As I mentioned yesterday, (lil) Green Patch, an extremely simple game where you grow a garden and sent plants to your friends is the #1 game on Facebook. Read on and discover how and why they succeed.
This is Important: Facebook is a Communication Platform
It is not a gaming platform. Not yet, at least.
The primary reason people use Facebook is to communicate with friends. Messaging, wallposts, status messages, poking, commenting, etc.
The act of sending a gift leverages the communication aspect of Facebook. A gift, after all, is primarily a way of telling someone that you're thinking of them. And gifting is massive important to strengthening relationships:
Gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior, with psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers all weighing in. They have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift.Thanks, NY Times!
The last sentence is the important one. The giver enjoys the act of giving.
Gifts Can Replace Invites
Motivating users to send their friend an invitation to your game is getting harder, especially since Facebook disallowed incentivized invites. Gifting solves this problem. A gift is basically an invite that the receiver wants, and one that motivates him to install that app. The pleasure of sending a gift motivates the sender. Provided the gifts are compelling enough to send on to more friends, then you have everyone's favorite goal, virality.
The key is having gifts worth sending. For each gender, worth is calculated differently.
Gender Differences in Gift-Giving
Men are practically minded when it comes to gifts. A man will more likely send a gift that has use, for instance an item that allows his friend to play better in a game.
Women uses gifts as an emotional proxy. They want to send gifts that express something about themselves and their relationship to the recepient, for instance, a gift that has a heart and a nice message.
However, if you're going to favor one type of gift over the other in your game design, opt for gifts for women. Women are more likely to send gifts to both men and women, while men usually only send to women (and generally only women in whom they are sexually interested).
Working Gifts into Your Game Design
Ha! Like I'm going to tell you. If you need help I'll be happy to consult for you. :)
Seriously, you have to do the hard work of making gifting an organic part of game play. Or just take the easy route, and clone (lil) Green Patch like Sea Garden did.