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A Philosophy That Extends Eastward: Social Games Zynga-Style
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A Philosophy That Extends Eastward: Social Games Zynga-Style

February 4, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this extensive interview, the general manager of Zynga Beijing expands on the company's creative philosophy -- rely on metrics, not on what game designers think is "cool" or creative, and always serve the users.]

Zynga has firmly established itself in the social games space as it continues to launch hits like CityVille. But according to Andy Tian, scaling up is the company's primary concern -- delivering the right content and features to the company's audience is paramount. This was why Zynga acquired the company Tian co-founded, XPD Media.

Tian, who has a background with Google, has a philosophy of letting analytics and user feedback drive game content. He believes that games -- or social games at the very least -- are a craft, not an art.

Therefore, he believes they are best designed using feedback from the users than relying on what game developers think is "cool" or "creative".

His studio is primarily concentrated on developing games for the Western market, not Eastern -- though his firm recently launched an adapted Chinese version of FarmVille currently growing on Facebook.

Still, Tian spoke at GDC China last month about his ideas on how social games development must be undertaken, which he expands on in this extensive Gamasutra interview.

What's the primary focus of setting up in China? Is it using the expertise of Chinese game and web developers with things like microtransactions in a market that can capitalize on it? Or is it the cost savings gained from developing here?

Andy Tian: Cost saving is never a focus. It's a matter of talent. It's a matter of ability to scale. This is why we're acquiring some new companies, because we wanted to scale faster and at higher quality. I mean, we're not the only ones, right? Everyone else has that option, too.

In your GDC China presentation, you were talking about Mafia Wars and FarmVille, and you said there's no shortcut; you have to scale up your team if you want to provide the content that the increased audience expects. And I found that to be interesting, because at a certain point it's not easy to scale with high quality staff. It's not easy to recruit. Eventually you're going to reach a ceiling.

AT: Any fast-growing company faces that issue, right? Your opportunities are enormous. And in time, your resources are always very, very limited. This is what I found even at Google. You think that Google has a ton of resources, right? No, very, very limited resources to do what we actually want to do.

So, ultimately, yeah, it's all about prioritization, like where do you actually put resources where it really, really matters? That's why metrics-driven game design and ongoing game improvement is so important to use, because we can only do a portion of what we actually want to do. But where do you prioritize? Not because it's cool games, but because it actually drives the business forward.

I was really struck by your statement about games being a craft, and that metrics are a tool to hone that craft, essentially. And that is your philosophy.

AT: Yeah. I mean, our philosophy is always that we take a web approach to building. What we're actually building is web-based entertainment. So, I would say, you know, MSN Messenger and [Chinese instant messenger] QQ, these are also web-based entertainment products too, because chatting is also entertaining and also contacts people, too. We're doing the same thing, but infusing that process with fun.

A lot of people in the game industry, like they want to build games because they're gamers, right? They like games, they play a lot of games. Our audience is actually in fact not gamers. The 200 million users out there who maybe play just a very, very basic kind of game, and that's it.

So, how do you, as a gamer, build a game that can be continually enjoyed by the really, really non-gamers, like the students, like accountants, lawyers, like housewives, househusbands, children, etcetera?

When you look at making a game for Zynga, is it more about expanding to audiences that you haven't tapped before, or is it increasing the satisfaction of the audiences you've found so far?

AT: I think it's always both. Like CityVille, which recently launched. That's a new category for Zynga. And, you know, FarmVille for Japan, it's a new market and a new set of users. So, as a company, you always do both.

At the end of the day, you need to build products that -- as long as you have a very clear idea of why you're building a product, whether it's to target a new segment, a new genre, or a brand new market, then you can shape the product development toward that.

You don't want to be confused about it, a fuzzy idea. "Oh, I think this is where I want to go. Let's build it first." That always, you know, has a lot of problems.

Is your studio building games for platforms other than Facebook, or are you concentrating only on Facebook?

AT: We're focusing right now on Facebook.

So, you're not really concentrating on properties for the local market, where we're physically sitting right now?

AT: [laughs] No. Of course, we're watching this market very carefully, but I think it's still early.

You talked about how virality isn't as much a concern in China. I don't know whether you were trying to that it's not a concern in the sense that Chinese users behave differently, or it's not a concern because the platforms behave differently here.

AT: Because the platform behaves differently. Because virality is not for free. Virality, like I said, needs to be supported by good communication channels, and making them to be viral. You can't just be viral So, Facebook has done an awesome job of that. This is why they're awesome partners. Because it's about having those channels and being able to manage those effectively. I think that China's platform still has a way to go toward that.

Do you feel satisfied with Facebook even given the changes they've made to their policies for communication in recent times?

AT: Sure. Facebook is the de facto platform for the Western audience -- I think for the global audience. So, they're not in a business of making games. We are. So, obviously, there will be some differences on how they manage the platform versus how we want it to be. But as companies go, we just take that and we work with that. At the end, there are always things that we can do better and we can optimize more, and we expect Facebook to continue to evolve, too.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Todd Boyd
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Does their "design philosophy" include the illegal distribution of customer information to 3rd parties? What about blatantly ripping off already-successful games and bringing them to a yet-to-be-monetized platform (i.e., Farm Town -> Farmville)?

Samuel Green
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Yes. I think their CEO said something along those lines.

Nicholas DiMucci
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I'm sure they'll check their bank statements and not care at all.

Todd Boyd
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And that's fine... but my point is that "design philosophy" != "business philosophy".

Glenn Storm
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"... the general manager of Zynga Beijing expands on the company's creative philosophy ..."

Stop right there. If the aim was to produce eyeball hits and comments, that's understandable, but if the aim was to offer more detail into the factors that make up the balance of this issue, it may have been more helpful to highlight this more:

"... that metrics are a tool to hone that craft, essentially. And that is your philosophy."

While we can agree that expanding our sources of input (from other disciplines, other forms of design, from science, from related industry) to solve problems of the Art and Business of Game Development is very helpful and informative, inviting an imbalanced presentation to set up simple contrary opinion seems a reliable way to lose traction on the discussion. I expect more from Gamasutra, frankly.

This is a business philosophy, and an enlightened, reliably valid one that design must coordinate with intelligently, but do not frame it as a creative philosophy. Suggesting so appears to do a disservice to the creative talent and effort of Zygna and other creative professionals.

To illustrate the disconnect as presented is not difficult:

"So, how do you, as a gamer, build a game that can be continually enjoyed by the really, really non-gamers, like the students, like accountants, lawyers, like housewives, househusbands, children, etcetera?"

To suggest we need to adhere to customer metrics and analytics, then to off-handedly categorize students, housewives and ... children as non-gamers appears ridiculous. It doesn't seem realistic that this perspective could be lost during the composition of this article. And at the end of the interview, the clear "designer as auteur, designing for herself" zero-sum mentality is discussed as if fact; which is an obvious powder keg for this community, the design community at large, etc. Personally, I have other things that seem interesting to talk about surrounding this issue and various points raised during the interview (novelty-agnostic success, retention tactics, design/business philosophy crossovers, etc.), but it almost appears pointless to try.

One can reasonably expect this imbalance to be highlighted by heated comment responses from this community in three, two, one ...

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"the creative talent... of Zynga"

The what now?

Glenn Storm
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Samuel Green
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"So, how do you, as a gamer, build a game that can be continually enjoyed by the really,

really non-gamers, like the students, like accountants, lawyers, like housewives,

househusbands, children, etcetera?"

I found that quite a silly statement. Just because a game designer is a gamer, it doesn't mean they can only design for gamers. Surely a good game designer can design for any demographic.

Tadhg Kelly
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Not at all, no.

That's a bit like saying surely a great literary novelist would be able to spin out pulp fiction. Not all designers are able to work to all ends of the market. There are subsets.

Carlo Delallana
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Ah, the old Henry Ford quote comes to mind:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Metrics are a dream tool for any designer. Who doesn't want to have that closer relationship with the customer? Unfortunately it's a numerical relationship that will be good at delivering what people want but (if powers that be push it as the end-all solution) may prevent creative people from giving people something they didn't expect.

Luis Guimaraes
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That's it.

Megan Swaine
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Tejas Oza
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All Andy Tian seemed to be advocating in this interview is the belief that metrics far outdoes creativity in the social gaming space. True, metrics can help you streamline a game and even serve to add features that you may not have thought of, it can't necessarily take over the job of a trained Game Designer - of someone who's had years of experience and training to enable him to create a game that people wold enjoy. Whether the designer is a gamer or not doesn't even factor in.

It saddens me that this man (and perhaps most of Zynga) believe that creating games is all calculations and business. What ever happened to the contention that games are art or could be considered as such?

Tadhg Kelly
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Actually the metrics-led view is pretty common.

I do think his idea that games are just a craft isn't supportable though. He's confusing late-stage optimisation with craft, and they're not really the same thing.

CityVille, for example, is clearly based on the roots of many other city-making games before it, which at some point required other people to create (Will Wright, for example). Games definitely ARE an art, but it's more like saying that Zynga regard themselves as Jerry Bruckheimer's formulaic CSI franchise compared to Hill Street Blue.

Which, actually, I have no issue with. The pinball industry and many other kinds of game have had much the same attitude (if not quite the ability to measure it) for years. It doesn't really harm games as an art for someone to have come along with an optimising approach, because in the end of the day it is still drawing in way more people to play games than otherwise would have. Some of those people will go on to look for more engaging/creative games.

Bart Stewart
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The impression I had was that Tian was saying that Zynga do try to integrate both creative-driven and metrics-driven design modes.

That makes sense to me if creative design is understood as using human insight and experience to perceive "fun gaps" and then dream up features that fill those gaps, while also understanding metrics as a reductionistic way to identify where existing systems can be made more fun.

How is that not a best-of-both-worlds, art+craft approach to serving customers? (Maybe even holistic-reductionistic, East+West philosophy of design?)

Glenn Storm
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I think you are describing the proper balance, Bart, as well as alluding to a deeper collaboration that results in more than the sum of its parts. But that seems to differ from what the majority of readers took away from this interview.

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes, what Bart said is good. But then I think we all already know that (never enough to remind of course), but I felt the interview wasn't really trying to say it. I got it more like "we're right and you're all wrong... do our biz and keep your talent shut up, then you'll surely 100% revenue gross like Zynga" thing.

"the general manager... creative philosophy"... it's good to remember that the designers of the games they cloned did things they though were cool...

Carlo Delallana
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Good point Luis.

Some of the most cloned game designs may have been born from that leap of faith creative people make day in and day out.

Sting Newman
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I think what bart really is explaining is models of interest and fun in the different types of brains that exist. So fun really will be a science one day when you can measure responses and use metrics to guide where to tighten up a game experience.