There's currently a gold rush in the social gaming space. FarmVille has over 80 million monthly active users (MAU) and, late last year, Electronic Arts purchased Playfish for $300 million. Those types of numbers make people take notice. But on a platform like Facebook, which seems to be dominated by a few big games and even fewer big developers, creating a popular game can seem like a daunting task -- especially for smaller, independent studios.
Gamasutra sat down with three different developers to learn just how you can be successful on the world's biggest social network, even if your name isn't Zynga or Playfish.
Setting the Trap
If you were to pitch a game where the gameplay revolved around setting a trap and waiting for mice to come, chances are most publishers wouldn't bite.
But it was with just such a game that Ontario-based HitGrab Labs was able to achieve its biggest success: MouseHunt. After getting started doing online marketing, HitGrab eventually made the shift to Facebook development.
"We took on a job where one of our clients... wanted a Facebook application," says HitGrab owner Joel Auge. "So we told them we could do it, though we'd never done it before, and just fell in love with the platform. We did that and we realized very quickly that we weren't really great customer service people. But we really liked the platform. So we decided, 'Why don't we do our own thing?'"
After creating a wedding registry application that Auge says "failed miserably," the studio made the shift to game development in spite of the fact that no one on the team had any game development experience.
"[Executive producer] Brian [Freeman] woke up one day from a dream and he was like 'Yeah, mouse traps. We should have people create their mouse traps 'cause you really just set the bait and then you leave and you come back,' and we were like 'Oh, that's interesting,'" Auge says.
"So we decided to build a game around it. It took us like two weeks to drum up a quick beta, launched it to 40 friends, and their reactions were, like, unbelievable. They were freaking out they loved the game and we decided, 'Let's just be a gaming company.' And MouseHunt's growing to this day, actually.
"From a marketing perspective we kind of knew that we had to build a business first, which helped us a lot, to be honest. We didn't really know what we were doing game wise. I mean, we've all played games. We all have game consoles at home. So all of us play games. You know, our generation does. As far as designers, we really just tailored the gameplay around the platform... To be honest, a lot of the obstacles that we were facing, on scaling and making it interesting, those were things that provided us with new opportunities to come up with new ideas that really haven't been used much on the platform at all."
And Auge says that these "new ideas" are what allowed MouseHunt to become a success. On a platform that's dominated by genre games -- farming, restaurant management, mafia, etc. -- something like MouseHunt is able to stand out.
"To this day, if you were to tell people a mouse game on a social platform is going to do well, they'd probably laugh at you," he explains. "But to be honest I think it's really protected us to a certain degree. What we really tried to focus on was stuff that takes too much time really for the big guys to think about."
This has allowed MouseHunt to garner nearly half a million MAU, enough for HitGrab to survive solely off of Facebook development. And while those numbers may not sound all that impressive, the key to HitGrab's success has been in cultivating a very active audience, something it's been able to achieve via constant interaction with fans.
Every Friday the developers hold a chat with the community where they discuss the game and talk about upcoming content. The die-hard fans who participate in these chats then spread the word to the rest of the community, saving the studio from having to do much in the way of promotion.
"They do a lot of the work for us," Auge says "We take care of them and they take care of us. For instance, we'll have a feature that we'll introduce in our Feedback Friday -- we'll talk about a new area that'll be released next week, and unless you were in that video chat you wouldn't have any idea. So those users then go to the forums and tell all of their friends about these new things that the developers from HitGrab are doing. And that whole process breeds a sense of community."
But despite the success of MouseHunt, HitGrab's second release, MythMonger, hasn't quite caught on the same way, with under 50,000 MAU. According to Auge, this has been a result of not learning from their experience with MouseHunt.
"We didn't really learn the lessons we needed to learn severely enough at the time to implement those lessons from MouseHunt," he says. "For instance, MythMonger is complex. MouseHunt is uber-simple. And that's something we should have taken away from MouseHunt, but we didn't really apply it to MythMonger.
"There are probably too many ideas that made it into MythMonger... But we're listening to the audience now and we're hoping to deliver a better product very shortly. To be honest, it probably comes from a lack of game development experience. A lot of the guys in our field have been doing games for years, on mobile or on consoles, and already have an understanding of all these things. But we're still learning as a company and we're probably never going to stop learning."