In Free to play, Game design, Game marketing

The social aspects of gaming are more prevalent than ever, across all platforms. From online discussion through to in-game social structures and competitive PvP mechanics, players are no longer siloed as they once were. Their collective experience and expression have a huge impact on the success of games.


Social Acquisition

It’s human nature to trust people before anything else, so word of mouth has always been highly effective as an acquisition tool. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media channels and the democracy of online conversation, that word is getting louder every day and it spreads like wildfire.

5 years ago, a Helsinki-based mobile service provider called Applifier (now a part of Unity) released a survey on the state of mobile gaming. Their research found that user reviews, recommendations and watching friends/family play were the 3 most popular ways that players discovered new games. Word of mouth reigned supreme. Today, games have evolved to incorporate mechanics that facilitate discovery in this way. Players are regularly incentivized to leave reviews, invite friends to play and share scores/gameplay videos via social media.

Our research shows that engagement rates with user-triggered ‘invites’ are extremely high and, crucially, that players brought into a game via a viral mechanism are themselves 10 times more likely to invite friends of their own. Not only do these mechanisms prove highly effective, they reduce acquisition costs.

There can be no better proof of social media’s value to publishers than the in-game incentives that they offer in exchange for sharing content. Square Enix Montreal’s Hitman: Sniper is a hugely successful mobile shooter and they offer players a flat 200,000 in virtual currency just for connecting to the game’s leaderboard via Facebook. To put that figure in context, rookie players would have to watch every ad available within an 8 hour period to aggregate the same value via rewarded video.

Main menu in Hitman: Sniper  

Streaming & Influencers

With YouTube and Twitch stealing eyes away from traditional media, ‘influencers’ and streamers now hold more sway than publications and advertisers. The most popular content creators have several millions of followers/subscribers and so their reach is incredible – there is no better PR than an endorsement or gameplay video from a top-ranked streamer. The shareability and popularity of gameplay content is also a huge factor in building games’ online presence. Social media snapshots and memes are the most important social currency. The chaotic gameplay, outlandish cosmetics and taunt mechanics popularized by some of gaming’s best-performing titles allow games like Fortnite, PUBG and Overwatch to churn out memes like no other games in history.


In-game Social Interactions

Existing players aren’t just great for bringing new eyes a game, they are critical for keeping them there. Especially in the world of Free-to-Play (F2P), where the majority of players have made no monetary investment in any given game, users are extremely likely to churn at the first sign of boredom.

Fresh content and incentives are the best tonics for boredom – that’s why we always advise against F2P games having any kind of defined endgame. That said, delivering regular new content costs time, money and development effort in quantities that simply aren’t available to a lot of game-makers. If you can build social structures into your game that keep things exciting via user-generated content, that’s where the players come good once again as a selling point in their own right.

  • Competition

Whether it be via direct PvP battles or one-upmanship on leaderboards visible to the rest of the player base, social competition (friendly or otherwise) is a hugely powerful motivator when it comes to keeping players interested. Replay value increases exponentially when it’s somebody else’s record on the line.

Tournament invites in Disco Bees

  • Gifting & Trading

Embedding simple trading and gifting mechanics into the metagame is beneficial for many reasons but, above all else, it achieves two things. First, trading gives players the opportunity to make new connections and gifting allows for existing connections to be strengthened through friendly interactions. Second, both present non-spending players with a way of obtaining items and currency that they could not otherwise obtain which, again, somewhat alleviates the risk of churn.

  • Social Groups

Forming, growing and engaging in social groups such as clans and guilds have huge impacts on a player’s relationship with a game. Being part of a team brings with it a certain social responsibility that drives engagement and repeat play. Not only is it enjoyable and rewarding to compete as part of a larger squad, but it introduces a new sense of consequence. Just as much as showing worth and achieving success, failing to show up has an impact on the team and the player’s status within it.

Custom clan crests in ArcheAge


The Evolution of Social Engagement

In a move to rival Twitch, Facebook recently partnered with Rockstar for a number of live GTA Online gameplay streams. Not only did this bring GTA content to a wider audience that isn’t gamer-specific, it also featured a number of hooks to drive player engagement in specific ways. For those viewers that connected their Rockstar Social Club accounts to Facebook, randomized in-game rewards were made available to be claimed on screen during each stream. Some of these were simple in-game currency rewards, but the specific gameplay shown was linked to usable items. In an unprecedented cross-promotion campaign, a number of items were made available to be ‘earned’ through challenges that foreshadowed the release of the imminent Red Dead Redemption 2. Players were given tasks to complete and playtime stipulations in GTA Online that, if satisfied, would grant them access to those same items in Red Dead 2 upon launch. This use of social media to simultaneously promote and improve engagement in an existing title – while boosting pre-sales of a forthcoming one – is truly groundbreaking.



There was a time when a sophisticated social strategy gave game-makers a competitive edge. Today, it’s an essential aspect of any game with aspirations of long-term success. Players thrive on interaction with other players and, with the right mechanics in place, that interaction can fuel a game, or even a portfolio of games, indefinitely.

If you have any questions, about the contents of this piece or anything else, contact us at [email protected] and we’ll connect you to the relevant person.

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