Nightclub City: An intentional or accidental case of hidden complexity?

Booyah’s Nightclub City has been around for a while and it’s one of my favourite success stories on Facebook. It isn’t backed by one of the big boys, it’s original and it actually has some pretty sweet music. All this comes in a very pretty package with high production values. It’s a bit like Car Town; coming from an unknown developer (Booyah didn’t take credit for it until months after release) and surprising everyone… especially the naysayers who think Facebook is getting too difficult to develop new successful games for.

Nightclub City appeals to both genders and all age groups; drinking and dancing is almost a universal hobby around the western world. You design your DJ in the simple but enjoyable avatar creator, then you hit the decks and start sucking the pennies out of boozed up revellers. It began with a very small playlist of independent/low status tracks and mashups, then switched to 30 second previews from iTunes. Once it got bigger, it could afford to bring in some real music and actually began collaborating with willing artists. Since then, Nightclub City has grown and grown. Now it features regularly on the list of the applications with the highest MAUs.

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Booyah's Nightclub City

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I refer a lot to the past tense, as it’s been months since I last hit the cloughb. I’m unaware of any new features (although I hear something about organizing special parties and theme nights), but that doesn’t matter because Nightclub City had one feature which kept me playing for weeks. And I don’t just mean logging on every day, I mean playing. What most interested me about this particular feature was that it felt completely unintended. I think it was exploiting the game, a bit like how cross-ups are said to have been a glitch from Street Fighter II that were intentionally left in the game to add depth.

The trick was simple. Whenever a ‘High Roller’ walked into your club, they had a very high chance to purchase a table at your club, if it was available. Tables earn you a large initial payment, then a smaller bonus once the patron was done. If you were paying attention, you could see when a High Roller had paid upon entry, wait for them to sit down and then kick them out of the club! This gave you a big injection of cash and freed up the table for more High Rollers. In doing this, I managed to earn cash at a much quicker rate than my friends. It turned a simple ‘one-click-per-minute’ game into one with some basic micro skill. The quicker you were at kicking them out, the more money you earnt. If you were tactical, you could place your bouncers in specific locations that would minimize the time it takes to throw a High Roller out of the club and get them ready to throw out the next one! Until I found this trick, I felt that I didn’t have much control over my destiny. Like most farming games, you’re a slave to the clock… to the schedule the developer decides for you. In Nightclub City, I could influence my success with this simple trick, which made it more immersive and satisfying. It felt like a game and not a chore.

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Thanks for the table fee Nicklas

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After thinking like this, I started to realize the appeal of resource management social games. Nightclub City was full of little mechanics which made you think. These mechanics let the stronger players stand out, but the weaker ones still enjoy their leisurely game experience. It’s the holy grail of Facebook gaming. How does one make a fun, engaging and long-term game without making it too complicated for the most casual of players? Game developers want the big spending Facebook ‘High Rollers’, but High Rollers are only going to play your game if you have the numbers in your ‘club’. The super-competitive cash cows need the free-to-play people. Nightclub City’s expulsion mechanic, as well as the barman/DJ abilities let the hardcore players optimize and maximise their revenue (the appeal of these games). Yet they were packaged in such a simple and accessible way that your 60 year old grandma didn’t get scared off by the confusing ‘special moves’.

In one of my first ever blog posts, I discussed whether depth requires complexity. Unless you’re the inventor of Chess, it’s pretty difficult to really achieve timeless fun with only a few pieces on the board. Yet, I’ve been thinking recently about hidden complexity. Nightclub City looks simple on the outside, but more hardcore players can have an engaging experience if they want to. I believe that letting players choose their own experience, rather than the designers choosing it for them, is key to this. Give players the tools to create their own level of complexity and you’ll achieve the accessibility that social games need, but the hardcore cash cows that the developers need to stay in business.

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Sam

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