[In this interview, culled from lengthy discussions with pioneering Chinese social game developer Five Minutes -- creators of early and extremely domestically successful farming game Happy Farm -- you'll find a fresh look at the social gaming market.]
Five Minutes may not have the same kind of brand recognition as Zynga in the U.S., but the company has the leading farm game in its territory. Happy Farm, which launched in late 2008, is huge on Tencent's Qzone social network.
The company's stats on Facebook aren't as impressive, but as Ben Zao and Season Xu, co-founder and COO discuss below, they're making efforts to not just form the company's fundamental perspective on games, but explore the ways in which Five Minutes' titles can hit in the Western market.
Even if they never do, the team has a lot to contribute to the discussion of the direction social games will be going -- a fact Gamasutra first picked up on when co-founder Ellison Gao delivered a talk at GDC China's Social Gaming Summit last December.
"There's always a discussion whether you want to design a game from a whole bunch of objective data, or you make the call subjectively. So we are more of this subjective part," says Xu, who believes that there is a yin and yang -- a balance that must be struck -- when developing social games, as he explains below.
The story that everyone talks about is that Happy Farm was the first social farm game, and it sort of set off the trend. Is that what you guys think?
Season Xu: In China it's definitely true. In the world, I think My Farm from David King, that's the first farming game in the world. And then there would be two farms; one is Happy Farm created by us, I think in 2008 December-ish. And there was Farm Town, created by SlashKey over there in Texas.
And then everybody is talking about whether Zynga copied any game stuff. Honestly from my perspective, I always clarify that every time I see everybody -- they didn't copy us, at all. I don't know their relationship with the Farm Town guys, but yeah, they definitely didn't do anything with us.
Are you trying to expand the success of Happy Farm in the English-speaking market?
Ben Zao: I'm mostly focusing on Little War. But there's a great history of Happy Farm.
SX: Happy Farm was the first farming game over here in China, and we got a very great success. In the market it was number one -- still is the number one product. And we launched the product on Tencent in 2009 April and it gained over 20 million new active users, so that's a pretty big success, and then we're trying to expand the product to the U.S.
At that time, we used to have a million daily active users, but then it dropped to like 200k right now. [As of the publishing this article, Happy Farm has around 330,000 monthly active users on Facebook alone, according to AppData.]
And then Zynga's launching FarmVille in Japan.
Which is weird because Japan has a Harvest Moon social game already. Harvest Moon is the seed for farm...
SX: It's the seed for farming, yeah.
At this point, it sounds funny, but farming is probably the most popular video game genre in the world. Why do you think that is?
SX: But I think it's mainly dealing with the demographics, right? Because for social networks, I heard there's a study talking about, like, women tend to social network a lot more than men do, and then they spend more time on it. So they need a game that's designed for them, but the traditional gaming market doesn't have a lot of those games. So for them I think, nurturing is a very good concept. They're born like that, they're born to nurture stuff. That's what I feel.
I think psychology is coming into game design more and more.
SX: Right, psychology's very important.
At a summit, I saw a speaker who said that a lot of Chinese game designers, you'd go to their desk and they have psychology textbooks. Do you think that's true or false?
SX: To look up a psychology book and see whether it's true or not? I don't know. Like we tend to read a lot of psychology books, that's for sure.
You mean game designers, or just Chinese people in general?
SX: Chinese people in general do not look at psychology books, but game designers -- I think there are two different types of people. One is like they just learn from experiences; just learn from real [work]. And then another is like very scholarish; they read a lot of books and then they just try to learn from past knowledge people develop.
And so the question then becomes one of ethics. Your game industry is so different than ours. In America, there's a tremendous amount of backlash and argument over monetization and retention. A lot of traditional game designers with a background in console games are very, very pissed off about what they see as manipulative game design practices in social games. I'm sure you've encountered this.
SX: Yeah, yeah. China's even worse.
That's what I've heard.
SX: They ask people to give like 10, maybe 100 thousand U.S. dollars per month just for like [to] buy a weapon, or sword, or whatever. I don't know, I try to stay away from this topic. It might affect my willingness to do this business. [laughs]
Yeah, but there are a lot of people who talk about this. I remember there was one discussion going on at ChinaJoy. There was an argument, there was one person saying, hey, as long as the user wanted to buy, and then they get a happiness right after buying it... they were creating some value to the human society. But there was one saying -- just like you said, I mean psychology-wise, not everybody is that capable of defending against that.
Just like Inception, right? You get trained to defend yourself in your dreams, right? Not everybody gets that training, so when there are people who are really capable of manipulation, then you easily get manipulated.
It's a big point of discussion.
SX: Yeah, but I really think, either way, you have to create happiness first. Either way. Because however good you are... I mean yeah, you're good at manipulation, but still you have to create happiness first, otherwise people would not get attracted.
Well, that's what attracted me to meeting you guys -- when I saw [co-founder] Ellison [Gao's] talk, and it was "Philosophy, art, inspiration... and then turn into Zynga after you've mastered that part." Emotion, inspiration, creativity, [pumps down fist] then turn into Zynga. Not from the beginning, right?
SX: Right. There's always a discussion whether you want to design a game from a whole bunch of objective data, or you make the call subjectively. So we are more of this subjective part. I'm not saying that's right; we are still learning and making up the objective part, but I think what Ellison's also saying in the company internally is… [pauses]
I think a human being needs to more depend on this subjective call. That's the Tao and the yin yang part. It's very interesting and I just want to explore a little bit more about the yin yang concept. Basically what yin yang says, what Tao says, is this very simple concept.
If there is a yin there is always a yang, right? If there is a positive there is always a negative. So, meaning, you cannot overly depend on either side.
I mean, if you overly depend on objective, you lose the subjective call; if you overly depend on subjective, you lose the objective. So there's always the bad side and the good side of it, so I think you have to very smoothly, conquer every different skill in order to win in the long run.
But when it comes to actually operating the games, do you then get really objective, really focused on metrics? You know, really focused on AB testing, all that stuff.
SX: Yeah, but that's stuff that we're picking up right now. So we're far away, way far away from the masters. That's the stuff that we're really bad at.
BZ: Just to elaborate a little bit more, it used to be in the office that we'd talk about ARPU, DAU a lot. Nowadays he's [Gao] all about retention, and more importantly user engagement. You know, people have to like our game first before we can monetize or something. But users have to like our game, they have to be happy, they get what they want from our game first. That's what we're really focusing on right now.
I think that for the long term health -- and I could just be a romantic -- but I think for the long term health and value of social games, we have to move toward that, right?
SX: Right. Definitely, we cannot be too romantic, just like you said. But I think the good thing is we're definitely making baby steps forward. The dream of the company is to create social happiness, so we think this is the very beginning of everything.
So we're more thinking we're working in the internet game industry more than the social game industry. I think all the games will move from offline to internet; that must be a trend. So what kind of games we're going to make? A lot of stuff can be decided, and then done in the future, because game and learning happiness, you know, it's just human nature; it will not be killed.
I was always telling people at the marketing side, when they go into a new market, new country, the advantage of a gaming company is that we never have to worry about need. You're not P&G, you're not McDonald's, who always have to do like customer need study to learn whether they have the need to eat this food or use this product. For gaming, there is always a need. So we don't have to worry about it; just have to create the right product.
Ellison spoke about the need for games to have opportunities for learning. That the player will, by playing the game, get to learn and grow along with game.
SX: Games are all about learning; I think this is a very influential concept for the company.
Yeah, you have to insert a learning response in different [ways] in the life of the game, so that it'll actually create the lifespan of the entire game. It's not like we just create one core mechanism at the very beginning; the user, ultimately, will get bored of it.
So you have to insert more learning points on the way, so that user always has something new to explore and learn. And the learning itself always creates the true happiness. That's the Tao part. Because if God didn't create people who like to learn, then human beings cannot evolve.
How often do you update new content in your games?
SX: Once a week.
It's interesting to see how long people can keep that going. That's a very open question, I think, in social games right now. How long can one game last, even if it's continuously updated? How long will the users stay? How long till ideas start to get stale? Those kinds of questions.
SX: That's how I see this problem, right? It is very difficult to maintain a habit like running an hour every night. But it's very easy to maintain a habit like brush your teeth every morning for five minutes. So if the game just consumes a very limited amount of your resources, it's pretty easy for you to develop and maintain that habit.
Right now because we are not inserting a lot of learning points into the game itself, so I think the main force asking all those audience keep playing the game is the habit itself; it's the momentum.
I do see Zynga has been doing a lot of stuff, like adding more features, those features require you to learn new game mechanics. So I think we are learning from the traditional world or whatever, trying to make the game itself have more learning points and learning lifespan. So in the future, because we have the advantage of putting the game on the internet and we can update it whenever we want, I think the lifespan wouldn't be a big problem.
I've been kind of looking at it like television. In television -- I don't know exactly how it works in China -- but in America, a television show will get popular and will last for a number of years until slowly, inevitably it sort of goes downhill. There's a lot of differences obviously, it's not a perfect comparison…
SX: That's a perfect analogy. It's a perfect comparison, from my standpoint. It's very similar to Japanese comic books, too -- they update the content once a week. I'm just taking Japanese comic books as an example because I'm more familiar with them.
So basically for them, like years after, they kind of developed a mythology, right? So in every week's content update, at the end of it they always put like a point that's being very attractive, making you so want to read next week's stuff.
Just like 24, right? Just like Big Bang Theory, or whatever; it's very, very similar to that. So there was a mythology you can develop and learn on the way. And after the mythology's developed it's like Hollywood, they can produce tons of sequels.
We're talking about it in terms of narrative media, like films, or comics, or TV, but ultimately, these games are very different; they don't have a lot of story. So where does the comparison break down? What in your games takes the place of storytelling, the cliffhanger?
SX: This is a very interesting point. Honestly, for our future games, so we do want to take a lot of experiments on this. Because when you see FrontierVille, for example, they already kind of encompassed the marriage concept into it, so you are playing the game with a very definite goal.
Not like before like FarmVille, it doesn't have a goal, right? Because nobody tells you "Hey!" like what kind of stuff will happen in the future, and that's the stuff you need to do in order to achieve that. But in FrontierVille, it tells you, "Hey, if you want to get married, here's the stuff you need to do."
It's sort of like it already has a storyline underneath it, but it's just not that strong. But I don't know whether Zynga's going to make it stronger or not, but for us, we're willing to take a try as well for our future games -- to plant a storyline underneath it, to see how the user can get attracted to it.
What about user creativity? A lot of these social games have been very passive and simple, right?
Is the audience able to give more? In terms of their creativity, do you see that that audience is interested in that kind of opportunity, to have that kind of conversation?
SX: You mean like users are very interested in giving their creativity to community, right?
For example, like a decoration part. I think the main difference between Happy Farm to FarmVille is that FarmVille has a decoration opportunity for the users. The users can create like Barack Obama on their farm, right? I was seeing that during the presidential election. That was really creative; that's how the users were trying to express their ideas.
But for a Chinese audience, I don't know, it's needed but it's not like that much needed, I would say, at this point. So the leveling up system -- like the achievement system -- still more important for the Chinese audience. Just like Maslow's pyramid -- you know the self-achievement part? Like what kind of role self-achievement is playing in that tiny community, right?
So for China, I think we still have to kind of create a very simple way so you can know how you level up and become higher up in the hierarchy; you have to be very, very clear. But in the U.S. I think everybody wants to be very different from each other, rather than higher level than each other.
In terms of sociology, they say that China is a collectivist society and America's an individualistic society, so there's some fundamental difference there. Do you think that specifically affects social gameplay mechanics?
SX: Yeah, it definitely affects a lot I think. Just like I said, I just use Happy Farm as example, with Happy Farm we especially focused on the leveling up system. And we have a very specific goal for every user, is you have to develop all the lands. And we have 18 pieces of land, and at the beginning, you have six. But the 18th piece is right there, so you see this is your goal.
Every time you have to develop one new land, it requires more gold, so you know how to achieve that goal specifically. It doesn't have a lot of places for you to decorate and everything; express your own ideas.
So that's one point that's different, and another point is for the Chinese for Happy Farm we really focused on the competition part. I think competition is very important over here. That's how we kind of incorporated a stealing concept; that concept is definitely not going to work over there in the U.S.
I think where people might compete in the U.S. is showing off.
SX: Right. Competing, right? Showing off.
Who's got the better farm, who's got the cooler farm…
SX: Cooler farm, right? So they define "cool" all from different perspectives. But China, we define "stronger" in one certain way -- always more money or more power. It's simple; nobody has a different view of that. That's very different.
And the interesting thing about the stealing is… I was talking about this at Inside Social Gaming Summit. Like for the Chinese audience, when we make girlfriends and boyfriends, we steal each other's books. So, for example if I really fall in love with a girl, I steal something from her, just letting her know I want to know this from her. And this is very different; it's a very indirect way to express my feeling towards some person.
Because I steal a book, then she'll notice me; she knows I'm doing something. So this is very different. I think in the U.S., yeah you just "Hey," right? "I just let you know I love you."
Well, the thing you do in the U.S. is you leave a toothbrush at their apartment.
SX: [laughs] Really?
Yeah, like you know if you stay over, you get a toothbrush at the store and you like leave it in their bathroom so it implies that you're going to keep coming back.
SX: Oh, that's interesting. I didn't know that.
SX: Now I learned a new skill.
There's so much discussion about culture, right? It's no secret that China's becoming more and more important in the world, and America is very keen on keeping a strong relationship. So there's a lot of cultural interface going on different levels.
And it's interesting to see how that affects games, because ultimately games are a purely cultural product.
SX: Also the business model will be different. For the U.S., we can focus on a paid percentage rather than the ARPPU -- the average revenue per paying user; I think the focus will be different.
With China, it's like, [his tone of voice is almost begging] "Hey, come on!", right? You still have to face the fact that not a lot of people will pay online, because they're not that wealthy, so you kind of have to focus on the rich people. For China, it's like the rich people are very rich; the poor people are very poor. For the U.S., the whole middle level's so big, right? So the rich and poor people are in two sides that are smaller. So the business model will be shaped differently, I think.
You spoke about the competitive nature of Chinese gaming, and the need to achieve. If you look at MMOs that are popular in both countries, it's my understanding that here way more play PvP and in America way more play PvE, so it's kind of in the same vein.
SX: World of Warcraft is popular in both -- a lot more PvP here. PvP is the way that we actually gain the core achievements.
The thing that's interesting to me is that -- in America anyway, and I don't know if the demographics are the same -- we think of a FarmVille player, on average being a 35 year old woman. You're thinking of a 35 year old woman with a PvP kind of mentality? Seems a bit strange.
SX: I think for U.S., you want to conquer the world, right? For us, we want to conquer the person; we want to conquer each other.
BZ: I think there's something interesting, something in common with our Happy Farm, the stealing part, with FarmVille's mechanism. I think FarmVille's gifting is very fun; it's like the first thing that American users get to use to communicate between the mother and daughters.
That's the first thing, you know, they ever had before -- like mother and daughter can communicate in one [game] that they have something in common. Same thing with the Chinese market with our Happy Farm, that's actually something. For the first time in their life, daughter and the mother -- or son and mother or even the father -- can play the same thing and they'll be somewhat competitive about one thing. That's just a phenomenon that was never seen before; I think that's a very interesting point.