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Social The CrowdStar Way

The Facebook top 3 developer's VP of product development Pete Hawley shares his insights into competing in the market -- and talks of his company's drive to use data and virality to back up the creation of genuinely compelling products, not in place of it.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

November 15, 2010

24 Min Read

The social games space has entered a new evolution. Facebook has shut down the viral channels, and the top players in the field have been established -- it seems, at least from today's perspective, pretty static.

Bay Area-based CrowdStar is, as of this writing, the number three developer on the platform, with over 50 million monthly active users, and notable games such as Hello City, Happy Pets, IT Girl and Happy Aquarium.

It is also one of the currently unattached developers -- following its own processes and best instincts for the market without the influence of a larger publishing organization.

Pete Hawley, the company's VP of product development, has a background in the console game space, having worked at GT Interactive, Lionhead Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and Criterion Studios. 

Most recently before joining Crowdstar, he was part of EA's Facebook and browser games space -- a strategy which "obviously at some point became Playfish," said Hawley.

Here, Hawley talks about getting up to speed on social games, the CrowdStar path to creativity and products, and the culture shift from console to social games -- and more.

You started at CrowdStar about five months ago -- you're a relative newbie.

Pete Hawley: Yeah, relatively newb. Although in social games, that feels like many years.

The social games space is developing at a very accelerated pace.

PH: Yeah. And that's the big thing. I remember, I had been here two weeks, and the learning curve was enormous. And the speed at which we could make code changes daily, push content twice a week per game, that was a real sort of shock to the system in a good way.

But yeah, time is mightily compressed here, for sure. You know, previously, I would have been doing a game, it would maybe take 18 months to two years, and you're hoping at the end of that time, people are still going to think the idea you had is relevant, so it's a slightly different world.

Not as much as these days, but still compared to social games, that's when things end, not when they begin, right?

PH: Yeah. It's interesting now, you know, with Facebook and Twitter, I'm following all my friends back in game studios in EA or back in the UK, and they've obviously been through the crunch and Thanksgiving lunches and the usual, and I'm getting their updates. You know, they're all on vacation. They're all in like Miami or Florida and stuff.

Yeah, you burn it to a disc, it goes into a box, and you're kind of done. Obviously, you do downloadable content, and that sort of extends the life, but normally you're done, you're finished, and you go away. Here, that's not the case. A launch here is literally just the start, and your sort of preparedness for that launch is very, very different altogether.

When it comes to your responsibilities, are you primarily charting the direction of your product slate, or is it more about focusing on what you've got and enhancing that?

PH: It's both really. You know, CrowdStar is still a startup, really. It has around 90 people and is growing sensibly. You know, we have four or five big games, what we call "existing games", in Facebook and two launches.

So, we do look at them slightly separately, but overall, yeah, you're looking at your existing games, and they have a very well-established audience, very active in community. You know, you're giving them new content pretty much twice a week. Every day, you're changing and fixing the gameplay experience. So, that in itself operationally has to be pretty disciplined. And then with the new games, we're just trying to get our processes better.

So, yeah, we're kind of doing both. We're looking at our existing business, looking at new games, but also looking ahead because we've got more ideas than we have people right now. We're looking at who should be going where, across the whole studio, looking at the whole team structure and talent levels and where we sort of need new people, and opportunities for guys who've been here a while want to move to new games. So, it's like this constant shifting sort of thing. Which is awesome that it's all under one roof.

How much of ideas for games that are presently launched, or recently launched, or upcoming, are organic from within? How much are they, "What do we think the market needs?" Or "will accept?"

PH: Actually, that's one of the things that attracted me to CrowdStar above and beyond some of the other companies in the same spots, the same space: the really strong combination of both.

Over the two years, the founders, Jeff [Tseng], Suren [Markosian], and Peter [Relan] as chairman, have a really strong awareness of what worked in the market in terms of the overall audience because you have such a huge amount of awesome data.

But I think what was critical about CrowdStar, why I wanted to come here as opposed to other places, is it's still a very creative exercise. It's still very much based on "What do we want to make? What makes sense? And does it suit the market?" It's a really strong combination. So, it feels very genuine to me.

It was never a case of, "What's working in Japan? What's doing well in China? Let's kind of steal that and bring that over!" I think it's a really good combination of both of those things.

And then, we have a number of ideas that we sort of have shelved. I was saying earlier, on console games, you start making a gem, you've got two years to develop it. You're hoping at the end of that period, it's successful. I think what's awesome is about what we do, you know fairly quickly whether it's still going to relevant. The speed at which a competitor can come out with something very similar, as well, affects things hugely.

Do you guys pull out of games if they're not working? What is your strategy there? Do you want to try and bolster them or redirect them?

PH: Well, I think the one big difference is that you can actually test your game theories and economics and theme and content with data, with an audience. You can limit that audience size. The funnels that you can control in terms of overall launch size is under our control, so we can take a relatively small amount of audience and tune and tweak the gameplay in terms of progression and otherwise.

So, you want to really make sure the game is engaging with people first. That's what CrowdStar does really well. You make sure that the game is engaging with people first rather than just throwing something out and hope it will monetize on day one.

Engagement is critical. We measure that with data literally every day. We can tweak and change features. We can watch player progression or speed at which players are progressing through content or otherwise. And we can adjust.

And so we work through that quite diligently on a new launch pretty much by the hour on some features and by the day on others, we're watching those feature changes and adjusting constantly.

And then when we're feeling comfortable and happy with what we would consider launch metrics, then you open up the funnel of real users.

The game is changing so rapidly. How do you have a sense of what's good metrics? Facebook is growing its audience -- though not as fast as it used to be. The landscape is changing, so how do you have a sense of what you even want to be at?

PH: Yeah, I think that's a good question. Obviously, two years of pretty solid data and metrics on existing games is a pretty amazing starting point. If you have 25 to 70 million gamer DAU [daily active users] a day, it's a pretty significant amount of data to understand what works and what doesn't.

There's so many different factors in that. It's like data: who's coming back the next day, engagement over longer periods of time, like three, five, seven days. There's a number of things we track very specifically. So, you can imagine there'd be a dashboard at launch, you'd have the top 12 things that are just consistently should be measured because they make sense for any game.

And then beneath that layer, there's a whole set of subcategories of very specific content, [which] measures for that individual game. So, yeah, we watch all our games consistently with data.

It's obvious why data is useful, but I think the skill is in interpreting and knowing actually what it means.

PH: Absolutely.

I've talked to developers who've said it can lead you down the wrong path if you don't understand exactly what the data represents.

PH: No doubt. Yeah. So, that's the great dynamic about working here. When you're in a meeting in the morning or studying the data, we're also looking at the game. If you think any like successful business in terms of a partnership, it's like left and right-hand side of the brain, there's this constant sort of art, science discussion going on.

So, yeah, you're right. I mean, if you just follow digital logic, you're kind of doomed because if you're not thinking about how we should be sort of amazing and delighting people, no matter what game business you're in, whatever platform you're in, if you're not amazing or delighting people, then you've missed. It doesn't matter.

What logic gives you... It can stop arguments dead in some cases. If, for example, you launch a game and everyone is kind of getting stuck and bored at level 9, there's not much of an artistic conversation around that. It's pretty clear.

But in terms of what CrowdStar is really motivated by and driven by is product. So, it's never an engineering task or an engineering feat. We always think about player experience first, always, everyone. So, yeah, it's a combination.

There's also the potentiality to misinterpret data. You can see "this is where people are getting stuck." But that won't necessarily tell you why. Or maybe people are getting through the tutorial too fast. It is too easy, or is it because you can just hold down the button?

PH: Yeah. Exactly. There's a number of ways with tackling that. The first port of call is community. So, our forums are just wild, as you can imagine, lots of activity managed really well by a community team.

And we listen to those guys first and foremost because they're really the people that are getting stuck. And the awesome thing about that is you're getting the reasons for that explained in pretty much plain English -- sometimes in language you don't really want -- but generally you get that in very plain speak.

Even the audience for Happy Aquarium is speaking in blue language? [laughs]

PH: Yeah. That was the amazing thing for me. They're very eloquent when they're describing what they feel is wrong and right in the game. And the community is so passionate. Once the game has been on the market for a year and you've still got two million people playing a game, they're pretty vocal still, and it's awesome. That's really our first port of call.

When I say data, it's not just 1s and 0s in Excel. It's data coming in right from community, from game health reports, from player feedback, from all these different places. So, my role is really for all those game teams and game leads is to help them prioritize that over a week and two-week process, so we're sort of always adjusting.

You have a very strong background from traditional games, and as we know the market is shifting. There are traditional games, and there will be traditional games, but social gaming is one of the most seismic shifts we've had in the industry in a long time.

PH: Yeah.

Taking those experiences and sort of integrating them together, what do you think you bring over from that side? Was there something that the social space is missing?

PH: Social games have moved through phases, right? Phase one was very simple quiz apps, questions and stuff. Phase two -- and I'm generalizing wildly -- was the HTML-based, you know, Mafia Wars and so on. Hugely successful. Phase three is Flash. We really brought things to life.

And now we're getting to a point where, certainly with our new launch like It Girl and other games by our competitors, there's a sophistication level, and the team size, and then obviously the data and the systems that lie beneath that is very sophisticated.

And then of course, you're going to grow your business without breaking it...

To answer your question, when I look back at my time at the big studios on the console side, I've seen so many mistakes. When EA grows a studio or Sony grows a studio to like 200 people or more on one game, you just get to see what breaks socially within a group. It becomes really dysfunctional and hard to control 200 people to a three-year schedule and 50 million bucks. It's kind of insane.

I think what I was determined to do -- and Suren and Peter and Jeff more so -- was that if I was going to come from a sort of EA and Sony background, I wasn't going to come in and build some sort of hierarchal studio model by default, like stamp an EA sort of executive produced pyramid on top of the studio.

So, the great thing about CrowdStar is obviously the hierarchy is kind of flat, so we've sustained that. We've just brought in lightweight processes. People call it "agile". You can call it whatever you like. But if you meet every day for short periods and if you have goals per team, you can keep meeting levels down but introduce some framework that companies have, and some ways of expressing what your games are all about.

Big companies just figured that stuff out a long time ago brilliantly. EA called it the X statement, where you just have that one defining mission statement. So, there's some definite things that I've introduced with the help of others to bring process, but make sure we don't break the process by just adding hierarchy and middle management levels, which would destroy the culture of CrowdStar and the speed and the agility of the staff. You just don't want to break that because it's pretty amazing.

What about in terms of design? Originally, a lot of the people in these companies came from the web direction, so they knew a lot about interface and UI. They knew a lot about testing.

PH: They also know a lot about how to hack together speedy modules and get it to market in an instant. That's one of the huge things I've found. Engineers here... You can call it "hacker", you can call it whatever you like, but that ability to sort of get it live so people can experience it quickly is also a very web-focused way of thinking about things.

But in CrowdStar, what's awesome is it's a pretty good, strong combination between those guys and some guys from a console background. So, really good computer science code structure background, and thought about how to build product.

And all of our game leads, as engineers and otherwise, are all focused about games very specifically. So, the people that we have leading our games think about game first. So, I think there's a pretty good combination between those two skills.

When you look at the audience, or potential audience, for social games, you see a lot of people who didn't have time for or interest in traditional games and their platforms. Do you see the audience changing over the next couple of years, or expanding?

PH: I think we can definitely see it expanding. I remember I was at GDC this year, and there was this huge argument with a couple of guys from Sony and EA that I used to work with, I was like, I've been at forums with these guys at traditional game shows, the girls in games discussion panel.

They'll all be talking about Barbie and pink games and blah blah. I'm like, you know, social games, this is the mass market. This is the female gamer. Just because it's not 12 million playing Halo, these guys don't like it very much, but I was pretty excited about it.

So, there's that side of the market, which is generally a huge audience that sort of monetizes reasonably well. But there's a definite -- in the last few months -- a growing market for more core games that have a smaller size of people playing every day, but they monetize better because those guys are used to paying money, right, for game experiences and digital content.

And I think, for those guys, as these games get more sophisticated and they realize they're probably in for a sort of more social experience but over a six-, 12-, or 24-month period, that's pretty exciting.

You definitely see that the market's shifting towards some more elaborate games, more traditional in some ways than games you've seen before.

PH: Yeah. It's kind of weird. Because, like, when you're my age, it's kind of unfortunate, but if you look back to the early mid-'90s, you look to the Bullfrog stuff and some of the games coming out with the sort of sim theme, or the isometric engines, in some ways, it's gone back, but it's far more interesting and far more powerful because you're actually thinking of social interaction as a game mechanic first rather than just a pure game mechanic.

It's kind of cool. You're not putting all that time, energy, and effort in building a single-player experience. You're actually thinking about a group of people first, so it's pretty cool from that side.

When you talk about social mechanics, I think that's one place that -- this is totally an observation, feel free to disagree -- that's a real area for growth.

PH: I agree.

In terms of the richness, and the actual integration.

PH: Yeah. I agree totally. Because in the past, you know, whatever game you're playing, you could invite someone in. And you invite, and it's a very viral mechanic, and you would have your friends in a part of the world...

If you look at what we've done, with Mighty Pirates, the people on that boat are your friends. And when you go off treasure hunting together, you share the loot. And that was one of the great things.

Pirates was the first real creative process I went to at CrowdStar, you know, because I haven't been here very long. So, if you think about Pirates, that was a pretty amazing starting point because it's fairly clear what pirates do, right? They all gather on a ship, and there's a sort of pretty awful group of guys and girls, and they go off on ships, they battle each other, and they go treasure hunting and find treasure. It's pretty straightforward.

So, when you take that as a straightforward basis for the game, then it's kind of obvious, I guess, but it's not been done before. You're right. That sort of involvement as real friends, right? So, if you're choosing a crew for your boat to operate your guns or operate the telescope or something, you want them... If they've specialized and if they're on a certain level, you're going to choose your friends for a specific reason.

So, then, when you've got your motley crew on the boat, [indicating] it's me, you, and [CrowdStar PR rep] Peter, and we're on the boat and we go treasure hunting. When we find treasure, you get some, you get some, and I get some. That sort of stuff. That's just the start. I think doing that more sort of becomes almost guild-like, not in an RPG sense, kind of in an RPG sense, but it's guild-like and it's real people with their really character, progressions and otherwise, it's a pretty powerful tool.

When you say "RPG-like," it is. I think what we're seeing is the adaptation of existing concepts into a new space, a lot of times. It obviously facilitates rapid iteration when you're working with established concepts.

PH: Yeah. A lot of what the themes do, I think, is remove the instant stigma. Because generally, you know... I used to have this joke at EA where if you leave like 60 developers alone, right, with no input, you're going to get space marines or goblins or some derivative.

But I think what's powerful is that Facebook is a platform for a whole bigger audience, and playing games with your friends is really cool. And I think the themes have helped sort of soften that stigma. So, you imagine the audience has gone through this sort of learning curve of how awesome that is. And as it gets more social and more sophisticated and more interesting, yeah, I think it's got somewhere to go that's even more amazing than where we are now.

I have a couple more big questions. The first one is, so, social game development cycles have typically been what, like two to four months...

PH: Yeah.

...then you launch, and then things move forward from there.

PH: Yeah.

Do you think that's going to stay stable? Or is it going to change depending on what the goal of the project is?

PH: Like you were saying earlier, there's different kind of games that appeal to different people. If you look at some of the games launched by our competitors recently, they're pretty sophisticated and kind of polished. I think that's definitely setting a new expectation for people.

Sophistication in levels of content, working with friends, progressing through more interesting social mechanics and game features -- it just takes time to build. You can see with teams increasing, even if it's still by comparison to console, it's like, "Yeah, okay." But they're growing. Games are growing. The time to get them polished is growing. But I still don't think it's going to get to the point where there's a hundred people building one social game.

I still think the amazing thing is... What I've found in my short time here is you've just got to be really brave. Your game's good enough, and people would love to engage with it for what it is right now, and I think the struggle that some guys in traditional console have come in the other way is that, you know, they've spent, I don't know, five, 10, or 15 years being trained that you can only launch at perfection. So, it's just a completely different way of thinking.

But the two to four month thing is very much dependent on the game you're trying to make. If you're trying to build Mighty Pirates, then two months it's probably not going to do it. Pop Boom, for us, was a really exciting, amazing project, a simple puzzle game that was very engaging and driven by high scores. That was kind of a month. It does really depend on which game you're making and why.

As we see things sort of start to spread out a little bit more from that, it's going to change the way of working.

PH: Yeah. And, who knows? Facebook is a platform, you know. Games is hugely important to them. I think over time, they will just be more interested and focused on quality of experience. So, the true virality is about game quality. And if it's really good, I'll want to invite you to my game. It's just in my mind. We'll give you the mechanics to do that easily. You'll want to do it. It will be less of a sort of viral carpet bomb and much more of an engagement sort of exercise because the game is really good.

Prior to the most recent update which quashed notifications, my initial reaction to every single Facebook game was the first time it popped into my feed, was "hide". I clicked the hide button. It would say, "Hide person name" or "Hide game". I'm like, "No, hide the game."

I never will see another update from this game. And, eventually, that was the first time for every game that popped up. Otherwise you're going to get a bunch of lost cows or whatever, right?

PH: [laughs] Yeah. I think that's the point. But where they've gone now is interesting, right, with this discovery. Because the idea now is that if you get your copy and your creative content right, then if you and Peter started playing a game, I'm notified.

So, that's kind of interesting because then that notification isn't just a lost cow or whatever. It's that you guys started to play something, and I should feel good because the copy's good, right, and it sounds awesome. I want to be involved. So, the discovery stories, the discovery feeds on Facebook are a much more powerful way of seeing what your friends are playing.

Give me a legitimate reason to get interested.

PH: Right. Exactly. So, these two are playing it, and by the way, the next day, these other eight people are playing it. by the way, 16 of your friends are playing it. You start to get that sort of social group. And if the messaging is cool because you're sharing treasure and you're battling on a boat together, straight away, that sounds kind of cool. It means something to people.

And I guess my last question is I think it's a fair criticism to say -- and I'm not leveling it at CrowdStar but rather the industry in general. Social games are tapping into this huge female audience. Less so than traditional games, but there's still a huge propensity to be men creating for women, and women not necessarily having input. Do you see that?

PH: Well, obviously, you know, coming from console, I spent the last 15 years working in game studios with 99.9 percent dudes, and it's not particularly healthy. Having said that, I was working on Burnout and Black, cars and machine guns.

Those are two very dude-y games.

PH: Yeah. Very dude-y games. But the really good, refreshing thing for me is the balance at CrowdStar is far higher. Take the It Girl team. I would say the majority are girls, actually, on that team. I could do the math, but it's higher than 50/50. And it has to be, right? Because there's no way the three of us could make It Girl meaningful. It's just not, right?

You were talking earlier about the "pink" mentality...

PH: Yeah, I used to hate that stuff. It used to drive me mad. "Pink Games" was one of the forum names. I was like, "I'm not going to that. They're just going to talk about ponies and Barbie games. It's really patronizing."

Whereas here, if we have an issue with It Girl, features not really hitting the way we want it to, the first people in the room are like the three lead girls on the team. It's not Suren and I and Jeff trying to figure it out with graphs and Excel sheets. It's like, "No, we need to get the girls on the team in here. We need to play the game with them to get their feedback and talk it through."

So, yeah, you're right. You just can't do it. So, I think the mix here is far healthier. It used to drive me mad in consoles. After 15 years, I was done.

Sausage party?

PH: [laughs] Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. But, you know, I think that's the other awesome thing. I'm kind of generalizing. If you're really interested and engaged in something, then you might want to make it one day, right? So, you imagine the video game business... I just played games from like 1979 to when I got in the business. I was addicted, and I still am. That's how I got in.

So, you'd hope that with this huge female audience, there's going to be younger girls and people coming through schools and colleges that actually want to come through and make games because they've played them and they love them and they believe they can make them better, right, which is my reason for getting into video games.

Most people I know, they wanted to get in to make them better because they have so many ideas about how that should be done. So, I think the future is pretty bright for that percentile shift to be even better.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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