GDC 2011: Zynga with Friends’ Thakkar On Transitioning from AAA To Mobile

Vijay Thakkar, technical director at Texas-based mobile developer Zynga with Friends outlined best practices for developers moving from AAA video game production to the mobile space in a GDC 2011 talk today.
The proliferation of mobile phones is facilitating a rebirth of the indie game movement, one that is making up for a shortfall of innovation in the AAA video game space. This was the message from Vijay Thakkar, technical director at Texas-based mobile developer Zynga with Friends (formerly Newtoy), developer of iPhone and Android titles such as Words With Friends, Chess With Friends, and We Rule at the 2011 Game Developer's Conference. The former programmer at Robot Entertainment and Ensemble Studios was talking about the lessons that he and his co-workers have learned in transitioning from AAA development to making mobile games. “Massive games lead to massive investments in every way, shape and form,” he said. “It becomes very difficult to be agile and flexible, and scheduling slips have a large impact. The risks mean that very few new ideas coming out of the space right now.” “I believe fundamentally that the industry is shifting to smaller games and our working practices need to change to meet that,” said Thakkar before going on to outline some of the ways in which Zynga With Friends has adapted to this emerging market. Zynga With Friends has found huge success in the mobile space in the two short years since it was founded, with over 13 million active users of its flagship title, Words With Friends. “A lot of us came burned out from AAA development,” he explained, “and moving to making smaller games has been both exciting and liberating.” “We now strive to build games in just a few months,” he said. “The benefit to this approach is that you have to cut scope and keep focus, maintaining a constant state of productivity.” Echoing yesterday’s statements from Zynga’s product development VP Mark Skaggs, Thakkar emphasized the company’s intent to ship a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) as quickly as possible. “We strive to build the smallest core experience and from there grow and develop with something running", he said. “This means you don’t need to predict everything for day one launch,” he continued. “It allows you to be flexible and creative, and identify potential problems far earlier. The net result is significantly less wasted time and effort, a benefit that is simply not feasible in AAA development. “Aiming for a MVP encourages the team to boil things down to the core essence, which almost always results in a tighter, more focused product.” Thakkar did stress, however, that it’s very important to agree on what the term ‘viable’ means at the start of the project. "If the team isn’t clear on the definition of the word as it relates to the game in question, then traditional AAA issues such as breakdown of communication creep in,” he said. One way in which Zynga With Friends works to fix the issue of communication in development is by changing the physical distribution of the team, placing employees’ desks in an outward facing circle, making it easy for developers to swivel their chairs to query one-another and jump into discussions around them. “The approach is hugely beneficial in encouraging communication between all the employees,” he said. Thakkar argued that this smaller, more focused approach allows multiple people within the team to be vision-holders, something that is impossible in AAA development. “A small workflow is key,” he said. “Sometimes we can complete an entire game in less time that it takes to create a single system on a major game release.” Nevertheless, there are principles from traditional game development that are still crucial to the success of a mobile game. “Polish is still key,” he said. “This is what engages the players. Nintendo provides the model for this: delivering joy through delicate touches.” Thakkar revealed that Zynga With Friends always has a two-week “polish phase” at the end of every project, time used to add the little things that make the difference for the user’s experience. It’s crucial to monitor your game post-launch, Thakkar continued. “Find out what’s convincing your users to tell their friends about the game and emphasize these elements,” he urged. “This is the key to building and maintaining growth. Metrics give you so much insight into your users so track anything you think it vaguely important and respond appropriately.” Thakkar concluded by adding the caveat that, in a rapidly shifting market, best practices are liable to change regularly. “This is what’s working for us right now,” he said. “But the market shifts so quickly that in six months we might need to find new working practices. But right now, small, agile processes best suit this fast-moving market.”

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