How ZipZapPlay Saved Itself With a Hit Facebook Game

[Curt Bererton is the CEO and co-founder, with Mathilde Pignol, of social game developer ZipZapPlay. Their company recently came to prominence with a social game called Baking Life, a bakery sim that grew to a peak of 6.7 million monthly active users in just three months.

The below story is an “as told to” monologue, drawn from a recent Inside Social Games interview with Bererton.]

ZipZapPlay started up in late 2007 to build PlayCrafter, which is still active. The short and slightly sad story about PlayCrafter is that it’s one of the better, if not the best game creation platforms that has been made. The idea was to make it as easy to create a game as it is to write a book. If Mozart needed to write a book, code a game and create music all at once, you wouldn’t have these great masterpieces. Game design is like that because you need to know multiple fields.

But the core flaw for PlayCrafter was the business model and the youth of the target audience, which inherently meant they didn’t monetize as well. It broke our hearts a bit that it didn’t totally take off and make us a bunch of money, because that meant we had to leave it behind and move on to another space.

So to some extent that was the origin – starting with something very hard and learning some hard business lessons. In retrospect it was our own naivete to assume we could do PlayCrafter when there wasn’t an industry around that concept. LittleBigPlanet should have been a sign for us to stop sooner. That was supposed to be the platform example, but its sales were not as high as Sony had hoped.

When we started to look at Facebook, the first game we built was called Cat’s Cove, in August 2009. You had these cat pirates, and they would attack each other in turn-based combat. Really the point was, we’re gonna build this Facebook game and get it out the door really fast, because we know we’re gonna screw it up. When we built that game it was about learning technology, what processes worked and what didn’t and doing a lot of split tests.

We did a lot of things wrong there. But the one thing we learned from PlayCrafter after working on it for so long, was if it’s not working out, you need to kill things and move on. And even at that time, the money was getting tighter. Lack of money is a significant motivator.

After Cat’s Cove we started seeing the world in a different way, which now is part of how we think. There’s a spectrum from pure innovation to low-risk products. I’d say PlayCrafter was way over on the hisk risk side, just short of crazy indie games. Zynga is on the other side — they almost exclusively place smart bets now, and they clearly have a recipe that works. Baking Life is more on the conservative end of the spectrum. Part of the reason was that we needed a win, otherwise we were going to sell the company.

But we always need to do something new that hasn’t been done before — it’s part of our DNA. So how do you balance the risk without dying? Baking Life, we felt, was a good compromise. We did a bunch of testing of various themes. Baking did fairly well, and we knew Restaurant City and Cafe World had done fairly well. So we changed the core mechanic to be more of a retail store with cashiers and customers that waited in front of them, and we did our new viral design based on user-generated content. Those things combined to make what we felt was a relatively smart bet.