I’ve been on a recent binge playing casual restaurant games, so today I thought I would lay down a few thoughts on one of them in particular – Restaurant Story 2 by developer Storm8.
Restaurant Story 2 is the latest (world wide launch Dec 2014) simulation game that challenges you to run and build your own restaurant, and is a sequel to the original Restaurant Story game (first launched on mobile in Oct 2010).
A quick glance at appannie data shows that RS2 has been hovering around the top 200 grossing in the US. Based on this and with some general knowledge of App Store rankings, I’m guesstimating that the game probably makes around $20-30k per day. Certainly not chump change, but lets discuss what could be done to improve this even further.
Casual simulation games primarily appeal people in their late twenties to early thirties, and skew >60% female. Similar games in this genre are Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Sims Freeplay, and Cooking Fever. When building a casual simulation game, the biggest drivers of fun that service this demographic are usually:
- Sense of meaningful progression
- Ability to showcase player creativity
- Social play
I’m going to spend the bulk of this writeup decomposing progression since I consider it the most important of the three design goals. Additionally, I’ll be decomposing progression for three segments of players: new users, non payers, and late game elder players.
New User Progression
The most important objective in new user progression design is to teach the new user how to play, while introducing him/her to the core fun of the game. If I wanted to sum up the core loop of RS2, it would be
“In this game, I exchange coins for ingredients, to make food and earn more coins. This helps me upgrade my restaurant and unlock more complex recipes.”
Something that strikes me as lacking in this early game experience is that the player isn’t introduced to any long term goals. For example the core loop description in Kim Kardashian might be summarized as
“In this game, I use energy to perform game actions, complete quests, and level up. This helps me unlock new locations and cities. This ultimately lets me become an A-list celebrity.”
But what is the long term aspiration for RS2? Is it to maximize my restaurant value? Complete a storyline? Providing players with a final goal can serve as a compelling reason to return to a game in subsequent days and improve first week retention numbers.
One thing I think the game has done really well is its excellent production quality. A great art style combined with a logical crafting system, plus the general fun of running a restaurant make this game a really enjoyable experience! But my second gripe with this game is an unreliability with the UX controls. For example, in the early game, when I’m still figuring out what recipes I want to make, XP drops from prior meals keep getting in the way of access to my stove. The coin and XP drops in the early game are very tiny increments (only 1-2 in value), which make collecting not really important nor particularly enjoyable. And it impedes my access to cooking, which is core to the fun of the game.
Another example is when I unlock access to new tables and chairs as I progress through the game. Getting players to redecorate in any type of builder game is a huge friction point (but can be very rewarding if players actually do it because it is key to showcasing creativity), so there is a whole slew of best practices on how to make redecorating as frictionless as possible. Unfortunately in RS2, the controls to move tables and chairs don’t work consistently, which left me frustrated since I had dropped my furniture in random spots at first and I wanted to get back and re-organize for a more optimal layout, but couldn’t because my tables and chairs just wouldn’t move.
My third new user gripe is that RS2 heavily relies on a quest system to teach players about in-game functionality. My personal preference as a consumer is that quests be used to further the narrative of the experience, and not be used so heavily as a conduit for teaching. In my experience, a lot of popups (which can work in the short term) usually indicate a lack of confidence in the intuitiveness of the user flow. I think streamlining these quests, making them as minimal as possible (such as removal of the quests for cooking mastery, since mastery is largely irrelevant at this early stage of the game) and incorporating more narrative to make learning seem less tedious would be a boon for improving the new user funnel.
Non-payers are a super important part of your audience since they can generate awareness of your game through word of mouth, and it also creates network effects by fostering a more robust social ecosystem. Like most simulation games, RS2 leverages appointment timers to drive daily engagement for the non payer and payer ecosystem. When I think of timers, I usually mentally bucket them into short, medium, and long timer categories.
- Short timers: typically used to extend session length. In RS2, the short timers are those used to collect ingredients.
- Medium timers: typically used to drive multiple sessions per day. In RS2, the medium timers are when players make food.
- Long timers: this is mainly used for daily engagement, and is built in the game through the upgrade system and the unlocking of more complex recipes.
The game follows a pretty standard playbook with their short timer design, but with respect to their medium timer design, I think it was a miss not to add the countdown directly on the stove so it becomes obvious to players when they need to return. Particularly since players are only working with 4-5 stoves at any given time, this would not have introduced interface clutter. Not making it blatantly obvious in a session how much time is remaining is probably shortchanging sessions per day, which will ultimately impact longer term D14 – D30 retention figures.
It also feels that RS2 is a bit aggressive driving player spend with the initial limitations on pantry storage space. It would be a useful exercise to benchmark this progression versus other best-in-class games, such as Hay Day, on when it feels more natural to start restricting players on storage. This is also something that could be A/B tested using various difficulty curves to find an optimal point of retention vs spender conversion. Furthermore, for such an important concept to the gameplay, such as storage space, it took me a while to understand that the pantry could be upgraded. Making this structure larger and more obvious to players could be an easy way to reduce some player dropoff when players first hit this gate.
Lastly, one feature that is noticeably absent from this game is the use of NPCs. A common problem in these types of games is that players will often just invest in the wrong resources, and the storage space limitation makes this a punitive experience. Players will then need to either delete the item from storage, wasting items they had invested in, or sink the excess into a random crafting job they may not need, slowing progress and frustrating players. A workaround for this situation is the introduction of NPCs that stop by and offer to buy your excess items, usually at a lower price than through crafting job. But what this allows players to do is offload their excess inventory and purchase items they actually need, while still earning grind currency and getting a sense of progression from the game. NPCs would fit very naturally into the restaurant storyline because real life restaurants actually have people coming by and ordering takeout all the time! Other shop owners could also stop by and make procedurally generated requests based on a players existing inventory.
Late Game Progression
I have fewer opinions on late game progression since I’m not that far into the game yet. But in most simulation games, I would expect social (either cooperative or competitive) to play a large role in elder gameplay. Right now the only social feature I can identify is connecting to Facebook so friends can help you auto-complete dishes.
This type of transactional activity certainly qualifies as social, but it fits better with a puzzle type game like candy crush because impulse and extending session timers are what drive purchase behavior in that genre. Simulation games are more about customization and resource management, which creates more diverse opportunities to leverage social. I would have liked to see other social layers, such as competitive leaderboards or a cooperative trading system as a new area of innovation.
Since casual audiences don’t usually care much for competition, trading in particular could have been a very interesting opportunity. Most trading features reinforce the engagement loop because it allows for resource exchange between players at various stages of progression. For example in Hay Day newer users are encouraged to stay in the game to get coins to unlock more buildings. However elder players will have an abundance of coins and what they need are buildable resources for more storage space. Newer users will typically have an abundance of of these resources given they are still crafting lower tier resources with shorter timers, and buildable resources usually come in the form of random drops from doing core game actions like harvesting. Providing players a forum for this type of exchange can help new players earn coins quicker, and an outlet for elder players to expand their production capacities, making the game more enjoyable and sticky for all player types. This then creates opportunity for newer features to be layered on top, such as new content for restaurant customization or even guild contests.