Game Design: Encouraging Social Play Part 1: Scales of Play

It’s generally well accepted that players who have an enjoyable social experience in game have a higher rate of coming back to a game and will generally enjoy it more than players who are alone, especially in a massively multiplayer environment. This requires designers to take a certain approach to the design of their games that is social play oriented, rather than just play oriented.The archetype touted for social play is the MMORPG, though many other games have integrated social play throughout the years; any game with multiplayer-based designated roles has overtly tried for some sort of social play, and there’s a number of ways that designers can create a social play experience that is meaningful and engaging. Today, we’re going to be looking at Scales of Play, or the stages on which community and player experiences occur.

Social play can happen at what really amounts to four levels; outside of the game, in a metagame, in the macrogame, and in a microgame. Each of these components makes up the game and its community, and encourage future play, and the larger components are made up of one or more of its respective smaller components.

Take, for example, fighting games. Most support no more than two players in a game, and it’s really rare to hear of more than four players in one. However, there’s still a really strong community for them, largely due to the community outside of the game. Games like Quake and Tribes were kept alive for years after their release by hardcore fans. Building a community outside of a game can keep it popular and encourage certain developments in play, though there’s some dubious questions about the impacts of community management versus having games acquire a community on their own based on their merit; the more decentralized a game the more likely it is to develop an out-of-game community without having to worry about having it be managed from the top. Communities typically have the following traits:

  • Form based around common enjoyment of the game
  • Focus on coordinating experiences
  • Build name recognition of “expert players”

The metagame can be referred to as events in the game’s world that change largely irrespective of an individual player’s events and experiences. The term “metagaming” is not really a good way to describe the concept of a metagame, and usually refers to playing based on the game’s mechanics rather than an organic method of play. A metagame is something like a faction conflict map, as seen in Planetside, or the dynamic events of Warframe that can lead to victory or defeat for a large groups of players as a whole. Everquest Next promises some similar metagame trends that are more based on exact setting locations and building cities, driving away threats, or the like. The metagame can be dynamic or hand-crafted depending on the designers and the exact experience, but it’s important to note that a few qualities make a good metagame:

  • Encourages team play
  • Responds to players’ actions
  • Doesn’t overly impact the macro/microgame
  • Creates trends across diverse individual macro/microgames
  • Optional

The macrogame is a smaller-scale experience. In most games this is a round or a group, though depending on the game configuration certain small player groups may be more accurately described as a microgame. A round of Battlefield or Call of Duty consists of a macrogame. Playing Skyrim is experiencing a macrogame (though it has no metagame, as it is not multiplayer-interfacing, and is simultaneously the microgame experience of its lone player). Macrogames tend to be where a player’s action occurs, or where a group of players experience play. Games that are designed to have a cooperative unit will typically have the play experience of this cooperative unit be a macrogame; Final Fantasy XIV’s mandatory four-person parties for dungeons make up a single macrogame experience, as do raids and quests in the majority of MMORPG’s.

  • Considered to be a “match”, “round”, “game”, or “session”
  • A form of play that is often the most satisfying
  • Consists of microgames of many players or a single player

Microgames, on the other hand, reflect the individual experience of a player. In rare cases, the microgame may actually impact multiple characters; a vehicle crew in Arma may experience a shared microgame, but this is rare. Every player will have a tailored microgame experience, based either on the game state or based on their role; a mage will play differently than a fighter, for instance. Microgames aren’t terribly interesting, but we can look at them in the perspective of social roles because a well-designed microgame is a great transition to social play as players are encouraged to join groups with other players for optimal results, and a poorly designed microgame makes players without a group, or with a bad group, feel disappointed and frustrated.

  • Microgames are the end-user play-experience
  • Can be highly customized, subjective, or contextual
  • Impacts the larger game structures

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