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One thing I want to talk about is that the speed of change is very, very fast, and it's on the platform level, it's on the game level, it's on the audience level. Everything is just rapidly, rapidly, rapidly evolving. Social games are -- what are we gonna say? -- two years old now or something? Two and a half?
BR: Yeeeaah... I think if you looked at the top ten, the earliest launch would be... There might be one of them, and it'd be poker that launched in 2007; everything else launched in '08 or '09. Like half of them at least, including the top four, launched in 2009. So, yeah, pretty young.
Do you find it difficult not only to keep up with change, but to anticipate future change as well?
BR: Oh, yeah! But the nice thing is that we have this really rapid iteration loop, and so we're able to respond really fast to changes and opportunities.
Also, obviously, you get this again and again, but it's very data-driven, isn't it?
BR: Oh, yeah, very much so, because -- unlike the sort of traditional situation where you put the thing on the CD and then you ship it and you're done, and what you kind of really mostly know is what kind of reviews you get and how many people buy it; I think that's about all you know -- we're a website.
It's coming into our computer: what everybody's doing, and so we know how many people clicked this button; how many people went to this part of the game; how many people did it how many times before they went on to the next thing; or what did they click before they bought something.
All of that stuff you can kind of look at and analyze, and it means both that there's huge new opportunity; but there's this whole new skill to learn. That's the web world as opposed to the game world coming in there.
That's very useful from a usability perspective, and interesting from a monetization perspective, but is it interesting from a creative perspective?
BR: Oh, yeah! Really, really interesting, because there's all these things you can do! You can put two or three different versions of the features side-by-side with a statistically significant sample of people, not just like go get a hundred college kids or something but your actual players, and see which version works better.
I mean, one of our famous examples we talk about is how, at one point, we had seven different versions of the Mafia Wars tutorial all going at once; there were big differences in which ones were more effective in doing what tutorials are supposed to do, which is retain players and get them to come back again and want to play the game. There were substantial differences, and they weren't all intuitive -- that's the other exciting thing.
So one of the skills to be a sort of metric-driven game designer is learning good questions to ask the metrics and figuring out ways that you can learn the counter-intuitive answers because the answers aren't always intuitive. I've been used to relying solely on intuition, essentially, because there was very little actual data that could be collected. So it's exciting and new -- and I don't claim to be the expert on how to do it, but there's lots of excitement in that for a game designer.
You used to put things in a box and sell them for 50 bucks; now you have to convince people to pay you on a regular basis, and that's intrinsically tied to the game design. So, again, is that creatively interesting?
Is it scary?
BR: Well, any part of game design can always be scary, including traditional game design. In the world I come from, you put your whole job on the line when you ship something because, if it's not a hit, everybody's gonna get laid off. They're not gonna sign you for the next [project]... Whichever version of the industry you're in -- if you're first-party, third-party, or whatever -- there's always dire financial consequences if you're not successful.
There's two great things in this industry on that point, and one of them is the fact that we have this very fast iteration loop; so you can do work and very quickly get positive or negative feedback on it. You can cut off and stop doing the thing that isn't working; (laughing) if it's taking your numbers down, you stop doing it! You do something else. And if it is taking them up, you do some more of it and see how far you can go. That's exciting.
There's a big difference in investment of players in this space that -- when you're selling a game for 50 bucks, if somebody walked down to the store, shelled out 50 bucks, and brought it home, they probably did it because they saw a good review or something; but they're probably going to give you at least five or ten minutes before they decide it sucks and take it back to GameStop.
That's a level of investment, whereas with a free-to-play game, we can lose people on the loading bar, right? The loading bar's too long: done. I mean, nevermind. Whatever. You have to get players interested really early and really fast, and then it's just a matter of getting them to like the user experience and having a good time.
Somebody was asking me, "What's the secret of selling virtual goods?" Just like with anything else, make something that people want to buy! That's just what we've been doing as game designers all through my career -- because it's an industry. We're trying to make things that people want to buy. So it's really no different in ultimate principal. It's a little bit different business model, but, as a game designer, it's just a matter of learning how to make things that appeal to players.