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GDC China: Zynga's Tian On The Craft Of Social Games

GDC China: Zynga's Tian On The Craft Of Social Games

December 5, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

December 5, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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Zynga Beijing general manager Andy Tian delivered a confident Chinese-language speech to a packed hall at GDC China 2010 in Shanghai on Sunday, outlining the core tenets of the company's development philosophies.

Though fluent in English, Tian, who manages the studio, decided to speak in Chinese to better communicate with the local GDC audience at the Social Games Summit that his talk was part of.

"Social games, at present, is kind of the fastest growing genre," said Tian. "In the past 12 months, the earliest social game companies have expanded more than five times. The top 20 apps on the Facebook platform are games. Three to five percent of the users will pay, so this is really nice."

"It sounds easy, right? The market is so big and growing so fast and bringing so much revenue. How do I get me some of that? How can we get a piece of pie for ourselves?" Tian asked the eager crowd. 


Though Zynga is widely perceived as a game company, Tian challenged that perception. "The foundation should be based on the web. Zynga, along with Amazon and Google, we're all web-based companies. We consider ourselves a web-based company. In a web-based company, there are three metrics that are really important. Reach, retention, and revenue. This is the core of any web-based business."

- Reach - how many users you reach
- Retention - how many stay with you
- Revenue - "Of course, this means money."

"The key is that we can monitor it realtime and use it to make a decision," said Tian, before launching into a discussion of the industry-standard metrics that Zynga measures, such as split-testing.

"The biggest part of game development is after launch. In May 2009, the features of FarmVille were really elementary, but the total number of features has grown 10 times by today. Every week we will push to update our content."

Tian said that he often gets asked if the company churns through users in just a few months, with many assuming that "social games are really small and the life cycle is only two to three months." He doesn't agree that's necessarily the case, however. "Of course if you don't update it, the life cycle can only last two to three months. So in any of our games we are constantly updating and adding new features."

"This is really simple -- in any social game, the life cycle has to be constantly expanded. So this is what we do, but what do the users like and why do they play our games?"


The Three Pillars

Tian outlined Zynga's three pillars -- the three crucial elements of its games. "The first is play. What is the game? It is a set of actions which have clear rewards for the users."

The second is "Invest." Said Tian, "People have to invest their time in the game to blend with other users." Finally, "Express. The users want to express themselves -- what did they do, what kind of achievements did they make in the game, so they can tell people they are cool. This is key."

And of course, he added, "Social gaming means your real friends. This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is really good friends, but you know who they are."

The Importance of Social Capital

Tian's then turned his emphasis to the concept of Social Capital -- a crucial one in his view. "It is a core concept of the social game. It can promote users to play together -- because it looks like I'm having fun. When I am playing a game, I can tell others in a certain way that I am having fun.

"Also you can say, I gave you a gift, can you give me one back? So you have a little social obligation. If I help you, my social capital will grow -- because I gave people some help, that will return to me... And also I think that you will like this too. If I play a lot of games, I can recommend to a lot of people... And of course the fourth is I will kick your ass. My level is really advanced and I can show it off."

"The higher your social capital is the higher you are in the social group. And the higher your social capital the more profit we can get from you," said Tian. "Everybody wants to accumulate more social capital in a social game."

And social games have a strength over MMOs -- a hugely popular genre in China. "In anonymous MMOs, they also have social capital, but in real-name based capital games, it is stronger because I can meet a lot of friends. If I give something to a friend, during daily life I can also ask him to return something to me, so this kind of social capital is stronger."

Said Tian, "You should think about how your users can obtain more social capital, they will pay. And they will not pay by themselves, but pay with friends."

Testing and Metrics

"We are all in this industry and we know we can all have great inspiration and develop new exciting features. And of course I am the boss, so if I want everybody to do it just because I think it's good, a lot of the times, we will meet failure," said Tian. "Without tracking, we cannot learn."

When it comes to metrics, Tian believes they're absolutely essential to developing social games -- and should drive their creative direction.

"We are not developing 'cool' features -- we know we're developing relevant features. We want to make sure that a lot of people think something is fun, but we also want to achieve commercial success, not something the development team thinks is cool," he said. "This tells you what players really like. Because they may not like the same thing you like."

Said Tian, "The game industry is not art, it's a craft." He continued, "So we need the user support. We need to know what the users really like and we have to know what is the root cause for declines in performance. A good designer asks metrics good questions. We have to know how to drive better performance. The best course is not always intuitive."

Creative intuition gives you a direction to follow, he said, "but how you are actually going to do it and follow a path and what should be the speed you should implement something all have to be based on metrics."

He did a quick experiment showing four color variations for a link and asking the audience to pick which would be most successful. Purple got the least votes, but he revealed that it was the most successful color -- 799 clicks versus 278 for red, the least successful.

"To where you put your logo and icons, how fast you put forward incentives and prizes, really matters. They have a lot to do with retention and revenue."

Developing Successful Social Features

"What is a social feature? Social features are really simple. We are not actually facing the gamers, we're facing the non-gamers. So that's the reality in social games."

Addressing the audience, Tian said, "There's nobody here who is our target, so we're targeting non-gamers, that's the key. So we have to think of a new approach."

"A good social feature should align with one of the three key metrics. If you do not increase at least one of the metrics, you will know that you are not increasing your commercial success. It should be increased at gaining more users. It should be aimed at revenue generation. And thirdly you need to pay attention to virality -- one-to-one and one-to-many."

For example, in Mafia Wars, "we spent a lot of time putting in a boss fight. Including writing stories, writing tests... But it doesn't drive any metrics, and we spent a lot of effort on that. We kept it in the game but we can't do much with it. The efforts did not increase our reach, retention, nor revenue. No matter how good we do it, it doesn't help our business."


However, in FarmVille the team implemented a small, simple lottery that awards the player coins randomly. This has been huge for retention. "Some people just have a very shallow understanding [of games]. It's a game to laugh at. If it's an easy game people will repeatedly come back, and on an easy platform [like Facebook] people can just play it on and on and on."

Carrot and Stick

When it comes to engagement for your users, "you need to have both a stick and a carrot," said Tian.

"A stick to punch the user is not what I mean. You need to give the user a positive or negative drive. [If] you let them feel that they don't have to do it... You failed, actually. But if the user will feel there are no benefits reaped, that's also a failure."

The harvest mechanic in FarmVille is a positive stick, Tian said. "If you offer negative sticks the game will shrink. If I really play industriously I will gain lots of benefits. That's why people play. That is the rule of a farmland game."

Said Tian, "These rules are universal and can be applied to other social games. The stick should be bigger than the carrot."

The Social Game Team

Tian touched on how Zynga sets up its teams. "You really need cooperation from the very beginning. The product manager is responsible for analysis and also features spec -- they mainly come from the consumer web. Game designers are game veterans. They are the hardcores of game design. Our game designers are really big guys in the game industry. He really can create game systems with mechanics. The producer's job is to gain ideas and to plan. The three should cooperate from day one and continuously work together."

When asked about working together as a team, said Tian, "It has to be integrated in all aspects. You should not designate one person who's responsible for web, one who's responsible for games. It should be integrated on all levels of work."

"You should enable your user to get the experience without any barrier. From the concept stage to the feature [development] stage, you need to integrate everybody [on the team] together," he said.

But even early on, metrics are key to discerning whose ideas are right. "There is no 'before the metrics' -- it's are you set up to listen to it? If we have three ideas, we can try all three ideas in the game."

And when it comes to running the game, development is aligned with operations, he said. "Product and operations are together -- they cannot be separated. You cannot say that that a product department should only focus on products."

"For example in FarmVille and Mafia Wars, the key is that you need to constantly launch new features. Every week we will update new features... So the team is getting bigger and bigger. So this is a big investment. Because the number of the users is getting bigger and bigger they are asking for new content. There is no shortcut for this. You need to constantly invest," said Tian.

Can Zynga Win in China?

Tian dismissed the idea that the "first mover advantage" is truly necessary for winning in the social games space. While Zynga has a huge advantage in the U.S., in mainland China, it has not launched any games yet. "The first mover advantage in the game industry is not that big. It's about quality."

And while there are plenty of clones of its games in all markets, "The key thing is are you improving? Constantly improving beyond what exists in the market -- that's the key," said Tian.


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