It’s in the nature of current social games to be adaptable. It’s easier than ever to update, and push that update to thousands of customers. Facebook games are always up to date; iOS games will let you know when an update is available. This allows for an unprecedented potential of bug-fixes and gameplay adjustments to be made based on user feedback, almost instantaneously. We’ve never been closer to our devs. And yet, this ability to constantly update is also encouraging studios to put out products that are less than ideal.
Every Facebook game I know has ‘beta’ somewhere on the title screen. The problem is, these games never move out of beta, because they’re constantly being updated. But I’ve also played a lot of social games that have basic functionality and nothing else. It’s only six or even twelve months later that they begin to resemble games, and by then I’ve long forgotten it.
The problem for me is that I enjoy giving feedback. I will find an email address and write to devs with suggestions for improving their games. I don’t expect or receive any replies, but when I see the word ‘beta’ my brain replies with ‘playtest!’ so it’s difficult for me not to see the potential of what’s in front of me, even if currently all I can do is pat a duck.
I get the feeling that many other early adopters must be the same, because many Facebook games (Country Story and Pet Society are examples of this) improve by leaps and bounds months after their release. Troublesome UI gets culled, interactions take fewer clicks, and tasks are more rewarding. These are the changes made by listening to user feedback. Yet there’s nothing more disappointing in my mind than logging into a social game you’ve been playing for six months, only to see your friend who just signed up is ahead of you in every conceivable way.
In Pet Society, originally you could earn 30 coins by washing your pet – if you did a really good job and were consistent with your stroking motion for around 20 seconds – and buy new furniture for your pet’s home. But at 300 coins for a shelf (the most basic item of furniture) it was back to hoping your pet would get dirty so you could wash them, or running races in the stadium, which were limited to 10 a day. Yet again, I stuck with it, and eventually had a whole two furnished rooms and 3 different outfits for my pet. I clicked on my 6-year-old cousin’s house to visit her pet, and immediately closed my browser.
Why such an adverse reaction in both circumstances? The answer should be clear: my friends had surpassed all of my accomplishments by simply making a new account. Country Story now gave the user 8 plots of land, a duck, a chicken, and three trees, just for signing up. Pet Society gave new players a completely furnished room filled with items that weren’t available for purchase, and the new rewards included clothes and more furniture. These were all suggestions I and other players had made to the devs at one point or another, but we weren’t allowed to have the improvements we’d championed. The soul-crushing disappointment of this discovery may seem moot, but let’s just say I didn’t return to those games afterward.
So what can devs do? Improvements must be made to draw in new players, since, as I said, what’s usually released first is basic functionality and the fun comes later. Players now expect updates, and any game that remains stagnant for too long will find its user base dropping sharply. The answer is not to stop improving your games, but to reward the players who stick with you and make those improvements possible.
Unfortunately, examples of this kind of thinking are hard to come by. The only game I know of that’s already following this plan is Trivia Adventure. After a recent update made a bunch of changes that provided greater rewards to new players, in line with comments from current players, they provided their early adopters with a bunch of free random loot, some of which was pay-for currency. Needless to say, it’s one of the few Facebook games that I still visit.
The answer, to me, seems clear: keep your players updated, and give them the same rewards as everyone else. If performing a particular action daily suddenly rewards twice as much XP, ask a seasoned player next time they log in if they’d like the appropriate amount of extra XP for having performed that action X number of times. If combat suddenly becomes easier based on user feedback, give long-standing accounts a special weapon or armour, or even a non-combat pet, to show that you appreciate them sticking with you. It’s about loyalty, not from your customer to you, but the other way around.
After all, we’re choosing to play your game above everything else we could be doing. The data gathered from the first run of players is invaluable in determining your future feature list, so reward your early adopters for their patience. Without their support, you wouldn’t have a game to improve.
Leanne C. Taylor-Giles is a freelance Games Writer with 9 published titles. She has worked with companies such as Pandemic and THQ, and currently consults from her hometown of Brisbane, Australia.