SongPop: Where Cloning Good Design can take you


SongPop by Freshplanet now crossed over 2M DAUs, and is on a trajectory to reach the top 10 of Facebook games. The Android and iOS app aren’t doing too bad either. Its growth and design are strongly reminiscent of Draw Something. Rewind a bit, and you have a game called “we are music” launched at least a year ago by Freshplanet.
In France the game was called “blind test”meaning a music trivia game where a song gets played and the objective is to guess the fastest who the artist is or what the title is.
It’s striking to look at one of the rare remaining shreds of what “we are music” was, and what SongPop now is. They are both operating on essentially the same gameplay mechanics. “We are Music” is more complex – as in more bells and whistles, and a more cluttered interface – and was probably way more costly to develop, and failed. SongPop recycled some of the tech of We are Music, slapped the great and simple design of Draw Something on it, and voila, it is a hit.
This goes against the logic that a game with better art and more depth should perform better, and instead is much closer to the principles of simple greatness of UX design. Social and mobile games are a strange hybrid, where contradictory design principles do apply. The strength of FreshPlanet is to have recognized that, thrown away its previous designs, and applied viral and UX designs straight from OMGPOP’s Draw Something. It is not a dumb clone however, in the sense that the guessing-based gameplay is in the context of music rather than drawing. It is less easy than it may sound to clone a design in a different context, and finding a way to keep the core element of greatness in the design, ie the highly viral game design itself, was key for the success of SongPop.
There are other good blindtest apps out there too, with great multiplayer features, such as Chugulu Games’ Trivia Tunes (2.5M downloads). The trick here is that the very thing that is great for a multiplayer game, ie you can play with a single phone at up to 4 people on the spot, also hinders virality: why would I get this app and buy playlists when my friend has all that already? This is another example of good game design – it’s fun and people play and like it – shooting virality and therefore overall success right in the face. Trivia Tunes came before SongPop, and its qualities made it a successful game, but SongPop’s design is such a rocket booster that SongPop is now better ranked and more popular on the Appstore than Trivia Tunes. Add to that SongPop’s Facebook success, and it shows that SongPop’s better viral design beats Trivia Tunes, no matter the game design qualities of the latter.
The lesson here is that great viral design trumps all else when it comes to games success, and that some of its principles run contrary to the usual principles of game design. However, great virality doesn’t mean great retention, and it’s an open question whether SongPop also replicates the weaknesses of Draw Something. For example, will it have better long-term stickiness, or will it just be a passing fad? Words with Friends  was the first very popular social game with an inherently highly viral gameplay as well, and it has shown great retention and still boasts 6MDAUs. Meanwhile, Draw Something has dropped from 6M DAUs to 4M DAUs in a month on Facebook.
How could this difference in retention be explained? Competing on culture rather than on guessing a more arbitrary drawing is less random and therefore more satisfying, though Pictionary is much more fun in terms of self-expression. The foundation of both games are board games, Scrabble and Pictionary, and while Scrabble is more popular, both are so hugely popular that it would be difficult to conclude this is the main difference. But if you drill down, words with friends has both a great viral gameplay design AND a great multiplayer on the spot design, and that seems much more like the real reason for such a difference in stickiness. Let’s hope for SongPop’s long term success that such a multiplayer feature gets added soon.