GDC: Is Intuition or Metrics Better for Social Game Design?

For several years a discussion (or argument) has vollied between two sides at the Game Developer’s Conference: do social games use real game design, or are they not games at all?

These days the social branch is generally accepted as a real part of the gaming family, so an afternoon panel dealt with a more refined argument – whether social games should be driven by intuitive, feeling game designers, or by the metrics-driven product managers who created the industry, with Loot Drop cofounder Brenda Brathwaite taking one side and Sony Online Entertainment designer Laralyn McWilliams on the other.

The question is particularly relevant right now because traditional game developers, some with decades of experience, are streaming into the social and online space. “I think part of the problem is that game designers view this as an incredibly creative art,” said Brathwaite. Product managers, on the other hand, are more likely to view game design as a craft, backed up by numbers and graphs.

Designers sometimes see the problem as one of judgment. The example Brathwaite gave was choosing which virtual goods to include in the game. A product manager who can see that Americana-themed goods are popular with a majority of players might try to force them in. The designer, having a specific medieval theme in mind, might well see that idea as shooting themselves in the foot.

On the other hand, metrics can, and should, destroy some typical behaviors of traditional designers. A typical designer hates to see an early version of their game released. “It’s like walking out naked after a Krispy Kreme binge,” said Brathwaite. But launching an incomplete game may be the best idea, according to McWilliams. “The longer you hold onto it, the more you’re guessing,” she said.

Some of the conflict can be solved by the game designer applying management to the product manager’s process. For instance, if hockey were being designed for the first time, a product manager might rightly conclude that viewers like fights and thus make them more central. The designer’s job is to ask for more numbers to get a complete view, tracking the entire experience of the player. “It’s about the whole experience,” said McWilliams. “The highlights [like fights] are the dessert of the game.”

At the end of the day, product managers should be helping to define the space that game designers work within, especially as that relates to what users like doing on the platform in question, whether that’s Facebook or a PSP. “It doesn’t have to drive the more creative decisions like theme and core player interactions, but it helps narrow things down,” said McWilliams.

[Editor’s note: Chris Morrison is a game designer and analyst at Concept Art House. He previously led coverage on Inside Social Games and continues to contribute.]