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[In this extensive interview, the general manager of Zynga Beijing expands on the company's creative philosophy -- rely on metrics, not on what game designers think is "cool" or creative, and always serve the users.]
Zynga has firmly established itself in the social games space as it continues to launch hits like CityVille. But according to Andy Tian, scaling up is the company's primary concern -- delivering the right content and features to the company's audience is paramount. This was why Zynga acquired the company Tian co-founded, XPD Media.
Tian, who has a background with Google, has a philosophy of letting analytics and user feedback drive game content. He believes that games -- or social games at the very least -- are a craft, not an art.
Therefore, he believes they are best designed using feedback from the users than relying on what game developers think is "cool" or "creative".
His studio is primarily concentrated on developing games for the Western market, not Eastern -- though his firm recently launched an adapted Chinese version of FarmVille currently growing on Facebook.
Still, Tian spoke at GDC China last month about his ideas on how social games development must be undertaken, which he expands on in this extensive Gamasutra interview.
What's the primary focus of setting up in China? Is it using the expertise of Chinese game and web developers with things like microtransactions in a market that can capitalize on it? Or is it the cost savings gained from developing here?
Andy Tian: Cost saving is never a focus. It's a matter of talent. It's a matter of ability to scale. This is why we're acquiring some new companies, because we wanted to scale faster and at higher quality. I mean, we're not the only ones, right? Everyone else has that option, too.
In your GDC China presentation, you were talking about Mafia Wars and FarmVille, and you said there's no shortcut; you have to scale up your team if you want to provide the content that the increased audience expects. And I found that to be interesting, because at a certain point it's not easy to scale with high quality staff. It's not easy to recruit. Eventually you're going to reach a ceiling.
AT: Any fast-growing company faces that issue, right? Your opportunities are enormous. And in time, your resources are always very, very limited. This is what I found even at Google. You think that Google has a ton of resources, right? No, very, very limited resources to do what we actually want to do.
So, ultimately, yeah, it's all about prioritization, like where do you actually put resources where it really, really matters? That's why metrics-driven game design and ongoing game improvement is so important to use, because we can only do a portion of what we actually want to do. But where do you prioritize? Not because it's cool games, but because it actually drives the business forward.
I was really struck by your statement about games being a craft, and that metrics are a tool to hone that craft, essentially. And that is your philosophy.
AT: Yeah. I mean, our philosophy is always that we take a web approach to building. What we're actually building is web-based entertainment. So, I would say, you know, MSN Messenger and [Chinese instant messenger] QQ, these are also web-based entertainment products too, because chatting is also entertaining and also contacts people, too. We're doing the same thing, but infusing that process with fun.
A lot of people in the game industry, like they want to build games because they're gamers, right? They like games, they play a lot of games. Our audience is actually in fact not gamers. The 200 million users out there who maybe play just a very, very basic kind of game, and that's it.
So, how do you, as a gamer, build a game that can be continually enjoyed by the really, really non-gamers, like the students, like accountants, lawyers, like housewives, househusbands, children, etcetera?
When you look at making a game for Zynga, is it more about expanding to audiences that you haven't tapped before, or is it increasing the satisfaction of the audiences you've found so far?
AT: I think it's always both. Like CityVille, which recently launched. That's a new category for Zynga. And, you know, FarmVille for Japan, it's a new market and a new set of users. So, as a company, you always do both.
At the end of the day, you need to build products that -- as long as you have a very clear idea of why you're building a product, whether it's to target a new segment, a new genre, or a brand new market, then you can shape the product development toward that.
You don't want to be confused about it, a fuzzy idea. "Oh, I think this is where I want to go. Let's build it first." That always, you know, has a lot of problems.
Is your studio building games for platforms other than Facebook, or are you concentrating only on Facebook?
AT: We're focusing right now on Facebook.
So, you're not really concentrating on properties for the local market, where we're physically sitting right now?
AT: [laughs] No. Of course, we're watching this market very carefully, but I think it's still early.
You talked about how virality isn't as much a concern in China. I don't know whether you were trying to that it's not a concern in the sense that Chinese users behave differently, or it's not a concern because the platforms behave differently here.
AT: Because the platform behaves differently. Because virality is not for free. Virality, like I said, needs to be supported by good communication channels, and making them to be viral. You can't just be viral So, Facebook has done an awesome job of that. This is why they're awesome partners. Because it's about having those channels and being able to manage those effectively. I think that China's platform still has a way to go toward that.
Do you feel satisfied with Facebook even given the changes they've made to their policies for communication in recent times?
AT: Sure. Facebook is the de facto platform for the Western audience -- I think for the global audience. So, they're not in a business of making games. We are. So, obviously, there will be some differences on how they manage the platform versus how we want it to be. But as companies go, we just take that and we work with that. At the end, there are always things that we can do better and we can optimize more, and we expect Facebook to continue to evolve, too.