How do you bring core game elements to a casual audience? In the May 2012 issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, lead designer Seth Sivak explains how Zynga did it in Indiana Jones Adventure World: Prototyping, innovation, and, well, Indiana Jones. (The May 2012 issue is now available via subscription and digital purchase.)
Prototyping key to success
When your goal is to take elements from classic games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Tomb Raider, and adapt them for a social game audience, you'll need to make many, many prototypes, Sivak says in the article:
The design team spent weeks toying with mechanics like stealth, avoidance, and timing-based skill. We built prototypes that used real-time movement and others that were turn-based. We tried dozens of different movement rules and an even larger variety of user interface treatments that attempted to explain them all. Eventually, we went broad and tried puzzle-based combat and a few other disparate ideas to see if there was anything that stuck. One good example of this is the "tank beastie."
IJAW is a turn-based game; each tile that the player crosses counts as a turn. We designed a beastie that would move, rotate, and attack at different rates based on the number of turns taken by the player (the "tank beastie" would turn really slowly but attack for a lot of damage). This meant we needed to create a "tell" that could explain to the player that the beastie was about to move, turn, or attack. We also had a threat range that the player could back out of, which would make the beastie stop. This was just way too much information, and even when players understood all of it, the gameplay was not terribly fun.
Every prototype was put in front of people in the office and playtested side-by-side. We judged the designs primarily on their ease of use and how easy they were to understand, but also in terms of depth and overall fun. We hoped that combat would be a cornerstone of the game for all our players--even those who had never experienced combat in a game before. We went with a very simple final design that had a handful of basic mechanics, which included critical hits that caused stuns, weapon upgrades that dealt more damage, and dodges. When the player is damaged, he loses a unit of energy (which is used every action in the game).
While this went against our core design value of never punishing our players, it allowed us to give them a feeling of judgment and mastery that we couldn't get otherwise. We like to think that IJAW was one of the first Zynga games with consequences. To our surprise, players never found the damage confusing, and they embraced it as part of the game.
Don't try to innovate everywhere
Innovation is great, but trying to innovate in every single facet of your game can actually alienate your established audience. The Indiana Jones Adventure World team found this out the hard way:
The goal for IJAW was to innovate with new gameplay and establish a new genre of social adventure games. As it turns out, that is really hard. We tried to innovate with every mechanic, user interface, and idea in the game with the intention of building something new. This became dangerous because social game players have come to expect a set of features that they believe should be part of every game and should work consistently across games.
Our collection system fell victim to this particular problem. For the readers new to social games: A collection system provides a player with a slot machine feel for every action in the game. Each object the player interacts with has a chance of dropping an item from a specific collection, and when the player completes the collection, they receive a reward. We went through several iterations for a collections system that included many different additions to the core feature. Our first try, which was called "Discoveries," was a standard collection system.
Ideally, a player would make a Discovery, give it a unique name, and then have the option to share that discovery with friends. That additional functionality increased the Discoveries system's scope, so several of the more interesting parts were put into a secondary tier. Without those additional features, however, the system did not feel very rewarding, and the relationship between the Discoveries and the objects that provided them were not clear to the player.
In the end, we decided to keep the traditional collection mechanic and scrap the Discoveries system completely. Cutting a feature your designers have been working hard on is nothing new to the game development process, but we did this everywhere--even places where we had no reason to do it (quest structure, for example). We ran into issues later on with features like Mastery, where we should have innovated but did not have enough time left to do so.
The full postmortem of Indiana Jones Adventure World goes into more detail about what went right and what went wrong with the development process.
The May 2012 issue of Game Developer also features results from a technology and tools survey for mobile and social game developers, a deep dive into TERA's free-targeting combat system, and more. You can purchase individual Game Developer issues or a subscription from the Game Developer web store, or download the Game Developer iOS app.