What’s generally regarded as one of the biggest advantages of developing social games, meaning that they run on a social network like environment, is that you can measure whatever you like. Thus, the design challenges shouldn’t be that hard because… “just try a few options, measure, and then keep what sticks”.

That approach would be like “let’s just perform clinical trials on several drugs without basic biochemistry analysis and see what sticks”. The truth is that in order to perform such tests, you need to have a reasonable infrastructure, and be willing to alienate some players a little with those things you’re not so sure about. This is especially true when you’re developing a new game because, well, you don’t actually have metrics yet.

It’s not like you can learn to design games at the players experience expense, but to learn how to please them even more with an already carefully designed game.

So designing a social game before launch requires a good balance of game design and good practices, and the knowledge that you’ll actually have game metrics and live feedback afterwards. Some principles to have in mind when discussing features and several design related issues are discussed below.

Design for multiple styles of play. You may have a niche audience, or a very broad one, but given your game’s setting and core mechanics, and the whole experience it can bring based on its platform, different styles of play can co-exist, and you don’t know yet which one will serve the game best. For example, some players will try to optimize the use of resources of your game, other might just enjoy expressing themselves through it, others will brag heavily to their friends about their achievements, etc. Try to think of the several things players might enjoy at a high level view and keep them in mind when design changes might affect the balance among them. You don’t necessarily have to satisfy all play styles at once all the time, but be aware of the trade-offs involved in your decisions, so you can allow players to feel a variety of ways to enjoy your game, and then adjust and balance them better.

Design for social. Without entering in the whole “these games aren’t really social” debate, this is just to remind you that usually these games are best enjoyed with friends, and while these games often have in-game mechanisms to allow players to help each other, to compete, to cooperate, there’s usually something more to it. Consider your players asking themselves: “If my friends know I play this game, what it will say about me?” Usually your players’ peers are not necessarily game developers or gamers, which means your art style, characters, jokes, and all the details you design to surprise and delight your players might be your most powerful viral tools. It will all depend on how your players define their social experiences, and not how social experiences should be bounded within a game.

Design to scale. Sometimes your features are awesome, giving strong ties among players with lots of rewards that make them feel unique and special. But when you ask yourself, “What if 10, 100, 1000, 10000 players are doing this?” all those benefits seem to disappear, or they’re still there but your content pipeline or tech specs won’t support your idea beyond a limited number of players. Your features and design decisions should be independent of the number of players that experience them, and hopefully also independent on how heavily they play them.

Design to expand. You might have a cool idea, and then you come up with improvements, and then more, and more, and more. Conversely, you might have a clever twist for a mechanic, but it somehow breaks the balance with the other ones, and you can’t possibly find ways to expand that idea. When your players approach your game, they will come with lots of expectations from other social games, “traditional” games, or other applications, and they will also have expectations about “what feels natural” regarding your setting, and you must address those expectations in the way you teach your players your core mechanics. But once they have learned these basics, and if you want to keep them engaged for some more time, you’ll need to surprise them, to challenge their new knowledge, and add more subtle complexities to your mechanics. So don’t give it all away at the beginning — you’ll overwhelm your players. Save some stuff for later and surprise them.

Design to measure. This one might seem rather obvious, but it’s not. You’ll want the maximum amount of information from the minimum set of data streams of your game. When designing without considering this goal, you might see later on social media networks and forums that people like your new features, and it will definitely feel like it, but remember to not forget your silent majority for the vocal minority. If some content twist is enjoyable, figure out an special way to “frame it” within your game in a way it can be measured, and hopefully useful to provide data for several things to measure. Just don’t assume that because it’s not a number, you can’t figure out a way to measure your players engagement with it. Unless, of course, you’re afraid your unmeasurable quirks are not that funny :P .

Design for asynchronous play. A key aspect of social games is that they embed in players lives, not the other way around. This is why ‘crops’ and all their friends are so popular, these are appointments players make with the game allowing them to plan their schedule to play it, and not feel overwhelmed by having to actually be at an specific time playing it. Usually multiplayer-like ideas require synchronous play, but that might just seem to hard to achieve in these games, that are already loaded with the expectation of asynchronous play. Try decoupling the synchronicity of your ideas by keeping a high level view of that multiplayer experience and figuring out a way to make it asynchronous, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t feel natural — players’ suspension of disbelief in these games will make up for it :) .

Design for long term. If your background and experience with games focuses on single player games for consoles or PC, it’s usually easy to come up with ideas that work for those kinds of titles, but they often don’t make sense within a social game. For example, you might want to create a whole story arc that has players unravel a mystery within your game, but once they solve it, it just becomes a story in the past. What if players come to play afterwards? Will they enjoy the mystery knowing the answer before playing? It’s not that you can’t possibly add such things to your game — do it, but just on a small scale to surprise and delight your current players. Don’t let future players feel like they’ve lost everything you have to offer.

In summary, these are just some useful ways I have learned to frame design decisions balancing the tension before launch, giving you enough flexibility to have a carefully crafted experience that gives you freedom later to adjust the game smoothly for your dedicated player base.