What Makes a Social Game Stand the Test of Time?

Mark Stephens

The “shelf life” of many social games is pretty short. A game takes off and gets significant downloads for a few weeks before the next one comes along and knocks it out of the picture. It’s the nature of the beast in social gaming. But love ‘em or hate ‘em, games like Zynga Poker, Farmville , Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled and so on have longevity and endurance. What is the key to lasting the distance and designing games that hang around a little longer in people’s heads and on their devices? We have boiled it down to a few key elements.


While the following may vary between different game genres, they are common to all social games with enduring popularity:

A Robust Back-End

You’re not going to get very far if the back-end of your horse doesn’t work: It will probably keel over before you reach the end of the road!
The back-end programming of your game needs to be masterful, and the top games have all come from studios where the designers and coders are very much on the ball. The whistles and bells may look and sound good for a time but they cannot cover up a lousy, poorly-constructed game engine. Developers must ask what is the basic offering and premise of the game and how will it work? This then needs to be designed expertly as the main priority, and all the other accoutrements added only once it’s in place.

Emotional Response

Player engagement is the key to keeping your audience interested and coming back for more. This involves a little psychology: you must know beforehand who is going to be playing your game and then get inside their heads a little. Are they the same as you, the developer? Or is your game geared towards another demographic?

What do you want your players to feel when they play your game? How do you want them to react when they just miss out on the big prize? How will you make them play again?

Different sections of your game need to produce different reactions; we always feel closer to things that produce an emotional response in us, and even better if we can create a variety of responses: everyone loves an “emotional rollercoaster” really!

Unique and Customized

It is likely that your game contains many elements of other games; very rarely does a truly original game come out. Therefore it’s important to customise the standard formats and make it “your own” with your own stamp on it. Small differences can create a big impact – a new visual or sound feature when someone wins, unique colour schemes that stand out, the use of original symbols that your audience will respond to, or a dash of humour like a funny character introduced into the game. Almost no detail is too small…customise everything.


Multi-Levelled and Challenging

Lastly, maintaining interest over time means keeping the challenge alive. When players have “cracked” your game they will move on to the next one. Make sure that there is enough to keep the interest alive within your game, with additional levels to unlock and different themes to change the sensory experience.

Plenty more of course goes into creating the best games, but these are some general principles that are common to most of the successful ones. For developers, it’s worth learning the lessons from these characteristics.