The following is a piece written by Lars Jörnow, VP Mobile as well as the Senior Producer for Bubble Witch Saga on Facebook at King.com, a worldwide leader in casual social games with over 32 million unique players and more than two billion games played per month globally. He works with an eye towards monetization, metrics-driven development and cross-platform integration.
There was a time that now seems eons ago when games were one-off affairs for which the published package reigned supreme. Consumers bought a title, such as Super Mario Bros., gleefully cracked it open and played it until they couldn’t bear another jaunt through the super mushroom kingdom. More than just a case of fungus overload, the game, played repeatedly until there were no more challenges to master, soon would become a tired title eclipsed by the latest gaming sensation.
The issue of games retaining their staying power has more recently been turned on its head with such titles as FarmVille and the assorted Facebook gaming fixtures by the likes of Zynga. While their arrival was often hailed as a watershed moment for bringing more women into the world of gaming, social games also blazed a trail for something equally significant: the emergence of games as a service.
Learning from the Data
The idea of games as service is built on the notion that players want more than the same ol’ same ol’. Previously, when games were simply a product, companies would launch a title, ship the game to stores, and hope for the best. There was little, if any, feedback from users who made a purchase.
With a service game, the launch is just the beginning.
The introductionof games as a service pried open a trove of vital user data about how players experience a game. Companies like Zynga, Playfish, Wooga and King.com began actively using that information to keep users engaged. Suddenly, developers had the opportunity to fix any sticking points in the game. With a tweak here or a tuck there, they could not only significantly improve the gaming experience, but they could also alter the game so that tedium or repetition was no longer a factor.
The way Zynga handled FarmVille had a huge impact on games as a service. The old model had developers move onto the next game after the launch, but Zynga instead maintained a staff to continue working on FarmVille. Suddenly, a user would notice small alterations, such as a cow changing color, so that the game was anything but monotonous.
As well as those making slight revisions to the game was a corps of data experts, analysts and economists who sifted through the numbers so that any improvement or change was based on the science of statistics rather than on some gut feeling. Companies could interact with users like never before by adapting new platforms and new ways to monetize.
Keeping Things Fun
Though this data has changed the way users interact with games, there is no formula or data to test your way to a fun experience. Now the challenge of game designers is to craft an enjoyable, addictive game that also employs all the new innovations that come with gaming as a service. Finding that perfect balance— that game-developing sweet spot—is the aim of nearly every gaming company.
Determining how fun a game is will always remain the X factor. Not even a Nobel Prize-winning scientist can fully explain why a beloved title such as Tetris or Bejeweled is an evergreen. But while that’s one of the enduring mysteries gaming companies will always try to solve, the elements that come with gaming as a service are something more tangible. It’s far easier to wrap your head around data and user response, which can be mined, managed and tailored to increase the chances that a game will become and, more importantly, remain a hit.
The depth of games as service has become a key factor in their success. When King.com launches a game on Facebook, we typically have 50 to 70 levels, with the understanding that, if the game is a hit, within six months we will add another 150 levels. It’s no great secret that the prospect of constantly experiencing these new levels, developed after the game has gone live, keeps gamers hooked. But this is far more than just augmentation.
For Bubble Witch Saga, we launched with 64 levels and have added 10 additional levels every two weeks. When the level designer begins work on those new levels, the team at King.com studies the statistics on the earlier levels to determine which ones have engaged users the most. By adding up the amount of time players have spent on a specific level; seeing what levels have been visited repeatedly; and even drawing insights from comments on fan pages, we can add levels that mirror the experience of those that have kept players satisfied. The result is a game that, in the minds of users, keeps on giving.
Moving to Other Platforms
As a result of the way developers can adapt and tailor games based on user behavior, brands emerge—paving the path for a title to become a hit on other platforms. That said, service games on mobile have yet to establish themselves like they have on Facebook.
Mobile carriers continue to charge for data, so some players are hesitant to remain connected—a fact which poses yet another challenge for gaming companies. And these games have to work in a space where, unlike Facebook, there is no direct connection to the end users. Some of the bigger games, such as the Zynga titles, require a constant connection, which is perhaps why CityVille has not taken off on mobile.
While it’s in vogue to chatter about some Orwellian threat associated with having personal information available via Facebook, users embrace the idea that if there is a bug in a Facebook game, it can be fixed quickly. Players can actively contribute to the game by translating it into local languages or by reporting an issue and seeing it quickly resolved. If a similar problem arose on a Nintendo console game, that issue could linger and perhaps even discourage a player from continuing.
Broadening the Audience
The casual nature of Facebook games based on the freemium model offers a very different type of engagement from a Call of Duty, which might cost $60 and engage a user for 600 hours. Casual games have a broader appeal and don’t require the time or the learning commitment of the most popular console games. That casual engagement level—which allows a user to kill a few minutes at a time rather than committing innumerable hours per session—is also part of the appeal.
The number of female gamers has continued to increase with the rise of service games. There are exceptions, such as Kabam, which generally target hardcore male gamers. However, the majority of the players on casual games are female, which has continued to alter and help diversify the profile of the typical gamer.
Users can only benefit from games as a service, especially as the quality of titles and our ability to respond to users continues to improve. Compare the social games now on Facebook to those from a year ago—all the top titles’ quality, depth, design and ability to engage have vastly improved. Zynga’s more recently released CastleVille is substantially more polished than FarmVille ever was.
A year ago, we launched Miner Speed, which is a high score-focused Facebook game with a one minute core game loop and six virtual goods called “boosters.” The game was not the huge success we had anticipated, and the team quickly moved on to other games. But the millions of data points that we collected from Miner Speedgame-play were immensely helpful when we designed the next generation of social games at King.com: the Saga titles, which feature more depth and unlockable features. When we realized the Saga games were going be smash hits, we could easily justify having development teams continue enhancing these games with the addition of new content, virtual goods and social-viral features.
There are few moments as fulfilling as working on a new feature for two weeks and then witnessing the following day how three million players are happily delving into an instantly revitalized game. This new dialogue between developers and gamers is not only changing the way games are made—and motivating developers to make even better games—it’s ensuring that players will stick around.