"More people have played FarmVille than have played Mario", asserts Zynga VP Bill Mooney, discussing the social game market and his company's methodology during GDC Canada.
This is scary to Farmville GM Mooney because a bigger audience means more eyes on you should you fail. But Zynga started small: "Three years ago there were four people," Mooney said. "Two years ago there were 30 people, and now we're over 900."
The market has grown very quickly, Mooney said as he showed a slide showing that in the last few years, social gaming has grown 324 percent, while more traditional online gaming has grown 7 percent (social games and online games weren't specifically defined).
As has been said many times before, friends represent the main sticky aspect for social games. Zynga tested the number of days players stay in FarmVille versus the number of friends they have -- and people with over 100 friends stay an average of 80 days. Below that number of friends, players spend less time playing.
Mooney laid out Zynga's methods for game creation (and sustaining), in eight steps.
1: Start Small
"The initial user experience is very small," he said. "They become hardcore, but they start very, very casual." You want to ease the players in. "You start from the smallest possible interesting piece," he continued. "It has to be fun for a single player, but it has to be something your mom can understand the first time."
The social interactions are clearly key. Zynga adds social actions from the very start of the user experience. This is because "when we add these actions, user engagement goes way up," he said. Gifting is an example, which he says "seems simple but it's not. This is a mechanic we were convinced we understood a year and a half ago. And six months ago. And we're still learning about it."
2: Go Fast
FarmVille and Mafia Wars both took five weeks to develop and launch, which Mooney says is important, because "you get it out, and you start learning." Zynga has to get new features out weekly, which is "a very different pace. I think a lot of us are used to the 18-24 month cycle."
But they have to add new features or tweaks in order to retain players. Zynga will put out the simplest version of a feature and see if users like it. "We know that we have to put new stuff out all the time," said Mooney. "It doesn't mean it needs to be a big feature, but people need new content."
"This is an industry where still 8 people can come out of nowhere," he noted. The game Farm Town was made by eight guys from Florida who came from out of nowhere, with no previous game development experience. The farming space was already crowded in social games, but within 2.5 months Farm Town game got to number one.
3: Test Everything
Testing is the key design element of social games, Mooney noted. "You have to measure stuff. You can argue about it all day long, but you can measure it! You can test it!"
"One of the things the web people brought is the idea of testing" he continued. "Because you can test live, we will run four versions of the same thing. We'll run things at different prices," he said, which allows the company to adapt to the market based on actual metrics. The catch is that you have to go fast. "If you can get 80 percent of the result with 20 percent of the effort, you can do it," he says.
By way of example, Zynga tried to create a simple boss battle in Mafia Wars, "And we knew within 5 minutes it was too hard. We knew because people weren't getting to step three. And because it was myspace we had 1,000 people telling us we suck. And that's great."
4: Create User Delight
"People will just give you good ideas," he says, because "all of us are smarter than some of us." Zynga takes ideas from the community, and then asks players to vote on what they want, adding that "people can leave your game really easily, so you'd better satisfy them."
5: Add Depth
"Be good systems designers," Mooney advises, saying you want the games to be easy to play, but difficult to master.
"We want to be a web service, not just a great 40 hour experience," he said. "I loved BioShock, but it's done, and I would've liked to keep going with it."
6: Empower Users
"We don't want to make the game for ourselves, but we know we have something good when the team is playing it," he says, adding that the company's main test market is the HR group. You have to go where users want you to go.
"We did a game that we spent millions of dollars on, and months and months, and we were like 'great, this is the Diablo-killer.' It didn't work," he said. User engagement is key. "At the heart of every good games is a slightly embarrassing fantasy," he says, such as being a big tough guy, or being really smart.
7: The Team
Zynga team members need to have four prime qualities, he says. They must be gamers, analytical, humble, and driven. "It's hard to teach people to be gamers," he says. "If you can't tell if a game is fun, it's very hard to work in games."
8: Create Enough for Users
These are live games, and sometimes they go down. "We have to get up and test it," Mooney says. "And the only way you can handle this load is to hire more people." You have to trust your people, too, because everything is moving too quickly to micro-manage. You'll get as much responsibility as you can possibly handle, he says. "There's a senior vice president who's 22. And we don't care."
"This is a great thing to try," he concluded. "You will find it fascinating."