Social gaming lessons from a traditional designer

GDC Online 2010: Former Big Huge Games CEO Brian Reynolds explains how Mario, Sonic, Civilization, and Diablo helped shape Frontierville.



Who was there: Former CEO and cofounder of Big Huge Games and current chief game designer for Zynga Brian Reynolds.

What they talked about: Reynolds' GDC Online keynote address covered the June launch of Zynga's Frontierville, which already boasts 33 million to 35 million monthly active users on the social networking service. More people have played Frontierville than the rest of Reynolds' games combined, and the talk was intended to recap why that was and how it came to be.

Frontierville appears to be Zynga's next big thing.
Frontierville appears to be Zynga's next big thing.

Reynolds talked about the history of Facebook games and Zynga before he joined up a little over a year and a half ago. In 2008, the platform was awash with word and card games and quiz apps, with Mafia-themed games just starting to hint at its potential. In 2009, the market exploded with the launch of Farmville, and Reynolds said this year's launch of Frontierville and other titles is ushering in an evolution in game mechanics for Facebook games. From here on out, Reynolds said social games will start implementing more sophisticated game design models.

Frontierville was an experiment for Zynga, Reynolds said. The company wanted to try another game in the genre of Farmville, but it wanted a different subject with the same mass appeal so players would have all of their friends playing it, and they wanted to evolve social game mechanics. The Wild West setting was chosen because it had attractive elements for men and women, young and old.

Reynolds showed off some of the pitched concepts for the game, starting with the "click on anything" idea. Reynolds wanted players to be able to click on anything on their neighbor's homestead to make the experience of visiting another player's world more interactive. Since that's the part of the game where players see their friends express themselves, Reynolds wanted to make sure players had something to do while there. Now players can click on neighbors' crops to get more food, or on trees to get more woods, and the action benefits both players.

Another gameplay mechanic was pulled from previous traditional core games Reynolds had worked on, such as the Civilization series. For example, players need to expend energy to clear away brush or improve land and make it more fertile for future use. The team also toyed with a schoolhouse intended to be a center for role-playing-game-like progression, complete with tech trees. While they decided that was a step too far and scaled it back a little, it still made it into the game eventually and signifies evolving social game design ambitions.

Reynolds said he and his colleagues come from the Sid Meier school of game design, which dictates that learning the game, playing it, and tinkering with it is what makes it great. In cruder terms, Reynolds called it the JSI-RSO approach, which stands for "Jamming **** in, ripping **** out."

One of the features Reynolds jammed in was "doobers," extra animations for optional activities that gave bonuses. Reynolds said it was supposed to make the game feel a little more like a traditional Sonic or Mario game, with a more active world around the player. Reputation was another fun mechanic Reynolds jammed in on a lark, as were varmints.

Oddly enough, Reynolds said nobody had really assumed that there would be wild animals in Frontierville. After much debate as to how threatening the wildlife should be, the developers ultimately decided to make them more like a pinata than a hazard.

Varmints were implemented right around the time user testing began, and Reynolds found that players were initially hesitant about seeing snakes in the game. After a tentative click, they were rewarded with an experience point, so they kept clicking. Eventually the creature exploded in a shower of loot thanks to a bug in the program that dropped three times as much as the team intended. However, the reaction to the feature was so positive that they left it in and dramatically expanded their varmint lineup.

Frontier Jack, the game's narrator, was another feature that evolved into something more than intended. Originally, Jack was just a face to welcome players to the game and give them a tutorial, but the character proved engaging enough that the team expanded his role and introduced an entire cast of recurring characters.

The Frontierville family was another revelation for Reynolds. He knew he wanted players to create their own avatars, but the family let him hook into the way people interact on Facebook. When he goes on Facebook, he wants to learn about his friends, he said, including what they've overshared about their family lives.

When players create their spouse avatar in Frontierville, Reynolds said there's a moment when they have to consider whether that virtual partner will look like their real-life significant other, or simply randomize the process. He was actually contacted by another developer's wife, who was curious as to whether the red-headed hottie her husband's Frontierville character had was really a randomized construct of the game.

Reynolds also implemented quests into Frontierville, with a simple icon-driven interface in the game. They started out as simple tasks like buying a tree at the market, but they soon started telling story arcs. Reynolds realized that people would want to find out what happens at the end of the story, and they would be willing to pay to do so. The quests lead into one another as well. The initial story arc quest of getting married teaches people about most of the game's features, because it requires them to find a place to live, decorate their home, and so on.

For game designers looking to jump into the social space from the traditional gaming world, Reynolds said most of what the team did just adapted well-established game design structures, like quests. The developers knew about the quest pattern and how it helps guide players around the features and areas they needed to see, so it was just a matter of plugging that into a social game concept.

Exploring and civilizing a wild, untamed area is another big draw for gamers, Reynolds explains. Players express themselves in how they shape that area, whether it's by pushing back on the wilderness and exerting control over it, or living within it. The interactivity of Sonic and Mario games, whether it's making bricks explode by head-butting them or grabbing rings and moving goodies, also served as an inspiration. And obviously, having varmints explode in loot showers owes a debt of sorts to the Diablo series.

Reynolds also pulled from other media. The episodic nature of TV served as an inspiration for the Frontierville team, as players work their way through the story at a certain pace, although they can pay to speed that up and catch up to friends, like buying season sets on DVD.

Traditional game designers can bring a wealth of skills to the social game industry, Reynolds said. They know how to balance game systems, and they know how to make deep game design play easily. They also know the difference between fun and spam, something that Reynolds said could be lost on social gaming specialists.

Reynolds implored social game publishers to hire traditional game designers because the quality bar in the space is only going up. It's not good enough to ship games that are one-trick ponies anymore, and players want something with more subtle depth. Game designers aren't bad for the bottom line, either.

"It turns out that fun monetizes well," Reynolds said.

Developers are in the entertainment industry, Reynolds said. There will be hits and flops, and audiences will tire of things. Even a good TV show lasts maybe 10 seasons before it goes away, and creators need to keep making new kinds of entertainment because audiences get tired of the old thing. Game designers have been changing the types of games they play for decades, so they're well suited to adapt to--and bring adaptations to--the social game space.

Quotes: "Our tutorial just says, 'Hey look, there's stuff. You can click on it and everything you click on does something good. Go.'"--Reynolds on getting people in the right mind-set to play Farmville.

"How to Not Ship Your Game 101. That will be next year's talk. If you have a bad launch, you're done. You're doomed."--Reynolds, emphasizing that buying more development time is a useful skill for a social developer to have.

Takeaway: Reynolds doesn't see social gaming as a threat to traditional gaming, or some sort of metrics-driven monstrosity that will make designers obsolete. Instead, social games are a new market begging for the expertise and advancements that traditional game designers can bring to the table. The next wave of social game innovations will likely adapt classic game design patterns in new and--most importantly--more social ways.

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