Interview: Brenda Brathwaite on Loot Drop — Finding Love and Money in Social Gaming
Loot Drop is a newly-formed social game development studio featuring five heavy-hitters from the console and classic computer game industry. Of these veterans — John Romero, Brenda Brathwaite, Tom Hall, Rob Sirotek, and Laralyn McWilliams — only two represent the core demographic that social games cater towards: 46-year-old McWilliams and 44-year-old Brathwaite. We picked Brathwaite’s brains about the social games industry as well as her work on Ravenwood Fair while still at LOLapps with Romero and discovered some of what the social games industry has to teach video game developers and vice-versa.
First Comes Fun
“Put fun first,” she tells us. “You can market the hell out of a sh**** game. But if you focus on fun and make a great experience for the players, it will be profitable.”
That seems to be the idea many social game developers adopted in the last 12 months as they staffed up with video game developers. But while Brian Reynolds worked out well for Zynga with FrontierVille and John Yoo did even better by CityVille, not all of them hit the ground running. For example, renowned developer Sid Meier’s first Facebook game, Civilization World, has been in development for over a year, which is an eternity in Facebook time — and it has yet to launch publicly.
“The less money that we have to spend on the development of these games, the more risks we can take on the development of them,” Brathwaite says. “It’s the time that’s the challenge. The first [developers] you see jumping over are those of us from the 80s. We’re used to short dev cycles.”
ETA: Brathwaite clarified in a follow-up email, “What I mean here is that we have more freedom to try new things because we’re not risking $25 million in development. So, we don’t need to be as formulaic.”
Development cycles are only one of the many old habits video game developers struggle to adapt or break as they move into social games. The graphics arms race, Brathwaite says, is one of the bigger ones that needs to be left at the door.
“There’s not a graphic arms race here,” Brathwaite says. “There’s an art quality arms race, but nobody is racing to bigger, better, more polygons. People are playing these games on their lunch break at office computers with no administrative access. That means don’t give me stupid plugins. That means not radically reinventing the wheel.”
Even if a developer could rework the current layout of a social game so that the friends tray didn’t appear on the bottom of the screen at all times, Brathwaite says it’d be a mistake to do so because social gamers have a mental model of how their games are supposed to look.
“Change needs to happen in very small increments,” she says, “so that people don’t show up to your game and go ‘Ew’.”
A much bigger adjustment video game developers need to make is monetization. Many developers are familiar with microtransactions, but, Brathwaite says, many of them don’t know how to build it into the core game experience.
“They put monetization where it’s not the strongest,” Brathwaite says. “They’ll charge for premium [decorations], when there are better ways to do that — like paying money for time.”
Another monetization mistake traditional game developer make is modeling other Facebook games’ methods without considering whether it works with their own game. Many traditional game developers default to Zynga’s coins-and-bucks model without answering the key question, “How can I monetize my game without sacrificing fun?”
“It’s a really difficult question with a really obvious answer,” Brathwaite says, “but the answer isn’t in words, it’s in feel. And I don’t know how to communicate the feel. You want the game to be fun, and there are classic monetization hooks. Like you want bigger, better, faster, more, you pay me for bigger, better, faster, more. But how do you integrate that without sacrificing the fun?”
Brathwaite explains Loot Drop’s approach to monetization with a metaphor: A lone mariachi playing a song on one side of the street and someone asking for money on the opposite side of the street. She’d stop and pay the mariachi money, maybe even pay him to hear another without him ever asking her for anything because she appreciates the experience. But she wouldn’t feel good about giving money to the beggar on the other side of the same street.
“We’re going for the mariachi’s side of the street,” she says. “We don’t want you to feel there’s a panhandler begging you for money in the middle of the game.”
Then Comes Marriage
We wonder what other video game habits or ideas will migrate to social games via developers. We’ve already seen the growth in past years of the publisher-developer model with companies like 6waves offering themselves to developers as a distribution and monetization service. Loot Drop is signed with RockYou to publish their first game when it launches this summer.
“If you’re developing a social game now, you’re going to go to a publisher to get your game out there,” Brathwaite says. “But the traditional [publisher-developer] model hasn’t fully come over yet. A lot of it right now is big developer, in-house development, work-for-hire.”
Some traditional game developers may balk at the idea of publisher-developer relationships on Facebook because the model could leave developers with the short end of the stick in the console market. But Brathwaite says what went wrong with the model in console games market probably won’t happen in social games because there’s not a massive recoupment of costs for publishers and developers to worry about.
“In this case, it’s much more work-for-hire,” she says. “In most cases in the social game space [that I know of] the work-for-hire is not an earnout.”
Another traditional games industry trait that’s making the move is the design-led developer team. Not many games in the console space use this model, but the ones that do tend to have smaller, intimate teams with a single designer serving as the game’s producer. Loot Drop’s current development team only has about 10 to 12 people and as the developer expands, they’ll keep the teams about the same size.
The size lends itself to communication, which Brathwaite highlights when talking about Loot Drop’s founding members. Herself, Romero, Hall, Sirotek, and McWilliams have long personal histories with each other that border on a psychic connection. But even with all that familiarity between them, they can still surprise each other with new ideas. Her work with Romero on Ravenwood Fair served as a valuable lesson for how collaboration ought to work in social game development.
“The super unique thing about working on Ravenwood Fair specifically that I’m absolutely taking forward is the incredible importance of the male/female design head,” Brathwaite says.
To characterize what that is, she describes a point in Ravenwood Fair’s development where Brathwaite told Romero she didn’t feel comfortable leaving her characters alone in a scary forest when she stopped playing the game. There was no sense of closure, of being “done” enough that she could leave them alone and not worry about them. Romero didn’t share her feelings, but instead of dismissing them, he worked with her to develop the Protector characters that players can buy to ward off bad things in the forest even when the player is logged out.
“The big thing that came from that is this idea of working together,” Brathwaite says. “In the traditional games industry, you’re usually there around the genre and the genre usually dictates things. In this case, there’s this gigantic audience that’s so incredibly new to games and so overwhelmingly me — the 43-year-old woman. So the big takeaway from Ravenwood Fair is this partnership… this diversity that’s more valuable than it’s ever been.”
One of our last questions to Brathwaite had to do with an emerging negative view of the social games industry — that with Facebook restricting viral communication channels for games and so many people trying to make social games, that the market would collapse under the weight of badly made games all clamoring for money like so many panhandlers on a street with no pedestrians.
To that gloomy outlook, Brathwaite says, “I think it’s 1982. In 1982, people realized ‘Holy sh**, there’s a ton of money being made by these crazy computer games. We can slap any old shit in a bag and sell it!’ And the games industry crashed in 1983. And a great many people went out of business because they came into games to make money, not to make games. Those who loved games, and those who knew how to make them, stuck around.”
Look for Loot Drop’s first game through RockYou when it launches this summer. And check out John Romero’s postmortem of Ravenwood Fair on his blog.