Is “Simple” Best for Social Gaming?

Mark Stephens

A recent article in Forbes magazine asked “What Makes a Good Social Game?”

It's definitely worth considering, given that the games market is so competitive and is now worth around $15 billion.

The social gaming experts they spoke to were from Popcap and Gramble and they identified seven main characteristics, one of which we focus on below.


The main traits of successful games were broken down as follows:

  • Familiarity
  • Progression
  • Freshness
  • Value and fun
  • Fair mechanics and ways to monetise
  • Based on good analysis of the trends in gaming
  • An element of social good built in

It is the “familiarity” characteristic we are interested in. We’ve noticed that simplicity is a key feature of a lot of the most popular games out there. Over-complicating matters often seems to end in a big, expensive dud.

Isn’t Facebook Targeting More Complicated Games?

It’s true that the director of Facebook’s games partnerships, Sean Ryan, recently declared that the one of the biggest foals for the social media giant this year was to attract more core and mid-core gamers:

“Last year was primarily about casino, hidden object, and casual, and we’ll continue to see those expand. But I think we’ll see a rise in the core games as developers figure out how to make them social.”

Note he says that, despite this change of focus, the typical games that have made it big will “continue to expand”. So Facebook isn’t about to go over-technical with intricate games that involve a manual to learn to play.

More graphic-intensive games are coming to the platform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more complicated or involved.

Learn the Rules in Less than Five Minutes

Most social gamers will not wade through a catalogue of How-to screens or playing tutorials. The average gamer on Facebook is not a seventeen year old computer nerd, but a forty-year old working mother with kids at school.

If they cannot learn the rules in less than five minutes, or, better still, just by looking at the welcome screen or looking over someone’s shoulder and watching what they do, the game will end up in the “too hard” basket.

In the mobile social gaming market – which is one of the main areas of growth – attention spans are even lower, and so it is difficult to see how anything very advanced is going to catch on in large numbers; people won’t have the patience to learn it. The golden rule will be the simpler and more familiar the better.

When people see a cascade game, the colours, backgrounds and tiles may be different but they are already familiar with the mechanics of the game and they understand what to do – even most five year olds.

That’s perhaps why there are so many variations on a theme out there.

Copy Cats

According to Forbes, around 211 million games were on the market last year. It’s no surprising that there are plenty of copycats around.

In fact, one of the biggest names in social gaming is a self-confessed cloner of other’s games. Zynga’s Dan Porter recently said:

“All games are derived from other games. This has been happening long before Zynga, and the debate about originality in games is vastly overblown and misses the mark.”

He adds that even in his previous position with another gaming company the team “made lots of games inspired by games we loved, and we emulated the mechanics from games with great UI….What matters is the ability to run those games as a service.”

So, while a cracking new idea might become the next biggest thing, knowing how people love to be familiar with a game interface as soon as they pick up their chosen device, there is little incentive for developers to be hugely creative.


The smart ones are selecting the most likely candidates to emulate and then creating a fun, progressive gaming experience with the minimum of learning time required by the gamer.

Like What?

If we look around we still see the popularity of the old social board games like Scrabble and its multitude of variations (Words with Friends, MindFeud), hidden object and matching games (many of which we used to play as kids), simple card games like Poker and other casino games, cascade games like Bejeweled (itself modeled on an older game) and Quopples, and old Tetrus-style arcade games and their many variations.

Recently we saw that mobile and social bingo was heading for a big boom, with games like Bingo Friendzy already popular: games don’t come much simpler than that. My grandma loves it.

And which game recently won the “Best Social Game” at the International Mobile Gaming Awards and replaced Farmville 2 as Facebook’s most popular game?

That was King’s Candy Crush Saga – a classic cascade game similar to Bejeweled, which kids can learn in minutes.