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Our first Facebook game, Zoo Kingdom, was originally conceived as a browser-based MMO (codenamed Zoo Online) in the vein of Dofus or Club Penguin, not a Facebook game. We defined the experience and development plan, created pitch materials to secure funding, and recruited online and web talent for this initiative.
This was a larger increase in staff which allowed us to assemble an even broader mix of traditional, online, and web developers into the team. The dynamic created between these groups was interesting to watch unfold. There were often meetings were traditional development strived for a systematic approach while our web developers essentially said "It's Flash, let's just do as many different things as possible." Sometimes I sided with web, other times with traditional.
The funding process dragged on and as we watched the space, it became clear to us at the end of November 2009 that we needed to be developing on Facebook (frankly we were already behind the ball).
In December, we pulled our primaries together to define our objectives and timeline for Zoo Kingdom:
And with those simple objectives, development began.
This was a big decision and moment for our group and Blue Fang Games. We essentially jettisoned our longer term project plan and aimed at the Facebook space. Moreover, the growing success of Rockyou's Zoo World meant we'd clearly launch our product against a myriad of competition in the space. We openly talked about moving away from the Zoo context for our first Facebook game, but ultimately decided there was too much heritage for us not to.
Also, watching the Facebook space it was easy to expect me-too, copy-cat product. I remember telling Hank Howie (president), "You know Hank, we are going to be up against at least one other Zoo game at launch, but I guarantee it will be just a slightly better rip-off of Zoo World. Zoo Kingdom will easily stand out as different and its own game." Crowdstar obliged with Zoo Paradise.
First and foremost we had to scrap the original Zoo Online design and focus our efforts on the Facebook platform. A Facebook user's profile and play pattern is fundamentally different than your typical online MMO gamer. While design worked on this problem, we leveraged industry experience to drive all other factors we knew had to be in place.
In a blink, January came and went and we launched on Facebook. We started with a small group of users playing our game, but rapidly lost control of how many users were in the system (damn you virality!).
For the first week or two of development we were in constant firefighting mode. Addressing performance issues, up time, bugs, and feature improvements. We also began to collect and review our analytics.
As soon as we had a good hold on that information and our user feedback we began the process of reviewing our data and focusing on driving features that moved our major metrics: engagement, retention, virality, and monetization. Our focus now is a major feature per week with the requisite bugs, optimizations based on feedback and data.
At this point, the team is still moving at a blistering pace, but has fully made the transition to short-cycle development. After a week at GDC I came back with new information and direction, I threw out 50 percent of our existing plan and drove towards new metrics and new features. We set our objects, reviewed our data, developed features, and continue to push major releases to our users.
Online, Social, and Mobile gaming are redefining the game development landscape. All of the Game industry revenue growth for 2009 came from those sectors and traditional game publishers are playing catch up.
Sooner than later, even console development will go the way of social integrated live products -- it is just a question of when. If you want to play for the future, carve out a small team, clearly define your objectives and timeline, understand your user data and get it done!