When looking at Facebook developers, Wooga is third behind Zynga and EA. Before PopCap's stats were merged with EA's, Wooga was number two. How does a German company few in the U.S. have heard of reach such heights of success in just a few years?
In this interview, Wooga's head of studio Henric Suuronen lays down the social game design law. You've often heard that designing for Facebook takes a radically different approach to console game design, but how different is it, truly? According to Suuronen, it's fundamentally different -- so much so that designers who come over from the console space often do not have a place at his company.
That said, Suuronen is a gamer. He devoured classic games like Super Mario Bros. on the NES as a child, and NHL '95 on the Sega Mega Drive and Dune II on the PC as a teenager. From these, Suuronen built up knowledge of games he considers indispensable to his current work -- knowledge he continued to amass until he stopped playing in college.
What he did after college, however, was join Nokia and work on the N-Gage reboot before moving over to Digital Chocolate and work on the pioneering Tower Bloxx, as well as Millionaire City.
He was there for the social gaming revolution and now blends his fond memories with the hard facts of the extremely competitive and challenging social space. In this interview, he describes exactly how.
I've done very few design-oriented interviews about social gaming. I usually end up talking to execs. What I like to get to the heart of is the philosophy of design. What is important about social game design, in your view, that sets it apart?
HS: I have a pretty strong design background. I've never worked with the title "game designer" -- I've been the product manager, or a senior product manager, or director-level guy. But I don't know, just because my background as a kid -- I played so much -- I kind of have like a library of game mechanics, and what you should do, and what works, and what does not. So I end up working quite a lot with game design.
When it comes to game design, for social games specifically, I think the most important part is the game loop. So, what do you do over and over again? So Millionaire City, for example, you buy a plot, a piece of terrain, you buy a house, place the house, you wait a little certain amount of time, and then you collect money from it. And you do this over and over again, and when you get enough money, you buy another house. And you place it, and maybe connect it with road, and all this stuff.
The game loop is the game. That's the most important thing.
When it comes to what to think about when designing for social games, I think you have to almost throw everything from your console brain, or your hardcore things, into the garbage. That will get you on the wrong track.
Not only is it social, but it's free-to-play. And free-to-play, I think, changes the game design even more than [the fact that] it's social. The free-to-play is a mindset that a lot of console guys don't get. They're used to getting 60 bucks first, then they kind of have a lousy menu, but the guy has already invested 60 bucks, so he will browse through the menu and try to learn the game, because otherwise he would feel stupid.
Social games are free-to-play games; it's totally different. So you have to think about, "Whoa, the guy has not invested anything over the game -- not a single dime!" So how do I get him through the menu -- if there's a menu -- how do I get him through the tutorial, and how do I get him hooked to the game -- as quickly as possible? And this is the game design [element] which is, I think, the most difficult part.
Obviously it's social, so you have to think about how is it better with friends. So we have this abbreviation: BWF. Better With Friends. What is the BWF of your game? So is it just visits, or can you upgrade something, can you help, can you ask for parts, can you staff something, can you play together asynchronously, can you play synchronously? Different stuff like that.
How do you feel about the current implementations of social mechanics in games? Are they robust enough? Do you see a lot of potential for growth there?
HS: Yeah. Obviously. Take a look at it. I've done social games now four years, when I did Tower Bloxx there was Jetman. It was this lousy game, probably coded in one day, a guy was flying through a cave. But it was pretty fun, it was a high score-driven game.
Now moving four years forward, you have games like CityVille, Pioneer Trail from Zynga, Kabam games, Digital Chocolate games, and Zombie Lane -- great game -- and now Magic Land. So it has really evolved. So why would the progression stop here? So I think it will evolve, as it has done from four years ago with Jetman and Scrabulous and Tower Bloxx. So it will evolve again in the next years.
So what I think will happen is that there will be some kind of more elaborated, asynchronous, co-op play. So I'm thinking I have ideas on how to do it well in Magic Land, and we will investigate how to do it -- maybe launching something like that pretty soon. And there's a lot of in co-op and social interaction that is better. I don't think it will remain at the level that, "Hey, I'm missing a part, can you give it to me?"
I don't think it can...
HS: People will get eventually tired of it.