a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


tiny adventures: depth

Though accessibility is key to social games on Facebook, you can't neglect depth, because you want to keep your players interested in the long run. On the surface, accessibility and depth are at odds with one another, but you can have both if you build your systems carefully. A simple example of how we did this with Tiny Adventures was in giving primary stats to the terrains.

If you recall the way the adventure system worked, each adventure pulled from a set listing of terrains in a specified order. So, we knew that players who had seen an adventure before could figure out what terrains they'd be traveling through. We also knew that with a fully random system, this knowledge wouldn't help players out at all.

To make the terrain types matter, we assigned two primary stats to each terrain. Encounters for those stats would be twice as likely as encounters for any other stat. Savvy players who realized this could pick adventures that were well suited to their character. For example, I would tend to favor adventures with a lot of Dungeon encounters when I played a Wizard, because Dungeons favored Attack Bonus and Intelligence. Within adventures, players could also switch up their equipment based on the upcoming terrain.

A couple reasons why the primary terrain stats worked well:

  1. It cost us literally no development time. All we had to do was skew the distribution of encounters that we were writing. So, rather than ask a writer to make five encounters for each stat, we'd ask them to write eight for Attack Bonus and Intelligence and four for each of the others. Then we just threw them all into a random pool with equal selection chance and everything worked out automatically. (If we'd written an equal number of each and just skewed the probabilities, the primary stat encounters would have come up twice as often, and we'd have more frequent repeats.)
  2. Players who didn't want additional depth could completely ignore it. Many systems that add depth also add complexity. While on many platforms that can be fine, in the social space you want to be careful about overloading players who aren't ready for it. The best methods for adding depth are often under the surface in a way that will only be found by players who dig for it.
  3. It gave players something to discover. There's a lot to be said for straight randomness, but I'm a fan of building in patterns for players to discover over time. I would have been sad if the players had gone through all the trouble to create a stats versus terrains matrix if there hadn't been anything to find. Uncovering the secrets of a system can be incredibly satisfying.
  4. It gave players who were going for high scores a subtle way to improve their odds. I'll be talking about the scoring system later, but taking advantage of the terrain knowledge was one of the ways that hardcore players could improve their scores.

I recognize that this system only added something for a small percentage of players, but those are the types of players that will come back day after day, and spread the word about your game.

What else did we do? We had the generations system, which added character skills to the game, but only for players who'd already retired a couple characters (and therefore were ready for additional complexity). We had the scoring system and leaderboards, which gave players incentive to optimize their characters and show off their skills. We had the fixed story encounters, which were a more obvious way for players to optimize, since the actual encounter was the same each time. I think this functioned nicely as a bridge to the primary terrain stats, in that players would quickly realize they could take advantage of the story encounter knowledge, and then start digging more deeply for other opportunities to get ahead.

Little touches like these helped Tiny Adventures become the eighth most engaging app on Facebook when it was released (and the second most engaging game, pretty much).

Takeaway: Don't neglect depth even when you're building for a more casual platform. Look for systems that add depth in a way that players who don't want the added complexity can safely ignore. If the system is too visible, players will feel compelled to explore it, even if they aren't ready.

Next topic: The scoring system and leaderboards.

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