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Best Social Games of Lockdown 2020 – Part Two

Social games dominated the charts this year. So what can we learn from them? Part two of our series on the best lockdown games.

As people have been trapped at home, unable to visit friends, it’s unsurprising that social games dominated the charts and headlines. But it’s not just direct interaction that’s made these games popular. Multiplayer games that are as satisfying to watch as they are to play have been the real successes this year.

It’s a positive feedback loop. People play multiplayer games to hang out with their friends. This makes the game more popular, so streamers jump onto it. Those seeking community in times of loneliness watch the streamers and chat with one another. They then start playing the game, too. The game becomes more popular, and so on and so forth.

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And when the game is playable from any device? Well, this cycle is even more likely.

How did lockdown affect multiplayer games?

We can see the success in the stats. For example, in multiplayer battle arenas the average session length is nearly an hour (58 minutes), with over seven or eight sessions a day. Keep in mind, we’re looking at the top 5% of best performing games when we get this stat. There are some games out there that have much higher stats. 

That’s a long time to be staring at a small screen. And it’s a large chunk of the players, with a day 7 retention of 15%. That means over one in ten people who download the game are still playing seven days later. Seriously impressive, considering that Call of Duty: Mobile hit 250 million downloads this year.

So let’s look at what we can learn from some of the top social games this year.

Among Us (InnerSloth)

  • Short: 4/5
  • Simple: 4/5
  • Satisfying: 4/5

Among Us is inspired by classic party games like Werewolf or Mafia, where every player has a secret role and the objective is to vote out the imposters before they kill you. But unlike games like Town of Salem, which replicate the party format exactly, Among Us adapts to make it more interesting online. Players walk around and perform simple tasks to occupy their time while the imposters do their dastardly deeds.

Then, when a body is discovered, everybody can discuss who they should vote off. A devilishly simple concept, which works on any device.

Design mobile-first to make crossplay fairer

Crossplay is really key to social games. You can’t guarantee that everyone owns a PC or the same console. And it’s frustrating if you hear about a fantastic multiplayer game but can’t play with your friends because you use a different platform.

Among Us does crossplay perfectly. This is primarily because nobody has an advantage. For example, PC players in an FPS are likely to have an edge over console players due to the accuracy of a mouse.

But all the mechanics in Among Us are simple and don’t rely on speed or accuracy. The tasks are all single-click affairs, which are just as quick to finish if you’re dragging your thumb across the screen or a mouse cursor.

This means that the gameplay is fun, regardless of which device you’re using. There’s nothing lost by designing with limitations in mind. The game wouldn’t be better if the distracting puzzles were more intricate and only playable on a PC. It’d be worse.

Check every mechanic has a purpose

Perhaps the biggest key to Among Us’ success is that there aren’t any extraneous mechanics or features. There are two modes: voting and moving around the map. During voting, you can just talk and vote. Nothing else distracts from the gameplay.

Every extra mechanic in the game is necessary. Let’s take just one as an example: the tasks. The players run around the ship and perform extremely simple tasks. Why? Well, for multiple reasons. First, it encourages players to separate (or to communicate to work together). This gives the imposters a chance to kill in secret.

But secondly, it serves as a win condition for the good guys, which incentivizes them to go out and take risks.

While not as simple as a casual game, the philosophy is the same: keep it to the bare minimum. If it doesn’t solve a problem or add to the fun, it shouldn’t be in the game.

Call of Duty: Mobile (Activision)

  • Simple: 3/5
  • Short: 4/5
  • Satisfying: 5/5

One of the biggest titles in the industry. Call of Duty is a first-person shooter with an array of modes for players to pit themselves against one another. The mobile version is no different, aside from necessary changes to adapt to the smaller screen and lack of controls available on console and PC. (We know this was released in 2019. But it’s just done so well in 2020, we couldn’t resist talking about it again.)

Consider how controllers affect gameplay

As devices get more powerful, more and more players are plugging external controllers into their smartphones and tablets. This is great for developers, as it turns the mobile phone into a pocket console.

But it does come with some challenges. How do you keep the game balanced in multiplayer? The whole reason for the controller is to make it easier to play the game. But this could give a more affluent gamer a distinct advantage over another, who perhaps can’t afford a controller.

Activision got around this problem with separate lobbies, splitting the players apart. Those with controllers play against each other, and those without play against each other. It’s not a perfect solution: you’d need to stop using your controller to play with a friend who doesn’t have one. But it’s a good compromise, as they still have the option. And when it comes to fairness: choice is key.

Keep adding content

If you, like Activision, have a separate mobile and PC version of your game: make sure to treat each equally. Activision has done this extremely well, adding unique content to their mobile version and consistently supporting it.

New seasons, celebrations, and features are a great way to keep a game fresh. But it’s important to make sure your versions don’t deviate too far from one another. Call of Duty has done a good job with adding flavor, without it feeling disconnected.

PUBG Mobile (PUBG Corporation)

  • Simple: 3/5
  • Short: 4/5
  • Satisfying: 5/5

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is perhaps the game that launched the whole battle royale genre. A hundred players drop into a map, armed with nothing more than their wits, and must scavenge for equipment and be the last man standing alive.

It’s a genre that’s proved hugely successful in recent years. So it’s unsurprising that PUBG is one of the leading games on mobile, too.

Strip out complexity

The PC version of PUBG has a quite notoriously intricate user interface. There’s a variety of equipment to equip, each weapon has slots for attachments and there are multiple ammo types and support items to pick up.

All of this leads to quite a wieldy inventory system. After a few games, players get used to the different options. And it’s relatively easy to drag, drop and equip items once you’re familiar with the layout. (Even if it does leave you wide open to attack while you’re using it.)

But on mobile, the icons and intricacy would be too overwhelming. Instead, they’ve simplified the menus, added highlights to indicate items you should tap to pick up, and made the design much more thumb-friendly.

Remember: there are only really two ways for a mobile user to interact. Tap or drag. There’s no right-clicking. No specific keypresses. No shortcuts. But good design doesn’t need those things. It should be obvious what a player means when they tap on a dead body: they want to loot it. When they tap an enemy, they want to shoot it.

Give options to automate

One of the biggest ways PUBG stripped out complexity was to add automatic looting. For example, players can turn on an option to automatically pick up any level 3 backpack they find. Why? Because it’s clearly what they want to do.

Despite the simpler user interface, there are still big decisions a player needs to make. Automatically picking up all the ammo you find might seem like a good idea, until your backpack is full of useless bullets.

But these are all decisions a player tends to make before they’ve even started the game: what gun do I want to use? What grenades do I prefer? How many health packs do I want to hold onto?

In PUBG, players can set all these variables in their options for their automatic looting. They can choose to automatically pick up hundreds of rounds of 9mm ammo, but never shotgun. This helps make sure that the tactical decisions are fair, as every player has the same ability.

Players want to play together

That’s been the big takeaway this year. As people have been starved of social interaction, they’ve turned to social games to find that connection. And so it’s been more important than ever to make sure your game is playable across platforms.

That means we need to return to the basics: coming up with fresh takes on classic concepts and using simple design that’s accessible to everybody. That’s what people want.

In the meantime, make sure to check out part one and part three of our lockdown series.

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