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Video: Scaling Words With Friends' sudden enormous success

While Words With Friends is now one of the most popular games on mobile devices, it went through some tough growing pains that taught its developers some important lessons about operating games on a large scale.

September 24, 2012

3 Min Read

While it's now one of the most popular games on mobile devices, the Zynga-published Words With Friends experienced some real growing pains as it climbed its way to the top of the charts. Zynga With Friends CTO Vijay Thakkar took a moment to reflect on the game's production at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and explained that the game's sudden success and unforeseen hiccups taught its developers quite a bit about operating games on a large scale. One of the biggest challenges, Thakkar explained, emerged because of the game's rapid growth. Shortly before Words With Friends -- and its developer Newtoy -- were acquired by Zynga in 2010, the game's user numbers were increasing at an incredible pace, and the dev team wasn't prepared to keep up with that massive jump in scale. "We got to the point... where our servers were struggling," Thakkar said. "We were building Band-Aids on top on Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids, and they were all scalable solutions, and we were growing, but we needed to make sure we were planning for the future." To solve the problem, a team of 20 engineers set out to create some brand new server architecture for the game. After working on the reboot for more than two months, however, the team realized its approach was far too complicated, and that it had overlooked a far easier, and much simpler solution. It was a touch decision, but the team chose to put aside all that work and started over from scratch. "The most inspiring part of that for me is the lesson that you should never, ever, ever be afraid to take a step back, look at your game, look at your development team, look at what you're doing, and consider a pivot," Thakkar said. That's not to say developers should change direction whenever something isn't working, but Thakkar explained that it's important to re-evaluate your plans once in a while to keep your team from developing tunnel vision. If you're too committed to your original plans, it's easy to overlook some helpful alternatives. For even more lessons from Word With Friends' development, you can watch Thakkar's presentation in the above video, courtesy of the GDC Vault.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC and GDC Europe already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription Beta via a GDC Vault inquiry form. Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can send an email to Gillian Crowley. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins. Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from upcoming 2012 events like GDC Online and GDC China. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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