How to best use social features in games is changing. It is now less about reaching real-world friends for virality, and more about forming in-game communities of strangers with retention as the goal. Let me explain.
The big boom for social games came with Facebook. Games like Mob Wars came in 2008, while Farmville took off in 2009. This first wave of social games were engineered for virality above everything else. They kept pestering their users to post to their friends, and to get those friends to also start playing the game.
The social features of these games were not really that deep. The games behaved sort of like my 2 year old son. Here, he has loudly demanded that his uncle plays with Legos with him – only to then completely ignore said uncle while happily playing next to him. They are both doing the same thing, but with very limited interaction.
That still has some value, even though there was widespread scorn for the term “social” when describing those games. There is social proof in having friends doing the same thing you do. The mainstream consumer starts doing something only when all their friends and acquaintances are also doing it.
These games used a variety of ways to get people to invite their friends. There were suggestions that you brag about every achievement you got in the game by posting as visibly as possible on your Facebook wall. There were walls to unlock more gameplay that could only be passed by connecting to 3 or more friends in the game. And there were ways to send gifts to each other, in the hope of triggering the social obligation of reciprocation from your friends. (Have a look at Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” for more on tricks like these.)
All this was done to achieve a good “k-factor”, which is the measure of virality. The k-factor means “how many new customers does every existing customer bring in”. There’s an excellent explanation of it here.
In short, if your k-factor is above 1, that means that the game spreads on its own. You just need to seed it with some customers. Say you bring in 1000 customers through featuring and advertising. If the k-factor is 2, they will bring in 2000 of their friends, who will in turn bring in 4000 of their friends, etc. Eventually the whole world plays your game! (Or, what actually happens: the k-factor declines over time).
If the k-factor is below 1 (which it usually is), then it still means that your marketing is cheaper. If you spend $3 per download to get people to download your app, you will eventually get 2 downloads for that price is your k-factor is 0.5, bringing your effective cost per download to $1.50.
So far the early focus on getting the virality up by bringing in the real-world friends and acquaintances of the players. Early mobile games also tried to boost virality with similar methods, but it was way harder to get it to work well. New games are more focused on retention rather than virality.
To get virality, you should focus on the player’s real world friends, but to get retention, you want to build new in-game connections between strangers.
Social features are good drivers for retention, but only when some demands are met. Players can come back to a game for a variety of social reasons. If there are clans or guilds, players will feel a social obligation to play and contribute to their clan. With competitive features, people will be comparing their own progress to peers and try to keep up.
The problem is that both of these only work with players who are at roughly the same level. If I start playing any of the King games right now, it will not inspire me much to see my wife at level 245. If anything, I might get disheartened and think that I will never be able to catch up.
Similarly, when I play Clash Royale in my friend’s clan, I am actually dragging him down. He’s way more interested in the game than I am, and is also playing it a lot more as well as better. Which means that I should not really be in his clan. It would be in his interest to have better players than me in the clan. If he keeps to the clan that I am in, the social features will quickly become a liability rather than an asset. He is likely to stop playing, just as I stopped playing. If he moves to a clan with his own level of players, the social pressure is kept constant, and he is way more likely to stick around.
I think that this is a universal rule: it is unlikely that your friends are interested in exactly the same games as you are, and that they are equally skilled at them. Therefore, we can build games that try to get people to invite their real-world friends, but that is for short term virality. For the long term, we should transition players into making new friends in the game. Friends that share their interest in the game, and are playing at the same level.