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SimCity Social & 8 Truths of Facebook Game Design

Updated: Sep 1, 2019 Explanation of Facebook Games to the PC/Console Gamer in me of 2 Years Ago.

SimCity Social on Ray Mazza's article about Game Design

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:

SimCity Social layout plan
(the white gaps are filled by roads)

Strategy in SimCity Social arises from a few rules and variables:

  1. Homes (residential zones) hold population.

  2. Attractions and décor increase population in nearby homes (radii and shape vary).

  3. Attractions can be upgraded to increase radius of effect.

  4. Homes get a population multiplier from being near coastline.

  5. Businesses get a payout multiplier from near population.

  6. 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:

SimCity Social bonuses
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:

SimCity Social calculator
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:

SimCity Social optimized placement map theory
(A player-made Excel sheet representing their placement strategy and various bonuses conferred on and by businesses, attractions, décor, and homes.)

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.

Playing guitar
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. 

Funny SimCity Social loading bar
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).

The Sims Social Woohoo
A Sim couple about to “WooHoo.”

The Sims Social Woohoo Share Window
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.

Energy Systems in SimCity Social, Diamond Dash, Triple Town
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:

Facebook staffing with friends SimCity Social
Example of a standard staffing mechanic that requires friends.

Facebook games do this for 3 reasons: 

  1. It’s a way to control progress.

  2. It makes money from players who want to pay and skip the wait.

  3. 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 Warcraftand 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:

Sim City Social relationship
In SCS, you can build your relationship between your cities by interacting with your friends’ buildings.

SimCity Social Relationship with friends
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.

SimCity Social special objects
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.


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