Friday, December 28, 2018

Social Design Practices for Human-Scale Online Games

For this year's Project Horseshoe, an annual game designer think tank, our workgroup investigated small-scale MMOs. You can read the other reports here:

Our group consisted of:
  • Alexander Youngblood, Game Designer at ArenaNet
  • Amy Jo Kim, Chief Executive Officer at Shufflebrain
  • Crystin Cox, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft
  • Daniel Cook, Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox
  • Erin Hoffman-John, Lead Prototyper at Google
  • Isaiah Cartwright, Game Director at ArenaNet
  • Kyle Brink, Director of Production at ArenaNet
  • Link Hughes, Game Designer at ArenaNet


Many of the problems associated with making an MMO, a Massively Multiplayer Online game, come in large part from the very first term: “Massively”. An MMO is notably tricky to build due to technical issues involving server scaling, as well as design issues involving scaling economics, politics, level design, pacing, persistence, and progression. A rule of thumb is that development costs grow exponentially as the number of players increases, but for many years, there’s been an unquestioned assumption that bigger player numbers are inherently better and therefore worth pursuing.

Yet we see clear counterexamples. Many early MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) involved populations of dozens-to-thousands of people and still have vibrant communities to this day [1]. Multiplayer Minecraft is wildly successful, despite its reliance on relatively small, instanced servers. And many modern hit games, like Fortnite, are online games that successfully limit their focus to matches of 100 or less.

What are the critical design lessons from these smaller online games—and how can current research and understanding of social psychology help make sense of those lessons? We combined our decades of experience designing social systems for online games and a deep dive into current academic research to arrive at a set of best practices and common pitfalls.
What we’ll cover in this paper:
  • What we can borrow from social psychology
  • An overview of friendship formation
  • Dunbar’s Layers and the constraints they place on social systems design
  • Social group and the constraints they also introduce
  • Big design insights
  • Opportunities for fulfilling the social motivations of players
  • Conclusion

Borrowing from social psychology

When researching what it meant to make human-scale systems, we found several key concepts from social psychology. Each provides a set of constraints for social design. Social game design operates within the physical and mental constraints of the human animal, so it pays to understand these constraints and build them into our designs.


A friendship is a single social bond between two people. Friendship formation is a distinct process involving proximity, similarity, reciprocity, and disclosure.

Dunbar’s Layers

An individual has a highly structured distribution of relationship bonds. People tend to have a maximum of 150 total friendships [2], including 50 good friendships, which include 15 best friendships, which, in turn, include 5 intimate friendships. This web of relationships can be modeled as an egocentric network with the individual at the center. This paper focuses primarily on the implications of Dunbar’s Layers for human-scale social design in online games.

Social groups

A social group of is a collection of people brought together for a shared task or interest. Groups contain multiple overlapping individual networks. The performance of the group, as a whole, is dependent on how the friendship bonds across the entire group are leveraged to accomplish the shared activity.


At the most basic level, human-scale game design is about creating strong relationship bonds between individuals. Most game populations will start out with weakly-bonded individuals. You’ll need to create activities, incentives, spaces, and social structures that actively build friendship in order to enable even the most basic of trust-based activities.

This section is a brief overview. For more detailed discussion on this topic see the 2016 Project Horseshoe paper on game design for building friendships.

The basics of growing friendships

Friendship formation requires 4 key ingredients:
  • Proximity. Being close together to one another encourages frequent serendipitous interactions.
  • Similarity. Players will generally be more likely to become friends if they perceive one another to be similar.
  • Reciprocity. Players must engage in escalating back-and-forth interactions in order to negotiate shared social norms.
  • Disclosure. At higher levels of friendship, there needs to be an opportunity for safe, consensual, intimate sharing of weaknesses.
You can take any two players, put them together in matches for hundreds of hours, and if the above criteria are not met, they are unlikely to become friends. Naively tossing bodies at one another is not efficient social design.

The micro-design of social systems is all about reciprocation loops

As a designer, you specifically have to build opportunities for consensual reciprocity into your game loops. These look like the following:
  • Opening. A person performs an opening action that a second person observes. This action has a cost in terms of time, investment, skill, and other resources. For example, Player 1 asks a question in open chat, which costs time and social capital.
  • Opportunity. An opportunity is created for the second person to respond. For example, Player 2 sees the question and can answer in the same chat.
  • Response. The second person performs a responding action that acknowledges the first person. This also has a cost. For example, Player 2 offers an answer to the question in chat, which also costs time and social capital.
  • Acknowledgement. The first person acknowledges the second’s response and the loop is now complete. For example, Player 1 thanks Player 2 for answering their question in open chat.

Common Variations

  • Escalation. Either during the Response or the Acknowledgement stages of the loop, a person can escalate by opening up a new loop or prompting additional response. This is an opt-in act. For example, Player 1 asks for additional details.
  • Rejection. Either during the Response or the Acknowledgement stage, a person can either not respond or respond inappropriately, which also collapses the loop. For example, Player 2 mocks Player 1 instead of answering their questions.

Link loops together in an escalating structure

Friendship is a long-term process. Each reciprocation loop may take seconds initially, but you need thousands of linked loops to build a robust friendship.
  • Create low-cost loops with low rejection costs for early relations.
  • Create higher-cost loops for later term relationships.
  • Build space inside the later loops for expression and definition of the personal relationship between two players.
For example, friendships in an MMO tend to start out with parallel play, where two people simply see one another’s name while fighting monsters in the same area. This then escalates to helping one another; a heal spell, an emote of celebration, a dropped item. The two players may start chatting in order to take down harder monsters; they may also friend one another and start talking more about who they are and what they are interested in.

At each stage, interactions take increasing time and effort. And involve richer communication. Each micro-loop is not very expensive, but over long-term repetition of many such loops, the relationship accumulates meaningful amounts of trust.

Design these systems with the same rigor, care, and eye for economic balance that you’d put towards a combat or progression system.

Design for consent

Almost every stage of these reciprocation loops involves consent. Each party must consent to both starting, continuing, and escalating the relationship. At any point, it is totally fine for one or both parties to pull away, either to slow down or move onto some other relationship opportunity.

In the context of Dunbar’s Layers, there’s a limit on the number of people an individual can have in their lives. The process of building friendship is also the active process of curating relationships that are healthy and mutually satisfying. When players actively and enthusiastically consent to engage in your reciprocation loops, you’ll find that the relationships you build in your game are more authentic, last longer, and ultimately provide more value to your players.

Dunbar’s Layers

An individual organizes their friendships by strength of their one-to-one bonds. They have close friends they turn to in times of crisis and more casual friends, with whom they interact with less frequently. Social psychology has been studying these friendship networks for decades. One of the more reproducible findings is the existence of strong limits on the number and strength of bonds an individual can have with other humans.

Dunbar’s Number

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist who, in the 1980s, posited that a human can have up to 150 meaningful relationships, based off his investigations into primate social brain structures [3]. When others attempted to verify this prediction, they found that “Dunbar’s Number” kept coming up in long-lasting groups in the real world. It’s been replicated across a huge number of domains including businesses, religious organizations, military groups, and, of course, MMO guilds.

Multiple layers, not a single number

However, as researchers dug further into the data, they noticed additional stable clustering at lower numbers of connections. These smaller clusters were part of a person’s total of 150 relationships, but involved much stronger bonds.

Visualization of Dunbar’s Layers. Each block represents time to build one relationship in that layer.

Friend layers

Dunbar’s Layers, as these smaller clusters are known, are generally organized as follows:
  • 1.5 people: The intimate couple or the individual.
  • 5 people: Intimate friends or family. People you can call in a crisis.
  • 15 people: Best friends. People who you can ask for sympathy.
  • 50 people: Good friends. The majority of regular social contacts and, by extension, all of one’s emotional and economic support [4].
  • 150 people: Casual friends or acquaintances.
Note that each layer is cumulative and contains the previous layers, so your best friend layer contains your intimate friends layer as well. A common confusion is to think you have 5 intimate friends AND an additional 15 best friends, etc., but those 5 intimate friends are part of your 15 best friends budget.

These numbers are averages and, in reality, describe tight ranges. In practice, different people have different degrees of social needs and relationship-building capacity. For example, many men average 3-4 relationships that they would consider intimate friends or family, while many women average 7-9 such relationships. Some people, known as “super-connectors,” have upward of 200–250 meaningful friendships.

Non-friend layers

With larger data sets, we’ve discovered these relationships layers also extend past actual friends.
  • 500 people: Nodding acquaintances.
  • 1500 people: You recognize their face, but that’s it. 2000 faces seems to be the absolute maximum that a human can recognize and when you learn a new face, you drop one of the other faces you’ve memorized.

Implications of Dunbar’s Layers

On first glance, Dunbar’s Layers are a mere curiosity. However, they fundamentally shape how people socialize. The following are aspects of Dunbar’s Layers worth knowing about before you attempt to use them in a design.

Dunbar’s Layers are egocentric networks

Visualizing the innermost Dunbar’s Layers as an egocentric network. Note all connections are from the perspective of a single individual.

An ideal way to visualize Dunbar’s Layers is as a network of connections, not as separate layers, per se. In research, this is known as an “egocentric network.”
  • Put a given individual at the center of a nodal network.
  • Then map out bonds going directly to that individual. You’ll end up with an average of 150 meaningful relationships connected to the individual.
  • Some bonds between the individual and their friends will be stronger than others. These bonds map onto Dunbar’s Layers. For example, a person will have an average of five strong bonds.
There are several different ways egocentric networks can be used in analysis of individual relationships:

  • Dyads: The relationship between any two individuals involves two connections, not one. Each person has their own perception of the connection’s strength. It is possible—and, in fact, common [5]—for these perceptions to be unequal.
  • Triads: Friendship networks can be analyzed by looking for triads—groupings of three people with at least two relationships between them. The strongest network structure is a “Triadic Closure,” wherein all three three individuals share mutual friendship bonds of equal strength.
  • Strong Ties: When a person has a direct relationship with another person, it is known as a strong bond. Strong bonds are key to meaningful relationships, support networks and overall happiness.
  • Weak Ties: When a person’s friend has a relationship with another person, but the original person does not, it is known as a weak bond. Weak ties are critical to connecting independent social groups and are particularly important for the functioning of large scale economic and informational systems. Weak ties also populate the 500 and 1500 person layers. When we start discussing social groups, weak ties become a very important concept.
  • Super-connectors: Some individuals have substantially more than the the typical number of connections. Known as “super-connectors,” they end up acting as hubs that connect disparate friend networks together.

Close friendships have a strong influence on quality of life

Overall, having a deep friend network has an immensely positive impact on your health and happiness.
  • Lack of friendship reduces lifespan [6].
  • High quality, high intensity relationships are positively correlated with increased life satisfaction [7].
  • Depression is lower overall in individuals with rich friend networks [8].
On the flip side, toxic relationships have an outsized negative impact on mental and physical health. Something to think about when we deal with trolls in our games [9].

High trust relationships take time and the right context

Building friendships takes many hours of interaction.
The time required to build a single friendship bond [10]:
  • Casual Friend: 40-60 hours
  • Good Friend : 90-110 hours
  • Best Friend: >200 hours
If you meet with someone for 1 hour each week, it will take roughly a year before you consider one another even casual friends. Friendship formation is not a cheap activity.

Maintaining relationships takes less effort. Three key variables here are kinship, gender and frequency of interaction. Kin bonds (bonds with family members) require less maintenance than non-family friendship bonds and do not seem affected by distance. Men tend to affirm bonds by participating in activities together, while women tend to talk with another. Higher strength bonds needs more frequent renewal than lower strength bonds.
  • Casual friends meet up at least once a year.
  • Good friends meetup up once every 6 months.
  • Best friends meet up once a month.
  • Intimate friends meet up at least once a week.

You can’t beat the system

One way of thinking about the constraints suggested by Dunbar’s Layers is to imagine you have a budget of cognitive resources that can be spent on relationships. The physical limits of your human brain mean that you only have enough mental budget for a total of roughly 150 relationships.

Humans have developed a few tools that have expanded our ability to organize into groups well past our primate cousins—most notably language—but also large-scale systems of government and economics. In the early 2000s, people assumed that new technologies like online social networks could help break past Dunbar’s Number; by offloading the cost of remembering our friendships to a computer, we could live richer, more social lives, with strong relationships to even more people.

We now have copious data that this is not the case. Studies suggest that there’s still a limited budget of cognitive resources at play and even in online platforms we see the exact same distribution of relationships [11].

If anything, social networks damage our relationships. By making it possible for us to cheaply form superficial relationships (and invest our limited energy in maintaining them), such systems divert cognitive resources from smaller, intimate groups out towards larger, less-intimate groups. The result is that key relationships with best friends and loved ones suffer. And, unfortunately, it is the strength of these high-trust relationships that are most predictive of mental health and overall happiness [12].

Social Groups

What is a social group?

A social group is a set of individuals labeled as being in a group. This is inherently a fuzzy concept, since the true structure thereof is an overlapping network of egocentric networks, partially-negotiated social norms, and ever-shifting relationship bonds.
There are three dominant perspectives on what makes a group.

Social Identity perspective: “I feel like I’m part of a group.” An individual can self-identify if they are part of a group. By doing so, they start practicing the social norms of the identified group. This is the perspective that gives birth to either imposter syndrome or a feeling of belonging.

Self-categorization perspective: “I feel like you are part of a group.” Someone looking at the behavior of other people can identify if others are behaving as part of a group. By doing so, they treat those people as if they operate using shared social norms. This is the perspective that gives birth to stereotypes.

Social cohesion perspective: “We act according to shared social norms.” A set of people that act in similar manner across a variety of social variables is a group. Those variables include:
  • Shared goals. Are we working towards the same purpose?
  • Roles. Who does what?
  • Status relationships. Who has power?
  • Norms. How do we work together?
  • Sanctions. What happens when norms are violated?
Additional factors that can be used to determine group cohesion include:
  • Group size. How many people are in the group?
  • Group trust. How strong are the bonds between individuals in the group?
  • Group stability. Does the group come together for a short period of time or is it a stable, persistent entity?
The social cohesion perspective proves the most design insight, so we’ll be referencing it for the rest of this discussion.

Group size

Common groups sizes roughly align with Dunbar’s Layers. However, these are not identical concepts. Social groups can contain friends of varying trust levels. You could have a small group composed entirely of strangers. whereas a 5-person intimate friends layer is, by definition, an individual’s closest set of friends.

Small friend groups

These are some of the most common task-oriented groups to form. Non-kin, task-focused groups of these sizes often dissipate when the task is complete. Small groups are, however, able to attain the highest strength of social bonds, usually focused on key family relationships.
  • Pair. 2 people
  • Small Group. 5 ± 2 people
  • Medium group. 15 ± 6 people

Large social groups

These are the largest-possible friend groups. Example groups at these sizes include a guild, shard, or map in an MMO, a mid-sized company, or a social organization in a university.
  • Band. 50 ± 18 people
  • Clans. 150 ± 50 people

Huge impersonal groups

These larger groups are composed of smaller friend-based sub-groups. However, due to their size being larger than Dunbar’s Number, it is impossible for them to engage in very high-trust activities without additional systems like hierarchy, reliance on weak ties, or codified rules.
  • Mega-bands. 500 ± 150 people
  • Tribes. 1500 ± 500 people

Group trust

Group trust, much like friendship, forms according to a process that imposes constraints on any social design. When we matchmake a set of random players together, we first get a low-intimacy, low-trust group of strangers. We then need to take that group through a period of social norm formation and relationship building. This process creates a rich, highly predictive social contract between individuals, which enables people to depend on one another in dynamic group activities.

The process driving group trust

Tuckman’s classic stages of group formation are:
  • Forming: The group is brought together.
  • Storming: The group attempts to make use of disparate norms for interacting with one another. This dissonance causes conflict. This process is very similar to the reciprocation loops that occur in friendship formation
  • Norming: The group negotiates common norms that this group will operate by
  • Performing: The group is able to perform higher-dependency tasks by leveraging their newly developers rules for interacting.
This relates to Dunbar’s Layers in a few key ways:
  • Existing strong bonds can facilitate group norming. If there are existing friends, they’ve already negotiated a set of common norms between them. This is a foundation to build upon when deciding the group’s shared goal and social contract.
  • Small groups need to build fewer bonds in order to perform at high levels. You can think of the norming process as one where people negotiate some minimum level of triadic bonds between all members of the group. With smaller groups, there are fewer connections, so the process goes more quickly.
  • Larger groups naturally have fewer intimate bonds. When dealing with people in the outer layers of our network, we rely more strongly on official rules, rigid social norms, and other forms of bureaucracy. People stop trusting the individual and instead lean upon a system of governance. This is less efficient, in general, due to the cost of maintaining the system, but lets more people participate.

Tips for building group trust

  • Mentoring. People often obtain high levels of competence through interaction with a coach or mentor. Finding ways to incentivize groups to adopt lower-skill members in order to train them up will benefit both group cohesion and general communal friendliness.
  • Slower integration. If facilities are not provided for subdividing groups at this layer in to smaller groupings, then every new member must be inducted by introducing them into a central communication channel. This greatly reduces the chances for the new member’s retention in the group, as they must form relationships with everyone at once, rather than being adopted by a segment of the organization and then extending their relationship network outward from that solid foundation. The best groups at this size and above have clear 15-ish person clusters, which are an ideal size for integrating a new member.

Group stability

Groups vary substantially in how long they last. There are two distinct types of groups worth looking for when designing your group systems:
  • Primary groups. Long-lasting groups of family and friends. They tend to have strong bonds and a shared sense of purpose. People usually only belong to a few primary groups corresponding with their inner Dunbar’s Layers.
  • Secondary groups. Temporary, task-focused groups. These can be large or small. People often belong to many secondary groups corresponding to their outer Dunbar’s layers. It is important to allow people to join (and leave) multiple secondary groups, as they need.

Large group stability

Even through group size and Dunbar’s Layers are very different concepts, they do seem to be related. Small groups are stable at around 5 people, primarily due to their heavily reliance on long-lasting family relationships. Large group sizes tend to stabilize around the 50, 150, 500, and 1500 values found in Dunbar’s Layers.

This works in two directions:
  • Growth: Groups below 150 tend to grow to that size.
  • Fission: Groups above 150 tend to fragment into sub-groups of 150 or less.

Stable friend groups

Groups at 50 and 150 find long term stability, often measured in years, by benefiting from peer pressure (norm reward and censure), without the need for complex rules and hierarchy. The stronger the sense of shared purpose, the more robust the group. There’s more research to be done here, but this seems to be the maximum group size where, due to the limits of Dunbar’s Layers, you can rely on unaugmented human nature to self-organize into stable groups.

Stable non-friend groups

Stable groups at 500 and 1500 are far rarer because they require the addition of some from of hierarchy in order to be sustainable. Usually this involves appointing a small group of 4-5 decision makers who represent other 50 to 150 member sub-groups. These decision makers represent ‘weak ties’ between groups.

Weak ties are key to the stability of 500 and 1500 player groups. They let a group of 50-150 reach out to other groups and quickly gain access to resources, opportunities, and information. Studies show having a diverse set of weak ties -- particularly in a large community of uncaring strangers -- increases life satisfaction.

Weak ties are not universally good for game developers.
  • Scope creep. The economic and political systems necessary to make very large groups function are often some of the most complex features in a game. To support weak ties in your game is to accept a certain level of scope creep.
  • Over emphasis on weak ties can hurt strong ties. Weak ties are also not a replacement for strong ties. Social groups involving mostly weak ties are poor at providing emotional support as well as transferring and enforcing group norms. Many critiques of strongly capitalist, technocratic or libertarian dystopias center on how a overreliance on weak ties (via large-scale trade, algorithmic replacement of reciprocation loops, and other scaleable-yet-dehumanized systems) leads to an accidental erosion of strong ties.
If anything, modern MMOs suffer from too many weak ties and not enough emphasis on building and supporting strong ties. Perhaps because MUDs and early online games were historically rich with strong bonds, MMO designers simply assumed they’d get those for free. They didn’t realize their desire to build a big game—which historically has been conflated with popularity—was antithetical to the magical social connections that made early online games attractive in the first place.

Shared goals for different group sizes

Shared goals are the single strongest predictor of group cohesion. Groups with more group pride and stronger task commitment have strong shared goals. They are most likely to perform well at high-trust tasks, and have high retention, longevity, and increased sense of member well-being.

Group pride and identity

Members with strong group pride feel strong allegiance to the group, are happy with what the group accomplishes, and promote the group identity to others. Group pride is expressed in the same fashion across different group sizes, but identity becomes more formalized as group size increases.
  • Weak identity. Small friend groups may not have an official identity, and many of their positive feelings come from mutual support.
  • Official identity. Large social groups have official identities and a strong sense of membership. When people are part of a high-performance group, they feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, which can lead to a sense of awe.
  • Stereotype-based identities. At the huge impersonal scale, we see strong tribal identities and stereotypes. People build simple cartoon models of how other people should respond to interactions. Splitting people into in-group members and out-group members occurs relatively quickly, using only superficial information.

Task commitment

Task commitment is about shared activities that contribute to a common goal. Group pride answers, “Who are we and do I belong?” Task commitment, by contrast, answers, “What are we accomplishing by working together?”
  • Tactical tasks. Small secondary groups understand their purpose in terms of short term tactical tasks. This could be completing a small project or finishing an ad-hoc raid together. Small primary groups are usually focused on supporting one another.
  • Trying to sustain the group. Large social groups are focused on bigger topics like long-term survival or sustaining a community that upholds shared beliefs. Group vs group superiority is an interesting task at this scale, especially for groups composed largely of young men.
  • Part of an ecosystem. Huge impersonal groups are brought together by convenience. They share a common set of codified practices involving trade, language, and practices that help their smaller friend groups accomplish desired goals. The task commitment present at this level usually involves maintenance of support systems such as political or economic structures.

Tips for increasing shared goals

  • Share goals, not just shared rewards. Many game designers assume that if there is a shared reward, people will naturally align their activities. This might work if humans were hyper-rational, profit-maximizing automatons, but they are not. Instead, players benefit from clearly-stated goals and examples of how they might work together.
  • Public and private spaces. Large social groups are composed of sub-groups that require private space to reinforce vision and social norms as well as create opportunities for group bonding. They also need public space to display and reinforce the group’s overall identity.
  • Group vs. group content. Conflict with other groups is a common method of providing a shared purpose. Meaningful rivalries can play out over the course of months or years. Games with PvP content can create very rich social histories if they can operate at this scale.
  • Positive goals involving growth and support. Though it is easy to rely on competition in order to give your group a purpose, history is rich with high-longevity groups, usually in the form of religious communities, that exist to preserve a positive way of life. Consider how your game can be a positive refuge from the broader world. Many players will find this to be a worthy goal to dedicated their time toward.

Roles for different group sizes

Every group needs to agree on roles within society. These are composed of appropriate division of labor and division of resources.

Division of labor

Specialization increases with group size.
  • Overlapping roles. In small friend groups, there’s substantial overlap in roles, with a single individual performing many different activities on an as-needed basis. Cross-training and a lack of specialization is quite common. On high-trust tasks, there’s heavy interdependency and the loss of any individual is sorely felt by everyone.
  • Specialization. In large social groups, we start to see specialization where individuals take on specific roles. Secondary groups focused on specialized tasks are common and people belong to multiple of them. An individual may train in several roles and perform one role for each secondary group.
  • Jobs become identities. Huge impersonal groups see the emergence of jobs and classes. A person has one dominant job they do in a hyper-specialized economy, which becomes their formal identity within a broader, rule-based society. They are a crafter, or a teacher, or a doctor, and nothing else.

Division of resources

Economic complexity increases with group size.
  • Communal sharing. With small friend groups, resources are often communal in nature with substantial gifting and untracked sharing. Social currency and interpersonal trust are more important to transactions than currency.
  • Value-based barter. In large social groups more formalized 1-to-1 trade in the form of barter appears. There may be a local currency and individuals keep close track that each trade is of equitable value.
  • Complex economic networks. In huge impersonal groups, both labor and resources are traded within an economic network with markets and auctions. Trade is strongly depersonalized, with every interaction based off a standardized currency. This network is heavily dependent on weak ties and super-connectors—people who can maintain more than 150 meaningful connections—play an outsized role in keeping various sub-groups together.

Status relationships for different group sizes

Status and hierarchy start out relatively undefined in smaller groups and grow in complexity with group size.


Leaders become more important and less personal in larger groups.
  • Context-specific leader. Small friend groups often end up electing a de facto leader, consciously or subconsciously, who is best-suited for the task at hand. Groups this size should be encouraged to designate a leader/organizer who can help keep the members focused on their shared purpose.
  • Cult of personality. Large social groups require leaders. Synchronization of activity becomes immensely difficult without a central authority wrangling the various sub-groups to move in an aligned direction. At this size, leadership is largely a “cult of personality,” driven by personal relationships instead of institutional power.
  • Symbolic leaders. Huge impersonal groups use ceremonial leadership, where the leader is a concrete, personified symbol of shared purpose, allegiance, and/or cultural values. There are a variety of related techniques including the use of celebrity, figurehead leaders, religious characters, or heroic individuals. These establish a type of group known as a reference group, which individuals look to when determining which social norms to emulate.


Hierarchy becomes increasingly necessary as group size increases.
  • Fluid. Small friend group organization is fluid and often depends on the best person for the task at hand stepping up.
  • Activity related sub-groups. Large social groups show visible hierarchy composed of a few primary groups and a number of task-focused secondary groups. We begin to see multiple 5 and 15 person groups operating inside groups of this larger layer.
  • Complex hierarchies: Huge impersonal groups have complex official hierarchies. Groups need official political and economic relationships in order to function.

Tips for supporting status

  • Tools for status signaling. The ability to signal hierarchy and status help larger organizations function. Titles, karma points, and visual flare are all systems that allow status to be earned and displayed.
  • Official reputation tracking. For huge impersonal groups, we see the emergence of strong anonymity, reputation starts to be more important than actual skill competence and parity. At the 500 person layer, freeloaders and bad actors can more easily slip through the cracks, so official means of keeping tabs on someone’s reputation benefits group cohesion.

Social norm formation at different group sizes

Norm formation in social groups involves how a group determines the rules they operate by and how they communicate those rules.

Rule formation

Rule formation becomes increasingly formalized as group size increases.
  • Personally negotiated norms. Small friend groups negotiate rules on a one-to-one basis, usually through small group discussions. Often behavior is determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the person and the context.
  • Key decision makers. Large social groups follow the behavior of high-status individuals or leaders. One or more smaller, high-status groups make decision through consensus-building and then then share those decisions with lower-status individuals. In more equitable groups, simple voting systems appear.
  • Public rules. Huge impersonal groups use official legislative systems for setting or revising laws. They usually have formalized community feedback mechanisms. At this stage we see strong rule of law. In more organized groups, explicit rules become prevalent. By requiring that people work in a very specific, codified fashion, you remove uncertainty and increase the group’s ability to function. You’ve replaced the slow process of negotiating social norms, through in-person reciprocation loops, with rules that simply tell you how you should act. However, this comes with substantial downsides. These rules are inherently less flexible. They need to be written up, conveyed, and enforced. If the situation for such a group changes slightly, the existing rules may actually reduce efficiency. And there’s no real trust—all parties execute on a pattern and hope it works.


Communication shifts from reciprocation loops to broadcast as group size increases.
  • Personal conversation. Small friend group members will communicate frequently and in depth with all other members of the group. This communication is likely to be equally spread between all members and structured as peer communication.
  • Tiered communication channels. Large social groups have multiple tiered communication channels. There generally needs to be an open, shared channel; a one-way broadcasting channel from leadership; and a number of sub-group channels for specific primary and secondary groups.
  • Broadcast communication. In huge impersonal groups, personal communication simply cannot reach all the people in the many sub-groups, so these groups must use broadcast technologies to send one message to many people cheaply. This, in turn, enables propaganda, where various parties use broadcast media to push unquestioned messages that promote new truths. There’s no consent loop for someone to provide a contradictory response. This is useful for spreading new social norms about how one should behave or for emphasizing group bonds, but cartoon symbols of complex systems end up being easier to spread than deep understanding.

Conflicts and sanctions at different group sizes

What happens when norms are violated?

Small friend group

  • Personal disagreements. Small groups are constantly negotiating norms. Norm violations are typically confronted in small group conversation, one-on-one or with the whole group, and are essentially arguments.
  • Withdrawal from the group. In extreme cases, members of small groups will stop talking to someone with whom they have a personal disagreement, or the group will distance themselves from an individual by lowering the frequency of interaction with them.

Large social group

  • Cliques and bullies. Groups this size can form into abusive groups of bullies. Designing for groups this size means added community management. Groups of this size rely on vision-based leadership, which can allow hate groups and other fear-based organizations to fester.

Huge impersonal group

  • Demonizing outgroups. It is common for very large groups to explicitly label those who are enemies of the tribe. This is less about attacking the outgroup and more about focusing the larger group on a larger shared goal. The downside to this is it usually relies on fear, which short-circuits more thoughtful and constructive group coordination patterns.
  • Law enforcement. Tracking down those who break the laws and determining the best way to change their behavior is a feature of very large groups.
  • Economic scams. Groups emerge that profit from preying on people who want to get an economic edge. Various black market scams start to be common, like account and credit card theft. Outside groups target the community.
  • Organized griefing. Though individual griefers exist in smaller groups, within a larger population, a griefing tribe can satisfy all of an individual's social needs. Griefing becomes the social norm for such people and there’s no leverage at any point in the network to deprogram a griefer. This can lead to all-out wars, where one group attempts to destroy, alienate, or otherwise expel a rival group.
  • Account manipulation. With a large number of strangers, it’s hard to track who is coming or going. In online games, people create extra accounts and use them for botting, muling, multi-boxing, and other techniques that are otherwise easily trackable in more intimate settings.
  • Internal corruption. As with nations, if a game becomes big enough, it is easy for moderators and community management to surreptitiously misuse their powers.

Game Design Insights

Considering the constraints imposed by friendships, Dunbar’s Layers, and social groups, it is worth exploring game design that is centered around natural human social scales. Human-scale design is social design that targets the 5, 15, 50 and 150 person egocentric networks and associated groups. It explicitly avoids player systems involving 500 or more players.

If you can build a human-scale game that enables a player to spend quality time with good friends, you’ll likely improve the quality of their life. While if you break these hard limits, you actively damage your game’s social systems. These social psychology models should do more than just inform our evaluation of game systems—they should be actively shaping the way we approach design.

Such an approach focuses on smaller, more intimate social design as the core of a game. It is less concerned with big numbers and infinitely scalable systems, and more interested in fostering trust and connection between players. This perspective led us to some fundamental insights concerning how we approach online game design.

Don’t build a big world first

A common pattern when designing an MMO is:
  1. First, imagine a big world
  2. Then, figure out what to fill it with
  3. Finally, create all the systems necessary to support all the stuff you’ve dreamed up
As a result, the final systems are often surprisingly complex. You’ve jumped directly into designing systems that need to handle the many issues associated with 500+ groups (i.e., your player population). Immediately, you are faced with the key problem that your world is just a large, empty area where a player sporadically meets strangers they don’t trust. As conflict inevitably arises from these low-trust interactions, the dev team toils to add a vast amount of bureaucracy to manage the poor player experience. It can feel like patching unending leaks in a poorly-placed dam.

In the best cases, like EVE Online, players create their own systems of crude governance to shore up the faulty social design. But for the majority of games, we see outcomes like The Sims Online, where mob-style groups grief new players and chase them from the game.

From a social design perspective, this process sets the team up with the hardest possible design challenges, essentially creating a lot of extra problems that then need to be solved. Focusing on designing for human-scale suggests a different approach:
  1. Define social activities. First, imagine activities/content/context for players to enjoy together. For example, you might prototype cooperative raid mechanics for a PvE MMO.
  2. Map out group sizes and trust level. Then, figure out what group sizes and levels of friendship best fit those activities. High-trust activities should be reserved for small groups of close friends in the 5, 15 and 50 layers. Low-trust activities can work for groups up to 150 in size, but not beyond. In fact, explicitly remove activities that involve more than 150 people. For our MMO example, you take your raid prototype and map out variations of the raid that are suited for high-trust small groups, low-trust small groups, and low-trust large groups.
  3. Build appropriate social support systems. Build systems that support the right activity for the right group size. With the MMO, you realize that your high-trust small group encounter needs high-bandwidth communication channels to execute, so you add voice chat or rich emotes—two possible communication channels that support and enable group performance.
  4. Scale the activity based off quality and quantity of friends available. Finally, organize the activities/content so that player groups can organically scale up and down. In the MMO example, a single player might be present and you’ll want to serve them up low-dependency, small-group content. But if a stranger appears, consider how the game might switch to a low-trust activity with parallel play? If several friends appear, how would the activity allow them to opt-in to a higher-trust (and higher-reward!) challenge?
This approach has the advantage of more closely mapping to how humans have grouped historically: in nested layers of families, tribes, villages, etc. Sticking closer to the natural shape of social grouping will make your group activities feel more familiar and facilitate social bonding. It will also allow you to apply lessons and best practices from psychology and anthropology more directly.

Social design drives retention and engagement

When game designers think of retention, we often first consider User Experience (UX). Using the logic of UX, if a developer builds a complicated core interaction that is difficult for a player to understand, most players will churn out early on. Such games should have poor early retention and struggle with new player acquisition.

However, the game industry has many counterexamples. Dwarf Fortress, Go Pets, and Dofus are three games renowned for their poor user experiences. They have weak tutorials, byzantine gameplay loops, and a general lack of traditional first-time user experience polish. By all traditional UX values, they should be failures, yet they are not.

While these games have poor UX, they also have strong social design. For example, Dofus is a game that is specifically popular in France. Its developers tried to expand its reach to other countries with limited success, for many of the aforementioned reasons.

What made France special for Dofus?
  1. Cultural event. When Dofus first launched, French-language MMOs were rare and early adopters were blown away by the novel experience.
  2. Basic virality failed. Players actively proselytized the game to friends, but their friends weren’t able to play as the game was too difficult to learn.
  3. High-cost transmission to close friends. So players went over to their friends’ houses, helped them install the game, and spent hours teaching them, in person, the nuances of how to play.
This was not intentional, but the result was that Dofus ended up being played predominantly by friends, many of whom were already part of each others’ 50, 15, and 5 person layers. This allowed players to build groups stocked up with high-trust compatriots and overcome the high-trust activities in the game. Succeeding at those challenging activities in groups of trusted friends gave the game incredibly high engagement.

A virtuous cycle occurs where strongly-bonded friends make a game their homebase—a safe, intimate space for acting out their friendship. In turn, those players recruit more of their friend networks into the game.

We’ve observed a similar process in other poor-UX, high-retention game examples. To be clear—poor UX is not the root driver for these games’ avid, high-trust communities. Instead, it is one of many pragmatic reasons for players to bring the inner circles of their friend networks into a game.

The reverse of the same basic process that drove the success of Dofus highlights problems with early Facebook-style virality. Such “social network games” would obsessively incentivize players to send out invites to as many people as possible. Two results occurred:
  • Mismatched reciprocation loop costs. Incentivized by these games, players made a low-cost overture to a friend or associate (an invitation) that required a high-cost response (registering for, and playing, the game). This is a huge no-no when acting out reciprocation loops; it actively damages a relationship by suggesting you are ready to extract value from your friend instead of building toward future shared need. That is to say, it annoys your friends and makes them question the value your relationship.
  • Dilution of community trust. Second, it brings low-trust people into the game. Because Facebook didn’t care about Dunbar’s Layers, especially in the early days of the social gaming boom, many users had social graphs with hundreds of “friends,” many of whom were no better than strangers. The low-cost overture to join was little better than a random spam ad and brought many of those random players into the game, diluting the level of trust for the community already inside the game. In one fell swoop, this greedy practice hurt retention, engagement, and future growth.
All of these examples highlight the basic truth that social design is deeply powerful, but is often not a first-order consideration for designers.

Use proper terminology

A very common confusion that came up many times during our discussions was the difference between friends, Dunbar’s Layers, group size, and concurrency (the number of players simultaneously logged in). These are all four distinctly different concepts, yet it is common for social designers to use them interchangeably.

Much of this is the fault of our existing terminology. When we talk about multiplayer games, a common shorthand is to say, “It’s a 16-player game.” We all know that this means there are 16 concurrent players in a match or room, but we often erroneously assume that this also means they are all friends and/or that they are all part of the same social group.

Both of these errors are a naive misunderstanding.
  • Concurrent players can be spread across multiple types of social groups. Some of them might be members of groups that are antagonistic to other sub-groups in the game. Some are members of multiple groups. Some form small sub-groups while others form large sub-groups.
  • They can have a mix of friendship bonds. Some of them may be friends. Most are likely total strangers.
In general, having 16 people online together says almost nothing about whether or not they are in a group, or what the strength of their relationships might be. It is tempting to fall back on old, inexact language, but your game will suffer. Instead, teach your design teams about friendship formation, constraints on types of friendship, trade-offs involved at different groups sizes, and the logistics of social play.

Use Dunbar’s Layers to determine the level of collaboration your audience will support

The structure of Dunbar’s Layers gives us insight into how many friends of a given trust level you can expect a player to have online at any particular time. There are logistical implications for matchmaking, events, and more.

At the most basic level, the logistics of Dunbar’s Layers help you predict the outcome of the following example:
  • You design a high-trust activity that requires 100 people.
  • But we know from Dunbar’s Layers that any human being will only have a maximum of 15 people in their life that have this particular level of trust.
  • You’ve created a logistics mismatch that will results in inevitable failure. And you didn’t even have to build the game, launch it into the market, and watch it fail. You just saved your team millions of dollars and years of their life!
However, we can gain more detailed insights. Here’s how you calculate the exact portion of a player’s friend graph you can actually address with your game. First, you’ll need a few pieces of information:
  • Share of social time
  • Concurrency ratio
  • Distribution of friends

Share of Social Time

Share of Social Time is the percentage of a player’s total time spent socializing that is spent inside your game. This corresponds roughly to the percentage of a player’s social graph that is active in the game.[13] If a player spends 50% of their social time in a game, we’d expect roughly 50% of their friend network is also in the game.

There are a couple ways of calculating this. Conservatively, we know from time-usage studies that the average American has approximately 5 hours of leisure time per day [14]. From this perspective, Share of Social Time equals Hours per Day Spent In Game / 5 hours.

However, less conservatively, we know that people tend to spend approximately 0.65 hours per day actually socializing. This is likely an underestimate since the time-usage studies don’t measure time spent socializing at work. Nor do they consider time spent in playing games [15] as socializing.

For the following calculations, we’ll use the conservative definition of Share of Social Time. For comparison, the heaviest players of Fortnite, around 8% of the player population, spend 3+ hours playing per day. That’s roughly 60% (or more) of an average American’s total leisure time.

Concurrency Ratio

Concurrency ratio is the ratio of monthly active players (MAU) to those currently online. Since synchronous activities require people to be present, it does us no good if you have friends in a game, but they aren’t actually playing.

A highly-social MMO will have a concurrency ratio of 10:1, so for every 10 MAU you’ll have 1 of those players online. An international phenomenon like Fortnite enjoys a 20:1 ratio, while many web-games are as low as 150:1 or 250:1.

Distribution of friends

Dunbar’s Layers suggests that our relationships map onto a very specific frequency distribution of friends.
Chart 1: Percentage of friend network layers present in the game

This distribution holds true only if we make several assumptions:
  • Long-term engagement. First, our game is a long-term activity which has been going on long enough that inner layers like intimate friends or best friends have grown in the game or have integrated pre-existing, external friendships. If a game is new or people have been playing for less than 200 total hours [10], you’ll see this distribution shift towards casual friends and strangers.
  • Sufficiently large cohort. The total population of monthly active players is at least 1500.
  • Support for all layers. If your game doesn’t have all appropriate social mechanisms for any given layer—such as the need at the 5 person layer for private locations/communication to facilitate safe disclosure—that layer will be less represented.


We can use Share of Social Time, Concurrency, and distribution of friends to calculate some useful information about our game.

Let’s say you have a highly engaging MMO:
  • Share of Social Time: 50%
  • Currency ratio: 10:1
How many friends will be in the player’s friend list? Given the standard distribution of friends, 50% of that player’s social network will be present in your game. With a total of 150 friends that means there will be 75 friends playing the game.

How many friends will be online right now? Of those 75 friends in the game, due to the concurrency ratio, only 10% (7.5 friends) will be on at any point in time, on average.

What type of friends will be online right now? Using the distribution of friends in various layers from the chart above and multiplying them by the total friends online, we can expect the following distribution of friends:
  • Casual friends: 5
  • Good friends: 1.8
  • Best friends: 0.5
  • Intimate friends: 0.3
This sort of calculation puts much harder constraints on the types of activities that we can build into our game. Note that this is a best-case scenario. A highly-social MMO with great concurrency, and a player with a fully-engaged friend network. In this best-case situation you are lucky to get a single good friend playing alongside you. You will however get a few casual friends.

This suggests that the core activity of even highly-social games with long-term, highly-invested players should predominantly be target low-to-moderate trust activities involving 5-7 players.

What does this distribution look like at different cohort sizes? Using the same logic, you can see what friend distributions would look like at various fixed populations of active players.

Chart 2: Max and Average number of friends an individual will have for various cohort sizes in a game with 50% share of social time and 10:1 concurrency.

Due to the logistics of concurrency ratios and Share of Social Time, we max out the number of friends online at around 1500 people in a cohort. Simply having bigger cohorts doesn’t improve friend concurrency.

How can we improve these numbers?

The previous calculations are just an average of the sort of friends you can expect online. By shiftings a few variables around, we can create much higher densities of friends.
  • Events. A timed event or a scheduled boss raid spikes the number of people online and can dramatically reduce the concurrency ratio. If you can drop the concurrency ratio to 2:1 with an event, then you have upwards of 12 friends and 4 good friends playing. This shift is one reason why events like boss raids can be high-trust events.
  • Asynchronous Activities. Activities that people can do when others are offline allow for more people to be involved. Some asynchronous activities can reduce the concurrency ratio to the equivalent of 1. These systems have the downside of dramatically slowing down reciprocation loops by reducing communication bandwidth, so building out a full friendship network may take longer for players.
  • Recruitment. Given the low engagement of the innermost friendship layers due to simple logistics, it is unwise to rely on close friends naively playing the game together. Invest in systems that actively encourage players to play with loved ones. Give them tools for scheduling these activities.

Relationship design as systems design

By translating fuzzy social psychology concepts into more mechanical concepts, we can start treating social design as a form of systems design. (Some may find the term 'social systems design' more palatable than 'social game design' after dealing with the horrors of Facebook.)

In particular, social design benefits from using the internal economy perspective, where relationships are modeled as resources and transformations on those resources.
  • Each relationship between two individuals is a pool. A pool is a container that accumulates resource tokens.
  • Successfully completed reciprocation loops is a source that produces a resource called social capital that accumulates in each relationship pool.
  • Rejected or unequal reciprocation loops are a sink that depletes social capital. As does distance and lack of contact over time.
Dunbar’s Layers act as a cap on the maximum number of each level of relationship you might have. When a relationship pool fills up in one of the outer layers, it may transform into a new pool in one of the inner layers. However if the inner layers are full, one must give. If any of the layers are empty, the player seeks actions that fill them.

This paints the process as rather cold and transactional. In practice, this type of design drives intense emotions. Losses of social capital yield strong negative emotions, while gains generate positive emotions. Rate of lose or gain will dramatically intensify the emotional response. If your goal is to make players laugh, cry, or otherwise experience the peak of what it means to be human, build strong social systems.

Minimize designs that require huge impersonal groups

When we develop a game that involves group sizes of 500 and 1500 people, we’ve created populations beyond the human brain’s ability to understand other people through personal relationships. Our players know nothing about most other individuals, as they are incapable of building a large-enough social network to understand the whole. Instead, they must rely heavily on rules and heuristics to govern their interactions, and we, as game designers, are on on the hook to provide those structures.

By simply upping the size of our community, we’ve introduced an immense design challenge. We now need to build systems to manage crime, corruption, economic complexity, classism, racism, and more. Suddenly, our games exhibit most of the ills of modern society and the burden is fully upon us to solve them. If we don’t conscientiously address these issues, our community collapses into a hellish online dystopia.

If you care about maximizing social impact while minimizing scope:
  • Consider building communities of 50–150 players. This will maximally leverage strong bonds for retention and engagement.
  • Use instancing to ensure that your game can support a massive population even though each community is self-contained. Games like Minecraft; Don’t Starve Together; old, instanced MUDs; and numerous other small community games suggest this strategy can be both financially successful and fulfill social design goals.
  • If you want to create larger communities, try limiting yourself to cohorts of 500–1500. There are no other systems larger than these values that are meaningful on a relationship level, and by creating larger populations, you dilute and harm existing social bonds.
  • When creating groups of 500–1500, leverage your instanced groups of 50 and 150. Create a few low-scope systems that allow weak ties between strongly-bonded friend groups. Trade networks and information exchange will be among the highest-value systems to invest in.

Opportunity: Serving Player Motivations

Games that thrive are almost always ones that satisfy a strong audience motivation. This is no different for social games and social features. Dunbar’s Layers, in particular, give us a structure for understanding the player’s social motivations.

The Belongingness motivation

“The belongingness hypothesis proposes two main features. First, people need constant, positive, personal interactions with other people. Second, people need to know that their bond is stable, there is mutual concern, and that this attachment will continue.”

You can think of the various relationship layers as a slots in a list. Everyone has space for about 5 intimate friends, 10 best friends, 35 goods friends and 100 casual friends. If those slots are filled with healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships, a person is reasonably happy.

However if any of those slots are empty, people have a strong desire to fill them in. When they don’t have those slots filled they tend to be unhappy, and, in response, will seek the company of others using several key strategies:
  • Deepen bonds with existing friends. This is done in order to fill inner layers of the friendship network.
  • Meet new people. This is done in order to fill outer layers.
  • Become a member of a group. Often belongingness will be combined with a desire for affiliation. By becoming part of a social group, it becomes substantially easier to both meet new people and quickly deepen friendships. Think of group membership as a bonding multiplier. It is easy to get caught up in group affiliation as an end, by itself, but remember that, ultimately, people join groups not for the sake of the group, but to fill gaps in their primary friend network.

The desire to form relationships waxes and wanes

Life events are predictive of gaps in a person’s friendship network. As new people show up in a person’s life, there’s less time for activities that require making new friends.
  • Entering a new intimate relationship or marriage. This fills an inner-layer slot. There’s also the inevitable shifting and merging of your two friend groups.
  • Having a child. This also fills an inner-layer slot. All that time spent in parenting groups often shifts friendships from your single friends over to other parents with kids just like you.
  • Getting a new job. This can fill any number of slots in several layers as you form new work relationships.

What loneliness looks like in a thinned-out network

There are also numerous events that thin out a person’s network.
  • Becoming unemployed. You lose work relationships.
  • Retiring. This is similar to becoming unemployed, but often you lose professional associations as well.
  • Breaking-up or divorce. One of the more intense losses of an inner, highly-intimate bond. As well as a weakening of all the shared relationships (closed triadic relationships in your networks).
  • Moving. Shifting many high-intimacy friends into outer layers. Can break existing friendships and free up slots. Research suggests it generally doesn’t destroy intimate family bonds.
  • Kids moving out. When kids go off to college, most parents end up losing key members of their inner circle.
  • Becoming elderly. There’s a slow erosion of existing friend networks as people move or die. Elderly are also are less mobile and thus struggle to meet new people.
In particular, there seem to be three major periods in which loneliness spikes: Late 20s, mid 50s and late 80s. During these times one study reported as many as 75% of people report being lonely. These values hold across genders. Providing these individuals with tools for building healthy relationships would be immensely beneficial to society.

Two social game design opportunities

All of this suggests opportunities for social game design to improve the lives of our players.
  • Games for friends. High-trust games should target those with free time and strong, existing friend networks. The design focus is on bringing those friends into the game.
  • Games that help make friends: Games that deliberately try to convert strangers into better friends should target groups that have gaps in their social network. For example, one demographic might be lonely 50-65 year old men who are seeing an erosion of their social network due to unemployment, kids moving out, and fewer opportunities to find new friends. Make a game that is the modern version of a Masonic Lodge.
Both opportunities could be served by the same game, but be sure to sort incoming players based on their needs and direct them into activities that satisfy those identified needs.


The big idea

Key discoveries in social psychology place hard limits on the types of social games we can build.
  • Friendship research shows meaningful in-game relationships require conditions such as proximity, similarity, reciprocity, and disclosure
  • Dunbar’s Layers research shows that players have hard limits on the number of meaningful relationships in their life. These friendship are organized into layers of increasing size and decreasing intimacy.
  • Social group research shows the need for increasingly complex support structure as group size grows
These are the physics that social designers must understand and build into their designs.

The trap

Many past designs ignored Dunbar’s Layers and naively assumed “more is better.” They ignore friendship formation and assume “it just happens.” They ignore social groups and arbitrarily mash players together.

In reality, these assumptions are actively harmful and cause the following:
  • Fewer in-game friendships. A flood of strangers swamp the reciprocation and proximity mechanisms that generate friends. Poor identity, persistence, reciprocity, and consent systems mean these strangers never convert into friends, so there are fewer meaningful relationships in the game.
  • Increased toxicity. Large groups of strangers naturally breed toxic sub-groups. Players engage in violent rejection of out-groups in order to protect their experience and intergroup conflict becomes the cultural norm. Such communities are hard to reform and poison long-term retention.
  • Scope creep. The additional systems necessary to manage large groups of strangers substantially increase the scope of your game.

What players need

If players have not filled all the slots in their primary friend network, they suffer. And, in response, they are intrinsically motivated to deepen their existing relationships or build relationships with new people. Striving for belongingness is one of the strongest human motivations. They will naturally seek out activities that help them make friends and belong to something bigger than themselves.

The opportunity

If your games help build relationships for the player in any of their inner layers, you’ll accomplish a couple key benefits:
  • Increase retention and engagement. Your game becomes the place where people attain their desires. Since you provide immense value, they make the game a key part of their lives.
  • Improve the lives of your players. They’ll experience less depression, better health, and have more robustness in the face of negative life events.

Best practices

If we take all the insights gleaned from research into group psychology, examples from online game design, examination of Dunbar’s Layers and social motivation—all of it into consideration, we can arrive at several, strong best practices:
  • Build games for smaller cohorts. The base activities should target small, collaborative groups. Large groups of close friends are rare or, in many cases, mathematically impossible.
  • Cluster players into persistent, high-density cohorts. So they have repeat interactions with the same players. The more reciprocation loops that are completed, the stronger the friendships. Big, empty spaces are not a positive feature.
  • Encourage high-concurrency events or asynchronous activities. Logistics favor players being around to interact with their friends. Having friends playing the same game doesn’t matter if you never see them.
  • Aim for long-term engagement. Build a game where players are engaged for hundreds of hours, so they have enough time to build deeper friendships. It takes at least 50 hours of interactions to form a basic friendship.
  • Attract existing friends, if possible. Existing friends from the strongest foundation for your game community, especially when first launching your game. Put people into safe, guild-like structures and encourage them to bring in their friends.
  • Design for climbing the trust spectrum. When introducing strangers into your game, build low-trust activities that scale into high-trust activities. Start with parallel or single-player gameplay and allow players to opt-in to higher-dependency activities. If players start forming strong friendships in game, support them. Bring those relationships into safe places with tools for enabling consent, support, and disclosure.

Final thoughts

As ethical game designers, we should strive towards some higher purpose beyond merely extracting money, time, and energy from our players. Building friendships and providing lonely people with human connections are goals worthy of our highest-quality work.

If you are working on a multiplayer game, ask yourself how your designs help build social capital with and among your players. If you encounter people who believe that “more is better” when it comes to building social systems, we recommend you send them this report. There’s a new wave of social game design inspired by lessons from social psychology and we are immensely excited to be part of it.


[1] Active MUD communities. Examples include, as of the time of this writing (December, 2018): Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands (1997-present); Aardwolf MUD (1996-present); GemStone IV (1988-present); Realms of Despair (1994-present); and Threshold RPG (1996-present)

[2] Dunbar’s Layers. “Generally speaking, humans each have one to two special friends, five intimate friends, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, 150 “just” friends and 500 acquaintances. Our relationships form a series of expanding circles of increasing size and decreasing intensity and quality of the relationship.”
Woodward A (2017) With a Little Help from My Friends. Scientific American. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from

[3] Dunbar’s Number. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Dunbar R (1998) Of Brains and Groups and Evolution. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (pp. 80-105). Retrieved December 26, 2018, from

[4] The 50 Person Layer. “Thus, 50 individuals may represent a natural social grouping (in the world of personal social networks, it is the set of individuals that provides the bulk of one’s regular social contacts and all of one’s emotional and economic support…)”
Kordsmeyer T, Carron P, Dunbar R (2017) Sizes of Permanent Campsite Communities Reflect Constraints on Natural Human Communities. Current Anthropology, 58(2), 289-294. Retrieved December 26, 2018, from

[5] Unequal dyadic bonds. “When analyzing self-reported relationship surveys from several experiments, we find that the vast majority of friendships are expected to be reciprocal, while in reality, only about half of them are indeed reciprocal.”
Almaatouq A, Radaelli L, Pentland A, Shmueli E (2016) Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0151588.

[6] Loneliness impacts longevity. “...individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity).”
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith T, Layton J (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.

[7] Friendship impacts life satisfaction. “...the results indicate that both having/meeting friends and good-quality friendship relations are important to an overall life satisfaction.”
Amati V, Meggiolaro S, Rivellini G, Zaccarin S (2018) Social relations and life satisfaction: the role of friends. Genus, 74(1), 7.

[8] Friendship reduces depression. “People who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping. Indeed, a common finding from research on the correlates of life satisfaction is that subjective well-being is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”
Helliwell J, Putnam R (2004) The social context of well-being. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449).

[9] Toxic relationships impact health. “...individuals who experienced negative aspects of close relationships had a higher risk of incident coronary events….”
De Vogli R, Chandola T, Marmot M (2007) Negative Aspects of Close Relationships and Heart Disease. Arch Intern Med, 167(18), 1951–1957.

[10] Friendships cost time to build. For more details, see:
Hellman, R (2018) How to make friends? Study reveals time it takes. KU News Service. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

[11] Social media doesn’t expand our friendship capacity. “The fact that social networks remain about the same size despite the communication opportunities provided by social media suggests that the constraints that limit face-to-face networks are not fully circumvented by online environments. Instead, it seems that online social networks remain subject to the same cognitive demands of maintaining relationships that limit offline friendships.”
Dunbar R (2016) Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks? Royal Society Open Science, 3(1).

[12] Intimate relationships best predict health. “...the presence of an intimate relationship (as opposed to a broader social network) [has] the greatest effect on explaining variance in depressed mood.”
Roberts S, Arrow H, Gowlett J, Lehmann J, Dunbar R (2014) Close Social Relationships: An Evolutionary Perspective. In R Dunbar, C Gamble, J Gowlett (Eds.), Lucy to Language: The Benchmark Papers (pp. 151-180). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] How investment shapes social graph distribution. “the strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding) and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie”
Granovetter M (1973) The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380. Retrieved December 28, 2018 from

[14] Available leisure time. The average American woman spends roughly five hours per day on leisure activities (35 hours per week), while the average American man spends about 5.5 hours per day (38.5 hours per week).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (2018) American Time Use Survey — 2017 Results. Press Release for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from

[15] Why are people socializing in games? “On the face of it, this may seem like a sad state of affairs. It could even be read as dystopian: people are escaping real life to be in virtual worlds. People often find community within gaming worlds, and may get a heightened sense of shared experience from competing against or teaming up with people across the world who share their interests. In some cases, these connections might even be more valuable than, say, gossiping with a neighbor.”
Kopf D (2018) Americans are socializing less and playing more games. Quartz. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Other References

Bura S (2008) Emotion Engineering in Videogames. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Casari M, Tagliapietra C (2018) Group size in social-ecological systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(11), 2728-2733.

Cook D, (2018) Game design patterns for building friendship. GDC 2018. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Cook D, Bialoskurky Y, Fulton B, Fitch M, Gonzales J (2016) Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming “friends”. Project Horseshoe. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

Dormans J, Adams E (2012) Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design (Voices That Matter). San Francisco, California: Peachpit

Dunbar R, Sosis R (2018) Optimising human community sizes. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(1), 106-111.

Dunbar, R (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16(4), 681-735. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Glaeser E, Laibson D, Sacerdote B. (2002) An Economic Approach to Social Capital. The Economic Journal 2002, 112(483), F437-F458. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Group Cohesiveness. In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Hall J, Davis D (2016) Proposing the Communicate Bond Belong Theory: Evolutionary Intersections With Episodic Interpersonal Communication. Communication Theory, 27(1), 21-47. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Interpersonal Ties. In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Koster R (2003) Small Worlds. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Koster R (2018) The Trust Spectrum. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Lee E, Depp C, Palmer B, Glorioso D (2018) High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor. Cambridge Core.

Marvin R (2018) Fortnite by the Numbers: How Many Hours Are You Playing Each Week? PC Magazine. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from

Moai (social support groups). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Putnam R (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York City, New York: Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster

Sandstrom G, Dunn E (2014) Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7). Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Shen C, Chen W (2015) Social capital, coplaying patterns, and health disruptions: A survey of Massively Multiplayer Online Game participants in China. Computers in Human Behavior
Volume 52, November 2015, Pages 243-249 

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Tamarit I, Cuesta J, Dunbar R, Sánchez A (2018) Cognitive resource allocation determines the organization of personal networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(33), 8316-8321.

Depp C, Palmer B, Glorioso D, Daly R, Liu J, Tu X, Kim H, Tarr P, Yamada Y (2018) Serious loneliness spans the adult lifespan but there is a silver lining: Feeling alone linked to psychological and physical ills, but wisdom may be a protective factor [Press release]. Eureka Alert. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from

Williams, D. (2007). The impact of time online: Social capital and cyberbalkanization. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(3), 398–406.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Cozy Games

For this year's Project Horseshoe, an annual game designer think tank, our workgroup dug deep into how to design cozy games. What a productive, happy group of people! You can read the other reports here:

Our group consisted of:
  • Tanya X Short
  • Anthony Ordon
  • Dan Hurd
  • Chelsea Howe
  • Jake Forbes
  • Squirrel Eiserloh
  • Joshua Diaz
  • Daniel Cook
  • Ron Meiners: Moderator


Coziness is a common aesthetic in popular games such as Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet it rarely discussed within design circles. Our group of designers did a deep dive to understand:
  • What is ‘Cozy’?
  • How do we make our games more cozy?
What we found during our exploration:
  • Coziness is an ingredient that can applied to a wide variety of both casual and core genres.
  • Coziness can help your game appeal to broader audiences.
  • Coziness helps retention by giving players control over pacing while still maintaining engagement during periods of rest.
  • Coziness is a subversively humanizing design practice in a society built on monetizing base animal needs.

1. What is Cozy?

Definition of Coziness

Coziness itself refers to how strongly a game evokes the fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness.

Safety: A cozy game has an absence of danger and risk. In a cozy game, nothing is high-risk, and there is no impending loss or threat. Familiarity, reliability, and one’s ability to be vulnerable and expressive without negative ramification all augment the feeling of safety. To maximize safety, activities should be voluntary and opt-in so that players never feel the threat of coercion.

Abundance: A cozy game has a sense of abundance. Lower level Maslow needs (food, shelter) are met or being met, providing space to work on higher needs (deeper relationships, appreciation of beauty, self actualization, nurturing, belonging). Nothing is lacking, pressing or imminent.

Softness: Cozy games use strong aesthetic signals that tell players they are in a low stress environment full of abundance and safety. These are gentle and comforting stimulus, where players have a lower state of arousal but can still be highly engaged and present. There’s often an intimacy of space and emotion, with a slower tempo pace and manageable scope (spatially, emotionally, and otherwise). Soft stimuli implies authenticity, sincerity, and humanity.

Fulfilling needs

Two models helps us understand how coziness yields meaningful gameplay.

First, we see play as a form of safe practice: People play because it allows them to experiment with a particular set of skills and activities that would otherwise be expensive or impossible in the real world. The opportunity to fight off attackers might not exist in a person’s day-to-day desk job, but a game lets them practice those skills safely and easily.

Second, we see games as a means of satisfying unmet needs: The human animal is motivated to fulfill various needs. For example, when we get hungry, we are motivated to find food and eat. Players seek to fulfill their emotional and psychological needs within games. Each game genre taps into a highly specific set of motivations. For example a survival game such as ‘Don’t Starve’ is very upfront about the fact that it, mechanically and thematically, let’s player explore the planning and tactical issues around getting food.

This ties back into play as practice. In Don’t Starve, you obviously are not being rewarded with actual food. But we are still immensely motivated to practice that associated skills if we are subconsciously worried about survival.

So as a designer, it is incredibly important to understand what motivations your players are pursuing and how your game design helps them practice mastery related to their needs. This design process is at the heart of making an engaging game.

Cozy games help player practice fulfilling higher order needs: Cozy games also fulfill player needs. However, unlike a game like Don’t Starve which focuses on base needs like starvation, cozy games creates spaces for higher order needs like mastery, self-reflection and connectedness.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom are pressing needs like thirst, hunger and safety. When these are present, they immediately grab the limited attention of the player and deprioritize those higher order needs. It is impossible to have a quiet conversation on a difficult subject while being attacked by a bear.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it relates to coziness

Cozy games give players space to deal with emotional and social maintenance and growth. Players don’t need to worry about the high stress, immediate trials of mere survival and can instead put their attention towards the delicate work of becoming a better person.

Covey’s Time Management Grid, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

We can think of this also from the perspective of time and attention management. In Covey’s time management, tasks can be categorized along two axis: Urgent to Not Urgent and Important to Not Important. When people manage their time, there’s a natural tendency (in alignment with Maslow’s Hierarchy) to focus on Urgent tasks. Games in particular excel at filling the player’s time with Urgent but not very Important activities. Cozy games are designed to focus the player on Not Urgent yet Important tasks that are unfortunately deprioritized.

Admittedly, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Covey’s Time Management Grid are older motivational models, but the same key insight can be recontextualized in terms of the newer Self Determination Theory (SDT). SDT proposes that people thrive when they are able to pursue intrinsic motivations such as Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. They stop thriving when they are presented with extrinsic motivators that suck up their attention. Not surprisingly, many of the factors identified by Maslow and Covey are powerful extrinsic motivators that disrupt a player’s healthy prioritization of needs.

Negating Coziness

The process of negating coziness: Because many common game mechanics are derived from satisfying lower order needs, it is very easy to accidentally disrupt the player’s feeling of coziness. If a system brings about a strong lower order need, the player’s attention will immediately shift to deal with the more pressing issue. High priority, low order needs get dealt with first; that’s just how humans prioritize. When this happens, coziness evaporates.

Factors that negate coziness include:
  • Extrinsic reward: Almost any form of extrinsic reward generates a pressing transactional short-term need.
  • Danger, fear, threat: Any sense of impending danger triggers biological responses in the player. Their sympathetic nervous system kicks, adrenaline floods the body, and memory suffers. Often times, cozy spaces are presented as reprieve or refuge from these dangers.
  • Responsibility: Responsibility requires emotional labor: the effort to plan, think, and execute on a plan to resolve something. Being responsible generates high priority need/expectation. Examples include any form of mandatory maintenance, needy pets, companions, or entities that require constant, non-optional care.
  • Unpleasant distractions: Distractions such as notifications, sudden noises or nagging remove a player’s autonomy over their focus. Their agency around being able to explore and appreciate a game in their own way is lost. Distractions also demand attention, generating a need.
  • Intense stimulus: Anything sudden, disproportionately bright or loud, or invasive/proximal can diminish the feeling of coziness.
  • Distance: Vast spaces eliminate a sense of safety by being unknowable. However, it is still possible to create very subtle or natural thresholds that establish a cozy space within the context of something broad: like a campfire in the middle of a wood.
  • Phobia sources: Anything commonly associated with a phobia, such as spiders, guns, or knives, can suggest harm or threat. This can be mitigated by context: for instance, the presence of a knife in order to cook or perform other nurturing activities, especially if it cannot be used for violence.
  • Non-consensual social presence: Anything non-consensual removes a player’s feeling of safety, but this is especially relevant in social situations. An uninvited presence can feel threatening, or just suggest an unsought expectation of interaction, reciprocation, or responsibility.
  • Confinement: Many small spaces are considered cozy since you can quickly inspect them to see if you are safe. But, this sort of coziness requires choice, and in turn inescapable small spaces can instead be seen as claustrophobic and controlling. A prison cell is generally not cozy.
  • Deception, betrayal, lies, insincerity: These forms of social masking create doubt and apprehension about social interaction, turning them from fulfilling and need-satisfying experiences into threatening and dangerous ones.
  • Opulence, pretentiousness, “fanciness”: Most cozy spaces veer somewhat more mundane than pretentious or opulent. On the one hand, fanciness can often create social comparison pressure, or come off as insincere, diminishing social safety. On the other hand, most opulence lacks the familiarity that often contributes to a feeling of safety.
An example of negating coziness: Consider the omnipresent pop-up, especially as it is used in a normally cozy franchise like Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. When a notification intrudes on your gaming experience, it uses intense stimuli (noise, vibration, movement, colors) to generate a need that must be dealt with. You have a new responsibility to deal with the message by either investigating it further or manually dismissing it. It is almost always non-consensual since you never explicitly agreed to have your life interrupted by that pop-up in this particular moment. The theoretical opt-in that occurs at the systems level is more rote than intentional. If unwanted, a notification becomes a distraction. In order to extrinsically motivate the user to act as desired, notifications often use the promise of rewards, the threat of a lost opportunity, and marketing spin to deceive the user into interacting.

It is absolutely possible to design consensual notifications that provide cozy value to the player, but most do not and will slowly poison a cozy atmosphere.

Using contrast to enhance coziness: These same negating elements can be used to enhance coziness if they are safely outside the player’s defined cozy space (spatial, emotional, etc) by providing contrast and juxtaposition. For example, cold rain against a window emphasizes the warmth of a reading nook without threatening to disrupt it. If that same cold rain was blowing through a broken window, the scene would no longer be cozy.

Cozy-Adjacent: Overlapping But Not-Cozy

Coziness overlaps with several different aesthetics and themes, but has a unique identity separate from the following:
  • Cute: While cuteness resonates with the safety aspect of coziness, as well as the desire to nurture/satisfy needs, many threatening and needy things can be cute without providing coziness.
  • Childlike: In a similar vein, childlike games are often safe, but can have very high levels of stimulus and often lack the ability to focus on higher level needs.
  • Small World: Many small world games have a very manageable scope and smallness that generates a cozy feel, but small worlds can also be threatening, needy, or intense.
  • Romance: Cozy spaces often facilitate intimacy and a deepening of emotional connection, but romance opens a field to any number of aggressive or risky social encounters.
  • Home: Homes are familiar, but often stressful or full of responsibility, which negates coziness.
  • Party: While generating a cozy connective social tissue between players, parties are often high stimulus and high intensity, negating coziness.
  • Politeness: When politeness is thoughtful and kind, it can be cozy, but politeness can also be taken to an extreme, becoming insincere or passive-aggressive, which is anti-cozy.
  • Wealth: While wealth allows for the satisfaction of basic needs, it is not in and of itself cozy, and culturally can also come with societal expectation/responsibility of accumulating additional wealth.

2. Why Make Cozy Games

There’s an inherent joy to making games that help players explore their higher order needs. It feels good to help others.

However, there are also distinctly practical benefits.
  • Create blue ocean games for untapped psychographics
  • Increase retention by minimizing churn
  • Attract a better community

Blue ocean products for unmet player motivations

Games are a product that serves a player need. By uncovering unmet player motivations we can invent new product categories or broaden the appeal of existing designs.

Old motivational models: Many older game designs use pop-science motivational paradigms that are biased towards western, individualistic, and masculine perspectives. In many case, the underlying psychological models were derived by either sampling only young college aged men, animal experiments, or by actively throwing out data from groups that didn’t fit a particular hypothesis. From a business perspective, they fail to robustly describe motivations of women, people from non-western countries, older adults, or people with children.
  • Fight or flight: Derived predominantly from electroshock tests on young male rats, this theory says that when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in due to a perceived threat, we will either attack or run away. Though this reaction does exist, humans seem to have a far richer set of behavioral responses not captured in this theory.
  • Zero sum economics: In this model, resources are highly limited and if I take a resource, you lose that resource. There’s a long history of match-based competitive games such as Chess or Soccer derived from zero-sum systems. However, economics as a whole is based primarily on trade transactions that generate value for both parties. Even more concerning, most relationship-based transactions, the basis of friendship and human culture, are non-zero sum.
  • Gamers as competitors: For many years, game definitions in stuffy text books included clauses that stated games were inherently about competition. The assumption was that people who enjoyed games predominantly enjoyed competition. We know from Nick Yee and company’s work that competition as a motivator peaks in young men around 19-20 and then falls off gradually. By age 30, it is one of smaller motivational forces.
  • Gamers are best motivated by extrinsic motivators: Pop game design sometimes talks about players as coerced robots who respond to automatically to variably reinforced dribbles of extrinsic rewards. Again, these experiments were done on highly stressed out animal subjects. When similar experiments are done on low-stress, happy humans, we get a much wider range of responses; many addictive tendencies go away. In materially and emotionally plentiful environments, rote or self-destructive behavior is replaced by enriching pro-social human behavior.
Newer models: Newer models such as Tend and Befriend or Self Determination Theory describe a broader, more diverse set of player behaviors and motivations. We are also realizing that not all people go through life as if they are rats reacting to electric shocks. Contemporary psychology is rediscovering the benefits of rich, contemplative environment that lets humans thrive.
  • Tend and Befriend: This theory suggests many humans are motivated to bond with one another for safety and strength. We want to spend time preparing together against the uncertain future. We care for those that are weak or injured and find this just as important as hedonistically caring for yourself. These motivations are the exact opposite of dog-eat-dog, fend-for-yourself gameplay.
  • Self determination Theory: As we covered above, people are intrinsically motivated to pursue Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. It turns out people are much happier, much more willing to stick around, and much more willing to invest themselves when they aren’t coerced via extrinsic rewards.
  • Quantic Foundry’s motivation profiles: After survey over 300,000 game players, this group found six main motivational categories such as Action, Social, Mastery, Achievement, Immersion and Creativity.

Cozy designs are a natural way to address these newly uncovered needs. In particular they seems to do the following:
  • Create non-coercive spaces with a strong focus on intrinsic motivations. Not surprisingly cozy games all tend to have extremely strong player agency.
  • Allow for players to pursue quieter forms of connectedness and personal mastery.
  • From Quantic Foundry’s motivations, creativity and completion are served well by a cozy game like Animal Crossing. (

Increase retention by reducing churn triggers

Players are willing to play beyond satisfying their core motivations. If mechanics fall on a spectrum of motivating to neutral to demotivating, most players will happily enjoy a game compromised of motivating and neutral mechanics. Demotivating mechanics (or aesthetics) are the most likely to disengage players and cause churn.

Coziness reduces these drop-off points via an absence of harsh, demanding, and needy motives. These worlds inherently are low stress, low disappointment, and therefore less likely to have explicit churn triggers.

Improve community relations

Players who seek out comfy games are not usually looking for conflict or stressful interactions. This may seem self evident, but it has a huge impact on community relations.

An anecdote shreds some light. Spry Fox ran two games with two very different communities. Realm of the Mad God was a permadeath MMO and Alphabear is a cozy, cute word game. The players in Realm of the Mad God met most typical MMO player stereotypes, with a tendency to become quite angry with both developers and one another. Much of this was due to the structure of the game, which created high stress moments of desperate survival and crushing loss. Alphabear on the other hand was mostly composed of highly literate, polite players who wanted nothing more than to play their game, collect cute bears and share witty comments.

There’s a simple process at play here:
  1. Mechanics generate emotions: The game mechanics you design create certain types of player situations that match various motivational needs and in turn trigger emotional reactions.
  2. Emotions attract players: Players that want specific emotions seek out games that produce them.
  3. Social norms spread: In multiplayer contexts, players will watch one another and adopt shared social norms based off how people are reacting to the game. If the game tend to encourage anti-social, high stress behavior that is what players will model.
  4. Developers reap what they sow: They’ll in turn use those same social norms when interacting with the developer.
In short, if you build a high stress game where people are encouraged to act like assholes, you’ll get a community of assholes who think that it is entirely normal to abuse others, including the developer of their favorite game.

If you build a safe environment that actively promotes prosocial behavior, your community will be much more pleasant. Players of cozy games likely score highly on conscientiousness and agreeableness. Cozy games attract nice people.

The Sad Exception of The Sims Online: The Sims Online was a potentially cozy game dominated by a community of sociopaths. Thematically, it had elements of coziness with pleasant house in friendly neighborhoods. However, these went only skin deep. In an attempt to make a ‘realistic’ simulation, many resources including housing were zero sum in nature. This enabled mafia-esque gangs to enforce coercive social structures like protection rackets. Very quickly the place became anti-cozy; a virtual dystopia. Coziness needs to exist at the systems level in order to have social ramifications.

3. General Cozy Design Principles

We’ve discussed what cozy games are and why you might want to build them. Now we’ll cover design tools that help you build them. These high level principles provide direction and framing for designing a cozy or cozier game.

Cozy is an adjective

As you approach cozy design, remember that coziness is an aesthetic goal, a flavor that can be applied to any underlying type of game. Some mechanics are emotionally more in tune with coziness, but any game can be made more cozy. This also means that there is no single defining genre that is “coziness”. (We have a whole chapter below about integrating cozy moments into traditionally non-cozy genres.)

Coziness is player dependent

Coziness depends on where the player is coming from when they interact with your game. You can encourage coziness, but you can’t force it on a player.
  • The coziest space will not feel cozy if a player enters it with pressing external needs. For example, a violently angry teen may find a little village full of happy birds infuriating since it does nothing for their need to exert force
  • A cozy social structure can still be hostile if players want to engage in a conflicting forms of expression. For example, a player who sees their universe as inherently about competition may find a game with meditative gardening oppressive or boring.
Cozy design become less about forcing an ideal utopian state and more about facilitating these feelings as best as possible given a wide spread of player motivations and emotional states.

Coziness thrives on authenticity

The closer coziness gets to a real world situation with real people and honest human pleasures, the stronger the impact. A real mug of tea is cozier than an image of a mug of tea. Real safety is cozier than reading about someone who is safe.

Digital games face a number of challenges here. It will be quite some time before we gain the tactile or olfactory feedback often associated with cozy objects and situations; the warmth of the coffee, the spray of the ocean, the sweet texture of a fresh-picked raspberry, the touch of crisp sheets in a warm bed in a cool room.

Yet there are numerous areas where games can still be authentic.
  • In multiplayer games, you are in fact interacting with real humans and you can build real relationships with them.
  • Opportunities for introspection lead to real personal insight.
  • Complex leadership or organizational skills can transfer to other real world situations.
So games do some pieces of coziness well and others poorly. Focus on their strengths.

4. Patterns of Cozy Aesthetics

Once we get past the general tips for designing coziness, there are a number of highly specific design patterns for each domain of game design. Over the following sections, we’ll cover aesthetics, content, mechanics, character, narrative and social system.

What are cozy aesthetics?: For the first sub-topic we’ll tackle how the aesthetics (visual, audio and/or tactile output) of a game element can create a feeling of coziness that is separate from (and therefore may be improved or reduced by) gameplay.

Most cozy aesthetic elements are sensory cues tha:
  • Are familiar to the player due to past experience, nostalgic or shared cultural language.
  • Intentionally evoke images of safety, softness, and contentedness.
  • Often contrast a shared refuge from a less pleasant external environment.
Historically, aesthetics of safety and softness have been marketed towards children, but cozy sensory cues can be more powerful for adults. Memories are like batteries of emotion. Over decades of living, an adult builds a rich history with otherwise mundane objects and environments, storing away personal and cultural meaning

Like the other elements of coziness, these aesthetics may be applied either across an entire game or within a non-cozy game as a “pocket” of aesthetic coziness. Cozy moments in any game can help reset or reframe the player’s mindset, as exemplified by the visuals and music of the game resume sequence in Stardew Valley (argued by Jeff Ramos of Polygon to be a key element in the game’s pastoral fantasy).

Ingredients of cozy aesthetics:
  • Abundance: Although visual or audio “clutter” is not recommended, a theme of plenty and generousness assists in player calm and security. Visually, providing evidence of an abundance of food, drink, joy, and/or warmth is common in cozy spaces across games such as in taverns, kitchens, cafes, and bedrooms.
  • Dragon’s Crown offers cozy cooking with an abundance of ingredients
  • Smooth Transitions: Gentle gradients between states, colors, or environments within the cozy area. Thresholds, however, between cozy & uncomfortable or even dangerous spaces may be more satisfying if distinct when seen and/or crossed, such as coming in from a snowstorm into a log cabin, or ducking into a cave behind a waterfall.
  • Hearthstone offers the metaphor of a small, carved wooden box from which you play the game, with smooth transitions between different play modes.
  • Protection & Support: Clear signals of strong safety and comfort, from the environment and characters around the player, signal that this is a safe place in which to explore higher-order needs. For example, a dog or cat that is soundly asleep or a guardian character that is relaxing indicates no danger is present, even outside the player’s senses.
  • Undertale uses warm tones, focused interiors, and the presence of a relaxed guardian character to indicate this space is safe and cozy.
  • Focus: Elimination of interruptions, pressures or sources of unwanted distraction, allows the player to feel a place is knowable and thereby becomes familiar and comfortable. In visual terms, this means a sense of enclosure and intimate framing. It is highly likely that “interior” spaces in early role-playing games eliminated exteriors for technological restrictions, but this focus continues to be used in modern cozy games, from Animal Crossing to Terraria.
  • The Zelda series often offers cozy house interiors, literally blocking any sense of an outside world that could interfere.
  • Mundanity: A fundamentally familiar and knowable setting or place will be cozier than the unfamiliar, alien, exotic, or fantastical, if only because it takes longer for the player to ascertain if the space offers true safety and abundance. Hammocks, tea rooms, and pantries, for example, are cozier than otherwise-beautiful and enclosed locations like palaces, zoos, or penthouse suites.
  • Refuge & Escape: if there is an “outside” to this space, it is contrasted in its discomfort or danger. Shelters from storms, roofs from rain or harsh sun, or even a garden inside a bustling city make a place of everyday self-care.
  • One of the earliest promotional images of Hyper Light Drifter are of the drifter relaxing next to a campfire while monsters look on. The eyes at a distance make the fire feel even cozier.
  • Human-centric: The comfort and ease of humans in this space or system is apparent. The scale of the objects, architecture, and other creatures are comfortable for humans. Things which are too small or too large intrude on coziness with feelings of unbelonging, claustrophobia or agoraphobia.
  • Terraria’s room requirements and mechanics encourage cozy placements of lighting and doors to keep out threats and protect allies.
  • Welcome: When the player is explicitly positioned as a welcomed entity, this gives them the freedom and safety to express themselves. This welcome does not imply responsibility or pressure on them as a hero or other job to perform, but rather welcomes them as a person, to join whatever activities are available, or to be alone, as they wish. Bartenders often greet newcomers with a welcome, whether the tavern is digital or physical, to encourage a longer and more leisurely visit.
  • Seasons: The visual passing of seasons is heavily connoted with coziness in their familiarity and rituals, often of community and abundance. Autumn and winter are especially rich in potential, with a good harvest and refuge from cold weather causing potential any interior space to become cozy.
  • Ritual: Facilitating repeated, meaningful actions can create familiarity and contentedness.
Harvest Moon was a popular cozy title that offered a mundane, ritual refuge in pastoral life, with clearly demarcated seasons to signify both economic and community activities.

Cozy Visuals

Cozy visuals include:
  • Colors: Warm, gentle color palette (yellows, oranges), without high-intensity contrast or hues.
  • Light: Warm-toned lighting of clear origin and low ambient, which allows for soft shadows. If the source of light is intense, such as the sun, bright lamp or stoked fire, it’s best to soften the beams in some way (i.e. dappled, partially obscured, or gently shaded).
  • The Witcher 3 uses warm, yellow tones in its lighting and materials to make their taverns feel even more welcoming.
  • Natural materials: wood, stone, fur, moss, cotton, wool, water, living plants. These materials are familiar, implying either sturdy, ancestral safety or physical comfort. These materials can be harder to find in science fiction worlds, making them more likely to feel sterile, unwelcoming, and uncomfortable. Hand-made materials and rustic objects, which imply they were crafted and/or preserved with care and attention.
  • Yoshi’s Woolly World makes the entire world feel touchable, soft, and lovingly crafted.
  • Space: Closer, intimate, more enclosed spaces. Outdoor spaces should obscure the distant horizon partially in some way, through geometry, fog, or darkness.
  • Contrast: Ideally, provide a window or reminder of an external non-cozy space you are taking refuge from, such as rain, snow, etc.
What Remains of Edith Finch offers many intimate spaces to explore, but none so cozy as the sun-dappled grandmother’s room, with evidence of leisure time and abundance.

Cozy Audio

Cozy audio is continuous, soft, and non-intrusive, with an element of familiarity. The sources of both music and audio should ideally be diegetic to allow the players to connect concretely or even intimately with those sources.

  • Ambient, possibly dynamic or gently unpredictable. Ex. Playstation background music, jazz.
  • Gentle acoustic, organic/human-centered music - score and performance
  • Humanity in music can also be increased through small, subtle imperfections, such as recorded aspirations, fingering mistakes, etc.
  • Any hint of external threat or danger should be muted and distant
  • Ideally all sounds should have an identifiable concrete, diagetic source.
  • Waterfall, rivers, rain
  • Gentle fire
  • Cat purring
  • Indistinct chatter
  • Non-violent storms
  • (Controversial/taste-based) ASMR
  • White noise can be used to help with difficulty sleeping, as the varying texture ‘washes out’ individual noises and becomes easily ignored. This effect can also be achieved by steady hums or noises, such as from fans or machinery.

Cozy locations

Cozy locations are centered on leisure, practicality, ritual, history, and familiarity. Cozy content allows for privacy and creative expression, physically dividing spaces into nooks and alcoves and providing means for people to spend companionable, low-intensity time with others or in solitude. It can be helpful to also reference historical or other deeply familiar touchstones, to make the space more immediately knowable. Places where players can decorate can become cozy as it suits the player’s taste and expression, and players may seek out cozy environments as a way of changing pace in contrast to more demanding environments.

Cozy place examples:
  • Sociable yet private, discrete 3rd spaces separate from responsibility or ‘work’: bars, cafes, retreats, libraries, cabins, gardens
  • Transition spaces without danger or obligation: trains, backseat of a car, slow-moving spacecraft
  • Unpretentious community gathering & ritual spaces: farmer’s markets, kitchens, chapels
  • Places that fill basic needs, including food, rest, warmth, and opt-in sociability. They should include visible places to comfortably sit, eat, drink, and view beauty.
  • Places that support low-demand companionship, such as those with calm pets, or passive NPC-watching.
  • Spaces can become cozy once danger is no longer present: an arena where a boss fight used to be can become a cozy playground for celebration and bonding, or a cozy environment can be a goal for exploring part of a map.
Places with enclosed, strongly seasonal identities will also evoke coziness

  • Autumn coziness: warm color palettes, warm food/drink, family/holiday traditions, and soft materials, such as in Lieve Oma
  • Winter coziness: muffling snow, beautiful mountains (outside), family/holiday traditions, gifts, and soft materials.
  • Spring coziness: blossoming gardens, romantic traditions, nurturing baby animals
  • Summer coziness: cooling in the shade, ocean waves, iced treats

Cozy items

Cozy items are those found in cozy spaces or that are used to perform cozy activities
  • Hobby or “crafty” leisure items: Fishing rod, books, gathering baskets, mechanical keyboard, cooking tools, cut flowers, wooden blocks, walking sticks
  • Physically comforting items: Quilts, blankets, socks, tea sets, rocking chairs
  • Food and drink themselves can be cozy: a frothy mug of beer is more cozy than a alchemical potion; items that can be shared or suggest plenty (a slice of cake, a bunch of grapes, sacks of flour) reinforce a sense of sharing, abundance, and generosity
  • Things that are cute but low-intensity can be cozy: elaborate costumes and skins may be too laden with status or opulence, but simpler or understated styles can feel less threatening or attention-seeking.
  • Even cold and hard objects (typewriters, tea sets) can invoke cozy feelings of intimacy or nostalgia, if lovingly hand-crafted (“artisanal”) or loaded with familial or historical meaning.
  • Domestic objects can signal coziness, the more mundane the better: wagons, mailboxes, a porch swing, a pair of boots, a raincoat.

5. Patterns of Cozy Mechanics

Beneath the aesthetics of a game, its underlying mechanics may seem at first neutral or benign with regard to coziness. However, a fundamental mechanic or motivation can engender a positive or negative sense of coziness, and contribute to the overall tone and feel of the game.

Intrinsically rewarding activities

For something to be cozy, it has to be, in and of itself, satisfying -- not satisfying because it contributes to some other purpose. When the reward of an activity outweighs its gentle momentary pleasure, the activity can become extrinsic and lose its cozy appeal.

Compulsory mechanics often detract from a game’s coziness. Since coziness is an opt-in affordance, any player activity driven by extrinsic motivation - either as requisite responsibility or threat-response, or as an artificial reward - tends to evoke an un-cozy experience.
  • In Animal Crossing, the sounds of shaking trees to get fruit is inherently pleasurable even after thousands of repetitions.
  • In Zelda, the cooking process of tossing the ingredients in the hot pot and waiting to see if they’ll be a success is inherently pleasant.

Breadth of optional activities

The cozy experience depends on high player agency. You need to chose to do a task of your own volution. Giving players a wide number of possible tasks and then not forcing them to do any of them lets them take responsibility for their actions.

  • In Animal Crossing: New Leaf there are numerous activities such as fishing, decorating, gardening, clothing creation, fetch quests, etc. But all of these can be ignored with no ill results. The same pattern is used in Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon.
  • We see something similar in less cozy games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Cozy activities are harvesting and cooking are never required to progress.
  • In Destiny 2, there’s a soccer ball just sitting there. If you kick it into a goal, a scoreboard increments. But nothing tells you to play soccer. There’s no official start or stop to a match. This ends up being a cozy moment of opt-in social fun.

Safe rituals

Some player activities can achieve a sense of coziness due to their familiarity. Repeated low risk tasks allow the player to relax.
  • Safe: The activity is known to be safe and will not cause stress or danger.
  • Known: The activity is constrained. It will not suddenly eat up an unexpected amount of time, labor or resources.
  • Relaxed: The activity is low mental cost. It occupies the hands, but frees the mind to work on other more subtle concerns.
  • A mundane act of organization or tidying
  • A walk down a familiar path.
  • Searching or collecting for diamonds, berries or fossils -- though not under duress.
  • Even a busy environment or activity, if exceedingly familiar, can provide a sense of coziness. Like the ritual of going to a gently buzzing coffee shop to write.
  • For some players, a self-appointed task -- harvest and replant the crops -- can be relaxing in a safe, soft, and satisfying way.

There are many mundane objects from the cozy items list above are associated with low risk activities.
  • Fishing with a fishing rod
  • Reading a book
  • Putting on cozy socks (and wiggling your toes)
  • Bundling up in a quilt your mother made you. Or sewing a quilt for a child you love.
  • Brewing tea in a chipped tea set given to you by your grandmother.
  • Drinking steaming coffee from that strange handcrafted mug you got visiting your aunt in Maine.
  • Typing on a clacky typewriter in a warm wood paneled study (with flakes of snow outside)

The challenge of emergent extrinsic rewards

Some mechanics may start off as cozy, but later become reduced or compromised as players acclimate to gameplay systems and (consciously or subconsciously) seek to min/max them. A quaint trading bazaar or relaxing spawn point in an MMO can rapidly lose its charm as players queue up for their turn at an activity, exchanging intimate intrinsic experiential rewards for (ultimately shallow) extrinsic payouts.

We recommend tracking player behavior and identifying when extrinsic rewards start to take over. Often a simple obfuscation of feedback is enough to dampen the feedback loop. If that doesn’t work, take a look at the economic rewards and balance them such that comfier behavior dominates.

The challenge of cozy monetization

Coziness can be weaponized. Because it establishes intimacy and vulnerability, it can be used to lower barriers to purchase.

For example, a timeshare sales process offers a participant a free meal or cash reward in an comfy, gorgeous setting. In return, they leverage this atmosphere of generosity to encourage the mark to complete the reciprocation loop and purchase a very expensive timeshare.

Many standard monetization practices damage coziness. Social comparison creates social anxiety for some players. Time pressure on sales and event generates a fear of missing out. Heavily promoted item rarity makes players feel a strong sense of scarcity.

The best practice here is twofold
  • Service existing needs. If you can, sell products within the game that address real existing player needs. You’ll be selling something that results in a meaningful addition to the player’s life outside the game. Minimize artificially generating needs and then cynically making merchandise to fill that need. Don’t be the doctor who poisons their patient and then sells them the cure.
  • Balance for honesty and coziness. Some scarcity and social comparison is okay if done in moderation. It can provide contrast to other cozy elements. Tom Nook in Animal Crossing: New Leaf traffics in most of the crass aspects of capitalism. Yet because he is an opt-in component of a much larger game, it ends up being okay. When Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp makes this experience the whole game, coziness is lost.

6. Patterns of Cozy Narrative

Ambient Narratives

When coziness is the central mode of a game’s narrative, it tends to exhibit certain qualities:
  • Low-pressure - Even if the stakes are high, anxiety is low.
  • Low-intensity - Cozy stories unfold at a place of the player’s choosing with little urgency.
  • Ensemble - Stories of a “chosen one” that emphasize the exceptionalism of the player are at odds with authenticity.
  • Non-violent - Conflicts are ephemeral and a path to understanding.
  • Intimate - A moderate size number of players to build familiarity
  • Down-to-earth - Humble and grounded. Find wonder and contentment in the familiar.
  • Emphasis on ritual - seasons, holidays, day/night, harvest cycles. Stories that lazily drift along the river of time
  • Episodic - The sum of experiences is greater than any one story
The Atelier games frame the fantasy around career, community, and cozy objects/spaces

Intermezzo Narratives

Intermezzo refers to a musical score that occurs between other major musical movements. Coziness can also offer respite in an otherwise intense narrative:
  • Safety in the storm - Dark Souls campfire
  • The calm before the storm - Ellie’s guitar or giraffes in The Last of Us
  • A place to call home - The private rooms of the Normandy in Mass Effect
  • Denouement -after needs are met, climax achieved, explicit opt-in room to relax and “do nothing”
Dragon Age: Companions take time to reflect and unwind after adventures.

Cozy narrative archetypes

We see common narrative patterns show up repeatedly.
  • “It Takes a Village” - Communities banding together for the common good
  • “Homecoming” - A return to familiar faces and a gentle reflection on time
  • “Immigrant’s Story” - Starting a new life in a new place with a fresh start
  • “Pastoral Escape” - Consciously choosing to leave the troubles of modern life for something simpler
  • “Honest Labor” - the celebration of dedication to a craft
  • “After Hours” - A focus on the small moments and relationships that happen in between work and adversity
Night in the Woods: Narrative leans into cozy tropes to explore complex themes

7. Patterns of cozy characters

Non-player characters in a cozy game should exemplify or facilitate the cozy virtues of safety, softness and satisfied needs. This can manifest through the character’s role, their aesthetics, and the affordances of interaction offered the player.

Tend and befriend

Cozy characters embody the tend and befriend response, offering players a support and respite from outside stress. They are often nurturers, providing affection, shelter, food, companionship, and acceptance. More simply, characters reassure the player that they are loved. This can manifest with roles traditionally roles traditionally associated with cozy places - bartenders, innkeepers, librarians, farmers, grandmothers, spouse, etc. They can do the heavy lifting of emotional labor for the player.

Cozy characters can assist the player in her goals. The coziness of these gestures is amplified when the acts are non-transactional. In the cozy fantasy, we help each other because it is the nice thing to do. Favors and gifts are cozy; obligation and neediness are not.

Characters might be designed to be recipients of nurturing gestures by the player. Taken to the extreme, this can include literal pets or characters who fulfill the same function of a pet, whose function in the game world is to adopted and cared for. Conversely, curmudgeons and even pariahs have an important place in cozy games, offering the player the ability to signal empathy. These antisocial characters give a community authenticity; like a patchwork quilt, mismatched scraps add to the charm.

  • Ignis in Final Fantasy XV taking pride and pleasure in cooking for the party
  • Characters in Stardew Valley sending you recipes in the mail to show gratitude
  • Cranky villagers in Animal crossing keeping things grounded
FFXV’s companions are confident in what they bring to the team and look out for each other.

Intimacy, authenticity and autonomy

Within a cozy space, character interactions should allow for vulnerability and intimacy. The intrinsic reward for engaging with cozy characters is a sense of belonging in the community, possibly, but not necessarily, building to friendship or romance. Gestures of trust, like sharing a secret or inviting a player into a private space, are especially powerful at making the player feel welcome.

In crafting cozy characters, authenticity is more important than complexity. Simple interactions should reinforce that the characters have their own inner lives separate from the player’s agenda. Brevity is a virtue as it puts less pressure on the player to know everything about a character.

Cozy relationships are founded on consent. What makes grumpy characters tolerable and even charming is the opt-in nature of engaging with them. It is comforting to know that within a community, life goes on independent of the player’s agency.

  • Going out for Ramen with Ryuji in Persona 5
  • KK Slider passing through town
  • Oscar the Grouch
Persona 5 builds intimacy with its cast through mundane activities.

Visual character design

Characters can leverage cozy aesthetics, much like places.
  • Posture and animations that emphasize relaxation and contentment can model a cozy mood.
  • A soothing voice, like that of Bob Ross, can put the player at ease.
  • Soft and cuddly appearance that invites hugging, like a Totoro
Cozy context allows otherwise threatening authority figures, like a boss, a cop, or royalty, to expose their humanity. Anyone from a criminal, to a demon, to a king to a town drunk can be cozy when the let their guard down. Coziness is a shortcut to empathy.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, Calcifer is grumpy, judgmental, and initially fearsome, but moments of vulnerability make him a beloved member of the household.

8. Patterns of cozy social mechanics

One of the key higher-level needs is forming connections with others. While NPCs do offer an avenue for players to practice forming relationships, our current weak simulations will never replace real relationships with real people. For this, we need to examine the cozy systems of multiplayer games.

Challenge of cozy interactions online

Virtual environments present unique challenges to the facilitation of coziness. Online is arguably inherently dehumanizing.
  • Strangers: Due to the logistical challenges of getting friends together in the same time, place and game, online game players tend to be strangers. We don’t know or trust most strangers and are generally act in a guarded fashion around them. This immediately puts safety on the back burner.
  • Lack of persistent identity: When players know they’ll never see another person again, they may lower their inhibitions to pushing the spatial, moral, or legal boundaries of others. You need to build robustly pro-social systems or else players immediately devolve into a Lord of the Flies-style wasteland of griefers and populist mobs. Witness Twitter.
  • Low bandwidth communication: Most of the information present in real-world human interaction is either inaccurate or simply not simulated in games. Facial expressions, tone of voice, even conversational pacing is lost. Troublesome behavior like insincerity, perceived or real, ruin the coziness of a player’s experience.

Use cozy norms to attract a better community

The current dominant multiplayer design pattern uses limited resources, high stakes, and hazardous worlds to drive competitive behavior between players. The optimal strategy in these environments is to see other strangers as enemies who must be avoided or destroyed. It is a recapitulation of Fight or Flight motivations.

The cozy alternative is to implement abundance, safety, and reprieve to foster cooperative and trustful interactions. The resulting pro-social environment can shift players attitudes positively towards other players. Instead of destruction, we signal mutual support. Instead of othering, we showcase the formation of coherent social groups. You’ll see these steps occur:
  • The game promotes social norms that promise and encourage trust.
  • This results in fewer failed reciprocation loops. Players let their guard down.
  • Players that reciprocate tend to escalate the depth of their relationship.
  • Over time, comfy spaces yield stronger friendships.
Social norms to aim for: When designing a cozy community, ask yourself what social systems and signals you’ve put in place that encourage the following community norms. Focus on the positive things you can do vs the things you shouldn’t do.
  • Politeness: We are nice to one another.
  • Consent: Ask for consent. It is okay if someone opts out.
  • Help one another: If someone needs help, the community will lend a hand.
  • Protection from threat: If there’s a threat, the community is a safe haven.
  • Emotional support: Sometimes people have a bad day. The community is willing to lend a shoulder to cry on.
  • Celebration of relationships: It is wonderful when people meet and wonderful when they become better friends. The community supports this.
  • Mend, Don’t End: People make mistakes, sometimes people get hurt. As a community we will try to mend things when we get upset.
Tools for creating norms: There are systems worth adding to facilitate social norms. You don’t need to just accept what the community brings. You can shape it.
  • Code of conduct: Get players to agree to how you want them to behave in the game. This works.
  • Feedback systems that immediately target a behavior: Make systems that target a behavior, not ones that label a person as bad, evil or ruined. Reputation flags or banservers end up creating culture where bad behavior is acceptable. Instead, notify players in a timely fashion that they’ve done something against the norms and let them know what the infraction was and how they might improve.
  • Gameplay scenarios that enforce norms: If being generous is a goal, create quests that result in being generous to others. There’s a risk with use overly strong extrinsic rewards, but simply signposting the activity is often enough.
Beware of importing norms: Often you’ll import arbitrary norms from the default culture and these can accidently poison the cozy atmosphere. There are many of these related to gender, race, age and class. Even traditions such as RPG Alignments can be problematic. For example, in D&D it is possible to have a Chaotic Evil character. But when that player roleplays that norm, the rest of the community suffers.

Note on cozy in competitive games: While online competitive games can hurt friendship formation, there’s still room in team-based games for cozy moments. Think about creating warm and welcoming spaces for the team members when they aren’t fighting. Give them a place to work on deepening their relationships with one another.

Escalating layers of opt-in interactions

Permission setting is perhaps the most important tool for prevent a social coziness calamity. It is too easy to accidentally for someone for force communication on another person, holding them hostage to an interaction they don’t desire.
  • Call and Response interactions: A player chooses to broadcast a no-pressure initiation to a group (best if larger than one other person). Other players can choose to acknowledge the call and respond, but are not burdened with expectation.
  • Layers of Investment: In this “Social Onion” model for permission setting, a player starts at a level of non-interaction. At their own discretion, the player may then opt-in to increasingly risky layers of interaction with individuals or the public one layer at a time.
  • 1 on 1 interactions can come later: There an obligation of both attention and intimacy that occurs in a 1 on 1 social situation. Even the act of listening is a form of emotional labor. You may want to structure your comfy inactions so this is optional and only the default for people who have opted into a higher engagement relationship (such as declaring mutual friendship).
  • Use invitations to escalate a relationship: Demand and requests can generate an unpleasant obligation to respond. Create ways for players to kindly invite another person to a space or activity. This is a very warm and welcoming opening and creates a safe opportunity to opt-out. Group invites are good for new relationships. Individual invites are good for medium to high intimacy relationships.
  • Small cooperative groups can facilitate escalation: Encourage dense, frequent interactions between small groups of players. By forming players into persistent cohorts (via guilds or matchmaking) players will bump into one another regularly when they play. This incrementally creates familiarity, recognition, sense of shared experience (all cozy factors). Some members of the group will naturally opt-in to deep relationships.
  • Opt-in permissive communication channels: Trust come late in a relationship. As a result early transgressive humor can be quite hurtful. But later, once players know one another, humor becomes a signal of trust. We can joke and be silly and not be censored. We can share intimate and scary details about ourselves without risk of rejection.So where early communication methods are locked down, small group or friend-to-friend channel need to be more more permissive. Or else cozy trust will not flourish.
  • Blocklists: When your best attempts at creating mutual opt-in interactions fail, blocking communications is a necessary evil. But it would be preferable to avoid disruptions to the player’s experience altogether. Whitelists and de-escalating barriers may be more natural and effective.
For more information, see the previous Project Horseshoe report Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming “friends”

Low cost social reciprocity

Low risk social interactions can feel cozy. When you nod to a smiling passerby or wave to a friend, you are fulfilling your social needs in manner that doesn’t take much effort and is unlikely to be rejected.

Tools for low cost reciprocity:
  • Positive Emotes: Have a curated emote system that focuses on positive signals such as smiling or waving. Allow congratulating, nodding in affirmation and encouraging.
  • Grumpy emotes: Negative emotes are still useful, but you can treat them in a melodramatic cartoon fashion that takes the sting out. A cute little character stomping about is a lot more palatable than one that screams loudly or teabags your avatar.
  • Automate subconscious social interactions. Characters can turn to face a player as they walk by or tilt their head in acknowledgement. As you get closer, the other avatars can pay more attention. If you talk, other avatars can automatically turn to listen. This mimics what we do in real life.
  • Streamlined UI: Make the interface for emoting accessible and easy to use. If you bury social verbs in menus, they’ll never happen.
  • Signal social context automatically: For example, a scene can shift to low light intimate colors if two people are chatting but shift to bright colors if lots of people are talking.
Central to all these tools is the design exercising of imagining you exist in a space where you are known and accepted and asking some simple questions:
  • What social interactions would occur?
  • How can you work those into the animations and communication options for your character?
Limits to cozy emotes: If the game mechanics are poisonous, ‘nice’ emotes can become polluted. Emotes in Hearthstone (a PvP game) on the surface are pleasant, polite interactions. However, the community quickly figured out how to make them into biting insults. For example ‘Hello’ is used to brag when delivering a particularly deadly combo attack.

Also be aware that emotes are good for ritualistic social maintenance, but not for intimate disclosure or deep relationship building. In fact, a superficial emote used on a good friend may feel dismissive.

Let conversations ramble

Consensual conversation is a naturally high agency, high creativity activity that builds strong social connections. Online communication is often used in games to help players coordinate get things done. But cozy conversation tends to occupy more of a social maintenance space. That is, chatting about nothing in particular with a friend is more cozy than trying to make a decision in a meeting.

Create moments or spaces in your game where players can communicate without much emphasis on purpose of meaning.
  • Let players linger in rooms or areas where the purpose is fulfilled rather than giving them the boot.
  • Have group harvesting or crafting moments where players are engaged enough to stay in the area, but the activity is low intensity enough that they can still chat and follow a conversation.
Champion Trains in Guild Wars 2
For example, an unintentionally high-retention activity known as “Champion Trains” emerged in Guild Wars 2 when players complete easy loops of boss monsters to kill repeatedly. There were better rewards elsewhere; but a big draw was casual social interaction with the community. Because these groups are easy to coordinate, chats often featured relatively meaningless and rambling topics.


Gifting is one of the more powerful social signals of abundance and caring. A gift tends to mean the giver’s basic needs are met and they want to support others. Gifting is often an intrinsically motivated gesture where it is gauche to expect a gift back. This perceived honesty acts as jet fuel for the reciprocity engine that drives deeper friendships.

However, not all gifts are created equal.
  • Person interaction associated with the gift: Direct interpersonal interactions mixed with small personal gifts are the most cozy. The gift augments the existing warmth in the relationship, but ultimately the face-to-face interactions and long history are the source of meaning.
  • Care delivering the gift: Gifts become less cozy when when they are received by a courier or heaven forbid, a utilitarian menu.
  • Effort sourcing gift: Gifts also are less cozy if there is little care given in selecting or producing the gift. Social games had buttons where you could spam friends with endlessly duplicated boosters of little value. Players soon learned that these were mostly meaningless. On the other hand, the game Triple Town only gave out gifts if you had scored well in games that could last weeks or months. And you could only give those gifts to a single person. Each one was precious and valued.

Safety in numbers

We can create cozy economic situations that encourage players to bond together in order to keep out a hostile world. This technique again taps into tend and befriend psychology.

For example, in Everquest, player would settle down around a camping spot to rest and recharge. At any moment a train of high level monsters might smash into the group wreaking havoc. However, the space felt cozy since you were together with other player who you knew would leap to your mutual defense at the appearance of danger. Together, the players feel safe.
Fishing in PvP zone Alterac Valley in World of Warcraft
More examples
  • The comradery of fishing together in the PvP areas of World of Warcraft
  • Crafting at the campfire in Don’t Starve together during the night.
  • Cluster of traders sitting in the dangerous wilderness in Realm of the Mad God

Use cozy feedback to make up for low social bandwidth

Address the low fidelity level of virtual social interaction head on. Design channels of feedback that help players clarify the context of situations and communications.
  • Trust Heuristics and Settings: Move beyond binary expressions of trust and permission, such as friend or not friend. Alert players to how they are progressing along multiple dimensions of a potential new relationship, such as common friends, interests or skills. Automatically color a chat room based on how many players are present, or how intimate the chat is.
  • Opt-in to social risk level: Allow certain levels of automatic permission based on the player’s social-risk preferences.
  • Feedback Requests: Give players a non-threatening method to ask for feedback and find out how they’re doing. Private feedback channels allow people to make adjustments without being shamed.
  • Apology Channels – Offer players the ability to atone for mistakes. Sincerity is key, consider enforcing a delay or an ability to immediately say “I’ll think about this” and let the apology come later.
Google Hangouts experimented with allowing users to collaboratively dress up message windows. Would this change the tone of your conversation?

Drawbacks of Social Coziness

Forcing cozy causes it to fall apart

Remember that more isn’t always more. Cozy social interaction is a trust-based process and the nature of trust is fickle.
  • Trust is earned slowly and then quickly lost, often collapsing relationships when it all falls apart.
  • Vulnerability is difficult enough to reach in the real world and it may take longer to reach that state in an online game.
  • Some players may simply be wary or incapable of forming cozy virtual connections with others.

When There’s Comfort in Solitude

Games that facilitate a high degree of social coziness run the risk of eventually isolating players from one another. As players form deeper relationships and tightly-knit groups, they may lose a sense of that game’s greater community as a whole. In some cases, various gaming communities are so cozy that they’ve grown indifferent or hostile to newcomers and outsiders. Monitor the density of your game’s population carefully, and be sure to facilitate new connections between players.

Looking Ahead: More Sofas, Less Lobbies

Outlook on the future of social game interactions should be optimistic. Anecdotes of poor behavior that pollute the online gaming space may (at least in part) be a case of how function follows form. Though initially useful for clarity, many conventions of online spaces and interfaces are aging poorly. As audiences become more sophisticated, so too should the mechanics by which they interact online. Coziness can be a useful evaluation lens on how a social mechanic might be upgraded or replaced.

For example, the term “lobby” is often used in gaming to describe the pre-game flow of activity. Consider what types of interactions you’ve had with other people in lobbies. Now decide if that’s really how people should meet and interact in your game. This is applicable to developers of cozy worlds and perhaps doubly-so for developers looking to build social retention into any type of game.
The developers of Halo 2 re-imagined the matchmaking lobby as a virtual sofa. At the time, staying with the same group from match to match was a big innovation. A very cozy move for a decidedly un-cozy game.

9. Augmenting Non-cozy Games

You don’t need to make your entire game uniformly cozy to gain the benefits of cozy design. Many traditional games satisfy cozy needs by including separate, safe cozy spaces.

Here are several patterns you can use to integrate coziness into your game.

A refuge in an otherwise intense game

Think of creating a cozy sandwich for your high stress game. On the inside are the meaty moments of action. And on the outside are comforting moments of coziness.
The cozy sandwich
In the hardcore hit Dark Souls, gameplay is built around an accumulation of stress. The further you are from the safety of a previous bonfire (save point), the more at-risk you are for permanently losing your accumulated resources.This is not cozy.

Yet, the bonfire locations in Dark Souls manages to have several cozy qualities:
  • They remove all immediate danger (no monsters, no aggro overlap with something outside the space, no dangerous surfaces), which gives a moment of safety to an otherwise intense and dangerous game
  • They provide an ability to spend your currency, lessening the risk of losing it, which also ties to safety (no impending loss or threat)
  • The audio, lighting, and level design feedback is leveraged to create an intimate space with soothing qualities (the crackling of the fire, the lessening or elimination of intense sounds, the warm glow of the fire, the closeness of walls). These are linked to the quality of softness by providing comforting feedback and an opportunity of a lowered state of arousal.
  • The bonfire also by giving you access to your storage, offering abundance of resources when the more frequent gameplay experience of adventuring features resource scarcity (limited pockets, stack limits). There’s a moment for tinkering and rearranging.
These cozy qualities improve pacing throughout the game, and form the basis of the central loop of the game:
  1. Desire: You start in a place of safety, but also suffer from scarcity.
  2. Adventure: Motivated by your lack of resources and a need to progress, you move further into danger, collect more vulnerable resources, and overcome a large risky obstacle.
  3. Respite: Finally, you set your burden down to reset the loop and save your progress. This is the moment of coziness.
This loop keeps the game digestible and the wins incremental and continuous rather than one large all-or-nothing encounter.

Persistent small groups in multiplayer games

Call of Duty (among other games) will team up the player with a small group of other player and persist that group throughout matches. This social structure has several cozy qualities, but the specifics of the group makeup could make that grouping feel more or less cozy.
  • Spending continual time together with a set of shared goals promotes familiarity and reliability between the participants.
  • The matchmaking process is opt-in, so these connections aren’t thrust upon you in an uncomfortable way. You can alway opt out if the situations starts to feel emotionally unsafe.
  • These shared experiences with a more intimate might open conversation and expression possibilities inappropriate for a more open, anonymous venue. This freedom ties to one’s ability to be vulnerable and expressive without negative ramification. Obviously, if the group is hostile toward these overtures, then this potential breaks down.
Though the game might feel inherently non-cozy, these moments of social coziness help to form lasting bonds and promote strangers to more meaningful relationships where deeper communication and social safely exists.

Build cozy connections with non-player characters

Characters can also function a cozy moments in otherwise non-cozy games. This satisfies the need to connect with others in a safe fashion. Cozy NPCs are often facilitators, and can be connected to cozy locations. Here are some examples:

Ness’ dad and mom (Earthbound)
The act of saving in many games usually asks the player to pause for a moment, and in this case, that opportunity is taken to deepen your relationship with your father, get some hints, and sometimes even get a few bucks in your account. This interaction features softness, where intimacy of emotion is a break from the moments of combat or other exploration pressures.

Shopkeepers in River City Ransom
The shopkeeper experience in River City Ransom achieves multiple cozy objectives. The cities (where these often appear) are safe and free from opponents, and the shop itself gives a tiny window into a confined, cozy scene between the player and the vendor. The ‘free smile’ has no gameplay progression implications other than to reinforce the safe nature of this space.

This type of space (and other shops) provides a loop closure that forms the backbone of integral gameplay systems (currency acquisition, ability expansion). The cozy qualities of this space afford the player a moment of respite from the compulsions of the other gameplay spaces.

Shopkeeper in The Legend of Zelda
This shares some elements with the River City Ransom shop, but this shop allows the player free movement in a safe space. There is a break in the music, signaling a shift from gameplay to rest space. The walls are closer in than a normal screen, providing an intimacy of space, the colors are warm, and there are bonfires to contribute to the warmth of the space despite the low resolution of the scene.

Chef in Odin Sphere
Moments of character advancement are slowed down for Odin Sphere, and the focus becomes on the act of preparing and consuming food.

Bastion/Stanley Parable narrators
These characters form a comforting backdrop during the play experience. In Bastion, though the character is fighting and in a high state of arousal, the narrator exudes a calming voice, and has authentic and human qualities that help form a cozy connection throughout the game session. By the end of the game, the character is familiar and the relationship between him and the player is substantial.

10. Cozy Development Practices

We’ve been talking about building cozy games, but cozy practices can also be applied to the process of building a game. Or for that matter running any company. A cozy environment tends to have the following benefits:
  • Emotional safety leads to honest communication and genuine collaboration.
  • Abundance leads to a willingness to experiment without fear of loss.
  • Retention of key personnel. Many developers prefer being in a cozy space, or having access to one. Once you’ve experienced a cozy workplace, it is hard to leave.

Foundations: Consent and social norms

How your development team operates depends in large part on the social norms you’ve established. Consider:
  • What social norms does your team hold?
  • How are they established, reinforced and signaled in your team?
Many cozy practices are easy to implement if you are clear in the beginning about what’s acceptable. You need to structure and establish boundaries. Consider working with your team to create genuine, sincere codes of conduct or value statements. Be sure to include the following cozy concepts:
  • Abundance: What are your clear structures of support if something bad happens?
  • Safe consent: How can employees opt-in (or opt-out) of risky opportunities?
  • Softness: How do you create quiet spaces for social connection and self improvement?

Cozy spaces and environments

A space for each type of task: Collaborative design work can be held more effectively in smaller or enclosed spaces. Are your 1:1s held in rooms where both participants feel comfortable and can trust that their conversation is private? Are teams able to take conversations to separate areas where there is less outside noise or bother?

Coziness can be tricky to implement in a workspace, however. Too small a space can be intimidating or claustrophobic, and dim lights can just make it hard to function. It may also be unwelcome if the designer is not yet ready for higher-level work and needs to pursue needs for safety, hunger, thirst, and/or sleep.

Opportunities to escape to a cozy spot: Allowing individuals to choose to go to a cozy environment when desired -- say, for brainstorming on an interesting new possibility -- can help people offer, develop, and exchange ideas when they otherwise might be drowned out.

For example, Daniel Cook has a coffee shop he escapes to whenever he needs to do writing.
  • There is food and coffee which removes any hunger or thirst.
  • The baristas know his name and (most of them) smile when he walks in. This is a space of safe social connection.
  • In the back of the shop is a quiet area with a warm, bright fireplace.
  • The decor is dark wood and stone with light music trickling in from the front room.
  • Outside, it is often raining gently. Or it is gloriously sunny. Or the fall leaves just take your breath away.
  • No one tells him to go. No one tells him to leave. Writing in the cafe is both a opt-in choice and a comforting ritual he’s been doing for years.
Cozy time: Time can also carry aspects of coziness. Some creative folks give themselves guaranteed unstructured time when they aren’t available for meetings or aren’t working on anything specific, which allows for reflection, inspiration or even just feeling unpressured for a spell. Unscheduled time and personal projects can reap the benefits of coziness as a person’s mind finally has permission to open up and consider new possibilities.

Crunch is not cozy

Consider the extent to which we encourage people to volunteer for extra work, and how such volunteerism is actually pressured. Crunch can result from extrinsic social pressure. Or an internal creative drive. Both still contribute to burnout, increased bug counts, and frustration. When it happens, burnout explicitly blocks coziness since exhaustion prevents team members from moving up the Maslovian hierarchy of needs.

A solution is to increase opportunities for self care.
  • Permit opt-in work schedules. People who can work from home (often a safe, quiet space) or within a flexible range of hours report less stress, higher job satisfaction and higher productivity.
  • Explicitly offer sabbaticals, “mental health days”, and even the ability to take a break or pause a meeting can help reinforce the value of consensual participation.
  • Don’t make impossible schedules that force overtime. This reduces developer agency and long term leads to bad decisions and team churn.

Cozy trust and secrecy

Secrecy and trust are complicated issues in an office. It is crucial to have people you can confide in about doubts or concerns. However, the social dynamics of secrecy can result in decidedly anti-cozy patterns. An employee may not wish to report an issue to their boss for fear of the messenger being shot. Or they may prefer to communicate only through gossip. Or they might form cliques where others feel left out. These are all defensive behaviors intended to preserve personal safety.

The response is to create safety such that there is less need for defensive behavior.
  • Separate the role of manager and mentor (a senior developer not in the direct chain of management) to introduce a confidant who can be trusted and to remove strange power dynamics
  • Actively police interactions were people are punished for being open and trusting. Encourage those that share unpleasant facts.
  • Create opportunities for groups from different cliques to spend repeatedly time with one another. Trust is built upon relationships that form via repeat, positive interactions.

Cozy feedback

One of the most fruitful avenues for encouraging more coziness in design practice is by cozifying feedback processes, because it makes people feel safe and increases trust.

If you can do so earnestly, consider these guidelines for maximally cozy feedback:
  • Be gentle and considerate: remember that most people want to be good and want to receive feedback, and are probably aware of the issue in some context, but it’s hard to switch contexts without raising defenses.
  • Be clear: Ambiguity creates more pressure, and a generalized threat. Identifying specific behaviors, instead of identities, is similarly less threatening.
  • Respect wishes: Respect requests on both sides for privacy, patience, and even outright secrecy, in the pursuit of improved trust.
  • Be timely: Providing processes for immediate repair can restore a positive tone and return control to the person receiving feedback.
Giving feedback cozily would also, presumably, lead to longer-lasting behavioral changes, as the motivation is intrinsic.

For more information, see the previous PH report Creating Emotionally Safe Workplaces in Game Development:

The challenge of conflict

If your working environment thrives on interpersonal conflict, anti-cozy patterns will predominate, and it may be very difficult to create a space, much less a culture, that can be reliably cozy.

A conflict-driven culture may reach a successful local maxima, but there is a cost.
  • Though fans of conflict may find this surprising, openness actually suffers as non-combative people put up protective walls.
  • People who are unable to function in this kind of environment will either fail to perform (“He was quiet and didn’t volunteer many ideas”) or leave.
  • Conflict stirs feelings of constant stress and anxiety so people never end up work on the Not Urgent but Highly Important tasks of self improvement.
  • Many forms of conflict enforce tribal norms resulting in uniformity of both people and ideas. This is particularly poisonous to the ideal of building a diverse workforce.
Changing a conflict-focus culture takes a dedicated and determined effort with vocal leadership support. If you have, or want to have, a diverse team that includes people with different backgrounds and different motivations, it may take some explicit signaling and welcoming in order to build the trust required for people to feel cozy and earnestly engage.

The challenge of too much coziness

Lastly, it is possible to go overboard or cross boundaries in attempting to establish coziness.
  • Forcing Intimacy: Intimacy requires both parties to feel comfortable, and pressure is inimical to it. Remember that social cues such as call-and-response can help gauge willingness to proceed, and ensure that opting-out of coziness is low-pressure too.
  • Lack of dissent: There can be an escape into coziness where people are not willing to address difficult topics for fear of upsetting a pleasure situation. Hedonic coziness is a lesser state that lacks the psychological safety necessary for open and honest conversations. Be sure people can say what they need to say and if not, you need to do some work and have some clear conversations about how to work together better.
  • Not being honest about the stakes or impact of a power differential: Consider the impossibility of hosting a truly cozy job interviews. One participant (the interviewee) cannot feel safe when the course of their life is at stake. Although elements of welcoming and pleasantness can help mitigate other discomforts, coziness shouldn’t be used to manipulate and lull candidates into a false trust.


We encourage developers to build cozy games. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve seen there is a deep well of emotionally resonant design patterns you can use to make almost any game cozier. And on a purely pragmatic level, broadening your game’s appeal means more sales for the same effort.

However, as we went through this process, we also started to see coziness can be treated a positive philosophy for driving meaningful change in the world.

Coziness as a radical philosophy

In a time of increasing divisiveness, othering, and rampant fear and sensationalism, we propose that coziness - in that it provides safety, softness, and the satisfaction of needs - is in fact a powerful and necessary subversion of current culture.
In that coziness sees one’s needs provided for, it is anti-capitalist, and supports the comfort and care of all people.

In that coziness enables us to express our whole selves, without ramification, it is healing and validating in a hyper-critical world.

In that coziness encourages the positive resolution of conflict, it is deeply mending to our societal divides.

In that coziness elevates the softer, gentler aspects of life, it calms a threat-weary population and brings relief from fear.

In that coziness creates spaces of plenty, it provides focus amongst chaos and allows us to embrace our highest level and most human pursuits.

In that coziness offers us spaces of choice and support, it allows us to explore our underlying, intrinsic motivations.
Coziness is healing, validating, collaborative, and kind. Coziness is relief and refuge and gentle opportunity. In a harsh, demanding ecosystem of cynically generated needs and unending urgency, coziness creates comfort, and freedom, and a path to a better world.

A cozy invitation

The following is an Invitation to radically cozy game-making, which you may send (edited at will) to colleagues:
Dear designer whom I care for,

I wish for you that game-making be a refuge from the storm. I take joy from the games you make, and I hope you feel fulfilled when you make them. As a colleague, I want you to feel safe to express your inner self, to take creative risks in your craft. As a friend, I wish that you can escape the ever-present hurry and pressure of our industry and world, into a restful, healthy practice.

If you feel comfortable, I invite you to make a game that reflects those moments in your life that were meaningful, where you were content and cared for. I invite you to make a game that offers moments for players to reflect and be at ease. You don’t have to show it to me; you don’t have to share it with anyone. But I would like to be a companion in the journey towards cozier games, and I think others would, too, if you would have us.

It’s difficult and slow and I’m probably asking a lot from you. But if you try and fall short of your expectations, please know that I will still support and celebrate you. I care about you, and your work is but a small part of what makes you wonderful.

Good luck, if and when you’re ready,
-- (your signature)

Thank you so much for reading,
Chelsea, Daniel, Jake, Dan, Tanya, Squirrel and Anthony