In his GDC Austin talk on Friday, Zynga's Brian Reynolds, a founder of Firaxis and Big Huge Games, talked about making Facebook and MySpace games, to discuss why social gaming was a major draw for him.
He started by noting that the mainstream console AAA game space is struggling a bit, but added, "If you're working on Call Of Duty 6, you're probably fine".
If you're trying to talk publishers into making your dream game, he said, "it's pretty hard, even if you're a pretty experienced guy like me." (In addition to co-founding Firaxis, Reynolds' company Big Huge Games was bought by THQ and eventually sold off to 38 Studios in early 2009, with Reynolds departing just afterwards.)
In Reynolds' chart, he also pointed out the increasing budgets for bigger games. For example, Civilization II could be made for around half a million dollars, but these days you have to ask for $15-30 million "just to get into the door."
Even then, it might take three or four years to make a really big game, whereas FarmVille has a five-week development cycle, and most social network games cost $100,000-$300,000 to make. As a result of this social gaming boom, Zynga now has around 30 million daily active users playing its games.
Reynolds showed the active user graphs for Mafia Wars versus Farmville, revealing that, although you can see people playing Mafia Wars and dropping off at the weekends, the same doesn't happen with Farmville. This is because the crop harvesting-based time-specific game mechanics of the farming simulator -- players must come back even on weekends.
In fact, the Zynga designer suggested that games can help bond on the web and lead to real-life events. Reynolds revealed that he was playing a lot of Zynga's Scramble. It was after "playing [the] silly word game together" on Facebook with an old colleague, who is one of the VC funders of Zynga, that he got his current job at the company.
Reynolds particularly stressed the real-time feedback and real-time metrics, which "makes a really good statistical sample" on what works and doesn't from a design point of view. You can even branch the live Facebook game, so only 10 percent of the people experience a certain game design feature, and then decide whether to keep it or not based on that.
He showed data around the Cuba expansion to Mafia Wars, which expanded beyond the basic New York-based gameplay to start up a business in South America. People were a little slow to buy new factories and businesses in the expansion area, but then almost all of them came back every day to collect their money from the business.
Reynolds said Farmville's daily raffle system helps the game's metrics, because it gets people coming back regularly. On the other hand, a boss battle in Mafia Wars is insufficiently social and hasn't significantly helped Zynga.
According to Reynolds, "the surest recipe for fail in the social space" is for game designers to think you "just need to make it fun." Rather, the biggest thing you need to do is increase the "virality" of your titles. He cited the failure of a Diablo-style Facebook game from Zynga itself as a "fun game" that tried to bolt on social aspects, without much effect.
But game designers have a major role to play in expanding the space, he said. "There's not much gameplay to these games right now," Reynolds admitted. "There's going to need to be more as the space gets more competitive."
Nonetheless, even if "social games are going to need better game design than they have now," Reynolds said "you have to learn the lessons" of virality and social-first game design in order to really flourish in this new space.