[Working with Brenda Brathwaite, John Romero and its own web expertise, Lolapps' execs talk to Gamasutra on its move from quiz creating-Facebook supremos to standalone social game creators.]
There's a continuing back-and-forth discussion between traditional game developers and web developers over the best way to approach the medium of social games.
The stances are represented most frequently by caricatures: the game developer wanting games to be sprawling entertainment experiences and art pieces; the web developer wanting them to be Skinner Boxes that manipulate players into virtual currency purchases.
San Francisco-based social app startup Lolapps
doesn't sit at either end of this spectrum, showing that dichotomy for the simplistic lie that it really is. CEO Arjun Sethi worked at Facebook and VP of product Kavin Stewart has a background in web development.
"The company was sort of started and based on viral applications on Facebook early on when the platform came about. The first product we had was Quiz Creator. The second one we had was called Gift Creator," says Sethi. "Basically, the application was owned by the users themselves. We were the first company to do that in the space."
The company has been extremely successful in that particular space - its users have sent over 5 billion gifts, over 1.1 million quizzes have been created and over 2.2 billion quizzes taken with its apps, and Lolapps built the backbone for over 300,000 active applications currently active on Facebook.
"We started another platform called Game Creator... We could take the platform approach and have users create their own games. And we also teamed up with EA and Atari [to make promotional Facebook games based on] Champions Online
and Dante's Inferno
Launching Critter Island
The company's first targeted title is Critter Island
. "There's a lot of pick up [and play] mechanics that we think are a little bit different from what you see on Facebook," says Stewart. "The idea is you come back and you continue to collect money from these attractions that you build."
Unexpectedly, Critter Island
was, in part, inspired by Blizzard's StarCraft II
. "It's the best game in the world," says Sethi. "We were inspired to place the buildings in the same way they place buildings. We play a lot of games, so there are the subtle nuances that we see in games that also make a pretty big difference."
"One of the main things we tried to focus on with this game, is that there's more animation going on in the screen than most other Facebook games. It's because we spend a lot of time with technology to make sure we can support a ton more animation, which allows us to build a richer world than most other Facebook games," says Stewart.
Is it just art that pushes the game forward? Says Sethi, "It's basically the whole experience. It's going to be art, production, how things interact with each other... it's the subtle things you can do."
That's not all that sets it apart. "One thing we're trying to incorporate as well is more of a sense of humor than we've seen in other Facebook games," Stewart says.
Stewart sees Zynga's FarmVille
, and even to an extent its more recent FrontierVille
, as part of the prior generation of Facebook games, and respects them. "I think every iteration of games, the quality bar is going to be higher and higher."
Veteran developer Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry
franchise) is creative director at Lolapps. "Having her has been really helpful," Stewart says. Says Sethi, "One thing Brenda likes to talk about is always making sure that it's like you have opportunities for closure," crucial to a game that users may play for extended periods of time -- or just a couple of minutes.
Metrics Versus Design
Neither Sethi nor Stewart believes that game design can be subservient to metrics -- and, in fact, the important question of quality is one that's not easily testable, if it even is at all.
Says Stewart, "When we first looked at games, we were like, 'Okay, this is just another optimization problem. We can just create something that's not really a game but maybe just have addiction properties.' But I think we very quickly saw that you actually do need to have a certain level of quality."
And as fans of games like StarCraft
and Mass Effect
, says Sethi, that's what the team wanted to do anyway.
"When you first design a game... you're trying to find something you think is just going to be a really good concept, and that's an intuitive process. And once you get that out there, you have to spend the time optimizing and sort of tweaking to find that local maximum. I think like you need that combination of both of those things," says Stewart.
"You can't just be like, 'Okay, I'm just going to make a piece of crap and then just like optimize the funnel, because it doesn't really lead to any sort of lasting retention characteristics. And you also can't just be like, 'Okay, I'm just going to say this is the game that I think is going to be awesome. I'm going to build it and then I'm not going to like look at any of the data that comes in.'
"I think it's that marriage where we've built this game where we're comfortable with doing that on both sides of the equation, both on the app side as well as on the game design side. I think it's worked out pretty well, but it took us some time to get there," he says.
"Economics in some sense is not an exact science, because there are so many variables that you can't hope to keep track of them all. You don't actually know all the things you're optimizing for. It's very difficult to put metrics to that. It's exactly the same in games.
"Because what you're really trying to optimize for are the player's odds of thinking it's a great game. How do you measure that? Are you going to measure it on the time they're playing, or how many clicks they do?
"What happens when you try to measure them? You just end up optimizing for the wrong things. Because you'll be like, 'I want to have the most clicks happen,' so then you put in mechanics that just make them click a lot, but then it ends up not being fun," says Stewart.
The Next Title
Striving to meet an even higher quality bar is the company's next game, which is due to release at the end of the third quarter of this year. It doesn't yet have a final title, and industry veteran and Doom
co-creator John Romero -- still also currently working at Gazillion Entertainment -- is consulting on the design. "The quality bar is going to go definitely higher on that as well," says Stewart.
"The concept is that you're building a fair for these little critters in this dark forest, and it draws inspiration from things like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in that there's a little bit more of a dark theme here," says Stewart.
Also new to this game is an attempt to bring narrative into Facebook games -- a relatively rare phenomenon, particularly when targeting a "typical" Facebook audience. "As you play the game, you'll find out that the forest is actually kind of evil," says Stewart. "As the game progresses, we're going to introduce more elements as to how exactly the forest is like bad. Like, [the player will] start being like evil eyes like looking out of the forest and maybe some bad things might happen to like some of the like critters that go too far into the forest, and stuff like that."
"This [mode of storytelling] is going to be more just atmospheric. And then there will be quests and stuff that you do that are associated with this atmosphere. But it's not so much in-your-face," he says. "We think it's really important to push forward on what can be done on Facebook, because I think people are going to go for that. It's just that right now everything is so scenario-based that I think it's rather limiting in terms of what you can do. You can bring people into a real atmospheric environment."
Blizzard and Pixar?
"The real quality and pushing forward in the genre is going to come from people who really care about using the product that you're actually [making]. We looked to companies like Pixar as a model for what we really want to do. How can we keep stepping forward the quality bar and really bringing stuff that no one has ever really seen on Facebook?" asks Stewart.
Of course, however, Lolapps can't spend the same amount of time that Blizzard and Pixar can spend optimizing and polishing their products. "Hopefully, we'll try to get it down to a science," says Sethi. "It's not going to be possible, but we're going to continue to work on it. We make mistakes every day... but at the same time, we don't want to give up on some of the aspirations of what we want in the game."
"Pixar and Blizzard seem to have this 'whenever it's done, it's done' attitude, and we obviously can't have that in social gaming. But I think what we have done is every time we put something out, we can say we're proud of it, and we're going to do even better next time. So, we're just continually learning, continually trying to get better," says Stewart.
"The best part is when you launch the game, it's not even 50 percent done. So, there's a lot of aspirational things where we say, 'Hey, we didn't get A, B, and C down. Let's do it right after we launch it and keep it more exciting,'" Sethi concludes.