Bryan Mashinter is Game Director for DragonVale at Backflip Studios, with a major focus on the creative direction. At the time Bryan joined the company, they consisted of 14 people and were just beginning to focus on more than one project at a time, so it was essential to have someone who could keep things from falling through the cracks. Bryan filled this role at the production level, organizing projects, setting schedules and, in general, assisting the company in moving towards executing their creative vision goals. One of which, as for any company, is to keep users and encourage them to pay. The Backflip Studios team has discovered: lapsed users want to know elements of the game have changed but still feel familiar. “Don’t be afraid to make your players work harder in events but make it worth their efforts and watch out for fatigue”, Bryan advices. They explained in detail how to make the most out of events in their Casual Connect Europe 2017 lecture.
Bryan has a very diverse work background that includes algebra teacher, wrestling coach, bartender, restaurant manager and WAP developer. Although it may seem that none of these positions relate to his current career in the game industry, in fact they have all been valuable learning experiences toward being a good producer, particularly through developing the ability to communicate and collaborate well.
A Passion That Never Waned
As Bryan progressed through these varied careers, one thing remained constant: the love of games. So, as they relate, “It made sense to me to pursue them as a career, since it is one of the few passions in my life that hasn’t waned.”
Fortunately, Bryan has always demonstrated aptitude for the core disciplines of gaming. As a child in school, they were already designing mini-games to play for their D&D group. Drawing was another of their interests from an early age. And Bryan became interested in coding when their best friend’s brother wrote a program and showed it to them. Having interest and knowledge in all these areas is a significant advantage for Bryan as Game Director. “I have always appreciated the disparate pieces of creative work coming together to form something greater than its parts. And the ability to speak to an engineer, an artist and a designer in ways that they understand is a strength I appreciate every day.”
The satisfaction of being a part of the game industry is tremendous. Some rewards Bryan has seen include the thrill of seeing a game hit number one on the charts and earning an impressive amount of money. But they felt the greatest pride when someone they had helped to mentor gave a talk at GDC. They describe, “Games, work, life… is about people. So being able to help someone achieve a life goal felt pretty damn excellent.”
The creative process that is essential in the game industry is not a linear progression for Bryan, but rather a result of conditions that encourage the greatest creativity. Generally there is a problem to solve or simply curiosity about something. They like to think of ideas without judging them or worrying about them, just observing and seeing if any patterns emerge. Then it is time to involve other people. “I’m a person who finds the best ideas when bouncing them off of other smart and creative people. So I choose other people I know won’t derail the blue sky process or shut things down prematurely, and explore an idea.” Next, it’s time to return to the original question or problem and consider what fits, what works, what might germinate into something special. And, of course the practical considerations must be addressed; what time, energy, abilities and resources will be needed for this idea to be implemented?
Creative blocks occur for everyone, as Bryan is well aware. Their preferred ways of handling them include changing the environment, clearing their head and, most important, not trying to solve the problem. They may read a book, watch a movie, consume a story that someone else has written. Bryan emphasizes, “Our brains are wired to try and solve problems, both consciously and unconsciously, so when I’m blocked I try to occupy my conscious mind with something other than the problem to allow my subconscious time to breathe. I also will try and spend some time thinking or meditating, focusing less on the result, but attempting to view that result from the perspective of an outsider.”
According to Bryan, the most challenging aspect of game development is probably the same for everyone: executing all the good ideas in a cohesive and timely fashion on a budget that will allow for profitability. But the rewards of game development occur when, in a room full of people from different disciplines, an idea coalesces that everyone is excited about and is willing to work on. And, of course, seeing that idea come to fruition.
A Game That Includes Many Games
If Bryan could make a game without any constraints of time or resources, it would certainly be a complex one – essentially many games that hook into each other. They remember a game from the early days of the internet, Galactic Empire, a space-themed, text-only MUD. In it the player scanned sectors for habitable planets, claimed planets, bought ships and battled other players. There were also Bots that attacked while the player either ran or fought them. Bryan’s game would expand this idea to include interactions with additional players: they could become fighter escorts moving big ships in to colonize a planet. Players could hire or be hired to terraform a planet, in a part of the game Bryan imagines would feel like a PVE MMO but with a goal and an end that wouldn’t simply be repeated.
A hotly contested planet could be like a PVP MMO or the game could include some RTS elements. Bryan’s overall idea would allow users to “play a shooter, or a real time strategy game, or an MMO, or a space combat sim, or a turn-based methodical economic citybuilder, and each of those systems could feed into each other.” With such an exciting array of possibilities, let’s hope this game becomes a reality.
Engaging and Re-engaging Users
Engaging and retaining users are critical factors in a game’s success, and a constant concern in the industry. Bryan stresses the importance of offering players consistent and compelling content that will delight them. In addition, their session at Casual Connect provided insight into using an event-based system in an F2P game to increase engagement, retention and monetization.
Re-engaging users requires a different strategy from attracting new ones. Backflip Studios has discovered that lapsed users want to know elements of the game have changed but still feel familiar. It is essential to carefully consider the experience returning players will have, both psychologically and technically. As an example, Bryan relates, “We had some major issues with returning users accidentally being forced through all the tutorials for content since they left … that was an awful return experience that we had to fix immediately.”
Successful Events: Why and How
Events are important for a number of reasons. They allow developers to try out an idea in a temporary situation. Players don’t often object to testing something at an event because they know it will end. Developers can then get data from the best source, people who already love and play the game.
Events also are helpful in keeping things fresh and engaging. And Bryan asserts this is just as important for the engineer who has been working on the game for years as it is for the players. Backflip Studios still struggle with maintaining the balance between making things seem fresh and new while also keeping them familiar. They spend a lot of time listening to their community and players to understand their preferences. Of course it isn’t possible to make everyone happy but they still make time to try to find something that will delight everyone.
For a successful event, it is vital to create content that you believe players will want to engage with. Players may need to put in effort to get to the content, but it shouldn’t feel like a chore. It is also important to consider how content and timing are balanced in the event. “Make sure your team interacts with your event as you expect a player to; otherwise you could fall into the pitfall of making something delightful for thirty seconds, that gets annoying or excruciating after a few hours or days. Or putting something completely outside the reach of the majority of your player base because you use debug tools to skip time or sessions, etc.”
Community management is a critical factor in user retention. Bryan notes that people are more likely to continue playing a game if they have a problem and it gets solved efficiently and satisfactorily than if they never had a problem at all. Of course they are not suggesting that we should create problems just to solve them, but their customer service and community management teams are the front lines. So having tools in the game and in the development environment that make it easy for players to contact you and provide you with relevant information is the way to be good at solving the problems.
More Connected and Meaningful Experiences
The game industry is now trending to more VR and including some AR, but these are currently only in small pieces. Bryan expects to see more immersive and meaningful games in VR in the future. As well, with more and more people using their phones as a primary game system, we should be seeing new experiences for phones and tablets that previously were not possible.
Bryan hopes that we will also soon be seeing more connected experiences between the different ways people play. As they point out, “I think the upcoming generation is used to cross-platform, multi-use systems for their music, their TV … why not their games?
If you are interested in a career similar to Bryan’s, they say, “Make sure you love it.” The unfortunate truth is that most of the disciplines required to make successful games will actually be paid more outside the game industry. If the goal is simply to make money, don’t make games; apply the skills in a way better aligned to your goal. But if your goal is to create interactive experiences that can entertain, move and engage people, go for it. “Also,” Bryan says, “remember your first job may not be your dream job, and that’s okay.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.