Social network gaming works on a basic model that almost always follows the same set of rules. The differences between the games will make one game attractive to a different set of players than another game.
Social network games (SNG) typically feature:
- Networking in which gamers play with each other through orders, assistance and some form of in game messaging, which may be a player wall or a basic player ID message. The level of communication between players varies from game to game.
- Levels, which players earn through game experience. Levels allow players to add new features and token objects to the games.
- Tasks or challenges that allow players to earn experience and progress to new levels.
- Game dollars, or units of currency which allow players access to additional game features or objects. Inevitably, game developers will charge people real money to purchase more game dollars.
- Stores where players purchase game tokens and objects to help them with their tasks.
- Leaderboards, which allow players to check their progress against other players in different categories.
While they differ in flavor—some build around strategy, some around building towns and infrastructure, and others around pets and animals—the basic model will become quickly familiar to players.
Developers use the games to build a loyal audience for new games in their gaming networks. One of the strongest networks on the iPad/iPhone is the Plus+ network, although others such as Storm8 are gaining ground. They use the feedback from and experiences with players to refine game play and find ways to boost sales of game dollars, the social gaming equivalent of crack. This practice becomes more obvious in later game releases after developers learn to remove player strategies for succeeding without buying game dollars.
The underlying purpose of SNGs is commercial. The games download for free, but sooner or later you will be tempted to buy the game’s in-app currency to help players advance more quickly. As you can see from We Rule’s and Trade Nation’s stores, the price can be steep.
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First-time SNG players are almost always shocked to discover they will be charged (often a lot) for additional game dollars and that those game dollars are essential to leveling up or buying the coolest game stuff. New players should beware, because the more you play the less you’re able to resist purchasing game dollars.
By far the most famous SNG is Farmville, which originated on Facebook with a limited version migrating to the iPad toward the end of 2010. At the time of this writing the lead players on the iPad seem to be ngmoco:), who launched We Rule and the “We” Series; Team Lava, who launched Restaurant Story and the “Story” series; and BayView Labs, who developed the “Tap” series.
By the beginning of the year the following SNGs would be included in the list of recommend iPad games:
- We Rule
- Adventure Bay
- Restaurant Story
- Trade Nation
- Smurf Village
New players should also be warned that these games can become extremely time consuming as players progress through levels, and developers use their experiences with players to find increasingly effective ways to market spin-off games and new games to players.
I predict that within five years we will see twelve-step programs developing for SNG players who are spending hundreds, if not thousands, of real dollars to buy virtual game dollars and neglecting their family and work responsibilities to play.
Apple’s new Game Center allows smaller game developers to tap into a larger social network for games that otherwise wouldn’t fit the SNG model. Many hidden object and puzzle games now connect players to the Game Center leader boards.
Apple also receives a percentage of every dollar spent to purchase game dollars through the App Store, so they have little incentive to regulate these games.
If you’re looking for more in-depth reading on the SNG phenomenon beyond iPad gaming, you might try Sande Chen’s The Social Network Game Boom. Even without the link it isn’t hard to find, since it pops up almost immediately in Google searches.