[In this interview, culled from lengthy discussions with pioneering Chinese social game developer Five Minutes -- creators of early and extremely domestically successful farming game Happy Farm -- you'll find a fresh look at the social gaming market.]
Five Minutes may not have the same kind of brand recognition as Zynga in the U.S., but the company has the leading farm game in its territory. Happy Farm, which launched in late 2008, is huge on Tencent's Qzone social network.
The company's stats on Facebook aren't as impressive, but as Ben Zao and Season Xu, co-founder and COO discuss below, they're making efforts to not just form the company's fundamental perspective on games, but explore the ways in which Five Minutes' titles can hit in the Western market.
Even if they never do, the team has a lot to contribute to the discussion of the direction social games will be going -- a fact Gamasutra first picked up on when co-founder Ellison Gao delivered a talk at GDC China's Social Gaming Summit last December.
"There's always a discussion whether you want to design a game from a whole bunch of objective data, or you make the call subjectively. So we are more of this subjective part," says Xu, who believes that there is a yin and yang -- a balance that must be struck -- when developing social games, as he explains below.
The story that everyone talks about is that Happy Farm was the first social farm game, and it sort of set off the trend. Is that what you guys think?
Season Xu: In China it's definitely true. In the world, I think My Farm from David King, that's the first farming game in the world. And then there would be two farms; one is Happy Farm created by us, I think in 2008 December-ish. And there was Farm Town, created by SlashKey over there in Texas.
And then everybody is talking about whether Zynga copied any game stuff. Honestly from my perspective, I always clarify that every time I see everybody -- they didn't copy us, at all. I don't know their relationship with the Farm Town guys, but yeah, they definitely didn't do anything with us.
Are you trying to expand the success of Happy Farm in the English-speaking market?
Ben Zao: I'm mostly focusing on Little War. But there's a great history of Happy Farm.
SX: Happy Farm was the first farming game over here in China, and we got a very great success. In the market it was number one -- still is the number one product. And we launched the product on Tencent in 2009 April and it gained over 20 million new active users, so that's a pretty big success, and then we're trying to expand the product to the U.S.
At that time, we used to have a million daily active users, but then it dropped to like 200k right now. [As of the publishing this article, Happy Farm has around 330,000 monthly active users on Facebook alone, according to AppData.]
And then Zynga's launching FarmVille in Japan.
Which is weird because Japan has a Harvest Moon social game already. Harvest Moon is the seed for farm...
SX: It's the seed for farming, yeah.
At this point, it sounds funny, but farming is probably the most popular video game genre in the world. Why do you think that is?
SX: But I think it's mainly dealing with the demographics, right? Because for social networks, I heard there's a study talking about, like, women tend to social network a lot more than men do, and then they spend more time on it. So they need a game that's designed for them, but the traditional gaming market doesn't have a lot of those games. So for them I think, nurturing is a very good concept. They're born like that, they're born to nurture stuff. That's what I feel.
I think psychology is coming into game design more and more.
SX: Right, psychology's very important.
At a summit, I saw a speaker who said that a lot of Chinese game designers, you'd go to their desk and they have psychology textbooks. Do you think that's true or false?
SX: To look up a psychology book and see whether it's true or not? I don't know. Like we tend to read a lot of psychology books, that's for sure.
You mean game designers, or just Chinese people in general?
SX: Chinese people in general do not look at psychology books, but game designers -- I think there are two different types of people. One is like they just learn from experiences; just learn from real [work]. And then another is like very scholarish; they read a lot of books and then they just try to learn from past knowledge people develop.