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.

We also chose the UI, sound effects and music very carefully: we wanted mellow nostalgia, the warm feeling for friends and family not present that people often feel at the holidays – but not tilting over into feelings of sadness or loss. Our primary experiential goal was for family and friends who are far apart to be able to gather together around building their own iconic, ideal holiday villages. We complemented the main initial activities of building the village with quietly falling snow, the ability to see the village in daylight or night, and the ability to turn on a “music box” mode where the village scrolls slowly by as the snow falls and the quiet music plays.

Based on the player reports we received, we believe we hit this emotional goal well. Our players (mostly women) definitely resonated with the emotional tone the game presented. They enjoyed being able to see their village in the day or night (and especially with the holiday lights on), playing with the falling snow, and actually playing the game too. Comments like “now I want a mug of hot chocolate!” were common.

In addition to the emotion-related design goal, another important goal for us was to try out having players on Facebook create and build their own shared spaces. Each village is a “space” defined by the players and private to them and their friends. Unlike many games on Facebook today where each player has their own space (e.g. farm, city, etc.), these villages are shared fully between players. One person starts a village and can invite others. Anyone who is a “member” of a village can edit it with equal authority (though the person who started it can always kick others out). Players do not share their personal inventory of buildings or in-game coins, but they can gift building to others — and the village itself acts as a form of shared inventory, since any member can move, add, or delete items there.

While shared spaces are nothing new in MMOGs and similar games, they are not yet common on Facebook. In fact, many of our players seemed to not understand the concept at first, or did not believe that they could actually be in the same village with another person and both be interacting with it at the same time. Facebook users seem to have been well-trained that games are single-player with carefully limited avenues for socialization (usually consisting of asking someone else for help – a form of “begging as gameplay” that we wanted to avoid).

The expectations set up in current players of Facebook games took us by surprise in another way as well. When we first released Holiday Village we did so as an “app” rather than a “game.” We knew that many people buy small holiday buildings at prices of $50 to $100 each to build villages in their homes (there are literally thousands of YouTube videos made by people proudly showing off their town displays).  The question was, would people be willing to buy a virtual building for a dollar or two, or a set of trees for fifty cents?

In part, the answer was yes:  Our initial monetization was good (as was our viral spread – we did a little advertising, but by far most of our users came in via word-of-mouth from other players), but it was paralleled by questions and complaints about the open-ended app-like rather than directed game-like experience we provided: “What’s my goal?” “How can I earn coins?”  “How do I play the game?”  “Why should I have to spend money?”  Clearly, the free-to-play mindset has taken hold in the players we were seeing, and the idea of an app that did not provide gameplay-that-makes-coins, did not lead the player somewhat by the nose, and did not provide non-monetary options for gaining rewards was not popular. This may seem obvious, but it was worth the experiment. While some are still wondering whether the free-to-play model will really work, our experience indicates that with the mass market, it has become the de facto expectation.