Synchronous is a game changer for social games. But it’s not the only game in town.

There are common design patterns to many of the successful social games on Facebook.    But there are also some suggestive shifts in the dominant model.

What’s next for social games?    The only certainty is change.   (Plus ça change!)

Yazino’s CEO‘s Big Idea is that the future of social games is synchronous – that’s what he’s going to be talking about at Evolve.   In the background, I hear a chorus of angels singing a song about the next big thing.   Do you?  It goes like this:  Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  Not another big thing.   But – here’s the thing.  He’s partly right.

‘Classic’ social games have some prototypical features: they are played via social networks; use players’ friend networks as distribution channels; and hook in to deep-seated pre-existing social patterns of display and exchange.    They aren’t synchronous.  Player to player interactions in a game are, in general,  non-blocking. Multiple social exchanges run concurrently with the main plot line.    While inter-player interactions facilitate game play, they are designed so they can occur in parallel with the main player flow, which is about interaction between the game engine and the player.

One shift we have already seen in this ‘classic’ model for social games is the emergence of turn-based adversarial player-vs-player games.   This isn’t a new model.  Quite the opposite.  To date, most of the successful titles in this budding genre have been reworkings of board and card game classics, such as Poker and Scrabble.  Plus ça change indeed.   Turns act as a strong synchronisation mechanism for play, but there is no realtime synchronous dynamic to the game play.

Relationship between time between turns and turn type

Tolerance for lag between turns

I recall being told quite flatly that turn-based games were not ever going to take off in casual social games, as people would not want to wait for their turn.   Wrong.   But – more interestingly – why wrong?  What I think is going on here is this:  there is a relationship between the time and effort required to make a move, and toleration for lag between moves.   Where your own moves are easy to make, and your adversary’s moves have little impact on the game,  having a big lag between turns just doesn’t work, as shown in the Figure.  The other move isn’t worth waiting for, and your move doesn’t need a refractory period.   This is in the ‘not ok’ zone.   But there is an OK zone.

You could make a case for parallel asynchronous interaction in browser based social games having evolved as a creative response to the technical limitations which are fundamental to browser architectures.  But these limitations don’t bite so hard as they used to, as other application architectures have creepingly colonised the browser model.  And the commercial incentives are motivating people to put effort into jumping as high as they can, to try to clear those hurdles that do exist.

So I believe, alongside Yazino’s CEO, that we can expect to see more synchronous social play.    What will the impact be?  Synchronous play, as opposed to turn-based play or parallel play, opens up new design spaces.  It can be more:

  • realistic
  • immersive
  • challenging

The way I see it, it is more suited to ‘traditional’ realtime competitive engagement, whether team-based or pairwise p2p.   It is less suited to symbolic operations.    Will it take over the world?  My own view is that this is a ‘not only but also situation’.    There are games for which having the concept of turns, and the ability to take time between turns is beneficial.   For these, truly synchronous play is not a requirement. I’d use the word synchronised, rather than synchronous.

For a 20% discount to the Evolve in London conference, use the code ELELTE when booking.

In case you haven’t read my other post – I’m acting as an Ambassador for the Evolve Conference in London Dec 1st, where Yazino’s CEO is speaking.    As a part of this role, I’m doing some commentary on what I think the most interesting bits of the agenda are.   I don’t agree 100% with the view that synchronous will dominate social.   But I’m looking forward to learning more about it. Let me know if you’re coming!

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