Social marketing isn’t restricted to the marketing department. It’s becoming part of game design. We spoke to Mike Mika, head of development at Other Ocean Group about focusing on publishing digitally distributed games with innovative social features.
Tell us about how games can make more use of social media as part of their gameplay and realism?
It’s a pretty exciting time right now, not just for us but for developers. We’ve bridged the technology gap, and we’re finding the smallest and most common of devices, like the iPhone, able to connect live 24/7.
This has finally paved the way for games to be persistent across multiple devices, for us to offer multiple windows into an experience. It’s all about convergence.
Convergence of gameplay platforms, productivity platforms and social platforms. But technology is one part of it, another part of the great convergence is that we are inviting software and the experience it offers into our lifestyle.
Platforms such as Facebook or Twitter created a way for us to be more connected with our friends, more active socially, and pretty much augmented our ability to communicate with one another without barriers. And they are globally understood – millions of people understand how to use them and how to navigate them.
Weaving an experience, a game, into that fabric is what we are focused on.
What sort of resistance is there to using social media inside games?
It’s the classic business situation right now. In boardrooms across the world, people are using Facebook and Twitter as a buzzword rather than really understanding why they work so well and what they offer to enhance a game.
In the last three years, people have been pitching the same thing: Post highscores on Facebook or Twitter for a viral reaction that increases your potential user base.
This is well and good, but it hasn’t made anyone rich yet (Well, not many people rich). In many ways, the games industry is waking up to what the web has offered for so long, and in doing so, it’s following some of the classic misconceptions.
Just being where the action is doesn’t make you succeed. You need to integrate, understand, dissect. There’s no magic bullet. So, for those who’ve gone out and checked all of the boxes, they haven’t seen the mana fall from heaven. So they’re shy about taking risks and reluctant to just go full bore.
Thankfully, technology investors and those with enough cash flow to take the plunge on their own see it for what it is and can be nimble about it. We don’t need the classic publisher to take the journey.
Almost all new platforms, and even platforms like DSi are bucking the old system and allowing developers to self-publish.
Digital distribution is coming, and thanks to the AppStore, we now know the right road to go down and succeed with.
Give us some good examples of how this might work inside popular games?
Let’s take, say, Animal Crossing. I start my game on the Wii, I set up my town and start doing my errands to raise money. Now I spend all night doing that. In fact, I also have invited a few of my friends to my experience, and they’ve all accepted.
Now, whenever they log in to the game, they may see that I’ve earned a new story on my house, or that I caught a rare fish and contributed it to the aquarium.
They essentially see a friend feed that is similar to the frontpage of Facebook. Meanwhile, all my friends on Facebook are also seeing my accomplishments despite not being in the game.
They may follow the link and see that they need Animal Crossing. Well, they might not have a Wii, but they have a PC, and (Let’s think ahead – not get mired in the politics of “the now”) they see that the game is also available for PC.
They download, install, and start the game and link up with me. We decide to visit one another. I invite three people to my town. One on PC, one on an iPhone, and one on a Mac. I’m on the Wii. We are experiencing the same overall experience on all platforms.
Now, I also have downloaded the game on my iPhone. At some point, I need to head out and catch the bus to work.
So I open my iPhone, start the game, and it acknowledges that I am currently playing on Wii, would I like to migrate to the iPhone? I tap yes and the Wii game shuts down, and on my iPhone, I am now standing where I exactly left off a moment ago with my friends.
To them, nothing has happened. They see a change of icon over my character. The iPhone app, for all intents and purposes, has all the same core functionality, but every interface will share every feature.
Some platforms are more limited. For example, I may also check Facebook at the office. I see that my friend caught a fish in an update. If I "like" that update, and several other "like" it as well, my friend gets a special gift for having so many people like his update.
We can also effect gameplay directly from Facebook, and create a meta-game as a Facebook app. Here we’d have a god-like mode of play, similar to Mafia Wars, where I can manage my social graph and my town resources through Facebook itself. You wouldn’t interface in the same way as you would on Wii, but you affect the same world.
Now, one more thing, something we’re very keen on here, is the concept of affecting your game by aggregating key locations of the web for character dialogue and in-game effects.
Imagine one of your Animal Crossing characters is really into movies. Because we are able to see the metacritic score of a movie and the top box office, this chartacter is always relevant.
He may strike up a conversation today, "Did you see Star Trek? Whoa!! It was awesome!" – this is fueld by a metacritic score of 90%. The key phrase is actually just "Did you see [Movie], it was [adjective]!".
A movie can be anything from the top box office (Keeping it relevant), and the adjective can be a word list parsed by the aggregate scores it receives, so a low score of say 0-20% may be "horrible."
Five years from now, the characters are still talking about currents events. They stay in the zeitgeist.
And how about some examples of how it might be used inappropriately?
You don’t want to be spamming your friends with an avalanche of twitter updates along the lines of "Mike Mika just killed a rat for 20 exp!! You can, too, by clicking this link." Now imagine you have 100 of those on your twitter feed because I’m grinding for EXP. Not cool.
You also walk a very thin line between integrating into the social fabric and just being an ad for a game or annoying. These updates need to entice someone or at least be interesting.
What about the technology? Don’t these auto-aggregators sometimes go a bit weird?
They can. I’ve been playing around with this now for a while, and to have a character suddenly bring up abortion or talk about how many soldiers died in Iraq today, that’s not cool.
There’s a bit of work to filter that out, and even then, you’re trying to screen an unpredictable source for relevant yet cool things to make a game, say, like Animal Crossing, more interesting.
Well, having a cute little pig come up to you and talk about children dying from Swine Flu is not going to make many people feel good.
What interest have you had from publishers?
Plenty. It’s all part of a bigger initiative, a new way to monetize games. We’re working with a few publishers right now, but the really exciting bit is that we can do this on our own.
There is a lot of money out there to support small developers which comes with far less strings and greater reward than the traditional games publishing situation.
Games are moving in an inevitable direction. Don’t get me wrong, I love the traditional games space, but we’re pretty excited about this new frontier. And we can move faster and be more agile than most publishers to take advantage of it.