Playfish gets its hooks into social gaming

GDC Austin 2009: Cofounder of studio dedicated to Facebook, iPhone development regales audience with 'fish tales in conference's final keynote address.


Who Was There: The third and final keynote address of GDC Austin 2009 was delivered by Playfish COO and cofounder Sebastian de Halleux. Playfish is a social gaming specialist and creator of popular Facebook games like Pet Society and Restaurant City. The company is also supporting the iPhone and iPod Touch with games like Who Has the Biggest Brain?, Geo Challenge, and Word Challenge.

Country Story is just one of Playfish's wildly popular casual games.
Country Story is just one of Playfish's wildly popular casual games.

What They Talked About: De Halleux kicked off his lecture by talking about the dawn of a new social era for games and recapping Playfish's role in that era.

"It's about designing and creating a experience for friends to play together and bringing those experiences to where those friends are when they're not in the game room," de Halleux said.

He explained the company's origins, with its first game, Who Has the Biggest Brain?, in 2007. They started by inviting 100 friends to play the game on Facebook. Within a month, there were 100,000 people playing the game. A year later, there were 20 million people using Playfish games on Facebook. In August, there were 50 million monthly active users, with 1 billion game sessions played. To put that in context, de Halleux said a Flash portal game would be considered a major hit with 10 million plays in its lifetime.

As for who's playing the games, de Halleux said the audience is typically 16- to 34-years-old, split evenly between men and women, and don't describe themselves as gamers. They just want to play games with their friends, he explained. As for where the gamers are, de Halleux said the answer is everywhere. The Americas, Europe, and Asia each have 30 percent of the company's player base, with 10 percent split among the rest of the world.

People spend nearly $50 billion on games today, de Halleux said, and the reason people spend that much money is because games generate emotions. However, traditional games don't tap into "social emotions" as much, emotions like friendship, anger, envy, and love. A medium like movies can make people cry because they tap into those social emotions more readily than games, de Halleux added.

What Playfish does, de Halleux explained, is design its games into people's existing social experiences. It's not a new idea, he admitted. He pointed to board games like Risk and Pictionary, and how they create memorable moments not about the strategies used in the game, but about the social interactions the games facilitated.

Three key social emotions in Playfish's games are self-expression, competition, and collaboration. De Halleux explained that Playfish's sandbox game Pet Society was created around the idea of self-expression, and he showed off a trailer highlighting the variety of character customizations in the title. As for evidence that self-expression is important, he compared World of Warcraft's monthly user number (around 12 million) with that of Pet Society's (about 17 million).

Pet Society was designed to become better as more friends play the game, de Halleux said, which encourages players to invite their pals to play with them. The game is free-to-play, but its focus on self-expression makes its microtransaction-driven business model run. A sofa shaped liked lips is a very popular item, de Halleux said, even though it sells for $40 worth of in-game currency.

The next Playfish game de Halleux brought up was Restaurant City, in which players design and grow their own restaurants. The game is built largely on collaboration, as players need specific ingredients to create specific dishes to help grow their restaurants. With a trading and gifting mechanism built into the game, players are always collaborating with friends to get what they need. He added that like Pet Society, Restaurant City has more monthly players than World of Warcraft.

Friendly competition was the last social emotion de Halleux discussed, as embodied by the game Who Has the Biggest Brain? Like how Brain Age challenges players with brain teasers and assigns them a weight, Biggest Brain doles out volume and lets players keep constant tabs on how big their friends' brains are.

De Halleux said one of the fascinating things about having 20 million people around the world taking standardized tests is that the developers can break down the results by region and see how smart people are by locality. Although he didn't call out any specific regions, a slide with colored maps indicated that California and Quebec were two areas where people had particularly voluminous brains.

The social aspect of the games also helps cut down on bad behavior, de Halleux said. What's the point of cheating in Biggest Brain, he asked, when all the friends you're competing against probably know you and how smart you actually are in real life? What the developers found was that when they found cheaters, they tended to be competing with friends not to see who had the biggest brain, but to see who could best cheat the game.

Tying into that, de Halleux noted that Playfish's community helps monitor itself quite well. The company has millions of players and a forum with more than 5 million posts, but it has a customer service team of just three people. That's possible, de Halleux said, because of hundreds of volunteers managing the forums much as game masters would handle issues in more hardcore massively multiplayer online games.

The traditional game development model has developers spending a lot of money over development, releasing the game, and crossing their fingers that it becomes a hit and sells a truckload before being displaced by the next big game. For Playfish, it's more about an approach to the game as a service instead, where they nurture their hits.

As a result, de Halleux said the game goes live when it's only about 25 percent complete, and that's where the real work begins. They release the title to a small group of friends on their social networks, and the game begins exponential growth as they fill out the features and actually finish the game. Every week they release those new features, they see a further acceleration in their user base. While de Halleux said that growth model would eventually level off for each game, at the moment most of Playfish's titles are in the exponential growth stage.

As for how to seize the opportunity, de Halleux gave four tips. He said it was important to create a new utility to facilitate fun from playing with friends. Second, developers can eliminate their distribution costs with social networks. By designing their games for viral distribution, Playfish doesn't need to spend money on marketing. Reducing development costs by releasing early in development was the third key, with the fourth and final point being monetization through microtransactions. That formula adds up to a developer that can afford more innovation with less risk than traditional game development, de Halleux explained.

Finally, de Halleux stressed how big the global opportunity is for gaming over social networks. There are 1.5 billion Web users worldwide, 500 million of which are already on social networks. To better tap into that base, Playfish is spreading development out to capitalize on multiple pools of development talent. In addition to its London headquarters, the company has studios in China and Norway, and de Halleux announced that a new fourth studio will be opening in San Francisco.

Quote: "If you want to drive innovation, you have to make mistakes. You have to understand where the limits are."--de Halleux, explaining the company's relatively fearless approach to tinkering with a game that more than 12 million people are already playing.

Takeaway: Social gaming is a tremendous opportunity for developers with a wealth of key benefits over traditional game development. It affords access to a vast pool of people who will never play console games and offers huge rewards with comparatively low risk. Additionally, the real draw to these games is not necessarily the games themselves, but the way they facilitate and build on their customers' existing relationships.

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