Casual Connect: “Many Expensive People + Whiteboards – Metrics = Fail” According to Zynga’s Erik Bethke

Erik Bethke is a Director of Product from Zynga and during his “East Meets West” presentation at Casual Connect, he discussed how his first social game title, GoPets, was first acquired by Zynga.  Erik and his team created the game in South Korea over a few years and accelerated growth with Zynga.  Unfortunately, the game was cancelled in 2009 after middling performance, and Erik let us in on some of the secrets of how the game was created, how it succeeded and how it ultimately lost its traffic.  We take a look here.

His tale began with a great story of how his son once joined him on a game in a crowded chat room and exclaimed “I love you daddy” to all of the other chats.  This was an anecdote, that along with the rest of the presentation, demonstrated his candid opinion that the reason social games are special is because they  trigger real emotions in people.  He discussed the 7-11 gamer, who’s a guy who just sells beer and cigarettes to people in real life but searches for more in his games.  And proceeded to discuss that he felt that virtual worlds helped people connect to each other in much more meaningful ways than they perhaps can while in their real life, especially with so many people who “don’t have very interesting jobs.”

With this way of thinking and a stint with Activision under his belt, Erik first got into social games In 2003, he moved to Seoul, Korea to start GoPets, and at that time, well before Facebook or MySpace or anything resembling social games, he found that the South Koreans were building restaurant games for casual gamers.  He found this amazing, that you could build a game that asks people to do chores and then get them to pay for special items.  Of course, years later this is how social games evolved.  Erik was quick to say that virtual goods have been threatening their move into the West for years, but with the advent of Facebook, the games arrived.

GoPets eventually launched, and Erik had to overcome traditional Los Angeles game developer tendencies and learn to use metrics.  He says that they would argue over which feature should go into a game, and argue whether women would like to use Quests or not, but since nobody had any data, whoever was loudest would win.  After he discovered metrics, he used this to guide his GoPets experience and started targeting the areas that give you the best ROI.  The game continued to succeed but eventually fell victim to the onslaught of bigger, newer games.  That said, he learned a lot about how to get games pushed through.

He also discussed Zynga a bit, stating it has an operational tempo like no other, and constantly executing to improve the expected outcome of their features.  It does sound a little bit more like a machine than a game company, but Erik himself is such an interesting and passionate game designer, that you imagine there’s some secret in using strictness to create fun.