Lessons In Facebook Game Design: Mike Sellers on Online Alchemy’s Holiday Village

[Editor’s note: We’ve been covering the latest discussion around possibilities in social game design this week. What’s the place of synchronous gaming on the Facebook platform? What about races, tournaments, deception, tolls, and all sorts of other mechanics?  Below, Mike Sellers of game developer Online Alchemy shares his experiences building a game that featured a shared virtual space — and the trouble he and his team encountered given the current mindsets of Facebook gamers. For context on the topic of social game design innovation, see this recent presentation by Playdom’s Raph Koster and follow-up commentary by guest columnist Tadhg Kelly.]

Holiday Village is a social game developed by Online Alchemy and launched on Facebook in late 2010. It allows multiple players to create a small “Christmas village” together.

The game, in my view, is notable for several reasons: First, it’s a game that is actually social – you play collaboratively with your friends in the same space at the same time.  Second, it embodied several successful design concepts that do not derive from the current design tropes commonly seen in Facebook games. And third, we were able to develop it as an original IP with a small team in a very short amount of time – about 7 weeks from first concept doc to launch. In some ways this effort was highly successful, in other ways it didn’t match what we hoped for. As you might expect, we learned a lot along the way.

Holiday Village started out as an idea by Samantha LeCraft, a designer at Online Alchemy. We had one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversations during the holiday season in 2009 about people building little Christmas towns together – putting online the kind of experience many have at the holidays when they arrange little buildings into a sort of small fantasy town. I thought she had a great idea for a holiday app, and told her to remind me of it the next summer, when we might have time to actually do something with it.

By summer 2010 we were working hard on another project, and so we weren’t really able to get started on our “holiday game” as we loosely thought of it until the autumn. By then we knew we had a very short amount of time until the holidays and few resources to put toward the game. But we had looked at the market and it seemed viable, we had a technology stack that would support a collaborative social app, and we wanted to have this little game see the light of day. In the first part of October we wrote up the first iteration of the design, and by late November we launched Holiday Village on Facebook.

I should note that not only was the backend technology terrific, but we were fortunate to have amazing Flash/Flex programmers creating the client, a great art director who quickly understood how important the feel of the app was to it, and a fast, flexible, and professional group of contract artists. This team while small and geographically distributed (and working on other projects), was able to develop and iterate quickly and effectively.

The primary design goal for Holiday Village was to evoke an emotional response unlike those typically found in current social games: since this was a game built around holidays, we wanted people to feel a sense of family, warmth, comfort, and nostalgia – even nostalgia for a time and place they may have never seen.  We chose an abstract 1930s/40s American style for the art, evoking classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life without being directly derivative or too specific with the era.