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The first day of the South by Southwest Interactive festival was bustling, as always. Attendees arrived from all over the world, whether physically in the Austin Convention Center or checking into the city virtually via Foursquare and Twitter. Old hands greeted one another warmly while newcomers flipped through the now-massive programming guide and boggled at the amazing variety of options. (There’s so much activity that this year’s guide is as heavy as my laptop.)

A trend I immediately noticed today was the adoption of small group messaging services. Many of the people I spoke to were using Beluga our GroupMe to stay connected with friends at the show, or coordinate team activities.

My first panel today was Gamechanging: Turn Your App Into A Cooperative Game. Presenters Thor Muller (Get Satisfaction) and Buster Benson (Health Month) talked about the power of cooperation to motivate people. Cooperative games, they said, are good platforms for encouraging behavior change and sustaining long interactions.

Room 12b: Gamechanging! With @tempo and lots of people! #sxsw
The view from Buster’s seat.

Buster discussed how the mechanics of Health Month use social dynamics to promote healthy living. For example, a paying member can sponsor one non-paying member per month who they think could use help staying healthy. The paying member is rewarded by the feeling of having done something good for a friend, while the non-paying member is impelled to live up to the obligation they now feel toward their friend. Also, when a member lapses and does unhealthy things that cause penalties in the game, other members can “heal” them and bring them back into the fold. This act of societal forgiveness helps the struggling player to not give up in despair.

In his talk The New Frontier of Social Gaming, Zynga’s Chief Game Designer Brian Reynolds shared his “secrets” of social game design:

  1. Make something everyone can play Everyone understands the concept of being a farmer, or living in a city, making Farmville and Cityville universally accessible.
  2. Give it away for free.
  3. Yes, free. The more friends who play or observe the game, the more value the game has for the player. Shutting out people who don’t pay for the experience makes the game less valuable to those who do pay.
  4. Let people express themselves. People like to use social games in creative ways that show others how unique they are, and remind them why they like the player
  5. Make ways to share and socialize.

Brian shared some of the nuts and bolts of game design: the challenges that designers must overcome (such as how you teach people to play the game quickly, and in an entertaining way so they don’t get bored), and the process of making a game. Brian’s method is to have his team build a playable prototype quickly — say, within two weeks — and then play it over and over again, making improvements until the date it’s scheduled to launch. During some projects, his team would create two or three different versions of a game per day.

Now I’m going to grab some dinner and head to the TechSet kickoff party. Look for my Saturday recap tomorrow evening — and in the meantime you can see my Tweets from the show at @wsseattle!

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