In a compelling speech at GDC China, Ellison Gao, co-founder of Happy Farm creators 5 Minutes explained the development of social games using a mixture of humor, humanity, and philosophy.
"What I am going to talk to you about today is not easy to talk about," Gao warned, in a speech delivered in Chinese to an appreciative and engaged local audience. The topic? "Tao and Shu in Social Game Design for the Masses."
To define "tao" and "shu" simply, he said, "basically it's 'way' and 'technique'."
"What is shu? Techniques, tactics, methods, skills -- something tangible. Something that can be explained is shu," he said. Conversely, "Tao is something where you can feel its existence but not explain it clearly."
He selected this proverb about tao: "It is intangible but it creates the heaven and the earth; it is indifferent but operates the sun and the moon; it is nameless but breeds all creatures; tao is the name I can make it."
"Through these descriptions we should know that we don't know what tao is, but we know it's really forceful. So today we're going to look for it and see if we can find it," Gao explained.
The Three Principles of Social Games
- Games for non-gamers.
- Real friends.
- Play for five minutes.
"So how can we understand the non-gamer concept? Actually you may find the number of players who have played Happy Farm in Mainland China is exceeding 100 million. A lot of gamers who played Happy Farm haven't played any games before."
But that presents a challenge, said Gao. "How can we create games for non-gamers? You can do that through looking for the genre and gameplay which are in the heart of non-gamers.
"For example, at present we see a lot of classic themes -- farms, town, aquariums, tribes, empires. These words are very familiar. If you haven't played these games it doesn't matter -- if I tell you about a farm, you will have an image of a farm in your head. A theme like Dungeons & Dragons is far away from non-gamers."
"Not a lot of themes are easily understood to a lot of 80 percent of people. Playability is the same: planting, watering, cooking, etc. Even if you are not a gamer you understand this," he said. "We have to look for something which is in the heart of non-gamers."
Even an easily understandable theme may be susceptible to cultural influences -- Happy Farm didn't make it in the U.S. "In the U.S., farms should be a big scale one -- it's different from the Chinese people's impression of farms," Gao said.
"Our game was not successful; in the end FarmVille got the upper hand. We think it's because we haven't grasped the true nature of a farm in U.S. people's heart."
When people are real friends, it changes the meaning of their interaction. Happy Farm allows users to steal vegetables from each other -- but in the context of a real friendship, it's a fun interaction. It would not work with anonymous players, Gao said.
In the company's new game, Little War, players "are trying to occupy others' land. When we first did the design we were not so sure. Some people think it goes too far -- whether this kind of strong interaction can be accepted by players now... But it has proven acceptable. We now see wars between good friends... [In this context], war is no longer war."
And of course, games must be played in short duration because of the shape of today's society, he says. "In the information era, we are constantly interrupted by different kinds of telecommunication tools, and we have a lot of things to do. The itinerary of your whole day may be fully packed and your time fragmented. In such a situation, people's ways of doing things or playing is different. "
"That's why our name is 5 Minutes. Because now people can no longer find a large period of time to play games, usually," said Gao.
Going Deeper: Four Golden Rules
"It seems that all good [social] games have common features, but why? Why are these principles are effective? Why would players like to play social games? What do the players get from these kinds of games?" Gao asked.
"If we know why the players play games, then we can be more confident in developing games. That is, it seems that we have grasped something really fundamental but which is also intangible."
"I am more concerned with what we should do before a game exists, rather than after it exists. I think that after it starts to exists in this world, we have to learn from Zynga. But what should we do before?"
Gao did research to see what traditional game designers had grappled with, and came up with four "golden rules" (also all "gifts from God" in his phrasing) that fundamentally govern human behavior.
They are: aesthetics, learning, delightfulness, and social existence.
"If you [examine] the four golden rules you can explain anything of human behavior," Gao said.
Aesthetics. "When we place ourselves in the beauty of nature, joy will be produced... When we hear a story which strikes a chord in our hearts, when we watch a favorite movie, see a beautiful picture, or hear a favorite song, joy will be produced in our hearts."
"Aesthetic is the joyfulness when the surroundings we see, hear, and feel are close to perfection in our mind. This is an instinct provided by God to protect the order of nature. That is a secret recipe nature employs to maintain its order."
"From this point, non-gamers are only looking for things -- not wanting to create things. They are just looking for things; we need to create the things they are looking for."
Learning. "When we swing [on a playground] for the first time, we are so overjoyed. When you first drive your favorite car, when you first had the correct shot of a basketball, when you talk to a perfect stranger.
"When you first got a girl's heart... you were very satisfied with yourself and you are so happy now that you know you can spend time with a girl," Gao said.
"Learning is to understand the rules and phenomena of human society and nature. Study is one of the innate abilities of human beings. It is the power of study that drives us to create things and work on and on."
Importantly, Gao said, "Through games, people can mimic the partial workings of society and nature. Through games people can actually obtain the joy of study."
Delightfulness. This can be achieved readily by games, said Gao. "If you play Plants vs. Zombies, you are blocked at a certain level but after dozens of practices, you can break the level limit, and you feel awesome. If you play basketball, you'll play many times and have lots of wonderful shots, you'll feel wonderful. Feeling wonderful is related to the sense of achievement."
"If you have that feeling, you are also being recognized by others, and you gain recognition when you do something successful," said Gao. "The joy obtained after surpassing yourself or overcoming your own limit. It is another God's gift, in encouraging us to move forward and exceed ourselves. All games will create a mechanism to continue progress and transcend beyond the current limit."
Social Existence. "We are actually animals who live together. We need companionship. We cannot survive individually. Social existence is our innate ability. If we come to know more people, you'll get joy," Gao said.
"This is why so many want to be celebrities. If you are being praised by others, you also feel wonderful. If you create something, or if you own something that is appreciated by others, you also have this feeling... And of course if your competitor is beaten you have a secret joy. This is actually another way of making yourself a more excellent guy."
So in games, this can be harnessed by competition. "Social existence is actually the feeling of superiority. It is another of God's gifts, encouraging us to compete against each other. Social and online gaming just amplify our feeling of social existence."
And with social games' reliance on real-world identity, "Among true friends these interactions can be enhanced and intensified. You can actually feel a stronger feeling of social existence by playing with your true friends."
"Given these four in-born abilities you can now analyze better the success of social games," said Gao.
But, "Following this logic, have we found tao? The answer is no, there's still a way to go."
In the End, It's Feelings
"Are you disappointed I went such a long way, only to talk about feelings?" Gao asked the audience -- who mostly laughed.
He delivered his point, however, by a hypothetical scenario about a 27-year old game designer named Mr. Jung, whose parents are pressuring him to get married. They suggest that he might wed a neighbor he grew up with -- she's beautiful, nice, and would be a good wife, responsible in raising kids.
In short, she fits the four golden rules well. "Guess what Mr. Jung will say? 'I have no feelings for her.'"
Similarly, Jung's friends will ask him what kind of girls he likes, and he'll deliver aesthetic criteria. He'll go on a bunch of blind dates -- but "he is very discouraged because he has no feeling toward these girls," said Gao.
"But one day he was on his way to work and he saw a girl in front of him... He has suddenly has a feeling but he can't nail it down. He can't really say it; it's just a feeling."
In short, said Gao, "Feelings are such a thing that you certainly get hold of. You can't really say it out... Feelings are intangible. You can't touch or smell or taste it, but it's always there. Those who get the feeling can get the tao -- really get it."
Feelings and Game Design
When it comes to game design, of course, said Gao, "I know your questions are very concrete -- how to find the right feeling. But even if you find the feeling, nobody will believe you."
Said Gao, it's a constant struggle to find the right feeling in your games. "You will not get the right feeling every day. You will need to constantly look for the right feeling; [otherwise] you will never get it. You need to constantly pursue it and look for it."
And when you talk to your boss, "you will say, 'Don't change it, because this is the way I feel about it.'" But arguing never works. How do you convince your boss? You say, "Just play the game for five minutes and you will believe in my feeling."
However, said Gao, "Don't use a feeling as a kind of a weapon. You should also look for the logic behind the feeling. You should look for the experience behind the feeling."
Gao clearly has a different idea than many about the core inspiration behind social games: "You can look inside your heart and think why you are developing a game. Maybe everybody has different answers. When I ask you to spell it out, you may give a really lofty answer, but in your heart you know what your real answer is."
Since games are active, not passive, "Without a true heart to understand a player's feelings when they play a game, it's really difficult to develop a real game players will feel good about."
"Game development is hard work, and you need a lot of skills. As long as you have opportunity, try to learn as much as possible. And break the rules as needed. There's nothing which will never change."
And, Gao warned, sometimes it's necessary to deny your own feelings in the pursuit of the right decisions when developing a game.