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Playfish: The Social Gaming Provocateurs

Facebook game creator Playfish (Pet Society) has created some of the more sophisticated games for social networks, and Gamasutra speaks to them about why they believe quality eventually wins for social gaming, despite the noise.

London, England headquartered Playfish (Pet Society) is one of the leaders of the social gaming surge currently taking place, and Sebastien de Halleux, the company's co-founder and chief operating officer, feels very passionately about this trend. He sees the opportunity of bringing sticky, addictive games to social networks like Facebook and MySpace as a massive one.

But at the same time, he's not afraid to criticize others in the market. Social games today can be shallow, money-driven, barely even experiences -- and de Halleux sees a need for design and innovation. Playfish, which received $17 million in VC in October 2008, believes in quality user acquisitions -- friends inviting friends to play because the game is fun, not because there's a reward for the click. And its titles such as Pet Society sport relatively complex gameplay and graphics compared to many 'spreadsheet game' Facebook apps out there.

In the time since this interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited, Playfish, intially best known for the Who Has The Biggest Brain? trivia title, has launched two more games, bringing its total titles to nine. This shows how quickly the world of social gaming allows products to be launched into the marketplace. That speed and the ability to capture user feedback are two of its advantages.

It's a young industry, and it's evolving rapidly. With traditional game designers like Brian Reynolds moving to Zynga, and with emerging talents we don't even know the names of yet working on social games at companies like Playfish, it seems that a close integration with social networks is a remarkably smooth way to let people play games.

You've spoken passionately about your views on control of distribution. That most games, even indie games, have to go through a distributor, but with Facebook you're going directly to the user.

Sebastien de Halleux: We feel very, very strongly about that. For us -- and partly because of the Playfish founding team's history, rooted in mobile games -- we've always been used to a dual industry, that's separated between developers, and then publishers. Where developers drive toward a gold master of some sort, and then when the gold master is done, they throw it over the fence to the marketing department, and then some distribution magic happens.

And the distribution magic has always been about controlling the catalog. So, whether it's the retail catalog -- where, clearly, EA dominates -- or whether it's the mobile catalog -- where, as you were pointing out, big brands and big licenses made the whole difference.

And that's really, really frustrating, when you feel that it's hindering creativity, because you feel that the end user is not getting a good deal; because they only can see what has been pushed on the catalog.

So what Facebook has created for us is like a "catalogless" environment for us. It's like the death of the catalog. There is no more catalog. Where do you find an application on Facebook? Do you know where the directory is? If you do, you're part of the very, very small percentage of users who do. Distribution through the Facebook catalog is less than one percent of our distribution. So the interesting thing is, having no catalog means that you can be an infinite shelf, populated with the highest quality content for specific types of users.

How does a catalogless world operate? It operates by you bringing content to where users are -- in this case, Facebook, or MySpace -- so not asking them to come to you, where the catalog is, whether it's retail or your website. And B, it's bringing content to them, through their best friends. So you don't market at them, they actually get a recommendation from their best friend, and get invited as part of an experience, right?

So, that's a really really big difference. Because a lot of people ask us, "But how do people find out about your game?" Well, they don't look for those games; they get invited by their best friends to join in the experience. And that distribution -- the user as the distributor -- is a new shift that was just not possible before, because you did not have these kinds of platforms that encouraged and made referral very, very easy, and trustworthy, because it's only about your good friends.

The benefit of that is that playing means distributing, you know? And this is where game design plays a central, central role. And it's way beyond metrics. I mentioned this at the [Social Gaming Summit] panel: for us, it's about "how do you design an experience that inherently is a social interaction?" -- is designed around social interaction.

Because if you do that, then without realizing, and without having to ask your users, your users will invite other users -- their friends -- to be part of the experience, because it will have an impact on the fun that they are getting from the experience.

And the example I gave at the panel was, if you play a traditionally designed game, which is more for immersiveness -- you mentioned BioShock, but it could be Tetris -- you distributing it to a friend of yours is just [that] you'll get a bit of coolness rubbing on you, if your friend deems that that content is cool, right?

But if you look at even a game like Monopoly: when you buy it, you want to invite your friends, or organize some kind of Monopoly afternoon or night, because that's where you'll get more fun, if there are more people around the board.


Restaurant City

So we're trying to design our games as objects as social interaction. That's what I was mentioning before, which is the core theme for our game design. And in Restaurant City, our latest game, if you play the game on your own, you can kit out your restaurant, you can change your menus, but then you've got no one working for you, so it's not going to be fun.

So as you start hiring your friends, and putting them in charge of different functions in your restaurant, and come and check out how they're doing, and then you get to visit your friends as well, to see their restaurant... You start to derive a lot more fun from the game.

And that's really why; a root cause of Playfish's success is this laser focus on providing fun to users, so that they want to distribute your content. But never in terms of distributing it; they want to actually invite their friends. And I could have actually gone on forever on this...


User acquisition is a huge thing, for a lot of reasons. Some games really force it, and I think that it can be spammy. I won't name the game, but I had a Facebook friend beg me to join his game, and he was like, "You don't even have to play it! You just have to join it, and install it... but please join me, because I need people..." And I said "okay", and then eventually I uninstalled the app, without ever having played the game.

SD: I think the reason why you see such behavior is because of two things -- one positive, one negative. The positive one is that those games make a lot of money. That's the truth -- it was said by many people on the panel -- but it is a free-to-play model, so the game is free initially for everyone to play, and then a percentage converts to playing users.

And hence, the economies here are more like web economies more than game economies; if you really scale to millions of users, then you'll be a really high margin business. So that's really what's driving some people to design games as harvesters of users, with as thin content as possible.

But full focus on this horrible word, which is mentioned so many times, which is "virality," which is designing an experience whose inherent purpose is only to crawl through as many users as possible, right? And then convert as quickly as you can on the back those users. That would generate a lot of profit, but the question is, where is the user experience in there, and where is the longevity of the experience?

So the negative thing is that experience you just described, which is sad, because this is supposed to be a game that's fun, and yet you are invited on this, not to be part of a fun experience, but literally just to contribute in this kind of incentive system. And that, we feel, is a valid strategy if you have some type of business objective, but the Playfish business objective is to really change how people play games.

And that sounds quite ambitious, but we think that we can really find the value you we can get from the game. And you will always love certain immersive games -- always, there's always a space for those -- but many people, and many more than the traditional game audience, want another type of experience, where the value they get from the experience is the social interaction, right?

So, as I was telling you about earlier, most people don't wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, I want to play a game!" Of course, console owners might, or a portion of console owners might, but a majority of people don't say this.

However, the majority of people wake up saying, "I wonder what my friends are doing," or, "What am I going to do with my friends today?" right? Whether just hang out at your local plaza, or do something together. So if you can latch onto this need from users, and provide them with something fun, it's the same thing as bringing them, like, free Frisbees in the park. I'm sure if you were to do that, you'd be hugely popular, right?

Like, "Hey, here's a group of friends. Hey! Here's a Frisbee!" right? And you wouldn't have to sell the Frisbee, or you wouldn't have to encourage people to use it; they would naturally use it with their friends. And that's much more akin to what we're trying to do. It's to provide a more fun experience.

And then, you know, from the Frisbee, evolve, and then say, "Hey, here's this new thing..." you know? "But it's still for you and your friends, and you want to try it," and they go, "Hey, why not? The Frisbee was fun; let's try this thing," right?

And so, then you can build this long term relationship with your users, when you say, "Hey, we are there. Our purpose is to create original, fun experiences for you." And then we get this reputation as a company for doing that. So that's why the positioning is very important.

And I think it's something that the game industry has traditionally been all about -- providing really great, fun experiences. Until the publishing gets involved, you know? Or the marketing side saying, you know, "Oh, we're going to run out of money," or, "The financing isn't right. We need to cut features; we need to remove this, and remove that..." and that's where, sometimes, it can break out. But what if there could be a world where you could remove that?

It sounds like Playfish is much more design-focused than worried about retention. I feel that in its infancy, social gaming frequently comes from a different mentality.

SD: It's not only important: it's the key, the heart of Playfish. We think of ourselves as game creators, and the rock stars inside our organization are our studios. We -- in terms of the founding team -- we are just enablers. What we want to do is allow our studios to be as creative as possible, with no barrier between them and the end user.

And as you said: when you're in games, all you want to do is make great games. You don't want to worry about what marketing is saying -- you want to make great games. So imagine a company that invites you as a game designer, and says, "Now make your great game. And if it's as good as you think it is? You have millions of people playing it."

That's what we try to do; we put all of our focus on the homegrown studios, sharing lessons between studios, sharing creative visions, investing time. Our dream, and we are working hard to pursue it, is to define next generation IP for games. At the core of it, we are creating IP. We are not licensing games, we are creating our own titles.

And like Nintendo defined the console generation with Mario, or like BioShock or Halo define their own big IP, there is a great opportunity to define next-generation IP that becomes the poster child for social gaming. So that's what we're trying to do. Much, much more than grow faster or bigger.

It's mind-blowing how fast you can get up to millions of users with one of these social gaming applications. And it is. At the same time, Anu Shukla was saying at the Social Gaming Summit that the quality of the users you can acquire very quickly might be very low, from a business standpoint. So, where do you find the meeting point between those?

SD: So, here's something where you're touching a very sensitive topic. What does "the quality of a user being low" mean? I mean...

Monetization was the implication that was being made.

SD: Yeah, but that's bullshit. I mean, how can you tell your users "You are a low quality user"? I mean, think about that! That's horrible to say, right?

(laughs)

SD: Every person inherently is someone that has needs. If they're "low quality," that's your own damned fault! You have not touched that person with something that has meaning to them, right? There is no such thing as a "low quality user," there is just a low quality experience. And if you monetize badly at a certain rate, then you have a low value proposition for some users, not a low quality user. And that's point number one.

Point number two is, if you acquire users through a spamming technique, and then you ask those users for money, it's normal that you don't get the same kind of ROI on those users as if you'd paid to acquire them. Quality aside: we, A, believe that users shouldn't be spammed; B, that you should not push games to them, and so you should make it hard to invite users.

I made that point on the panel -- I'm not sure that people fully understood me, but -- we make it hard by literally just putting the invite button on the side and saying, "Hey, if you want to invite your friend to have part of the experience, because you deem that, A, this experience for you would be better, and B, your friends, because you're friends, will like it, then click that button. If not? Don't click it." That's a really proactive step.

If it's strangers that you need to add to your game, so to speak, you click that button repeatedly. If it's your best friend, you can spam him once, twice, you know, and that third time he's going to ignore you, right? And you're going to lose some real life social capital, too. So, that's why it's been quite powerful.

Maybe our traffic is, using those terms, "higher quality," because they are more engaged. Because 18 months on, over 50 percent of our players are still playing on a monthly basis, maybe -- but I hate those terms. The failure can only be yours, not your users'. That's an unfair point.


However, in the end, I have to admit that part of the reason that statistics, metrics, and user acquisition are such big deals is because you're not selling people a game for 60 dollars up front; you're giving people a free experience that they can choose to convert. And that's a really tough way to live, isn't it?

SD: Okay, let's face reality for a second. All the companies who were present at the panel are vastly profitable. At least, let me put it this way: Playfish is vastly profitable. And the word is that all other companies go on public record saying they are "profitable," and I don't know what exactly that means.

But if you are in a fortunate position -- not having to chase your own tail as far as your cost base is concerned, and because you have no marketing span, you can put all the quality in the game -- the question you really need to ask yourself is, aren't you in the position to really start innovating? Aren't you in this ideal state where because you are not worried about paying the bills, you can really throw all your energy and money into creating something new? I think that's the chance.

This is the uniqueness for game designers. Not having that marketing department come in and bother you because the game needs to sell more? It's a dream situation for a game designer, saying, "You now have the freedom to go one step beyond the comfort zone, and provide something that really hasn't been tried before."

And guess what: we admit, and know that we will fail. And we embrace that completely. We are telling our studios we are not worried about creating a game that doesn't succeed. Now, go and find a game company that says that to the studio. There are not that many. But it's very, very important, and I titled some of my presentation, "Make mistakes." Because making mistakes is what got this industry started. Games were started almost as a mistake of the programming ecosystem. It was done as like a completely side experiment. If you don't have the appetite for creating a total failure, you will never have a total success either.

Well that's how the game industry itself actually started. Nolan Bushnell made Computer Space, and it flopped, and then was like, "Fuck this, we'll make Pong. Let's get this as simple as possible. We realize that this game is too complicated for people to understand while they're drunk in a bar," because that was the venue for the games at the time. The famous "Avoid missing ball for high score" is the only direction in Pong, right?

And why did he come up with that? Well, partially because he saw Ralph Baer's version and ripped it off, but partially because he realized that people in a bar -- in the context of their market -- couldn't deal with Computer Space. It was too complicated, and they weren't ready for that level of abstraction.

SD: But you see: what was the cost of that failure? That's the interesting thing. It was low enough to be able to say, "Hey, forget that. Let's come up with Pong," right? The issue is that with game budgets of a hundred million...

That's the big issue.

SD: Yeah. And so for us, because we, from a company standpoint, have diminished our risk level, A, because we are already profitable, and B, because the total cost of bringing a game to market is less -- not because the game costs less, mind you, but because I think you can get feedback faster.

Because, probably, 20 percent of the development goes into the game before it gets public. I don't even want to talk about launch, but before really users start interacting with the game, and you continue to develop them. It's closer to an MMO model, where you can say, "Well, this game is getting a lot of traction." Like Restaurant City. the game crossed two million users before it's even completely live, and hence you can nurture your hits.

And this is a really cool concept, because if the game doesn't go for the right curve, and starts to tank with even a hundred thousand users, you know it is a scaling issue; it has nothing to do with the hardware, it has to do with the game design and the core concept.

And not in itself making a bad game, but it resonates less with the needs of those users. And that's how we learn, so, I guess at Playfish we have seven games -- and people talk about "seven hits". I don't know what "hits" mean, but, each of the seven games has gone to the Facebook top 10. So that's interesting. We hope to create a really total disaster, because that's only where we can prove to ourselves, and our users, that we are comfortable experimenting with new things.

I know someone who's working on a game for the Wii that's almost done, and suddenly marketing came to them and said, "Add Wii MotionPlus!" It's the type of game that isn't strongly Wii control-focused. "Really? Like, with a month and a half to go? Really?" "Just add Wii MotionPlus."

SD: I have heard that story a hundred thousand times. We have that same one around iPhone. We've been quite successful on the web, and so people ask us, "What about your iPhone plans?" We are mobile by background, and we were not part of the first wave, so everyone says, "Why is Playfish not doing iPhone stuff? It sounds like there's a gold mine out there..."

And we always say the same thing: the iPhone is an exciting media device. It's really cool. A really cool media device. So, it's a very nice platform to port your console games from a generation ago, or whatever, and then put them on that device, and use all kinds of sensors.

There's fifty thousand of those -- so why would we bring yet another drop to that? What is the value that we deliver to other players? There are already some great games there; why try and create even better games? Our view is that you can provide a lot of fun without having without having to rely on the specifics of the media device. You can rely on what we think is the next generation console, which is Facebook, or MySpace, or the social network.

So, what did we do? We waited. And when we were able, with Facebook, and Apple, to announce the Facebook Connect coming to the iPhone, we released our first game then. And this game has no sensor implementation, and doesn't use the GPS, and doesn't use the camera, and you don't blow in it, but what it does is that when you click "Friends", all of your friends pop up.

Whether they have an iPhone, whether they don't have an iPhone, all your friends that you know on Facebook pop up on your screen -- and then you are reminded as a user, "Hey, this game is about playing with your friends." Not about playing with your iPhone friends, but just playing with your friends.

And so we went through incredible length at balancing the game, so that the touch input mechanism on the iPhone version -- which is technologically completely differently built than the Flash version, played with your mouse on the PC -- all comes to the same kind of score, because as a user you feel that you are part of the same experience. You feel that when you play, whether it is from an iPhone or on the web, that is completely secondary. That's an access device; that's how you've chosen to participate in a 3D experience. What you feel is that you're part of that experience with your friends.

And so, that's why it's gone well. It was number two in the UK App Store. So, you know, people are really finding value. And that's, like, still an embryonic effort from our side. But we think that the iPhone is a connected device.

Your friend on the Wii might have created a fun experience, which has been an innovation in game mechanic, but innovation in game mechanic does not have to use sensors. That's why, for me, one of the games that has impressed me the most has been Pictionary.

Because for a long, long time, people have been buying Pictionary boxes, that only have four white notepads inside the box. I think that's brilliant. It shows how low reliance we have in the game itself, and it's all just down in the little rule book. And those rules are very simple too, right? And yet people buy the box, over and over again, because they realize that this is the Pictionary experience.

I think it was a very powerful experience. But, if you think about it, the genius was to move the investment in technology away from the game, and move it to user-generated content, in that case, because that's where you derived your fun from. 


That leads us to the comparison that social gaming has more to do with the traditional board game than with some of the video game innovations over the past couple decades, in a way.

SD: Well if you look at board game numbers they really will impress you I think. We did some research, and there are little published numbers, but they are published by Monopoly, which was started in 1935.

And they have sold something like two hundred and fifty million boxes of Monopoly. I mean, that's unbelievable, right? That's just a huge number, so we were thinking, "Wow..." And imagine the longevity of that, right? People have always wanted to play games. I think we've just been a bit too focused over the past, maybe, what, 20 years or so, on the hardware, and what the hardware can do. And I think now that the hardware can do anything -- we've come to that stage where the hardware can do almost anything, right?

So, now, suddenly, there's a whole generation of people who are starting to focus less on the hardware and its capabilities, and more on the users and their needs. And so, it brings better experiences.

It's happened in music first, and now I think it's starting to happen in games. Thinking, "What do people really want?" And the beauty is that, now, rather than sending a questionnaire to a hundred people, you can do total population sampling on Facebook. We can get the live pulse, for us, of six and a half million people, on any given day.

So if I put my finger out on the Playfish audience, 24 hours later, I've got the opinion of six and a half million people. And that's pretty powerful in game design, because suddenly, because they all run as services, I can say, "OK, what if I changed my button from blue to green? Would people prefer this or not?" How would I know this, as a game designer? I could have the creative [drive], but what if I really want to design this with the user in mind?


Word Challenge

Something blew my mind is that social gaming companies can test ad copy. They put a certain invite phrasing to one percent of their audience... and then they track the clickthroughs. And that is ridiculously granular and kind of amazing, really.

SD: So, I think, the beauty in the illustration that this gives is that what the web can teach us in terms of game design. I think many traditional creative industries shied away from those messages. Metrics can be both good and bad, obviously -- you shouldn't design by metrics, but if metrics can be an enhancement to what you do, then it could be quite powerful.

Especially tied to the underlying layer. Metrics in themselves are nothing. You can say, "Hey, this ad copy wins." Great. That's not what we are concerned about. What we are concerned about is, sub-segments of our audience, how do they behave? How do they play our games? How can we make the experience better?

So we may learn the lessons the hard way. We release some games with a finite gaming session, and some games with infinite gaming session. So, Pet Society, you can go in and in 30 seconds get your fix, or you can play all day long, and the experience is still meaningful.

Whereas Who Has the Biggest Brain? was four minigames, 60 seconds each, and we discovered that people prefer the fluid game mechanic where they can define the investment in time, rather than being dictated at.

Especially with the traditional console games, with their long PR cycles, you get a sense of -- at least in the press -- how the designers expect you to play a game by the time it comes out.

And the example for me, that really opened my eyes, is that when Animal Crossing first came out on the Gamecube, I played it like a regular game, because that's how I play games. I played it for like three hours every day for a month. This is absolutely not the way they want you to play Animal Crossing; it's completely wrong.

But I really loved Animal Crossing for a month, and I recommended it to everyone I talked to for a month. So in the end, Nintendo still won.

SD: First of all, we are huge fans of Animal Crossing, and I can relate to that, and I still think that many people even today play it. But I think the important thing is that the game needs to have meaning for you as a user, right? You're not part of a huge group. You have specific ways you want to consume your content. And the important thing is to realize this.

But, at the same time, how do you make the game accessible for people with different needs? I think MMOs talk about this all the time, right? What about the level 70, you know? How are you ever going to be relevant to both a newbie and an old-timer?

So, what we do is, we try to provide lots of meta-games inside of the game. In Restaurant City, it's a game about expression. It's a game where there is no hard metric to win. It's about having the coolest restaurant. And it can go into a thousand directions. You can create a crazy Japanese restaurant, or a small Italian one, or you can mix all the themes together.

However, you also have pretty old-school leveling inside the game. If you choose that this matters to you, you also have achievement paths. You have hidden achievement, and you have all kinds of trading. You can define your own dimension in which you want the game to become relevant to you, and then develop that dimension.

And so, part of the design challenge that we have, that we're trying to address, is how do we make a game that's as relevant as possible for an audience that's quite diverse. Without scaring away people who literally just want to play in the sandbox, without that element of competition, and without shutting them out of enjoying the experience.


I think that's actually a really relevant question for the whole industry -- traditional console, PC gaming -- creating experiences that appeal to a wide variety of people on different levels. Games can tend to get focused in, especially when they get a real marketing mentality of, like, "This is exactly who's playing this game, this is exactly what they like." Some games, however, have a variety of aspects that appeal to different audiences.

SD: That's absolutely right. But I think I would go further. I think the issue, also, is that relevance always comes within a context. And if the context is all the players in the game, or even all the players on a specific server, that's a very hard problem. Statistically, you'll have a distribution in needs, and it's very hard to cater, with a single game, to all of those needs, at once, in the same environment.

Because if you're a newbie and you log in, you're either going to be killed within the first five seconds -- which is usually my experience when I'm logging on to Xbox Live, for example -- or you're shouted from like a thousand directions, and you go, like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! That's... What's happening here?"

And so, what we've tried to do is redefine that context. So rather than try to make the game more relevant to everyone, we're trying to transform the game into mini games, and those mini games are focused around just you and your friends. So we don't allow you at the beginning to play against everyone. What we try to do is try to build this really cozy environment, which is just you and your real-life friends. Why? Because those friends are going to care about you. They're going to try to mirror their real life relationship. And if you're already friends, that's a positive one, right?

So if, in Pet Society for example -- and we've seen this like a thousand times over -- you start and you're in this really bland, empty room. And sure, there are some tutorials to help you, like, "Okay, take your furniture here..." which might look like overkill for the traditional gamer, but imagine someone who has never played a game before in their life. They're like, "Okay, so what do I do?"

So we've got those -- but we've found that t

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