Monday, October 31, 2011

Panda Poet: My most social design

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.

Go give Panda Poet a try over at  Or install it on the Chrome Web Store. Invite a friend to play.  It is more fun.

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.

take care,


Other Notes

  • 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. 


  1. Hi Dan,

    First off, I'd just like to say I love the music, absolutely addicting.

    However I have some critiques about your usually rather logically thought out posts. I guess my main issue with the post is that all of these statements could easily applied to Words With Friends or Hanging with Friends by Zynga.

    I'd be really interested in hearing how you think the mechanics that you decided for the game help elevate these mechanics, if at all. For example, your comparison with go seems really interesting to me.

    From my perspective, this game, and your games in general, do a good job of incorporating strategic elements into the game. Especially since this feels like a board game you might play with a friend on a slow Sunday afternoon (if those things exist anymore), do you think that sort of aesthetic feel helps alleviate potential griefer behaviors?

    Also, I'm curious (if you can talk about them at all) what the driving forces were to make this game a web-based design first. This seems (almost even more than Steambirds) like it lends itself especially well to a tablet or smartphone platform.

    Overall though, I love the game. As usual the artwork, sound, and mechanics combine to create this really unique aesthetic experience. You clearly have an aesthetic style that can be seen in all the games you've created.


  2. Hi Dan,

    Interesting game! I'm pretty sure I've played a version of this on Kindle?

    I do think the tutorial is a bit heavy-handed. First, I noticed that the modal prompts users to perform an action, but it hijacks clicks so the user first has to click "Try it now…" to hide it. I'd suggest making the tutorial more transparent in general. Players want to get right in and play, and the tutorial should gently guide them without getting in the way.

    Lovely design! We released one of the first games on the Chrome Web Store when it launched in December 2010 (Onslaught! Arena) so I'm especially curious how it's been performing.

  3. I just started playing this yesterday and it's already my favorite multiplayer word game. I love the mix between a word game and a puzzle game... it means sometimes you have to make a strategic decision instead of just playing the biggest word.

    I have a couple of suggestions, however:

    1) Release it on Android (and iPhone, I suppose) and charge for it. I would gladly pay for this game to play it on my phone. It would be even better if it tied into the web version so you could take turns on your phone or on your PC in the same game. I tried playing the web version on my phone but there are some issues with it, such as not being able to see the clear button (at least on the stock Android browser). Plus it's slower than a dedicated app would be.

    2) There's a sound and a music mute option, but I would like to see a way to mute just the ambient sounds. I like to wear headphones and listen to music or watch videos, and the ambient sounds make me have to turn off sounds completely, but I'd still like to have an aural notification that I am able to take my turn.

    Also, this has nothing to do with Panda Poet, but I'd like to see an Android version of Triple Town without that terrible Facebook monetizing model. If the Facebook model is the future of mobile gaming, Nintendo has nothing to worry about.