What makes social games social? Lessons from Pet Society

In a previous post, I talked about playtesting Pet Society, one of the popular social games on Facebook (and elsewhere).    When I played on my own, I discovered the game was friendly, charming, and oh-so kawaii-cute.   But no matter how many times I patted my cat, I didn’t feel Tama-GOTCHA’d. 

So I drafted in some friends and family to play with the social side of the game. 

Much to my surprise, I found there wasn’t much of a shared real-time in-game world for us to explore.    I could visit my friends’ pets by piloting my pet-avatar to my friends’ pet’s houses.  I could feed these pets, brush them, play with them, and buy them presents.   But my friends couldn’t see me doing this – not directly.    They could only see the consequences of my actions once I’d completed them.

Entirely reasonable for technology reasons –  but not as social as I was expecting.  Interestingly, Mark Newheiser makes a similar point about Zynga’s Farmville in his Gamasutra blog:    

The interactions with other players are largely superficial–you can fertilize a few of their crops an hour, and give them gifts at spaced intervals, but there’s no real economy between the players for the resources you produce…..  

Inside the game, there was not a broad or deep selection of games I could play with my co-testers, either cooperatively or competitively.    The industry insiders at Project Horseshoe believe that social games in general are ‘defiantly simple and strategically shallow’.   

Critics can howl, but there is something going on here that works.  What?  I think that something has to do with the social nature of the game. 

So – how is Pet Society social?   And, more interestingly, how does its sociability help to make it attractive?  I think there are three simple but powerful factors at work:

First of all, people do things differently when someone else is watching them, and when they are doing things with others.   So, even if the ‘sharing’ in the game’s shared environment isn’t all singing all dancing real time,  when there is a watcher watching you something very important happens: self-expression suddenly becomes self-display.   The urge to self-display is basic, universal, and highly motivating.   Pet Society piggybacks happily on top of this human characteristic.

Second of all, Pet Society supports a variety of ways in which you can grant favours to your friends, and receive favours in return.   This need not be competitive in order to be compelling.    Like self-display, I think social exchange is hard-wired  – just like motion detection is for vision.   Gift exchange is a kind of social meaning which easily spreads a layer of significance over other activities.   (Alex Taylor and colleagues have done an excellent analysis of  young people’s – particularly young women’s – use of SMS as a ritual gift exchange, reported in CSCW).  People seem to find this inherently interesting as a way of maintaining their social network status.  Pet Society ‘gets’ this. 

The third and  most interesting way Pet Society harnesses social forces is the way it works with social networks.  I’ll talk about Facebook because it’s the one I know best.    Pet Society does its best to become part of the type of social exchanges that are already occurring on your netwok.     You can ‘photograph’ key moments in the game, and make these images available on your Facebook wall.  Your game-friends’ in-game achievements are  reported alongside the normal flow of news you get in your feed.    In this way, the game tries to become just another part of your Facebook life.   Crucially, extending the game to other friends, via the platform, is made super-easy.   (You can check out the invite flow for PetSociety yourself on Kissmetrics’ ProductPlanner.)

Adding friends to the game, via the social network,  benefits you, the player, as it makes your experience richer.   But how does the developer get richer?   (You guessed right: that’s subject of my next post.)


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