Way back in 2010, Spry Fox put out a single player word game for the Kindle called Panda Poet. I had always had some vague ideas for a multiplayer variation so when an opportunity came up to create an original HTML 5 game, I pitched play-by-mail Panda Poet. As David says over on his blog, this is our third release this month so things have been a wee bit hectic. Reminder to self: do not launch multiple new games while attempting to vacation in Japan.
As with all my projects, we spent the first few months heavily iterating on prototype designs. I went back to the root of the original concept and ended up deviating substantially from the single player mechanics. The game still involves growing pandas by spelling words. But now the game is based around a capture mechanism that lets you take pandas from the other player. The territory aspects of the game give play a rather unique feel and the end result reminds me of “Scrabble meets Go.” The timer countdowns that were such a large part of the single player game are gone. Playing against another player who constantly creates words out of any letters you didn’t use ends up being more than enough pressure to give the game forward momentum. The arrow of play is strong in this one.
Putting the social into a game
Most multiplayer games played over the computer aren’t very social. In console games, you get a lot of teabagging and swearing with very little space or time set aside for meaningful social dialog. In games on social networks, you find people poking one another using cynically automated systems. There’s a pushy one-to-many broadcast aspect of the experience that does little to encourage deeper social bonds.
My wife is a longtime player of Words with Friends and seeing her chatting with complete strangers for months on end reignited my interest in play-by-mail games. You can think of these games as a bit like a conversation. You make a statement by playing a turn and then pass the conversation onto the next person so they can respond. Side by side with the game is a chat window, but the important realization is that both the chat and the moves you make in the game are forms of communication.
Panda Poet follows a similar model. It has an inbox, just like an email program and you can have multiple conversations going at once. Here are some observations:
- Every interaction is opt-in: Everytime you choose to make a move, you are signaling that you want to continue the relationship. There’s little penalty for dropping out.
- Relationships grow over time: Many random matches put strangers together. Initially, people play silently for long stretches of time. However, very slowly you get the occasional safe comment. Eventually this blossoms into more detailed conversations. Trust comes from a long series of safe and reliable interactions. Each time you submit a turn, you are building trust and respect.
- Griefing is difficult: If someone is rude, you just resign from the game and stop playing with them. Or you don’t play the next turn. It is possible to spam someone, but number of people effected is so minimal and the feedback in response to your Killer cleverness so sparse that it is rarely worth it. The typical incentives driving griefing fizzle without an audience or social status.
- You can build on existing relationships: When was the last time you did any activity with your brother or close friend from college that now lives a thousand miles away? We live in social world fractured by Schumpeter’s creative destruction. You dwell in distant lands as determined by the latest job opening. As a result, the deeply meaningful local relationships that dominated life of eras past suffer. Social isolation is a very real consequence of the capitalist eradication of that most charming of labor rigidities, a generational home. Games like Panda Poet give you a private shared space to reconnect. Take five minutes out of your day and create a new experience with the ones you once held near.
I see immense potential in this style of game and I’ll be using similar multiplayer structures in future games. When you design a game with real social play, ask “What is the intrinsic rhythm of back and forth conversation between participants?” If this key pattern has no space to exist, then perhaps you aren’t creating a social game after all.
- The Panda Poet website
- Multiplayer Panda Poet on Chrome Web Store
- Single player Panda Poet on the Kindle
- Easy initial learning curve: People get that you are supposed to spell words. There doesn’t seem to be much confusion over the basic UI.
- The game is reasonably well balanced. I’ve seen multiple games between two skilled players that are decided based off the final few words. You almost never find yourself halfway through the game in a position where it is impossible to make a comeback.
- Pacing: I’m adore the short play sessions (a single turn takes 10-30 seconds). However, since players can have multiple games going, you get a random distribution of games popping up throughout the day much like email or an IM conversation with a friend. This combined with a daily email archive prompting people to check back into the site and catch up on waiting games should yield a reasonably high rate of retention.
Our big challenges going forward:
- Complex capture mechanics: The capture mechanics are a dash too complex for casual players to understand the strategic elements of the game immediately. In particular, it takes multiple games for players to understand how to lock in pandas mid game.
- Poor monetization opportunities: Right now there’s just an initial Premium version that removes ads and gives access to a more expansive and strategic board layout. My suspicion is that we are going to need to do a lot more work to craft a compelling offer.