Designing Social Games: Q&A With John Earner, VP Product Management at Playfish

Playfish LogoPlayfish has earned its reputation as one of the leading developers of social games for Facebook, MySpace, and the iPhone by consistently producing high quality and refreshingly creative games that resonate with millions of players around the world. While a lot of developers are focused on monitoring the latest hits on the Facebook gaming charts, Playfish often takes months to develop each title. Most recently, Playfish has released Restaurant City, perhaps the best Playfish title to date, and Crazy Planets, which went live just last week.

We spoke with John Earner, VP of Product Management at Playfish, to learn more about how the company designs and builds its games.

[Inside Social Games] Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s start by taking a look at things at a high level. How do you manage the design and production processes at Playfish?

[John Earner] Our goal at Playfish is to change the way people play games. We are passionate about making fun, social experiences that everyone can enjoy. Social games are all about the emotions and interactions friends share together. The most important thing for us when designing a game is allowing friends to have a fun time together. To get that done with each new game, we are organized into small, talented studios. We have a collaborative approach. Whether it’s programmers, artists, designers, or product managers, everyone influences the game’s direction. There is an initial development phase and a live-operation phase. Once a game launches, we add player feedback and analysis into the process but we never cease to be creatively driven. We always focus on delivering a lot of value and fun to players at every point in the process and with every decision.

[ISG] How do you decide which games ideas to move forward into production?

[JE] We have a really long list of games we’d like to get around to making. Everyone in the company can contribute ideas. Having teams in three different continents really strengthens our creative process and the variety of games we are able to create.

[ISG] What does your production lifecycle look like?

[JE] With social games, the production lifecycle is continuous. It varies by game but generally takes us a few months to get to launch stage at which point the work is just beginning. We continuously enhance and update our games to keep players engaged and having fun for weeks, months, and years.

Restaurant City[ISG] Let’s talk about the latest Playfish game, Restaurant City. What gave you the initial idea of this social restaurant concept?

[JE] We knew we wanted to do a cooking themed game. It’s a universally appealing genre that has enjoyed a lot of success on other platforms. And the team was passionate about making the game, which is incredibly important. We started out with a game concept focused on preparation of dishes via various mini games, such as chopping up vegetables, stirring, that sort of thing (think Cooking Mama).

We added the restaurant management component to make the game more social. We decided to drop the mini games and focus on the management and expressive elements of the game based on feedback from a few early builds. That aspect really added a much more fun social experience that we enjoyed more. It also gave us more opportunity for expansion over time.

[ISG] We can see some influences from The Sims as well. What features are you planning on rolling out next?

[JE] One feature we’ll be launching very soon is the addition of drinks to the menu. Players will be able to select which drinks they serve. We are basing our list of drinks on a lot of player feedback. We have other cool features coming soon too.

[ISG] Quick aside: Why the heck can’t I put a door on my bathrooms?! Suffice to say, I’m hoping for that feature soon. It’s always bothered me.

[JE] Because social networks are all about sharing. Just kidding! It’s a technical issue that we are working on.

Restaurant Menu[ISG] {laughs} Has there been any thought as to having design elements such as the décor and uniforms play more than just the aesthetic role? And what about dishes, etc?

[JE] Upgrading your dishes will give you more points per dish served but décor is just that: for decoration. The idea is to allow players to decorate their restaurant as they see fit. It’s an expressive decision to go for a lobster shack or tiki lounge. Not a competitive one.

[ISG] So how do you usually determine what stays and what goes? What were some of the ideas that got left on the cutting room floor?

[JE] No good ideas need to be left out in a games-as-service model. We can keep updating and adding features for as long as we like. It’s just a matter of setting priorities and keeping a roadmap. We launch the game when enough of it is in place that everyone in the company is really enjoying it. When office productivity starts going down because of the game, it’s ready.

[ISG] You certainly do a tremendous amount of work post-launch based on user feedback. We have all seen the deluge of requests and suggestions that flood games like Pet Society. What’s your process for incorporating this feedback into your design cycles? Also, out of curiosity, what is the most outlandish piece of feedback/request you’ve seen?

[JE] Yeah, it’s a deluge but the outpouring of interest is gratifying. Finding the balance of what feedback to listen to is something we are continually working on. We broaden our sources of player input as much as we can to make sure we are listening to everyone. We closely follow our forums. We conduct surveys. We play our own games constantly. And we look at the data.

As for funny player feedback, there’s a lot! My favorite example is from a player on the Pet Society forums who kept making up stories about rare items you could get in the game that didn’t actually exist. But they were really good items so we would take each new idea of his and actually add it to the game.

Restaurant Community[ISG] Many would consider the style of play from Restaurant City to be very similar to Pet Society. How similar are the audiences for each game?

[JE] We focus on the player. Each game attracts a large and distinct group of people. Both groups enjoy expressing themselves and interacting with friends, but in a different context. Both games have a promising future and both, in the grand scheme, are just getting started.

[ISG] Can you share the monthly user and ARPU/ARPPU data you’re seeing?

[JE] Pet Society has more than 12 million monthly active users (MAU’s) and celebrates its first birthday in August. Restaurant City has already attracted more than 5 million monthly active users since its launch in late March. We don’t share revenue numbers but I can tell you that Playfish is substantially profitable.

[ISG] If you had the chance to start all over with Restaurant City – or any other Playfish title for that matter – what would you do differently?

[JE] We are constantly learning and improving every facet of our business, from how to launch a game, what kinds of features are the most fun, to what business models are most effective. Our model lets us adapt and start over each week. If players love something, we do more of it. If something doesn’t work, we roll it back.

[ISG] Two more questions. Most important, what is your favorite Playfish game thus far, and why?

[JE] My favorite game is Pet Society. I like it because it looks so simple the first time you play it but becomes a huge open ended sand box once you get into it. Some people play it because you can use all the items like Lego bricks to make whatever you want. Others play it as a way to send meaningful gifts to their friends. Still others are there for the collector community. I play it as a great way to stay in touch with my Mom. For the two of us, Pets is like email, but better.

[ISG] Well, thanks again so much for talking with us. Before I let you go, are there any final thoughts you would like to share with ISG readers?

[JE] We’ve recently launched a new game: Crazy Planets. Check it out!