Multiplayer Relationships, Interdependence, and Synergy in Gamification Design

7 10 2010

What attributes keep people engaged in, and committed to playing a multiplayer game?

Tom Bollich, an early Zynga investor and former lead engineer says today’s social games have a challenge.  He described the problem in a recent interview:

“You can’t make the cheap little viral games like you used to.  These games, it’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. You can get a lot of people, but they don’t stick around.”

Game mechanics in social games have been effective at getting people’s attention, but how do you design a system that keeps players engaged and involved?  We may find some clues when examining another form of social games, the MMORPG and it’s industry leader World of Warcraft (WoW).  WoW has managed to keep players entertained for almost 6 years, attracting over 11.5 million players worldwide.  Nielsen shared numbers from 2009 that ranked WoW first in PC games most played, averaging 653 minutes per week.

Typing “/played” in World of Warcraft displays how long a character has been played and the numbers surprise most people.  So the question becomes, what game mechanics or features are keeping so many people interested for such a long period of time?  What attributes can transform a simple game into a lasting community?

People tend to be more engaged within a community when they feel a sense of belonging and can contribute towards a hot topic or goal within the community.   The “Tribalization of Business” study conducted by Beeline Labs, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research (2008) cited key features contributing most to community effectiveness:

Most Facebook games involve asynchronous multi-player game play, or experiences that are presented in discrete chunks at different times for each player, so players can interact and perform exchanges without the need of being simultaneously online.

Oftentimes the social game is so focused on the need for asynchronous game-play, that they bypass the importance of building relationships and interdependencies between players and the game becomes almost a single player activity.   As seen in the Tribalization study, engaged social players want to be able to help others and contribute towards a common goal.   They want to develop a reputation and grow in status.  Adding a way for players to feel needed increases their desire to stay within the community.  The stronger the community, the more important status becomes. The opposite is also true: without a community, there is no status.

Interdependence, or the dynamic of being mutually responsible to each other,  is an important aspect in designing longer lasting communities. Providing interdependent subtasks allow players an opportunity to create relationships and to personalize their experiences as they explore the system.

Interdependence is also an element of effective social groups, where groups evolve beyond just a collection of people and become functional teams.  Muzafer Sherif formulated a technical definition of social groups listing the following elements:

A social group is a unit consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:

1.  Common motives and goals;

2.  An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles,

3.  Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships;

4.  Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group;

5.  Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.


Here we see that a group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his or her strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses. Effective team members learn how to help one another, help other team members realize their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.


This dynamic is found in WoW, where each class has a function in gameplay. By working together, the team players synergize -becoming more powerful, or gaining in game advantages.

Missing one of the functional character types leads to slower progress or potential failure in quests and dungeons.

Most MMO’s utilize what is called the “holy trinity”- Tank, Healer and DPS.  A “Tank” function is the player who has armor and is the focus of a monster’s attacks – they take the brunt of the beating but in exchange do very little damage to the monster.  A “healer” is someone who can replenish health, but is generally very fragile.  “DPS” is the Damage class which has power, but little armor.  Each class relies on and enhances the other in order to maximize performance.

If one function is missing, the group feels a significant impact.  For example, a Tank and healer without DPS means the monsters don’t die.  A tank and DPS without healer means the group takes too much damage.  Each player is needed for the team to succeed.

Unlike most Facebook games, WoW sits on the other end of the spectrum, and is designed to encourage synchronous play.  Players feel obligated to work with others because of established responsibilities and expectations to the team. Peer pressure and in-game social commitments are implicit in the system’s design.  So one may ask, will these social features work in an asynchronous environment?  A few social games have adapted casual variations of this:

  • FarmVille requires players to fertilize each other’s crops
  • Happy Aquarium requires another player to open mystery crates in their fish tanks
  • Yoville has “Friend actions” that require friends to complete

Promoting interesting and longterm interdependent activities may increase the chances of a user staying active in the community.

An important aspect in the design of a system, the social group (2 players to many players) can be implemented in many creative ways:

Roles, or a division of labor, gives players a specialized function and presents an opportunity for designers to tap into player motivations and personality types.  For example with respect to the Myers-Briggs personalities:

The key is to offer an equally enjoyable experience for each role or personality type, which requires paying particular attention to balancing fun for each class.  Any function a user chooses to adopt should offer the same amount of fun and content.

World of Warcraft Looking for Group Screen

Make it easy to find the roles you are missing. Interdependencies can backfire if a particular class is too necessary to progress, too hard to find (rare), or unavailable for the team.  To address this, Blizzard built an innovative “Looking for Group” option making it easier to randomly fill parties.

Class homogenization can become boring.  Creating diverse and challenging jobs for players to master allows them a choice in how to contribute to the community.  And by leveraging a system of player interdependence you amplify the importance of relationships within a community.  Once meaningful relationships are established, there is little motivation for a player to leave the game.




One response

7 10 2010
Geoff Crane

Something WoW is very good at is creating teams that require trust among players. This goes beyond just the “holy trinity”, where the DPS and healers trust that the tank will keep monsters away from them, to very small degrees of finesse where players need to manage their abilities in such a way to ping pong monsters (i.e., swapping focus of a monster back and forth), or timing their micro-abilities just so.

It’s that whole “dream team” that Jane McGonigal talks about where mastery of the abilities of each individual contribute to the success of the team. Mastery creates bonds between players that keep them coming back, not because of the platform on which they find themselves, but because of the people they play with.

For that to work, the platform needs to facilitate the possibility of mastery through a complex array of abilities, and then encounters need to be designed in such a way to challenge players to use those abilities in strange, fast-paced, and interesting ways.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: