Live Notes from GDC: Games That Connect People

gdclogoInside Social Games is here live at GDC in San Francisco for this morning’s “Games That Connect People” panel, including:

  • Hugh de Loayza (VP Biz Dev, Zynga)
  • Nathan Fahrenthold (Senior Producer, iWin)
  • David Fox (VP Technology, iWin)
  • David Rohrl (Casual Games, Zynga)

David Fox: A lot of people have been talking about casual MMO’s for a long time, they think it’s a myth, but we just released one called Hotel iWin.  It’s a social network, casual MMO, virtual world, thingy – throw whatever buzzword you want on it. iWin is a casual portal that sells try and buy games, in 2007 everyone was doing the same thing: membership clubs, price wars, same old shit. We wanted to think differently so we created a casual MMO.

Lots of questions. Do you do 2D, 3D, do you use a currency, what type of currency, can it be cashed out, do you let users generate content, how much, how social do you make it, it’s surprising how few soccer moms are on Facebook/MySpace. The models are very much mixed between subscriptions, microtransactions, advertising, and retail.

Nathan Fahrenthold: When we were creating Hotel iWin we knew we were not trying to create the next Facebook or MySpace. We were trying to build the right thing for our older female demographic. We were trying to build a premium social experience around our casual publishing business.

We are a small company, so we knew we couldn’t escape from our casual game core invest millions of dollars. We knew our audience would understand simpler 2D Flash browser based environment, not all the complexity of a full fledged social network. On the backend, things were still pretty expensive.

In the first three weeks, we’ve had 50k rooms created, 10% adoption rate, 2.5 million Opals spent per day, 84k friends added, and 91k wall posts.

gdc1Hugh de Loayza: Today I’m going to focus on how do I take my casual game studio and make it into a social game studio. It was actually last year at GDC that I met the folks at Zynga and it changed the way I think about casual games.

What is social games? We look at it as games located and managed on any social network. A social game is a game plopped onto Facebook, but social gaming is really thinking about how I can design games to drive social interaction. There are several players in the space right now.

The big social game networks are about 50 million users and above: Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and Hi5. Those are the ones you want to concentrate on, because that’s in the neighborhood of around 250 million users today, and that’s gonna grow. Yahoo is getting into social gaming with the applications platform, Google is adding applications into iGoogle, and Microsoft can’t be too far behind. That’s about a billion users. That doesn’t mean you should forget about some of the smaller or international sites like Tagged or Perfspot that you can use to segment your market in a targeted way.

Why are social games different than casual games? They depend on a viral loop. They depend on trust, and they depend on obligation. Why does that matter? This is the way your game is going to get distribution.

It’s all multiplayer. There’s asynchronous (like Scramble), which means we’re not playing simultaneously. When someone has the time, or feels obligated to come and play with me, they come and make their moves. In the case of synchronous, there’s constantly a game going. I don’t always know the people at the table, but the game is wrapped with my friends’ performance and recent activity.

How are we staring to drive social interactions amongst those games? Virtual gifts are starting to drive social interactions. You can invite somebody to play, invite them to interact with you. We’re also starting to run these games on the iPhone. We look at the iPhone differently, not in terms of unit sales but in terms of how many players can we get. The new iPhone 3.0 software is going to make it possible to make games much more social.

In YoVille, we’re visiting each others’ space, we’re building community. We didn’t expect it to create community, but after we launched it we found vidoes users had created on YouTube giving tours of rooms that they like. We recently launched the YoVille community site which is the official place where you can go see you avatar and how many items you have outside the social network.

Games are not destinations, social networks are not portals. Games are places that people go to spend time within social networks – and not a lot of time at that. You’re going to come in for 5 to 10 minutes to see what your friends are doing, play for a few minutes, and you’re off.

In terms of business models, there’s a variety. There’s standard banner advertising, there’s CPA – we’ll give you X amount of coins if you fill out a survey – Offerpal Media and Super Rewards are doing this kind of business, and then there’s microtransactions, where you can pay for the coins directly.

Does my casual studio have social games DNA? You need a Web 2.0 philosophy with a touch of gaming – lots of testing messaging and notifications, literally on an hourly basis, to me it looked like air traffic control. It’s important to tune your game constantly post release, daily or hourly. Have a very analytical business approach. We look at the number of invites sent, the number of drinks sent in Poker, the number of people you recruit for Mafia Wars. Focus on traffic as much or more than game play. Don’t worry about launching with great graphics. Really important to measure both viral mechanics and game mechanics. Social networks change all the time, and you have to react to those changes. You also have to react to what others are doing.

How do I start? Keep is simple. Kickmania is a very simple game that has done reasonably well in social networks. You can do one thing: see your friends, invite them, kick their ass. They’ve then added community elements, leaderboards, virtual currency after the fact. They’re getting between 60-100k daily active users.

When things mature, add mechanics that spur virality. Gifting, competition, crew mechanics, notifications. Each of those creates an obligation and an interaction. Playfish has done a great job with competition in Who Has the Biggest Brain. Foster competition in playful and fun way. Also, Bejeweled Blitz has done something interesting by taking my list of friends and listing us as part of a team – now it’s a “coopeitition” of sorts. Less game, more social. It’s 25% about getting the game right, it’s 75% about managing it well within a social network. You’re now running a live service. Use ubiquitous technology (Flash and PHP).

You also need to think about reach. Google developed OpenSocial which is designed to run across many sites, which is nice in theory, but you end up having to make changes on each site. FBML is for Facebook. Localization? Maybe someday. There are multiple different languages being spoken.

Now that I’ve got my game, how do I get it out there? Buy installs to seed you game to start the viral loops. You can buy it from social networks – as easy as entering your credit card into Facebook. You can also look at social networking agencies – folks like RockYou, SocialHour – you can buy quite a few installs. Cross promotion is another way to easily do it – put bars on your game, barter links with others. You can drive traffic from one game to another. Build your brand by thinking about quality and fun. Think about game play, but also think about social interaction.

Things that don’t work? Licenses. Developers tend to pay more attention to the brand and game than to the social interaction. Many of you may remember the controversy around Scrabulous. They were looking at 800k daily active users, that has now been split up into 3 games, and the brand is not necessarily prevailing.

Don’t link to a destination site. An early version of Pogo made you click out to the website after playing for 3 minutes instead of inviting friends. This took you out of your viral loop. However, they’re adapting, and starting to do some interesting things in Word Whomp. They’ve gone from the widget model to something more adapted to the social network.

Overthinking everything. I encourage you to test a lot of different things, try stuff out. Don’t think that anything is outlandish. One good example is selling chips in Poker.

So what’s happening in the space? Attention to quality. Flash is being pushed in ways that you wouldn’t imagine. Our new Guild of Heroes is doing impressive things with Flash. Innovation over imitation. Every studio is thinking about multiple mechanics. You can fight, ally, heal. Localization. Playfish has done a great job with this.

In short, create games specifically for social networks. Think more like an email marketer. Pick your platform – your game isn’t a marketing tool, keep people in that viral loop to drive distribution, social networks are not portals. Release early and often, measure and adapt accordingly.