Finishing up GDC China 2009 in Shanghai, Large Animal (Bumper Stars) art director Brad MacDonald talked about the social network and iPhone indie game developer's approach to making intriguing social games.
MacDonald's 15-20 person New York-based developer has a long history of PC indie and casual games such as RocketBowl, before shifting gears onto social and iPhone games in the last few months.
He started off by praising the idea of limitations, commenting simply: "Limitations are the creative person's friend", and said that tools that free developers up to be creative are much more important than tools that simply do flashy things.
He noted that his company's attitude to social games is all about "emulating the experience of tabletop games" such as Monopoly and Scrabble. The company exited the casual downloadable game market because "publishers and distributors resisted the idea... of the developer having a direct connection to the developer," MacDonald said.
Overall in the PC casual space, there's "relatively little money to be made in a clone-heavy market", and the company was having less control over their content. So to Facebook, MySpace, and iPhone they went.
Interestingly, Large Animal has implemented a completely cross-platform achievement and high-score for games like Bumper Stars and Lucky Strike Lanes, meaning that you can log on to the iPhone or Facebook versions and have the same achievements and networked information over all the platforms.
MacDonald then asked a fundamental question -- why take the risk of developing something visually distinct? He commented, understatedly, that social games have "a range of aesthetics", with even some top games having very basic looks. But those games have an embedded audience from early on, and social network gaming is maturing. He suggests that many casual PC players will "migrate across to social networks".
The art director believes that cloning will not pay off on Facebook and social networks. He joked that, "as a puritan", he believes that you are developing a relationship with your users, and will be more loyal to a developer if they know they are doing original, interesting work.
He referenced Playfish's style in games like Pet Society as a distinctive, impressive style that developers may be tempted to clone, but overall believes that you'll be more fulfilled if you make an original title with your own art direction.
How do you hook your players, visually? The company releases at least one new element to its social games every week, and ideally more, and this means that you need to have your visual style set up robustly at the time of your initial release.
The immediate feedback of social games is extremely useful visually, too. If Large Animal releases new outfits or accessories for its social game What To Wear (which licenses brands such as Swatch for virtual items), it can get immediate information on what's working and what isn't.
Large Animal's MacDonald noted that operating with a number of small 3-4 person teams for each social game is working really well for the company. As part of that close collaboration, it's important to have your visuals reinforce the emotional connection that the player might have to an experience.
You also need to sustain the development of the game with weekly updates -- tricky if you've made a particularly complex or even 3D experience. So getting a robust, signature, but not overcomplex visual style is very important, MacDonald concluded.