Interview: The Secrets Of Wooga's Social Game Success

You've often heard that designing for Facebook takes a different approach to console game design, but how different is it, truly? According to Wooga studio head Henric Suuronen, it's fundamentally different -- and in this interview the number three social developer explains it all.

When looking at Facebook developers, Wooga is third behind Zynga and EA. Before PopCap's stats were merged with EA's, Wooga was number two. How does a German company few in the U.S. have heard of reach such heights of success in just a few years?

In this interview, Wooga's head of studio Henric Suuronen lays down the social game design law. You've often heard that designing for Facebook takes a radically different approach to console game design, but how different is it, truly? According to Suuronen, it's fundamentally different -- so much so that designers who come over from the console space often do not have a place at his company.

That said, Suuronen is a gamer. He devoured classic games like Super Mario Bros. on the NES as a child, and NHL '95 on the Sega Mega Drive and Dune II on the PC as a teenager. From these, Suuronen built up knowledge of games he considers indispensable to his current work -- knowledge he continued to amass until he stopped playing in college.

What he did after college, however, was join Nokia and work on the N-Gage reboot before moving over to Digital Chocolate and work on the pioneering Tower Bloxx, as well as Millionaire City.

He was there for the social gaming revolution and now blends his fond memories with the hard facts of the extremely competitive and challenging social space. In this interview, he describes exactly how.

I've done very few design-oriented interviews about social gaming. I usually end up talking to execs. What I like to get to the heart of is the philosophy of design. What is important about social game design, in your view, that sets it apart?

HS: I have a pretty strong design background. I've never worked with the title "game designer" -- I've been the product manager, or a senior product manager, or director-level guy. But I don't know, just because my background as a kid -- I played so much -- I kind of have like a library of game mechanics, and what you should do, and what works, and what does not. So I end up working quite a lot with game design.

When it comes to game design, for social games specifically, I think the most important part is the game loop. So, what do you do over and over again? So Millionaire City, for example, you buy a plot, a piece of terrain, you buy a house, place the house, you wait a little certain amount of time, and then you collect money from it. And you do this over and over again, and when you get enough money, you buy another house. And you place it, and maybe connect it with road, and all this stuff.

The game loop is the game. That's the most important thing.

When it comes to what to think about when designing for social games, I think you have to almost throw everything from your console brain, or your hardcore things, into the garbage. That will get you on the wrong track.

Not only is it social, but it's free-to-play. And free-to-play, I think, changes the game design even more than [the fact that] it's social. The free-to-play is a mindset that a lot of console guys don't get. They're used to getting 60 bucks first, then they kind of have a lousy menu, but the guy has already invested 60 bucks, so he will browse through the menu and try to learn the game, because otherwise he would feel stupid.

Social games are free-to-play games; it's totally different. So you have to think about, "Whoa, the guy has not invested anything over the game -- not a single dime!" So how do I get him through the menu -- if there's a menu -- how do I get him through the tutorial, and how do I get him hooked to the game -- as quickly as possible? And this is the game design [element] which is, I think, the most difficult part.

Obviously it's social, so you have to think about how is it better with friends. So we have this abbreviation: BWF. Better With Friends. What is the BWF of your game? So is it just visits, or can you upgrade something, can you help, can you ask for parts, can you staff something, can you play together asynchronously, can you play synchronously? Different stuff like that.

Magic Land

How do you feel about the current implementations of social mechanics in games? Are they robust enough? Do you see a lot of potential for growth there?

HS: Yeah. Obviously. Take a look at it. I've done social games now four years, when I did Tower Bloxx there was Jetman. It was this lousy game, probably coded in one day, a guy was flying through a cave. But it was pretty fun, it was a high score-driven game.

Now moving four years forward, you have games like CityVille, Pioneer Trail from Zynga, Kabam games, Digital Chocolate games, and Zombie Lane -- great game -- and now Magic Land. So it has really evolved. So why would the progression stop here? So I think it will evolve, as it has done from four years ago with Jetman and Scrabulous and Tower Bloxx. So it will evolve again in the next years.

So what I think will happen is that there will be some kind of more elaborated, asynchronous, co-op play. So I'm thinking I have ideas on how to do it well in Magic Land, and we will investigate how to do it -- maybe launching something like that pretty soon. And there's a lot of in co-op and social interaction that is better. I don't think it will remain at the level that, "Hey, I'm missing a part, can you give it to me?"

I don't think it can...

HS: People will get eventually tired of it.

And I think that there's just tremendous amounts of competition that are going to be pushing in different directions. Like you said, look a few years ago, and there was like very low-spec hobbyist, almost, games being launched; people just trying stuff. Now you see EA launching Sims Social onto Facebook, that's a tremendous level of investment that game had. It had production for almost a year, compared to previous games with very short production cycles.

HS: Yeah, if you look at Wooga games, Magic Land has had the most, until launch, most man months work done. So you know, double size of team, longer schedule to a couple more months, pushing, at launch, even more features. The whole myth of the minimum viable product -- it's gone. It's something that you say to investors to sound cool.

Two years ago it was good, because it was virality. So cheap, virality on Facebook, that you didn't mind if you lost a couple of users in the beginning because your game was sucky, because you got new ones for free.

Now if you lose the good ones in the beginning because your game was too early, you don't ever get them back, and you don't get virality so easily anymore.

So this has changed the ballgame -- it's not anymore minimum viable product. If you do that, maybe as a small startup you have a great idea you can do that, and have some medium success, but not in a big scale anymore -- building a 1 million [DAU] video game doing stuff like that, that launched after two months.

Do you think that Facebook is becoming more and more aggressive about embracing games than it had been in the past? Have you seen any moves from that side that, as a platform, look good to you?

HS: Yeah. I think that the last past year there's been a lot of crying. So a lot of developers crying that Facebook is terrible, this doesn't work, there's no virality, we are losing our business.

And Wooga hasn't been crying. We've been talking with Facebook, obviously giving our feedback, but not crying on blogs and stuff. At in the same time we tripled the amount of users, with not spending on advertising.

So instead of crying, we have focused on making better games. So it's pretty funny actually that we have never -- well, recently, a little bit more -- pushed the monetization, but it has always been about "better games get more users."

So yes, Facebook is more difficult right now, but in the recent months there's a lot of traction from Facebook's side as well. They recognize that 40 percent of people, or even more, play games; they're important on the platform. And they are making money on it, so a 30 percent cut on their revenue.

So we have a great relationship with Facebook, and they listen to us and they have a lot of good features in the pipeline. So currently we are very happy with Facebook. Having said that, we have also launched now on Google+ to see how it does. And... let's see how it goes forward.

Monster World

On one hand you recruit a lot from studios, people with game development backgrounds; on the other hand, people have to throw away a lot of what they know.

HS: Yeah, with that comment I meant from console games. If you recruit from big console game studios, very seldom I meet people from console game background who are humble enough. They come in, they say "I have worked on this and this triple-A game with 100 people, and I will come here and show you how to make games." This is not the attitude to make social games.

You have to recognize it as a new platform, new rules. Yes, what you know is valuable, that's why we're interested in you, but you must be very open to learning all of this stuff because it's a totally different ballgame. You saw it with EA. Before they bought Playfish, they did Pogo Puppies. It looked like a game with a budget of 2 million. It got like 10,000 users, and then they scrapped it. So they failed.

So how come one of the most successful console game companies, if they put a lot of money and good talent, how come they failed so much on Facebook? Because they didn't get the platform, and this led them to buy Playfish.

So you don't have to throw everything in the garbage, but you have to put it aside; you have to be open minded to learn, and then when you learn what is social game design, then you can use the stuff you know.

We've seen a lot of this happening. One of our best product managers is from EA DICE Studio, and he's currently involved in Monster World; amazing stuff he's been doing.

Is it so much leaving aside the tenants of design in game design, or is it more just the mentality of looking at the way products function in the market?

HS: I think it's a little bit both. So like I said before, it's the free-to-play design. I think that's one part. It's the social design. It's the monetization connection. Because you know, if you have an ethical game designer, he doesn't want to bother the user to monetize ever. He wants to make the best game ever and leave him bread and water. So there's a balance between these two.

You have to understand how you build a game loop on social games, how do you create this loop to work, how do you make a persistent world game -- social things. You know, if you've done a level-based first person shooter, that doesn't necessarily mean that you know how to do a persistent world game. So there's a lot of this kind of stuff.

Then when it comes to game designers, usually, not always, they also can not have this distanced intelligence part. Some of them go on Facebook and take a look at these games and then, "Okay, there's some games, but they're crappy." So I think what is important is to take a look at CityVille and understand what makes it work, what makes it tick. There's a lot of ingenious stuff in CityVille.

Occasionally, we meet people with really hardcore background, and they get it. I even have a game designer/product manager test I shoot over. And one of the questions I have there is to get the candidate to play three city builders, one of them being Millionaire City, and analyze game design, why he thinks that Millionaire City was so much more successful than the other two games.

And this task is there because it will reveal if he understands game design. Because there's some game design elements in Millionaire City, which I did before, that were not existent in games on Facebook before then. And some designers get it. Great! We hire them. Others don't. We're not interested.

One other thing I would see as a difference is, essentially people are shipping complete experiences. Whereas social games evolve and change over time, and you have to be responsive to what's driving the users to stick around, and give them new things. You can't plan so much in advance -- you have to be more reactive.

HS: And that's a good question. Take a look at Magic Land, for example. It's very feature complete. And don't take this word badly -- because it's not complete. It will never be complete. But it's coming to market, considering what Facebook games have been, it's very feature complete. So it's a solid experience with six months of play, for example.

We have calculated how long it should take to play through; a hardcore player should play through in three months without paying, and the usual user is six months or something. So it's very complete in that sense.

But at Wooga, real work starts on the launch, so we don't plan too much ahead. So I would say that... I know things we will do in the next two weeks; after that is up for grabs. I have three or four big features I want to do in the fall, but I don't know in which order. And something might arise that precedes these ones. I don't know yet. I will know in two weeks.

So we do it by week by week. Usually what we do is plan next week, we release, then we -- based on metrics or feedback -- we plan the next week. So we do development cycles in one week. And yeah, usually we know next week, and a little bit of what is the week after that. But the third week is just best guess.

Do you update weekly?

HS: Yeah.

Are all your features only things that can be implemented in a week? Or do you ever take longer?

HS: No, sometimes we take a longer time. I think the longest one I've ever done has been a three week feature. But then each week we have had something smaller. So for example, a content update, because customers, they expect it. And if it feels the game is alive, new content is coming...

For example, what I sometimes do is that even though I had done some assets, I don't launch them; I keep them in storage. So if there comes a week that we can't launch a feature, we can at least launch something. So that's something you can do.

But yeah, you have to have weekly updates. Some companies do it twice a week -- we do it sometimes twice a week. So, it's the way to go. Otherwise users know that, "Okay, this is a dead game. They're not interested; they're not listening to our feedback; there's not enough content." You know, people consume content like crazy. It's like, put in the new house, they're going to have 15 of them tomorrow.

The design of free-to-play gameplay features, there's a lot of discussion of how the game designers have to think about monetization. That's something we can take as true, but a lot of the design of free-to-play features are very basic. Just convenience or energy, or something that you need to spend to play. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the design of the actual free-to-play features?

HS: Well, if you go back one year on Facebook, there was a lot of traction in this, I call it "contract mechanic", or some people call it "appointment gaming". So you have a farm and you plant something, and it will be ready in four minutes, or four hours, or eight hours, or 12 hours. Then, this works -- Millionaire City was a pure contract mechanics game, or appointment gaming game. It didn't have an energy mechanic.

Then, somebody -- I don't know which game was the first to have energy done, but FrontierVille had energy done really well. And we started hearing rumors that "this energy -- it's monetizing like crazy!" So because it's so kind of like, "Oh, I have a hurdle, I would like to do something." I play maybe 20 minutes for free and now I'd like to play more, but I have to either wait one hour, ask friends, or pay 1 U.S. dollar. And then there's a percentage that are not impatient enough.

So we have seen evolution from, first, Jetman -- advertising based, free-to-play -- so you know, they have ads, people clicked on ads, they went to another game, they got 10 cents, 50 cents for the install. So there, the customer didn't have to pay anything; it was an advertising business model.

Then we went to this "appointment gaming", where either you paid for time accelerators that, you know, you don't want to wait four hours; you want to have the benefit right now. For example, sometimes called instant build; we have it also as well in Monster World. You pay for that, so each click 10 cents, and some people pay for that.

And then the next evolution was the energy, so that the energy limits the play. There can be fusion. If you have some parts with contract mechanics, like the farming part in CityVille, and then you have all the rest with energy; that seems to work really well. Basically with like, in Magic Land, now launched, has the same -- it has a little bit of both.

Then, there's a recent trend that there's more resources you can run out of. So a year ago, it was just money. Then came food resources, or items you're missing. And you see that gradually coming more and more -- stuff you are short of. And this gives, obviously, the monetization place that either you grind the game and try to get the item, or pay a little bit.

Going forward in the future, I see this will increase more items you can run out of; Magic Land has a lot of things you can run out of. And then something I'm pretty excited about is; I'm very excited about character development. That's why Magic Land has a character. So, I would like to have abilities or powers to the character.

A player character?

HS: A player character. It's a little bit like improving your character in World of Warcraft; I would like to do it in a casual manner. And this obviously, you set skill points or something else. This can also open up new doors for monetization.

But it seems like all the monetization options you're discussion are more a way of removing limitations from the game, right?

HS: Yep.

What about gameplay mechanics? Like, say, Battlefield Heroes sells people improved guns that you can't access for free. There are tiers of things that you can't access in the game if you're a free player. Are you against that idea?

HS: Not necessarily. I think the pioneer in this field is Nexon. So Nexon was with a lot of free-to-play stuff before Facebook. And I heard that they made quite a lot of money just with the ability to select a lot of troops. So if you're free-to-play, you could move your guys one-by-one. If you paid a little bit, you could have this box. And I heard that they made a lot of money on that.

In Korea, or in the West as well?

HS: Korea.

Because I get the impression that things are more mercenary in the Asian markets.

HS: It can be.

Some things... I was talking about the abilities or powers for the character. Something which I'm pretty interested right now is that there can be some things that are not restricting, but they're going to give you a greater power.

So there's trolls you can whack in Magic Land. So what if you would have a better sword, you can whack them in one, instead of four. These are things I'm investigating, and we might do something like that.

And you know, you've seen it working in other games, so why not in social games? I don't know what is the level the user wants to pay for that; let's see. But it's something I'm pretty interested in myself, because I'm also looking for new ways. I don't accept where we are at right now -- I want to get even higher.

What about things like product, like a number of products launched? Do you have targets that you have to hit? And is that your responsibility to determine the number of games that are coming out, the calendar?

HS: No, that's really not service model thinking; I think that's a product-driven company. I was in such an organization doing mobile games for telecom operators. So there was a one year schedule, 16 games out, not a single one less, has to come out this date, no matter the quality, it just comes out.

So at Wooga we do a game one-by-one, and we launch it when it's good enough. And when we think it is good enough, if the team lead thinks it's "no," we don't launch it. So if the team thinks it's not good enough, we don't launch it. So we don't have really any hard deadlines.

For Magic Land we thought we would launch it a little bit earlier. Then we announced that we got a new VC round. The new investors were like, "Hey, let's make a game that is so good at the start that you could beat a Zynga game." So it was like hey, the game was pretty good, already, three months ago, and like hey, let's develop two months more, three months more, and launch an even better game.

I'm not giving this just as a marketing speech. So we don't have hard deadlines -- we're launching games when they're good enough. And I think that's a very nice environment to work at.

So we have very little crunch time, none of this "work weekends" -- I haven't worked on a weekend. I know some of our server guys have done it when a game has gone down, but no one in my teams has worked weekends. So I think it's very good. It's a healthy balance of working and free time.

And I think one of the reasons why Wooga is so successful is that we have this balance; it's not crunching for six months. We hate anybody to do that. So we do games that are fun, period. And you can do good, fun games without six months of crunch time. So I think we have a really good balance in that, and that's why. I joined the company September last year. One guy has left. And that was because his girlfriend moved away.

Have you abandoned any products? Cancelled products?

HS: Nope. So obviously I've been in the company just one year, so I don't know what happened before I joined. But to my knowledge, no, everything that has been put into production and gotten a first playable, we launched. We have done changes in some games, before they launched. We discovered in the first playable they didn't work; it wasn't fun.

So we sat down together with the team lead, said "What do we do?", drastically changed the game. But it has been the same game after, but the mechanic we have changed. So for example we change the game loop -- going from some mechanic to another mechanic. But no games have been cancelled, which is good. It's very bad for morale. People see these games as their babies, so we want to do everything we possibly can to avoid the situation happening.

With your philosophy of the game loop, coming up with a self-contained important core mechanic, do you ever significantly modify it with content updates later?

HS: No. This is one of my key takeaways. What I discovered is that there's numerous examples. There's Roller Coaster Kingdom by Zynga; they changed the game loop after launch -- failed. They killed the game. Nightclub City by Booyah changed the game loop to an energy mechanic -- failed. They changed back.

Even Happy Hospital by Wooga, we changed the game loop of a game we already launched. It wasn't a success, it wasn't a failure -- it didn't move the needle, but it wasn't worth the effort.

We put two months of development in changing the game; it didn't move the needle. So even that was kind of a failure. So you should detect problems in the game loop before launch, and there's numerous ways to do that.

One is do a board game. One is obviously user testing. One is to do an early concept shot. Show the concept shot to people who are not working in the company -- do they understand the game loop just from a static picture? Then you're good, or have one level of assurance.

Do a very early first playable inside the company. So develop for two months, just the core game loop, no fancy graphics, even boxes do. Is it fun? Do people start competing in money or something? That, you should get from a core game loop.

Then you have an early first playable. We check second playable, alpha, beta, do user test again, and then kind of like a final decisive moment -- do a closed beta. So we have done a closed beta with Magic Land in an English speaking country, taking 3,000, 4,000 users, see do they like the game, do they come back tomorrow, do they finish the game loop? And by doing a closed beta in this manner, you won't burn the best customers, because the best customers always find the game first.

So when you invite your friends you think about, "Hmm, who's interested in CityVille? Can I invite the best city building guys?" If you have a crappy game, you'll never get them back in. So closed beta is the last milestone when you should detect problems in your game loop.

After launching if you just do modifications -- small things -- you can change the time of a timer, or the UI, or amount of food you need to supply for a business in CityVille, anything like this. But you can do modifications -- timers or something.

A good example in Monster World, in the game early on, you plant lemonade trees. First, they were five minute contracts, so they would be ready in five minutes. We changed it to three minutes, huge change on one-day retention, because new users got the good feeling of harvesting them two minutes earlier, before they abandoned the game. So these kinds of things you can do. It doesn't change the core game loop -- you just change the statistical value, like a static number. But you shouldn't change the game loop.

How simple should it be? If you're talking about something that you can show people as a static image so they understand it, to use one of your criteria.

HS: For example, Magic Land, the core game loop of the game -- it's a city building game, It really is. It's one of the core themes that generates money. Anything that generates money usually is the core game loop. In-game money. I call it "soft currency". Hard currency is real money.

So, for example, in Magic Land, the first playable, you had four houses, you had a castle in the middle that you cannot do anything. You could place the houses around the castle wherever you wanted and connect them with a road, and click on the houses and select the contract that you want to produce money four minutes, or three minutes. This was the game.

What happened is that people clicked on the moneybags when they were ready and they went "cha-ching!", and they laughed. And people started clicking a little bit -- "Oh, I got more money than you!" And this was already a game. And it can be really simple like that.

One of the pitfalls of game design, or game development, has always been, somebody says that "This game is not yet fun, let's improve the graphics." That's not the way to do it at all. Then you have a problem in the core game loop. So that's why I always limit amount of content for first playable. You shouldn't have 20 houses there, then you have focused on the wrong things; you should have four. And if it's fun with four, it will be super fun with 20. But if it's not fun with four it won't be fun with 20.

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