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The Strategic Evolution Of Social Gaming

Zynga stunned the industry when it hired veteran PC strategy developer Brian Reynolds to head up its Zynga East studio -- but the success of FrontierVille put to rest any questions about the decision. Here, he and Ensenble co-founder Bruce Shelley chart the future of social games.

[Zynga stunned the industry when it hired veteran PC strategy developer Brian Reynolds to head up its Zynga East studio -- but the success of FrontierVille put to rest any questions about the decision. Here, he and Ensenble co-founder Bruce Shelley chart the future of social games.]

With the hire of Brian Reynolds away from Big Huge Games in 2009, Zynga made clear that part of its strategy going forward was to hire "traditional" game developers from outside of the social space to inject tried and true methods and design philosophies into an emerging area. That strategy was no doubt cemented into place by the success of his first game with the company, FrontierVille.

Along with Reynolds, Bruce Shelley, co-founder of shuttered Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios, explains how and why he's come on as a design consultant for Zynga, and what he's taught and learned.

The two speak to the evolving nature of the social space -- pointing out in how in a very short time the games have massively grown in scope and quality. They also discuss the need to be better designers, explaining how the need to hook audiences quickly with simple but meaningful gameplay makes the process much more challenging.

Can you explain how you interact with Zynga and how you ended up with the consultancy gig?

Bruce Shelley: Well, Brian talked to me about how [Zynga] would like to have more people from the "Sid Meier School of Design" to help with the gameplay of the games, and not worry about any aspect except how the games play. So I've been working with a couple of Zynga's external studios.

Basically I'm assigned to work with the external studios, the ones that are not in San Francisco; they have something like five or six studios around the country, and I work with a couple of those. I'm probably going to be plugging into one of those for most of my work for maybe the next year -- I'm not sure -- and try to make one really good game, to make something really good.

So I'm another design voice. In this case, the studio there, they see me as a person with experience, who can help with young designers. Also they want to assign parts of the game to me to be in charge of, at least for awhile. Most studios have a creative director and a lead designer, and maybe a product manager, and sometimes they all have different ideas about something. So in this case, they see me as another voice, and a voice of experience, that can help them arbitrate their decision making.


FrontierVille

What is it about the Sid Meier school of design that seems to meld so well with the social games space?

Brian Reynolds: So I think it's partially the fact that Sid created a system of making games where the core of it was rapid prototyping, and he was the best at it, ever. You would say 'firemen', and he would -- two weeks later -- have a game where you'd be like going down poles and pointing hoses at stuff and there'd be fire engines. So he could kind of make a game out of anything and get the core of it up running really fast, and then you play it and you revise it, and you play it and revise it.

And it's the act of sort of pushing on it, of actually experiencing the game and seeing the parts that are fun, and then changing them and making them more fun, or taking out the parts that aren't fun that then goes on for however much time you have. And by the time you launch, you got something that really is fun.

That method turns out to work really well in the social space, where our games really are substantially about the design. Because we're bandwidth constrained, we make the game board look nice and put nice art, but it's not like it's 3D and a gigabyte of content coming down -- there's a very finite amount of stuff that you can put through the internet in time for the player to not get tired of the loading bar.

So what that means is that it's actually how well we design it that dictates how entertaining it's going to be. I mean, it's a really key coefficient in how entertaining the game's going to be is how well we designed it. And so the fact that we can prototype, and iterate and prototype and iterate, and that for having done it for 20, 30 years we know a lot of the touchstones of where to look for the fun.

When you joined Zynga two years ago, was that jarring for the people that worked there -- that method?

BR: Well, the iterating part was not, and that's one reason that I felt like it was going to be a good fit. Because they were already used to the fact that they had this new, cool advantage of, you can get a game out and you can still keep changing it, and that was what was really fascinating to me. Talk about a great opportunity -- to be able to continue to evolve your game once you have all the users pushing on it.

Now the idea of game designers, per se, for a company that really came out of the web space, well there was some culture shock there, and we had to figure out how to work together. But we did it successfully first in the form of FrontierVille, and had a really big success with that. So now everybody's happy and working together pretty well. [laughs]


And Bruce, how has it been? You're aiding them and they're learning from you. What are you learning from them, as someone that's a long time veteran of the industry?

BS: I'm learning about the social networking space, the way the "social" works. I mean, we never concern ourselves much with social interaction other than multiplayer, you know? Like how do you matchmake, can you get into a game, can you chat? And that was the extent of it. But the idea of connecting, and helping each other out in the play of the game, and also reaching an audience we never got to before, I think, [is what I'm learning].

This is a big space of people who are playing games and not paying. ... The idea of giving them really interesting games -- to the point that they're actually willing to pay something -- that's kind of interesting to me.

I think I'm learning about this whole new area of gaming. This rapid iteration is pretty amazing, and to have the data come back -- we never had that... You had to finish your project and work on it for years before you started getting some meaningful data.

It was difficult to collect, even; there was only a limited amount of stuff you could learn. And you had to trawl through forums to hear what people were saying, and the repetition of a forum post would be a measurement of how serious they were about not liking this or liking this.

And now we get all these numbers that really reinforce quickly what people are liking, what they're not liking and allows you in a space of a few days to make changes in a game and improve it.

Zynga's very open about metrics-driven game design and that gets this negative reaction sometimes from people who might say, "Well, you should be following your gut." What do you think of that?

BS: I think that's ridiculous, and I think that watching what your consumers are doing with your game and responding to what they're obviously liking or not liking, and to deny that and say that "I know better," I think, is pretty foolish. When we did the Age games, we watched what our people did, and we patched those games on a bi-monthly basis based on what we were seeing. We weren't right the first time with any of those games, and so there's a conceit that I don't think does apply. And Zynga has just really narrowed that turnaround time where we gather information and can make a change.

BR: I think the good game designers wanted to be as data-driven as they could; there just wasn't much data. It used to be -- as Bruce said -- that you spent years making the game and then you really started to get your very first true user data when you ship, and you try to learn a little bit from it, but you couldn't even apply it until your next entire game a year or two in the future.

But, still, those were valuable golden insights that showed, "Wow, that really worked," and "Wow, that really didn't." And it used to be those were hard-won nuggets of value, and now we can see something this week, and actually react to it with the current game.

It's not like the current game is just lost to time because we didn't think of something important by the time we launched it; we can go work that back into the game when we see, "Oh, yeah, people are quitting when they do this. They come to this part and they quit, so they must not like that." [laughs] "Let's take it out next week." What's to complain about there? That sounds like a win-win for everybody -- the players like the game better, the game designers get to keep having their game. [laughs]

BS: Even Sid Meier, let's say, a guy of that caliber, is really only guessing until he plays. I mean, I don't think anybody's that smart, to have all these games figured out the first time. So the idea that we can learn quickly is a really positive thing.

And certain things are a little different in importance here. With Age, we thought that the game had to have a great first 15 minutes to get the people engaged and hold 'em. And in social network it's called the "first time user experience." And it's critical.

BR: And now it's like the first 15 seconds and the first minute -- it's the golden minute. You don't have 15 minutes! [laughs]

BS: They don't publish this -- and I don't think they publish this -- and I don't even think it's an internal thing, but there are golden mechanics that work. ... There are a lot of things that are new that I hadn't run into in other games.


Brian, at GDC Online when you gave your keynote, you said that you expect these social games to become more complex...

BR: I bet I didn't say "'complex." [laughs]

Maybe not complex, maybe deeper experiences...

BR: Deeper! Deeper! That must have been the word. See, the thing is, that it used to be the kind of people that could even get through all the autoexec.bat stuff with DOS to play a game, well they were pretty technically savvy and they apparently liked to figure things out that weren't always the pleasant parts.

And there were fewer people you could sell a game to, but you could be a little bit lazy about how complicated the interface was and they'd still play it.

But gradually, the operating systems became better and more user-friendly. I mean you had Windows, and then even after Windows, there's console games that kind of package it all up and there's no installing something -- you just jam it in and hit play and you're going.

Taking out all that friction, caused by people having people figure stuff out, makes more people like your game. There's more people that are willing to play the game and so then [comically whispers] you can make more money.

So what I think will happen with social games... the trick -- if you're a game designer -- is to figure out how to put depth in. Because it's the choices and the patterns and all that stuff that makes the game fun, and last for awhile, and makes you be able to play the game more than one time, makes you always kind of looking for the next little hidden thing, or trying to get over the next challenge.

And back in the '90s, we could make the games a little more openly complex, in how the parts fit together. Now it's actually more challenging to design the games, because you have to be very subtle with your depth; it has to be very accessible. So extremely simple parts that just happen to have very subtle interactions with each other -- that was what we were trying to do with-- that was what we were trying to do with FrontierVille.

For example, have a lot of little systems, but we don't make the player have to read a book on how to play before they can start. It's more like, "Oh look, there's a whole world of stuff; just click on stuff. No matter what you click on, something good will happen!" And then, eventually, you notice that animals work a little bit different from plants, and then maybe you notice, "Oh look, if I put a sheep here, then the grass doesn't grow back."

And so if I don't want the grass to grow back, then that's a good place that I'll put my animals around to eat the grass. But there's nothing that said you had to do that, and there's no manual that tells you, and there wasn't even a pop up that said, "Hey, by the way, the sheep eats the grass." It's just you kind of play, and you notice, and then you think, "Hey, I learned something! I'm cool because I learned that, and then I feel good about the game and the experience." I think we'll continue to learn how to design games that way. We'll be better and better at hiding the friction, but making there be depth.

Bruce, you've been consulting just for a few months. So are you tired yet of trying to justify social gaming? Do you need to justify social gaming?

BS: Absolutely not. I believe we've reached out to a bunch of people who never had really good experiences; Minesweeper was the best game they could play. And the social networking games are giving them a lot of really interesting stuff; I think it's a fantastic thing. And the fact that they're willing to pay for it and we can make a living doing this, I think it's a terrific opportunity. And I'm learning things, and I think it's fun to be doing it. I don't feel any need to justify it at all.

And Brian, you seem pretty comfortable.

BR: Oh, I'm having a great time. Honestly, I have done a lot more game design in 21 months or whatever it's been, than I'd done in quite a number of years before that. It's a great place to be as a game designer. It's the forefront of this brand new thing that suddenly you can make games that are social, and there's going to be all kinds of new games that are social that we're really just figuring out how to do. So look at this year's social games -- CityVille and FrontierVille -- and then compare them to last year's social games, maybe FarmVille and... I don't know, Café World.

BS: Treasure Isle.

BR: Treasure Isle -- Treasure Isle's actually early this year. And then look at the games from the year before that. I mean, the industry's only been around for about two or three years. And so if you go back two or three years, you're talking about, you know, "accept my zombie bite." Really basic stuff. And then you get up to the Wars games, the sort of text RPG games.

And then you get the Flash games, and now the Flash games are getting better. And I think you're going to see it continue to evolve and get more and more interesting and more and more fun, and it's really fun as a game designer to be working at the forefront of this whole new kind of genre. It's a very exciting place to work.

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