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Social gaming appears to be an accelerating trend; Mafia Wars creator Zynga has recently been attracting traditional game development talent. We speak to social RTS studio GM Mark Skaggs about why.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

July 30, 2009

12 Min Read

Social gaming -- the phenomenon of games played via social networks, e.g. Facebook -- has gotten very big, very fast. Millions of users play these games every day. One of the most successful companies in the space is Zynga, which operates Mafia Wars, FarmVille, YoVille!, and Texas Hold'Em, all of which have audiences in the millions today. This year, social gaming has become particularly attractive to individuals with traditional game development backgrounds. Zynga has been attracting a lot of talent with RTS experience, in particular -- EALA's general manager Mike Verdu, as well as Big Huge Games' Brian Reynolds, and EALA's Mark Skaggs, who now serves as a studio GM and executive producer in social RTS development. In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Skaggs about the rise of social gaming and what he thinks makes it interesting and relevant to the game industry today: Coming out of the Social Gaming Summit, I was particularly struck by the rapid growth in that sector. Can you talk about where Zynga came from, and where things are going, in your view? Mark Skaggs: Zynga came from basically marketing the idea to create games and use games so they would bring friends together on social networks. There was a large number of -- I don't want to call them experimental games -- small games, that they created while they were figuring out the formula. They created Texas Hold'em Poker last year, which showed really the power of social networks as a way to bring friends together to play games. That progressed into a series of games that we call the "X Wars" games, like Zombie Wars, Vampires, Street Racing. Both Texas Hold'em and the X Wars games generate a significant amount of success, and also offer opportunities to further refine the processes Zynga uses to get to even more success. People think of success a little different in the space -- the number of players that play every day, how well the game does in terms of growing on its own, the virality of it. Of course, there's the monetization factor of it as well. Most of Zynga's focus to date has been really about creating the right game experience, and have people liking it and sharing it with their friends. What about your background? MS: I actually joined Zynga in November. I got through the transition out of what I would call of the amazing growth through the X Wars phase into a much more process-driven approach to understand what we were doing as we were making games because this is still a very young game space itself. I started in 1993 with my own game company in Texas called Tetragon. After four years, I shut that down and went to work at Westwood when they were still part of Virgin and made a few games there. And then we were bought by EA. In between the Westwood and EA era when I was there until 2005, I was EP on a large number of games but most specifically Red Alert 2, over 3.5 million copies, Command & Conquer: Generals, Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth. I have a very definite, deep background in traditional game making. I only call it traditional because now I'm thinking traditional as more PC CD-ROM/DVD and console games, whereas I call social gaming kind of the new style of games. That's an interesting distinction. What do you really call 'social,' when you don't want to use the word 'traditional?' I think it says something about the shift. MS: Yeah, I think it does. And this space, the social gaming space, there's a lot of insanely smart people that aren't steeped in the background of, we'll call it boxed gaming... traditional gaming, whatever. So, they're approaching gaming from a different point of view. And one of the things that everybody knows is, yes, we need to make sure that the games are social, that the games are viral. But I think what a lot of people overlook and get confused about is that in this business, part of your success counts upon your ability to understand the metrics and your players. And I know everybody talks about metrics and players a lot, but really to me, as a traditional game maker, somebody who would just die to have this kind of information, I know I can use that to get to the fun, to know the fun that players want to play, not the fun that I have in my mind. Social gaming actually seems to harken back to older, more traditional forms of gaming. You know, like board gaming, which is inherently social in its execution. MS: Absolutely. There's that factor, and there's the factor of -- you know, because of the platform that we're working on, either Flash, PHP, or HTML -- you have to make sure that what you're doing is fun or has a fun compulsion, to it because you're not going to be able to use sleight of hand and put a gigantic explosions or insanely beautiful graphics on it. You have to be fun. You talked about the ability to use statistics to improve your games' fun. Is it fun or is it stickiness? They're not necessarily the same concept. MS: I'll give you a perfect example. So, we know just through traditional games that the first few levels of a game really determines whether people are going to play the rest of your game or not, so you have to make sure that they're fun. So, in my mind, that fun and that stickiness is exactly the same thing. You can have a game that is... I don't know how you have a game that's not fun but sticky. I would say the word 'grind' sort of implies that, though. MS: Well, you know what? You're right, because when I was getting to level 60 in World of Warcraft, I did a bunch of grinding, but there's still a compulsion loop on that, and there was still a fun element to me. Let's think about the first level of, I don't know, Command and Conquer: Generals. We knew we had to make the tutorial part fun, integrate it into the game. We knew we had to make the first level, include a certain amount of fun elements so people got the sense of what the game is going to be. We never could actually test that data, though. We used focus group testing and placements and all that, but we would have a lot of guesses and hopes as we watched the game afterwards and how people would play. We just release the game, we can look and see how players play it, and we know for instance that they get to a certain section of the tutorial or something and then fall of because there's something wrong with that. We have to fix it. We have to make it a more fun experience so they can get through that. To me, that's the exciting part of this because all of the talk about metrics and numbers and everything, to me, it's really about solving what is the best experience for players. What is the most fun for consumers and players. Do you think that there's a point that the metrics have a limits on design, or rather, you know, you have to leave them behind? Or do you think that everything in the design can be tested adequately through that? MS: There's always going to be that inspiration point. Any kind of analysis that you do... there's that stepping up, you have an instinct. You go, "You know, these graphics aren't right. Something's wrong with them." In this space, what you can do pretty quick is you can test, and you know it very, very rapidly. You don't have to make a guess, you don't have to create a schedule two weeks out for a consumer focus group, create a bunch of mock-ups, and have to do it. The other part I love about this business of gaming, you can literally create a feature or an idea and put it into the game. In the case of Farmville, we put a feature into the game, and two million people are going to play it that day. So, you know right away whether it's fun or not. You talked about putting a feature in and seeing if it works. I'm interested in that from a process standpoint because say you put in a feature and it doesn't work. How much time do you spend building a feature? Do you yank it right out? Do you modify it? MS: In this business, it's best to think of games as a service. You can continue a process. You know, traditional -- especially console -- games, you release it, yeah, you can patch it online. But those are kind of events: Here's a patch, install, and keep playing it. Of course, there's a service of matchmaking that you can do as well... but here, think of it as like a 24/7 service. There's a concept of a live team. There's a concept of people watching the servers 24/7, making sure that they're up. There's a concept of having customer service that needs to respond right away and also developers who realize they're kind of in a different shipping cycle. There's a large set of micro-shipping cycles and micro-testing cycles, instead of a 24-month dev cycle and three to six months debug and ship cycle. Do you think that as social games mature, we'll reach a stage where novel ideas have less room to falter at first, a space that becomes much more competitive? MS: I think the potential is definitely there. I call that the arms race, right? You know, the escalation of technology, features, art, and production values. What I know is that if you put in a huge amount of production values and it takes twenty minutes to download with a starting movie, people just aren't going to wait for that. Sure. But at the same time, I think there's a potential for things to be much more elaborate. I was talking to Gareth Davis from Facebook recently, and he actually sees the potential for the next huge MMO to be a Facebook game and for it to offer the same sort of depth as WoW. Do you see that kind of potential? MS: Yeah, I totally see the potential, and I totally see that Zynga is going to be there, but the one modification I would say is that we have to be very careful of thinking about a game like WoW on this space with this large set of consumers. I think a massively multiplayer game that has the right type of depth, the depth that this type of player would like, is definitely there. But I'm very careful to say it's going to be apples to apples, that you're just going to take WoW and put it onto this space. I'm not sure that's going to work. Yeah, I'm not sure that's what's implied, but I find that a really interesting turn of phrase, the right kind of depth. What do you mean by that? MS: Think about when you're about ready to do a raid in WoW, and how long that takes to setup, even if you have your close friends. That's 30 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, right? That's not the sort of characteristic play times that players in this space do, so it has to be much simpler, much quicker, shorter experience and deliver maybe more fun per minute. So, it sounds like you think the key to this experience is speed and delivering quick hits of fun? MS: Yeah, I'm not quite getting that... That's not the way I think of it. Let me kind of rephrase that into a different way. It has to be kind of light and easy to get into. It's an experience where people go to Facebook and they are going to play for 5 to 10 minutes. Maybe they're in the morning or they take a lunch break. And it has to be fun during that time. There has to be some reasonable fun for them at that time. And when you start to think of traditional gaming, how long it takes to get set up or started, that's where I think things have to be shifted a little, to kind of change that thinking to more like what we know works in this space. So, when you say quick hits of fun, I guess that's it. But it's maybe a little more casual than that. At the Social Gaming Summit, you discussed a process you've developed to build these games that's fundamentally different from how you've approached development in the past. Can you explain that contrast? MS: Yeah, there is a different process here, and it involves two different things. Different mindsets, because there's less prediction of what the players want, and actually finding out what they really want is one thing. But we also have what we call a Zynga playbook. These are the guidelines that we know that are successful in this business. And so, when somebody comes from a traditional games or from a Western development background, when they come through, they get to learn the things that we know are successful. I remember at EA, they had this kind of design doc that they passed around that was contributed by all the major designers within the company. We have the same thing here. We also have our own set of processes in terms of when you start a product, how you determine the feature sets, the feature sets that are going to be part of the first release, when to release it, how to grow it -- which, again, is a little different from the traditional business. We think of it as games as a service. We want to make sure that after it goes public, we can continue to grow it with the addition of more features and more fun and more depth, everything like that for players.

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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