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


the social mechanics of d&d: tiny adventures

Towards the end of my tenure at Wizards of the Coast, I had the pleasure of being the lead designer on a Facebook app called Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures. The game was made by a small strike team that had set out to make a game every month. While we didn't quite hit that on D&D:TA, it only took eight weeks for a team of around six core contributors to bring the game from conception to launch.

With no advertising whatsoever, the game rapidly reached numbers of over 350,000 players, exceeding our wildest expectations given the relative lack of mass market appeal of the D&D brand. It was one of the top ten most engaging apps on Facebook (where engagement is defined as daily users divided by monthly users) as 40% of players came back every day to check on their adventurer. Sadly, due to legal issues surrounding the D&D digital rights, the app is currently not available.

In sharp contrast to many digital game efforts, there were so many things that went right with this project. I'd like to talk about the social mechanics, because I think they were unique and interesting in ways that I haven't seen since. Let me note that I can't take full credit for these; I don't think any of us realized all of the strengths of the system until after the fact, and honestly this was a team effort. We had a playable game up and running in a matter of a couple weeks and we tweaked the mechanics until they felt good.

The social mechanics in Tiny Adventures were fairly simple. Whenever you were on an adventure, you could be buffed by any number of friends. Each buff gave you a +1 to your roll for the next three encounters - however, there was a maximum bonus of +2 on a given encounter (in a d20 based game, this meant a 10% bonus that was significant but not gamebreaking). Between each of your adventures, you could be healed by each of your friends once. Normally players would have to wait to recover their hit points over time, but friends could circumvent that and with enough heals you could head out again immediately.

Having more friends playing Tiny Adventures was always good.

In some social games, you'll eventually find yourself in a position where there's no reason to add more friends, because you've already unlocked all the necessary rewards. In Tiny Adventures, even though only two friends could profitably buff you at once, it was always useful to have more active friends because it increased the percentage of the time that you were at the buff cap. For example, with only two friends who played, you could probably expect to have two buffs on you maybe 10% of the time. Add another friend and that percentage increases significantly, but you'll still need 10 or maybe even 20 friends playing actively before you can expect to be at +2 most of the time. Even once you have a ton of active friends, adding more always increases the uptime just a little bit more, especially when you consider that adventures often run overnight, and it's tough to find people who are awake to buff during those periods.

The buffs were frequent but not too frequent.

Since buffs only lasted for three encounters, and encounters were around 10 minutes apart, players could buff each other about twice an hour. This is often enough that there were usually buffs to refresh if you're checking in frequently, and it contributed to the need to have a lot of friends in order to maintain maximum buff uptime. At the same time, it wasn't frequent enough to be overly annoying, like single encounter buffs would have been.

Players couldn't see how many buffs their friend already had.

The reason this worked well was that it removed a potential source of discouragement. If you could see that your friend already had five active buffs, you might not bother adding another one, since you'd know it wouldn't do anything. But since you couldn't, players got in the habit of buffing all of their friends.

However, players could see who had buffed and healed them rather easily.

The recipients of these actions feel great because they see how many of their friends have taken the time to help them out. This led to feelings of jen being commonplace in the game. Jen is a Confucian concept that Jane McGonigal brought up in a GDC microtalk, meaning "a mixture of humanity, benevolence, and kindness not well captured by any word or phrase in the English language." Designing mechanics and interactions that encourage it (like Left 4 Dead's reliance on your friends to save you from special infected) is a great way to make players come away from your game feeling better about the world.

We intentionally didn't add "buff all" or "heal all" buttons.

Even though this was a frequently requested feature, we chose not to implement it. Instead, we made it incredibly simple to buff each one of your friends, but still made you do it individually. We felt that this was important for making it feel like a directed act of kindness rather than a mechanical action that everyone would ritually click without thinking about it, which would in turn cause them to expect it from others without thinking of it as something special. Additionally, the individual buffs and heals meant that you spent more time on your friends page, which showed information like the name of your friend's hero, their level, their current adventure, and their current score, and kept you invested in their progress.

It was important to keep your friends playing actively.

In some popular social games, all that matters is the number of friends you have who have accepted your friend request inside the game. Once that happens, it's irrelevant if they continue to play or not. It worked in Tiny Adventure's favor that you needed people to be playing actively in order for them to help you. When someone messaged you to ask for a buff, and you log in to give it to them, it's easy at that point to just go on another adventure and get right back into the game.

You didn't have to have any friends at all.

In the early days of games like Mafia Wars, you had to convince friends to play or you literally couldn't progress in the game at all. Thankfully, games have moved past that, but it's still common to cripple a player pretty heavily if they don't feel like spamming their friends with invites. I think we struck a nice balance in Tiny Adventures, where players weren't forced to have friends who played but it did add convenience and a meaningful amount of power.

When you failed an encounter because of lacking buffs, you tended to blame your friends, not the game.

In many social games, when you are penalized due to not having enough friends, it's easy to become angry at the designers or the company for putting in the requirements and/or friend bonuses. But in Tiny Adventures, when you fail an encounter by 1 and you were missing a buff, you didn't tend to hate the game for that. Instead, you were annoyed at your friends for not buffing you, and you would make sure to remind them to keep the buffs coming.

There were distinct reasons to ask friends to help you out right now.

When players had a tough encounter coming up and they saw that they only had a single buff, they would often message a friend and ask to be buffed. Or, when players finished a tough adventure and needed some extra health to start the next one, they could message others and ask for heals. Rather than the app spamming their newsfeeds with posts about how their friends could get a little bit of gold by clicking, Tiny Adventures players were invested enough in the bonuses to ask for help personally. All it took was one or two encounters that were failed because of a missing buff, and everyone understood the importance of helping out.

That ended up being way longer than I intended, but that's my take on the success of the social mechanics in Tiny Adventures. Thanks for reading! There's so much to say about this game, so I'm sure I'll do another blog on this topic at some point in the near future.

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  1. Great blog, clear and insightful explanations. The Tiny Adventures team must have been packed with geniuses!

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