Console Game Makers Take Lessons From Social Games At GDC 2010

At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2010 this year, Amitt Mahajan, a lead developer of Farmville, revealed that the entire development of Farmville took five weeks, that Zynga has a clear understanding of their userbase, and that they are integrating developers into the design process. These achievements are not common practice to the console gaming industry and gaming world at large, and it seems as if console game makers should start applying some of these lessons to their own games and development.

The big news of Farmville being developed in 5 weeks is part of a bigger trend at GDC this year. Followers of the conference have been remarking that social games are a big part of the overall discussion, whereas they were almost nonexisten in years past. Part of the reason for that is the incredible success of games like Farmville over the last year, and the discussion was expected. But when a developer like Amitt announces that one of the biggest earning, most popular games of the year was developed in five weeks, the entire industry shifts their attention. It has been happening for the last year, but this GDC is likely going to be remembered as a turning point for many game developers.

The reasons being that big companies, like Activision (who stated in the past that they’re still unsure about social games’ long term potential) and Ubisoft (who have dabbled in social games withits unsuccessful game, TickTock) understand that if Farmville took 5 weeks to create, then the cost is extremely low on the front end.

So when they start thinking about generating another $50 million console game title, they are almost forcedto realize that that money could be put to use to make maybe 30 or 40 Farmvilles. Of course, the cost of games like Farmville are heavier once the game is launched, with high server load and the required iteration and design changes, but since only the successful games incur that cost, they could dump the losers as failed experiments.

In an interview with VCs, we saw some critical analysis of console game makers:

“The industry is in huge disarray,” agrees Pacific Crest’s Wilson, who believes console game developers are “in denial.

Console game makers also need to look at how social games monitor their users. EA recently discussed that they were inspired by social games to look more closely at their user data for Madden football. Design was also an issue for console makers, and when this was clear when Amitt discussed effective design, development and iterative processes: “Normally in traditional game design, the designer creates specs, which are then passed over a ‘wall’ to developers who are then required to implement those specs. Why not give developers just as much ownership of the feature as the designer?”

These are notes that the entire industry takes to heart, and any developer will tell you that one of the frustrations of working on big console games is the complete lack of feedback that developers typically have to the designers. With smaller games like this, you get more efficiencies on design decisions, with more smart minds attacking the smaller design/development problems.