More people have played FrontierVille than all of Brian Reynolds‘ previous games combined. The man known for his work on Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations, has been with social-game publisher Zynga for a year-and-a-half, which is a long time in social games, he jokes.
Speaking at a keynote for GDC Online, Reynolds told mused that “Probably more people have played FarmVille than any other game, at least on a computer. And that’s kind of cool.”
Not everyone wants to work on social-network games, but Reynolds responds by citing their increasing complexity. “The games are getting more interesting, and more fun to work on.” The days of a one-mechanic based game, or two-mechanic based game are over, he says.
“FrontierVille was kind of an experiment,” continues Reynolds, adding that he was lucky that a game he made previously happened to be the only videogame that Zynga’s chief executive officer had ever liked. So he took his design skills, and set to work.
The goals were simple. “We wanted to try another farming game, because FarmVille was the largest thing ever,” Reynolds recalls. They settled on the FrontierVille, because it has the Wild West for males, and has the Little House on the Prairie for females. “We weren’t trying to launch out into some radical direction.”
“You’ve heard of waterfall as a way of managing people, and agile…what we use is JSIRSO,” says a smiling Reynolds. And that means, “jamming stuff in, and ripping shit out.”
The worst example of JSIRSO, says Reynolds, was Frontier Jack. The developers created the character who’s first appearance was just a tutorial. But he took on a life of his own. “We started talking like him around the office,” Reynolds says in his best Frontier Jack accent. It got the team into the mood. It also showed them the importance of characters. “It all came from this original idea that we jammed in, in a panic, to finish a tutorial for a user-session.”
Then came the idea of adding quests. “This was a desperate attempt to make our tutorial not suck.” Reynolds says you can’t put people on a rail for twenty-five clicks in a row. “Once we put it in, we found you can make stories with quests. Because the players want to know what happens next. You can make them pay to find out what happens at the end of the story. You can make them come back the next day to find out what happens.”
Suddenly, they had a mechanic best-suited to classical game developers. “We know how to make story, we know how to write.” Most of what the team did was taking classic gameplay mechanics and adding them to a social game. Quests, he says, existed before FarmVille. And they were fun. But it takes a game designer to bring them into social-network games.
According to Reynolds, here’s what game designers bring to social:
- Balance game systems
- Write good stories and text
- Deep game design that plays easily
- Know how to solve game problems
- Know the difference between fun and spam
- Ability to adapt game design patterns in new ways
“It turns out that fun monetizes well,” Reynolds declares. Social game makers think a good game design will retail players, and keep them in a retention box — but Reynolds says it’s the parts of games that are designed by game designers that monetize well. “The measure of a good design is revenue.”
“Game designers are able to design virtual goods people want to buy,” states Reynolds. “If you want to get your revenues up, create virtual goods people want to buy.” He continues by stressing: “We’re in the entertainment industry.”
In order to entertain, Reynolds advises the social network designer to start with a mass-market concept. “If most of my friends aren’t interested in space aliens, then the social element will never roll for you.”
He also advises developers to “get it running right away. These games are getting longer and longer to make. We’re already seeing the ramp. I’m sure we’ll see social games that take longer than a year.” But, warns Reynolds, “A bad launch will kill you.” And that’s because the first people to play are the most engaged, most likely to send viral updates, most likely to buy items. He encourages developers to ship in top form, warning “You don’t get a second chance — you must make sure that whatever you’re going to put out is fantastic.”
Reynolds sees this new era of social-network games as a golden one for the classical game designer. “It’s like going back to 1980, knowing what you know now.” He concludes, “All of the things we want in AAA games are in here. We’re just talking to people we haven’t talked to before.”