword, and it says so). Some should have moderate counts. And others should have higher counts, on the order of 10K, such that most players at least have a hope of glimpsing one of the Mythical items in their time playing, whether it’s in the auction house, on a friend, or if they’re lucky, as a drop in their own game.
Okay, so what are the benefits of this design?
| || |
| |1. Creates Unprecedented Demand and Motivation
Merely by stating how many of the item will ever exist, it makes the true value of the item crystal clear. This is guaranteed scarcity. Players will know that the game won’t ever manufacture more and thus deflate their value.
Think of baseball cards. The famous 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card which sold to Wayne Gretzky for $2,800,000
is valuable not just because Wagner was one of the best players of all time, but also because the card is extremely rare, and always will be.
We are guaranteed that the universe won’t print more than the original run of a few hundred.
Just as baseball cards become more valuable as fewer remain, I’d consider buffing the stats of all of the remaining copies of Mythical
items each time one of them is sold to a vendor, or, heaven forbid, salvaged for blacksmithing parts.
1909 Honus Wagner
For fun, here are the parallels I see between baseball cards and Diablo loot:
Baseball player = Item stats
Card condition = Item stat variance
Card find rate in card packs (or in cigarette packs) = Item drop rate
Card print run = Limit to how many of the item will ever exist. (This is the void that Mythical
items fill.) 2. Vanity
Displaying the scarcity also shifts the item from having only functional value to suddenly having value in its mere existence. Everyone can eventually gear up in Legendary items, so there’s little vanity to be had in the end game here. But few will ever have a single Mythical
item, let alone multiple. They become collectors' items. A mere number label creates value out of thin air.
3. End GameMythical
items put a face on the unattainable. Rather than thirsting for the vague notion of a “slightly better Legendary item,” you can now thirst for a Mythical
item – any Mythical item at all
. It’s the ultimate jackpot, and there are enough out there that you can taste them.
We know we will come across Legendary items. But we don’t know we’ll ever touch a Mythical
item. The fantasy of the mythical is more alluring than the promise of the tangible. 4. Money for Blizzard and Players.
With the nearing advent of the real currency auction house, Blizzard stands to make a few good dollars on such rare items along with their finders. How much would a one-of-a-kind Mythical
amulet sell for? Have you heard of the Chinese gamer who spent $16,000 on a unique sword for an MMO… before the game was even launched?
Imagine how much he would have spent if he’d been playing the game for a year first. With over 10 million Diablo copies sold
, I’m sure there are a few players with heaps of money and nothing to spend it on. 5. Community, Lore, and Gossip.
The other purpose of having items this scarce (and that flaunt their scarcity so well) is to create an endless chatter about them on blogs, on forums, and in the media. These items would become lore for the community. Wikis would track which ones have been found and who owns them and when they swap hands. Stories about who was there when a Mythical
item dropped would be told and retold over countless lunches with friends and coworkers. (To fuel the fire, I’d even design an in-game notification that occasionally gets sent to all online players when someone finds any Mythical
with a "print run" of 20 or fewer.)
The press would also pick up on any item that breaks a new sales record by selling for thousands more US dollars than before. Mythical items would effectively help Diablo 3 market itself long after traditional marketing efforts wane.
This would all work in any multiplayer online game with loot. But it feels perfect for Diablo 3. It’s time to forge new territory in loot. I believe in this so strongly that if I worked for Blizzard, I would be championing this concept with such enthusiasm that they’d have to tear away my pom-poms by force.
Have I convinced you of the value of such items to the design? What do you think?
Thanks for reading! If you have friends who play Diablo, consider sharing or tweeting this. I’d love to get more people’s thoughts.
I originally wrote this piece as a guest post about tabletop game design for Hyperbole Games.
The market is saturated with game mechanics, and it's only getting more saturated over time. Games aren't un-inventing themselves.
Because of this, 99+% of games are merely existing mechanics combined in a new way or with a new theme slapped on them. These games can certainly be fun and successful, but will have a far harder time standing out than a game with a completely fresh mechanic.
And this, friends, is why developing a new mechanic is the holy grail of game design.
So if you can come up with a mechanic that is both fun and novel, you should strongly consider developing it. That is one of the surest ways to create a unique game that has a chance of standing out amongst the crowd.
This can be a great way to design a game: find a fresh, fun mechanic (easier said than done) then figure out a game to fit around it.
Here are some games that did exactly that:
| || |
- Apples to Apples - The mechanic: judge which player-chosen noun best describes your adjective. Brilliant. The dynamics change with every set of players because there is creative input.
- Trivial Pursuit – The mechanic: guess the answers to insignificant questions. The pies and the board could have been designed a hundred different functional ways, and it would barely matter because the central mechanic is so strong.
- Pictionary - The key mechanic is your partner has to guess what you’re quickly drawing. Another simple concept constructed into a wildly successful game.
- Hungry Hungry Hippos – the key mechanic is eat marbles. Simple. Nailed it. Kids love it.
- Magic: The Gathering – the mechanic: construct a deck from spells you find, by chance, in booster packs, then face off with other players. The game has many details, but the overarching mechanic has helped render it one of the most successful games of all time.
These examples may sound dated, but you recognize them because they were (and still are) wildly successful. Yes, Hungry Hungry Hippos is on this list. To find success, you don't need to design a game with an instruction manual as long and tedious as, say, waiting for your damn friends to finish taking their turns in Settlers. Quite the opposite. The more mechanics you have, the more watered-down your game is (unless your entire game is about exceptions, like CCGs). You want only as many mechanics as you need, and no more -- especially if you have a new mechanic! Don't hide it behind a bunch of noise!
So how do you find your holy grail? Start by understanding what kind of mechanics you are the most drawn to. Which ones get you the most excited, the most emotional... make you want to play for hours or throw that scheming troublemaker next to you into a running jet engine. Maybe you like deck building. Or traitors. Maybe voting, bidding, or trade. Perhaps storytelling. Or lying. Then brainstorm around those and combinations thereof to see if you happen upon something new.
Also, try and figure out why you like those mechanics, and imagine similar concepts in real life that may not have been applied to gaming yet. Yes – if you want a new mechanic, you might be better served searching for inspiration outside of gaming. What mechanics do people use in interesting or desperate situations in real life? Why do conflicts arise and how are they solved or manipulated? There are countless places to look for inspiration. You can look to math. Or nature. Or politics. And so on.
For example, a movie scene just came to mind – it’s an action movie with two heroes held hostage. They can escape, but can’t communicate by speaking or they’ll be heard and give up their plan. Maybe there’s a mechanic in there. Could we design a fun game where…
| || |
- It’s everyone (the “good” players) against a villain, and the villain has to wear a blindfold for certain quick timed portions of the game.
- The good players can only win by exchanging vital information.
- But the good players can’t talk because if the villain overhears, it will put him at an advantage. So in the quick times when the villain is blindfolded, the good players must frantically try to convey as much info as possible to each other through gestures and signals.
What’s the new mechanic here? Timed windows of opportunity to communicate vital information while impaired. Is it fun? Maybe. Maybe not. Any possible new mechanic deserves some investigation. Perhaps the players are drawing cards, so they never know what they’re communicating ahead of time. Or perhaps there’s an element of lying that can be involved, “accidentally” being overheard communicating misinformation to mislead the villain. Or maybe players would develop a system while the villain is blindfolded, then use that system to communicate when he’s not. And maybe we mix it up and sometimes the villain is blindfolded, sometimes he can’t hear, sometimes both, sometimes neither – you never know.
The point is: there are plenty of these unfound mechanics waiting to be discovered and toyed with, and hopefully with a little persistence you can make them fun and design them into a game that will stand out as unique. And hey, maybe you’ll even hit the mass market.
Or you can design a game with a bunch of resources. Some wood, perhaps. Or stone – stone’s a popular one these days. And cards that alter the number of resources you get. Like cloth or gold, which you can spend on more cards. And then make the scoring complicated, where you have to add up a bunch of stuff at the end and you never really know who wins until you do some calculus. Then you know you’ve got a great game, right?
Why don’t you look for your holy grail instead?
Because it’s out there... waiting for you to find it, waiting for you to influence the gaming industry forever and inspire countless generations of games to come.