GDC: Is Intuition or Metrics Better for Social Game Design?

For several years a discussion (or argument) has vollied between two sides at the Game Developer’s Conference: do social games use real game design, or are they not games at all?

These days the social branch is generally accepted as a real part of the gaming family, so an afternoon panel dealt with a more refined argument – whether social games should be driven by intuitive, feeling game designers, or by the metrics-driven product managers who created the industry, with Loot Drop cofounder Brenda Brathwaite taking one side and Sony Online Entertainment designer Laralyn McWilliams on the other.

The question is particularly relevant right now because traditional game developers, some with decades of experience, are streaming into the social and online space. “I think part of the problem is that game designers view this as an incredibly creative art,” said Brathwaite. Product managers, on the other hand, are more likely to view game design as a craft, backed up by numbers and graphs.

Designers sometimes see the problem as one of judgment. The example Brathwaite gave was choosing which virtual goods to include in the game. A product manager who can see that Americana-themed goods are popular with a majority of players might try to force them in. The designer, having a specific medieval theme in mind, might well see that idea as shooting themselves in the foot.

On the other hand, metrics can, and should, destroy some typical behaviors of traditional designers. A typical designer hates to see an early version of their game released. “It’s like walking out naked after a Krispy Kreme binge,” said Brathwaite. But launching an incomplete game may be the best idea, according to McWilliams. “The longer you hold onto it, the more you’re guessing,” she said.

Some of the conflict can be solved by the game designer applying management to the product manager’s process. For instance, if hockey were being designed for the first time, a product manager might rightly conclude that viewers like fights and thus make them more central. The designer’s job is to ask for more numbers to get a complete view, tracking the entire experience of the player. “It’s about the whole experience,” said McWilliams. “The highlights [like fights] are the dessert of the game.”

At the end of the day, product managers should be helping to define the space that game designers work within, especially as that relates to what users like doing on the platform in question, whether that’s Facebook or a PSP. “It doesn’t have to drive the more creative decisions like theme and core player interactions, but it helps narrow things down,” said McWilliams.

[Editor's note: Chris Morrison is a game designer and analyst at Concept Art House. He previously led coverage on Inside Social Games and continues to contribute.]

 

GDC: An Insider’s View of CityVille, From Idea to Launch

One of the early panels at the Game Developer Conference’s Social and Online Game Summit today was “Click Zen: Zynga’s Evolution from FarmVille to CityVille”. Mark Skaggs, Zynga’s VP of product development, talked the audience through the company’s evolution to its latest and most successful game.

The difference between FarmVille and CItyVille was stark, according to Skaggs. Launching FarmVille was all about getting a minimum viable product out the door. By the time CityVille was on the drawing board, Zynga had tripled in size.

Facebook had changed, too, leading some developers to think they could no longer produce hits. ““I actually had a spreadsheet that told me City could not grow to more than 5 million daily unique players,” said Skaggs. Initially, Zynga thought about sending the CityVille project to Challenge Games, its acquisition in in Austin, Texas.

Ultimately Zynga decided to produce the game at its San Francisco headquarters. But as the company went into preproduction, CityVille suffered from a lack of vision, said Skaggs. The team wasn’t sure whether it wanted to make the game a lighter or heavier experience; it wasn’t settled on a look or feel, or whether to launch another minimum viable product, as it had with FarmVille.

“We had to get off paper. What we found, when you’re on a whiteboard sketching it out, someone comes in and says hey, there’s an edge case and it gets modified,” said Skaggs. Before long, all the ideas were leading to confusion. So the company set to building playable prototypes that could help guide the vision.

Even with the prototypes, though, it wasn’t clear that CityVille would be a very good game. “People were coming to me privately during late summer early fall and saying, Mark, this isn’t going to be fun. It’s going to be another FarmVille,” said Skaggs. So in August, the team started to whittle down its ideas. “We kept focusing, narrowing down the scope, trying to get to the core gameplay,” said Skaggs.

Eventually, Skaggs started tracking what he called “Mile Markers”. In August and September, for instance, he started noticing that the team was gelling, with members spending time with each other and not just working alone. As September wore on, he saw the first hints of fun in the game, and by October and November the team was playing it of their own accord.

When it came to November, when the game was due to launch, the team decided to hold. Zynga had finally decided to move completely away from the minimum viable product model. This turned out to be important, said Skaggs, since it’s much easier to fix problems before launch.

CityVille wasn’t a perfect game at launch; Skaggs pointed out some areas that could have been better, including major elements like the trains, franchise interface and game space expansions. But it beat a minimum viable product, and went on to draw more than 100 million monthly active users at its peak.

Skaggs finished off with some “meta lessons” for other social game developers:

  • It’s entertainment – People want a light, fun experience that loads as fast as a web page
  • You’re building a product and a 24/7 business – It’s not like traditional game development, you’re got to keep working on it every day
  • The battle Is won before the launch – It’s all about planning and preparation; fix problems before launch.
  • Learn the space and the recipes for success – Go look at Zynga games and find common threads; if successful games keep using features, maybe you should too.
  • Speed wins – Get to market and have the performance
  • Deliver fun – Don’t forget that you’re making games
  • You can’t make up for boring with volume – Content won’t make up for lack of fun, you need a good core game loop

For more on the prelude to CityVille, check out our guest post by Brice Morrison from earlier today: How Zynga Defused Its FarmVille Time-Bomb.

[Editor's note: Chris Morrison is a game designer and analyst at Concept Art House. He previously led coverage on Inside Social Games and continues to contribute.]

Sibblingz Talks WebGL and Cross-Ported Games

Web and mobile game engineers tend to spend a lot of time speculating how development for their various platforms will converge — Facebook, iOS, Android, and potential future additions. Sibblingz CEO Ben Savage recently told us that he’s throwing his hat into the ring of a specific technology: WebGL, an emerging browser technology that allows 3D graphics with hardware acceleration.

WebGL is part of the HTML5 Canvas, but isn’t necessarily one of the technologies that’s being referred to when HTML5 comes up. That’s partially because it’s not widely available. Firefox and, since early this month, Chrome both offer it on the web, but Internet Explorer does not; for mobile devices, only Firefox can use it.

But WebGL has been getting plenty of attention lately, especially following a post this Wednesday on the Facebook Developer Blog. Savage has favored the idea for much longer, though – Sibblingz has been working for over a year with a sister technology, OpenGL, to build its own proprietary system for cross-platform porting of games.

The initial focus is on moving Facebook games coded in ActionScript for Flash to mobile versions. In the view of most developers, that process is more trouble than it’s worth – usually, the game is just remade. Savage says Sibblingz can use 95 percent of the original code, with a shell of Objective C around it for iOS, or Java for Android.

Sibblingz tested out the technology with Happy Island, a game developed by YouWeb sister company CrowdStar. “The proof that works is that the day the Samsung Galaxy tablet came out in the Verizon store, we went, launched it on the tablet, and it worked. It’s gratifying to say, we wrote the software and it works on devices we never knew existed,” Savage says.

Beyond code, graphics are also key. While some web developers are trying to move beyond the vector graphics that characterized many of Facebook’s earlier hits, Savage thinks that vector art will be dominant even on mobile devices, where games like Infinity Blade have already wowed users with console-style graphics.

Applifier Adds Retargeting to Its Cross-Promo Bar

A new feature has come to Facebook’s largest cross-promotion bar, Applifier: retargeting, a tactic usually used by ad networks. With retargeting, developers will be able to send optimized messages to users who have encountered their game before.

Here’s an example use case. Applifier’s bar is essentially a line of ads, in which developers trade views on a one to one basis. With retargeting, you can make a user that has already clicked through your ad once see a different message — instead of “Try our game!”, it can be “Come back!” Regular players can see yet another message.

Retargeting won’t help developers get new users, but it will help them improve retention for existing players, according to Jussi Laakonen, the CEO of Applifier. Some users use the Applifier bar almost like a navigation toolbar, instead of returning to the front page to click through Facebook’s built-in bookmarks.

Applifier is working on more features beyond retargeting, Laakonen says; it’s just one of the first to launch. The company has good reason to try to differentiate itself. Since launching last May, the company has gained two strong competitors, in the form of Tapjoy’s AppStrip and Digital Chocolate’s VIP Games Network.

There are arguments for each network. One of Applifier’s has stayed the same since its launch: it’s independent, and untainted by big developers. AppStrip, as we pointed out early this month, has benefited from selling substantial traffic on its network to Zynga for CityVille, while Digital Chocolate gives a pure 1:1 exchange (Applifier takes 10 percent of traffic for its own revenue) but, presumably, uses the data from the network for internal purposes.

All the competitors will find fertile ground for expansion,  says Laakonen, but he’s sticking by his model. “As a publisher, the best company to work with is not just the one that has the largest reach, but one that has your best interests in mind,” he says. “We’re data neutral — if you’re a publisher on Applifier you don’t know where your traffic is coming from. We want to make sure people don’t get competitive info.”

PlayFirst Finally Brings Diner Dash to Facebook

One by one, storied casual gaming franchises have made their way onto Facebook. Diner Dash, by PlayFirst, is the latest, with a Facebook rendition that keeps the fast-paced time management of the original games with a layer of gameplay additions that take advantage of the social platform.

For those not familiar with the original, Diner Dash is all about well-timed clicks. You play as Flo, a down-to-earth waitress who’s usually faced with some greater challenge than just waiting tables — more on that in a moment. While Flo is doing her job, she must satisfy an entire restaurant full of customers, all with their individual habits and quirks.

Each customer, or group of customers, follows the same four steps: they must be seated, have their order taken, be served, have their check delivered, and then their table cleaned and bussed. The problem is that each set of customers moves through each step at a different pace. They also have a heart rating that determines their tip. For the most part the number of hearts they have at the end is determined by how fast Flo can meet their needs.

After a couple easy rounds, the starting restaurant — Darla’s, named after a San Francisco diner — starts to fill up with tables, encouraging flurries of clicking that would rival any arcade game. Aside from graphical differences this part is much like other Diner Dash games, except that you aren’t directly paid your tip money; instead, you receive a set amount based on a tiered ranking system at the end of the “shift”. You also get a second character besides Flo, meant to represent yourself, who works in the kitchen.

Around this core, PlayFirst has built up the standard elements of social gaming. Working a shift requires energy: for Darla’s, five energy each shift, which runs out quickly since you only have a total of 10 energy to start.

A partial solution to this energy shortage is the park. An ongoing Diner Dash villain, Mr. Big, has filled the park with trash, toxic waste and construction equipment, which, at least according to the story, is driving potential customers away. Flo’s earnings go toward cleaning and beautifying the park.

The typical energy mechanic is flipped around here, as you actually gain energy from cleaning up the park. Each bottle, construction cone, or bulldozer you “clean” gives you one energy. In the beginning of the game, this gives a seemingly endless source of energy, allowing shift after shift at the restaurant.

This bounty is short-lived, though, as we found out after just a few minutes of playing. Once you’ve put Mr. Big’s exploits to shame by rampaging through your initial trash resource, only the occasional piece will appear, resulting in a sudden and drastic slowdown in play. Placing decorations doesn’t seem to reward any energy, either, even though some cost a substantial number of Credits.

It’s reasonable that PlayFirst should try to find some way to monetize its players, but in its current state the park feels tacked-on. This could be corrected with a more generous allocation of energy, which seems to work fine for PopCap with its two arcade titles on Facebook, or a clearer way to earn more energy in the park, even if that meant buying premium currency decorations. For now, if you want to pay for anything, it’s best to just direct your money toward energy refills.

The last part of the game to note are the additional restaurants. Five are shown on screen, with only Darla’s available at first; Tony’s Ristorante can also be unlocked for 30 Credits, while the other three are yet to come. To repeat a point, players might feel short-changed if they buy Tony’s, since the six energy required for shifts will quickly run out.

Diner Dash is still small for now, with only about 26,000 monthly active users. But PlayFirst is almost certainly aware of all the issues, including the numerous technical glitches that currently plague the park, and likely hasn’t orked to promote the title yet. Luckily, the core gameplay looks and feels great. Once Diner Dash is more polished, it will have the potential to reach millions of players, just like its previous incarnations.

Cards and RPGs Support This Week’s List of Emerging Facebook Games

Poker and other card games are once again performing well on our weekly list of emerging Facebook games, defined as those still under a million monthly active users. 鋤大地(大老二), a Chinese card game, is high in the rankings, and is followed by The Pokerist club — Texas Poker and Gambino Poker within the top five.

Top Gainers This Week – Games

Name MAU Gain Gain,%
1. Draw My Thing 505,457 +386,896 +326%
2. 鋤大地(大老二) 695,147 +297,347 +75%
3. Dog Show Friends 312,317 +249,135 +394%
4. The Pokerist club — Texas Poker 526,701 +171,481 +48%
5. Gambino Poker 653,679 +115,998 +22%
6. Farm Bonuses 382,339 +114,017 +42%
7. Legacy of a Thousand Suns 327,838 +80,969 +33%
8. Eredan iTCG 499,419 +80,074 +19%
9. Flying Typing 119,174 +77,748 +188%
10. Friend Stock Market 226,642 +77,601 +52%
11. Glory of Rome 370,103 +73,015 +25%
12. Football Life 172,936 +71,060 +70%
13. Slot World 524,311 +68,728 +15%
14. Miner Speed 270,417 +65,563 +32%
15. David Guetta, Play with it! 523,170 +65,303 +14%
16. CityVille Community 155,256 +63,052 +68%
17. My Shops 527,337 +62,288 +13%
18. Miscrits: World of Adventure 895,520 +59,690 +7%
19. COLLAPSE! 433,041 +50,896 +13%
20. Click For Speed 163,301 +48,369 +42%

The top earner of the week is actually Draw My Thing, a game that Omgpop brought over from their destination site. On Facebook it’s the same as the Pictionary-style original but with the addition of some viral mechanics, like wall-posting your drawings.

Dog Show Friends is the third fastest grower, with a respectable quarter of a million new users. This 4mm Games title has been around for a while, but only recently started to grow. Overall, it looks like a fairly standard pet-raising game, with some extra mechanics for competition.

Legacy of a Thousand Suns, a space-themed RPG, is headed back into growth after a significant decline post-launch in December; its all-time high was around half a million MAU, which at current rates it could break past in a couple weeks. Eredan iTCG, a similarly geeky card-based RPG, is also climbing again; interestingly, its largest user group appears to be French.

And Friend Stock Market is bringing back a concept that we haven’t seen for quite some time, allowing users to buy and sell their friends on an open market. Sure, many of Facebook’s American users may have bored of this concept two years ago with Friends for Sale!; that doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t a whole new audience of international users waiting to relive the same experience.

At YouWeb, a Constant Quest to Anticipate Social and Mobile Gaming’s Future

It’s not easy to create a successful company in Silicon Valley; by popular estimates, only about 1 in 10 will survive, much less be successful. One of the ways entrepreneurs can try to hedge their bets is by joining an incubator, like YouWeb, a well-known venture started by former tech exec Peter Relan. In three years YouWeb hasn’t yet had an exit, but it has managed to produce three companies – CrowdStar, Aurora Feint and Sibblingz — that look like good bets, with more waiting in the wings.

YouWeb has definitely developed a specialty over its short lifespan. CrowdStar, the first YouWeb company to enjoy some large-scale success with its early Facebook games, is the content producer. OpenFeint, which initially tried to do mobile gaming, is creating iterating on a social platform with over 50 million users, which should allow companies like CrowdStar to succeed in mobile. Sibblingz, a less-known company, is working on ways to efficiently cross-publish web games to mobile. Another, iSwifter, is coming at the same web-to-mobile problem from a different angle, with a model that’s similar to the streaming game companies OnLive and Gaikai.

These companies are obviously related, but are they backed up by a grander plan? We recently got a chance to ask the entrepreneurs and YouWeb founder Peter Relan that question directly.

MeWeb

The structure and rules of YouWeb aren’t terribly unusual for an incubator. Relan invites in expert developers to spend a year working on their ideas. Each gets three tries to succeed, and if their ideas don’t pan out, they have to move on. The rules aren’t ironclad; Jason Citron founded Aurora Feint on his fourth try, according to Relan. Sibblingz founder Ben Savage started as an intern, not an entrepreneur.

Once a company gains some traction, it gets its own offices in the bank building that houses YouWeb in Burlingame. There’s also a YouWeb branch in New York City, started by an entrepreneur who decided he preferred Relan’s job, but it’s at an earlier stage than Burlingame.

As close as the companies are to each other, each told us that it’s focused on its own niche. One, Aurora Feint, may even be preparing to move on from YouWeb. “We’re kind of at the point now where we’re starting to really separate from them in a positive way,” says founder Jason Citron.  “Peter’s whole thing is this incubation, they bring in entrepreneurs and teach business strategy until they grow up and exit the nest. We’re now getting to the part where we’re kind of starting to exit.”

Still, he says, that plan doesn’t prevent a constant interchange between YouWeb’s members. “We sometimes do pretty atypical but friendly collaborations that can be hard to do with a regular company,” Citron says.

For Suren Markosian, a co-founder of CrowdStar, the tie that binds is Peter Relan – doubly so, now that Relan has taken over as CEO of his company.  “On a personal level all the managers are friends … we have a common friend, Peter, who’s very much like us but has a lot more experienced. He propagates our learnings throughout the company,” says Markosian.

Ben Savage, the Sibblingz founder, also has a personal take, having been mentored from his position as YouWeb intern to Sibblingz CEO by Relan. “He has a very good understanding of the whole space, but he can also see how each company’s strengths can complement the other. This is something that most companies don’t have the opportunity to do,” says Savage.

As much as each company agrees that YouWeb is useful for partnerships, though, they don’t express any enthusiasm for the idea of working toward a single objective. Relan, on the other hand, does find the idea attractive.

“The analogy I use is, each of you is in your forests, I’m like the helicopter overhead, and you’re carving a path. Anytime, they can radio me – am I headed into a pit? In the case of YouWeb, I say, do we have a big ecosystem that can make a play?” says Relan.

The answer seems to be yes. “It’s true that a company like Zynga will have the internal company engine to be cross-platform,” says Relan. “They’ll produce both Facebook and mobile, and there’s some talk of their zLive social gaming network. That sounds a bit like the YouWeb portfolio. The difference in approach is, Zynga believes all that value will be in one company, while I think if it’s true, all the companies will independently discover that for themselves.”

Asked whether he really sees YouWeb operating as a collective, though, Relan demurs. “I’m not going to force them to do it, because they’ll do better as CEOs than VPs of some giant company,” he says. “I believe, give all these people chances, and maybe someday they’ll buy each other. Many of the projects I can imagine being a giant collective, but for now I like that there are eight different companies.”

What’s Next

Whether a cross-platform ecosystem can develop at YouWeb depends, of course, not just on the entrepreneurs or Relan, but on the market itself. But here, also, each founder has his own thought process.

Markosian, at CrowdStar, thinks about the content. “I don’t personally believe in a one for all approach, where one product works on all the platforms,” he says. “I think each platform is its own userbase and users have their own behavior and expect different things from products. I believe in having enough understanding and expertise to deliver on each platform.”

CrowdStar hasn’t specialized in any one area yet, according to Markosian, so it can easily try out mobile gaming this year. “Mobile is the next obvious platform to go to. It’s not like a console, it’s much more mass-market,” he says.

Not all has gone smoothly at CrowdStar, of course. While competitors Playdom and Playfish sold to larger companies for massive sums, and Zynga has continued to hire and acquire its way past a thousand employees, CrowdStar recently laid off about two dozen of its hundred employees and replaced CEO Niren Hiro with Relan.

But Markosian isn’t worried by persistent rumors that his company can’t follow up its early strong performance on Facebook. “The last couple months has been an interesting experience for us. We’ve learned to optimize our teams around being more profitable. We have had restructuring, and some people left the company. It’s much more efficient now. We also shifted much more responsibility into game teams. So far, it’s our best quarter ever,” he says.

At Aurora Feint, Citron is already casting his eye beyond the biggest mobile platform, the iPhone. “I think 2011 will be the year of Android, and some developers will make a lot of money, kind of like the first year of the App Store,” he says.

“A big part of it is enlightening these guys on how to best use virtual goods. A lot of people on iPhone don’t have experience with that model, and we have people who do understand. So we want to elevate the tide for everyone,” Citron continues. “Our focus is on the developers. The fundamental thing about OpenFeint is that it’s a developer product first, a user product second, because the developers take it and make it part of the experience.”

At Sibblingz, Savage is focused on the technologies behind the content, whether it’s on the web or mobile devices. “We’ve taken a massive step back in technology in going to the browser, then again in going to mobile devices,” he says. “The reason we write for Flash is that 99 percent of people have it installed … I think gaming is on its way to being a very universal thing. From a tech standpoint that means, can we take gaming everywhere? Can we make it cross these artificial boundaries?”

Given the collection of expertise at YouWeb, the incubator should be one of the more interesting tech centers to watch over the coming year. Some of the smaller companies that may emerge include streamed games, a social television, next-generation social games, location-based games and even edutatinment, according to Relan.

FarmVille Beats CityVille to Lead This Week’s List of Fastest-Growing Facebook Games by DAU

As we predicted last week, another game has finally topped CityVille to lead our weekly AppData list of fastest-growing Facebook games by daily active users. Of course, that game is FarmVille, so we’ll only count ourselves half right.

Top Gainers This Week – Games
Name DAU Gain Gain,%
1. FarmVille 15,373,366 +445,902 +3%
2. CityVille 19,649,245 +400,098 +2%
3. Paradise Life 362,988 +228,505 +170%
4. Texas HoldEm Poker 7,307,136 +204,282 +3%
5. Ravenwood Fair 865,528 +153,877 +22%
6. Monster Galaxy 470,063 +98,837 +27%
7. It Girl 1,143,992 +98,496 +9%
8. FarmVille 中文版 447,588 +90,053 +25%
9. 鋤大地(大老二) 180,725 +86,358 +92%
10. Dog Show Friends 76,940 +72,747 +1,735%
11. แฮปปี้คนเลี้ยงหม 775,634 +59,736 +8%
12. Happy Hospital 224,590 +55,930 +33%
13. Games 1,506,685 +49,497 +3%
14. Jersey Shore 169,779 +48,735 +40%
15. Bingo Island 150,597 +46,098 +44%
16. 開心農場 1,148,764 +45,134 +4%
17. Okey 823,398 +44,234 +6%
18. Happy Aquarium 1,278,173 +44,222 +4%
19. Farm Town 730,215 +42,443 +6%
20. Cafe Life 458,210 +41,021 +10%

There’s not a lot to say about CityVille’s DAU gains; the game is already huge, so a little more isn’t too surprising. What is worth pointing out is that the games monthly active user growth has finally stopped, at least recently. It dropped back below 100 million MAU a couple days back.

Paradise Life is the latest Icebreak Games title, following their fairly successful Cafe Life. Paradise is really shooting upward, which might come as something of a surprise, considering that it’s yet another island / farming mix. It does add several worthwhile flourishes to the genre, though, showing that careful design can still win the day (along with a generous marketing budget, of course).

This was a big week for Ravenwood Fair, as the game broke through to new highs in both MAU and DAU. And Monster Galaxy is also doing quite well, although still having trouble hanging onto DAU — its MAU is nearly as high as Ravenwood’s.

Finally, Wooga’s Happy Hospital is finally breaking out, after weeks of slower growth. The game appears to have also made improvements leading to higher stickiness, with bumps coming in the first half of each week, when Wooga puts through its latest updates.

ISA 2011: Small Developers Don’t Need to Sell Out Yet

For many small developers on Facebook or the iOS, the future likely looks like an intimidating place. The largest social platform, Facebook, failed to produce any major new companies in 2010 that weren’t already heavily capitalized; smartphones look like an attractive market, but growth points like in-app payments for Android or better distribution on the iPhone are unpredictable. Our last panel of the day at Inside Social Apps considered whether these small players should consider selling.

The first and most important realization should be that an acquisition can’t be the reason for being a game developer. “I hope you get into this business because you have a passion for entertaining people, because no matter what this business was a year or two ago, it’s now about entertaining,” says Raph Koster, whose company Metaplace was acquired by Playdom last year. “Hopefully you’re not here to merge or acquire or sell, because in the long run what will make you successful will be having been good at being an entertainer.”

That said, there’s also no imperative to sell right now if you’re a Facebook developer. “Making any recommendation now is silly, it’s far too dependent on circumstances,” says Koster. In his case, “Playdom came to us, and said, you know, you could touch even more people. In the end, it was that more than anything – the opportunity to touch a lot of people, and be engaging in a really exciting time.”

Facebook itself thinks that small developers face an open field. “We’re still in early days,” says Sean Ryan, Facebook’s recently hired director of game partnerships. “We’re going to grow the games business, and Apple and Google will grow their own game businesses. What we saw last year was that it slowed down a bit, as we saw a couple very large outcomes with Playdom and Playfish, and people were looking to see what would happen next. Now there’s a lot of growth in the midpoint of the market, as we saw from the article on Inside Social Games the other day. We made some changes last year, and we’re seeing growth back in the system.”

That seems like a fairly self-interested view, but the rest of the panel participants agreed. “I think there are a whole lot of genres of games that need to be explored. On Facebook has done well, now we need to look at off Facebook, as well as at mobile. Monetization has been one or two percent, that will change. There’s a lot of room to grow in social gaming,” said Atul Bagga, a vice president and game researcher at ThinkEquity.

If you do want to consider selling, Koster’s reason, increased exposure, is a good one, according to Terence Fung, Zynga’s head of corporate development. “You can accelerate those [game development] dreams at Zynga, because we have netops, analytics, we take care of recruiting. As a manager of a company, I could be figuring out payroll, but that’s not what my heart is in, I want to hit 10 million DAUs or 50 million DAUs. That’s something we have learning in,” he says.

ISA 2011: Fireside Chat with Google Android Group Manager Eric Chu

Google’s group manager for the Android platform,  Eric Chu, is on stage with us here at Inside Social Apps. His interviewer is Kim-Mai Cutler, lead writer for Inside Mobile Apps.

The live transcript (paraphrased in parts and edited for brevity)

KM: What is going on in app payments?

EC: Helping app makers monetize is very important to us, so we’ve been building an in-app payment system. We were actually going to release it last quarter, but with developers focused on their Christmas apps, we couldn’t get enough feedback to be comfortable launching. So look for it soon.

KM: What has held it back?

EC: My team, and the engineering team, we’re all involved in the preparation and development of the in-app system. Developers were busy, but now we’re completely focused on getting it out.

KM: What should developers do in the meantime? Should they use other methods or wait for you to roll out in-app payments?

EC: We’re focused on a user having a great experience, so we want to see a consistent purchasing experience from apps on the platform. Android as a platform is open, so developers have complete latitude to release apps, but we ask that you use our payment system on our app platform.

KM: Is it OK to use another SDK?

EC: I think our policy is very clear, so you’re fine as long as you do things within those boundaries?

KM: When in-app payments do roll out, are we looking at carrier billing? Other methods?

EC: I think it’s very important to separate how we build the application and the forms of payment. Carrier billing is an area that we’ve invested a lot in, we rolled out payments with AT&T in December and we’ll be doing that around the world. As we add additional forms of payment, developers don’t have to do anything.

KM: Does Google have in its culture to offer good payments, given that it has always been driven by advertising?

EC: My team is 100 percent focused on the success of the developers — are users downloading apps, are they buying them? You can expect to see more investment into merchandising, payments, discovery, downloading, those are absolutely top areas for us.

KM: Can you offer any specifics on paid apps?

EC: Nothing I can announce right now. Maybe it’s in the area of merchandising and billing.. when we first started with the Android Market, we had a vision of it being like the internet. But we found that some developers took advantage and uploaded apps that violated our terms. So we’ve created a team that looks at apps that violate policy and actively takes them down. That’s a way to improve our catalog and the consumer experience.

KM: When you say improved merchandising, what do you mean by that? How will you improve discovery?

EC: Nothing I can announce right now, but expect something to come really soon.

KM: And what about the ranking algorithm for the top paid apps?

EC: We get a lot of questions about our ranking algorithm. We really don’t want people to be able to game the system. A developer with deep pockets could just buy a lot of ads to get to the top. So we try to use other signals to help us understand, do users actually like the app? We’re trying to fine-tune to make sure that great apps do well.

KM: On iOS, some of these third-party companies say that it’s meritocratic enough that if you’re good you’ll do well.

EC: Yeah, but we’ve also seen cases where people will find themselves prompted to download apps to get extra credits, and then the app never gets used again. We want to use more signals to surface great apps.

Read more at Inside Mobile Apps >

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