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.