Guest Post: Resurrecting Location-Based Games

geo1Today’s guest post comes to us from David Bisceglia, Founder and CEO of  The Tap Lab, a mobile game studio focusing on location-based titles. His article focuses on what developers of these types of games can learn from previous titles in the genre.

Many of us grew up playing classic backyard games like Capture the Flag, Pickle and Marco Polo. The digital variant of these games are known as location-based games, a genre that has been around for over a decade.

A Brief History of Location-Based Games

In 1999, the first mobile phones with GPS hit the market. This set the course for the pioneers of location-based games. Dodgeball, one of the first location-based social networks, and a GPS-driven scavenger hunt called Geocaching both came to market in 2000. The major map data providers, Google Maps and Open Street Maps, were established by 2005 and the launch of iPhone and Android phones with GPS soon followed. From 2009-2010, venue data providers including Google Places, Foursquare and Factual placed the final piece of the puzzle for the mobile games we see today.

geo2 (more…)

Guest Post: Top 5 Reasons ‘Stealth Mode’ Will Kill Your Startup

Editor’s Note: This guest post comes from game design consultant Adrian Crook, a producer and designer with credits on over two dozen games spread across a variety of platforms, including classic consoles like the Sega Genesis and modern mobile games for iOS. In 2006, he was named Producer of the Year by the Canadian New Media Awards. You can find out more about Crook’s consulting agency here and the original text of his article, “Top 5 Reasons ‘Stealth Mode’ Will Kill Your Startup,” here.

By now I thought it was abundantly evident why your startup should never be in “stealth mode.” But just this afternoon, while on a call with a potential investor/advisor, I heard of yet another person who was still in stealth mode. So this must still be “a thing” for entrepreneurs.

It shouldn’t be. Yes, stealth mode sounds cool, but it hurts you more than it helps you. Here’s why:

1) Nobody wants to steal your idea.
There’s nothing more hilarious to me than when a startup CEO asks me to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before they reveal their grand idea. In reality, the most powerful force keeping me from stealing your idea is not an NDA, but my belief that my idea is better than your own. Most people are violently assured they have the right ideas – in fact, this reality distortion field is common among CEOs. So stop believing someone will drop everything to rip off your idea – they’re probably only thinking “I hope she’s not doing MY idea!”

2) Most people will never even hear of your startup.
Starting tomorrow, “unstealth” your startup and start spamming your social networks with App Store and landing page links as much as humanly possible. The fact is most of your intended audience (investors, customers, etc) will still never be even faintly aware of your existence. We’re all simply too self-absorbed or well-insulated to receive everything you’re broadcasting. To this day I still get Facebook friends surprised to learn I’ve moved to another country… over two years ago.

3) You leave stones unturned.
Mention your idea to someone even in passing, at the end of an email, on chat – anywhere. Don’t pass up the chance. You never know what they know or who they know or what you’ll learn as a result. Every day I am shocked at how effective this is: new leads are surfaced, competitors I didn’t know about are mentioned, or someone expresses a whole new way to view our product that hadn’t even occurred to me yet. If I had kept my mouth shut about our startup, I’d truly be “eating my own dog food.” In the same way one drinks the Kool-Aid.

4) Opportunity often takes a long time to knock.
So when you put off spreading the word about your startup, you also put off initiating the gestation period for opportunity. Practically speaking, VC investment alone can take 6-9 months to find and close, but if you wait until you need it, those nine months will seem like forever. But other types of opportunity take time to materialize too. One day your friend’s mind wanders and he comes up with the perfect person for you to talk to at ESPN. Or a former co-worker could have put you into their Q3 roadmap if he had known in Q1. Start seeding opportunity too late and you’ll run out of time before its first flowers bloom.

5) Get honest feedback when you can use it.
By telling your friends and colleagues what you’re up to, you get to hear some (very) honest feedback when you need it most – in the early stages, when course-correction costs you much less. Your friends will be candid, which helps you refine your pitch or product offering so it makes sense. And your colleagues, often strongly motivated to find the “gotchas” in your idea, will give you a good sense of the obstacles you might face getting investor or customer buy-in.

Obviously there are some people you might not want to tell, pre-launch. If someone is strongly in the competitor or potential competitor camp and the risk of telling them likely outweighs the benefit, perhaps skip that person for now. But try to avoid censoring yourself in any other way. As I said before, some of the most serendipitous connections or ideas have come from conversations that I thought would never lead to anything, startup-wise.

Be willing to have those conversations, to listen fully and to disclose as much (or a bit more) as you feel comfortable. Being unguarded about your concerns and your thought process is an excellent way to tacitly invite your conversation partner to help solve your problem. But when you attempt to appear like you’ve already got everything buttoned down, you leave little room for contribution.

And now back to working on PlayRank, our second screen sports product that launches this January. Have I told you about that yet…?

Thanks for reading,

Adrian Crook
CEO, PlayRank
Founder, AC+A

Guest Post: Punch Quest – Optimizing UI Flow for IAP

Editors note: The following guest post was written by Ethan Levy, co-founder of Quarter Spiral a new game publishing startup, and uses the game Punch Quest as a case study on how one can streamline a title’s UI in order to make in-app purchases a more common experience. Levy is a 10-year veteran of the video games industry, having recently worked at BioWare’s San Francisco studio as producer for Dragon Age Legends.

I’m a little late to the party, but I recently discovered the exceptional iOS game Punch Quest and was instantly hooked. This beautifully crafted mash up of Jetpack Joyride and Streets of Rage (or Final Fight if you were more SNES than Genesis) transfixed me immediately. I was addicted to the quick rounds of pick up and play simplicity, the explosions of Punchos upon completing a quest and the joy of punching a cyclops right in the eye.

Punch Quest made headlines not only for it’s high Metacritic rating, but unfortunately for its failure with the freemium model and unorthodox switch from free to paid. I only discovered the game after it started charging $0.99 and felt that the purchase was completely justified. I enjoyed playing so much that I spent additional dollars on in-app purchases (IAP). Importantly, Punch Quest fulfilled one of the most important criteria for a successful freemium game: as a player, I had more fun as a result of spending money on IAP. (more…)

Guest Post: Getting Schooled on Developing the Best Games for Teens and Tweens

Editor’s note: The following guest post was written by Peter Hofstede, the Game Development Director at Spil Games. Spil is billed as the largest independent online gaming platform. As the social games market grows more crowded, developers find themselves competing more and more for audience share. One group that hasn’t been targeted by most studios are in the tween demographic, an audience that Spil’s found success with via its Girls Go Games label. In this article, Hofstede offers advice on how to find success with tweens.

There are over 80 million social games played each day, yet only 15 percent of these games are played more than once by a user. We’re seeing a high level of abandonment in the social gaming space, but keep in mind that many of these games are developed for mass audiences— where it’s very difficult to please everyone. At Spil Games, we prefer to operate in a world where tailoring gaming experiences to niche audiences is an ideal way to reach an engaged consumer base and convert them into loyal users.

Thinking specifically about tween girls, teenage boys or even parents looking to play online games with their kids, developing games for niche audiences can provide a major growth opportunity. If fact, 91 percent of kids are gamers – we know the market is there – it’s simply a matter harnessing these consumers to get them to play your game. When it comes to success, it is crucial for developers to incorporate a user-centered design approach to appeal to niche audiences’ unique interests and behaviors. Getting it right doesn’t require a PhD in psychology, and while it certainly couldn’t hurt, there are several different tactics to understanding the basics throughout the game development process. (more…)

Guest post: How much does the #1 game on the iOS store earn in a day? $199k (I think)

Editors note: The following guest post was written by Ethan Levy, co-founder of Quarter Spiral a new game publishing startup, and takes an educated guess at how much money the top games in the iTunes store make. His math makes sense and is within the range we’ve heard about from various industry sources. Levy is a 10-year veteran of the video games industry, having recently worked at BioWare’s San Francisco studio as producer for Dragon Age Legends.

Having a #1 grossing app on the iPhone or iPad is the dream of every game developer who ever downloaded a copy of xCode. Few games reach this lucrative goal and information on the top spot’s true value is a closely guarded secret. Even if you are lucky enough to achieve the #2 spot on the chart, there is no ceiling on what the #1 spot could possibly be worth.

My best guess? In the United States, an average day in the top grossing position for the iPhone means $199,245 in gross revenue. iPad $55,789. After Apple takes its cut, this is about $139.5k and $39.1k respectively.

How did I, who has never personally sold a game on the iOS store come to this conclusion? Follow me on an assumption laden journey as I show how I arrived at these figures. (more…)

Guest Post: Social and mobile convergence will lead to better games

Editor’s Note: Inside Social Games has been quietly expanding its coverage to include mobile games with social features, as the social and mobile sectors are becoming more and more interconnected. As a result, the concept of “social games” is continuing to be redefined. The following guest post was written by Anil Dharni and Ken Chiu of GREE and provides perspective on the convergence of mobile and social games.  Dharni serves as Senior Vice President, Studio Operations and Chiu is the company’s Senior Vice President, Games Studio. Dharni was the President and COO of Funzio, which GREE acquired in May 2012. Chiu left Zynga to co-found and served as Funzio’s CEO.

In today’s world, the words “social” and “mobile” go hand-in-hand. We are seeing social and mobile become more mainstream and are crucial components of any game trying to achieve widespread adoption and success. There is no doubt that mobile games with robust social elements will be leaders in entertaining, engaging, and ultimately retaining loyal users. With users becoming more and more sophisticated, the bar will continue to get raised  in terms of production quality, graphics, and game-play — forcing game-makers to be more innovative in their development. (more…)

Guest Post: How to be profitable with less than $20,000 in marketing per game

Editor’s note: The following article comes from Sridhar Muppidi, CEO of mobile social developer YesGnome, and offers advice to smaller developers on how their social/mobile titles can still be profitable even without massive marketing spends to drive them up the charts. YesGnome develops games for iOS and Android devices, specializing in city-builder, RPG and strategy titles. The company’s first success is the folklore-inspired city builder FairyTale City, and it recently developed Madagascar – Join the Circus. The studio’s titles are supported by the proprietary SocialKinesis back-end web service, allowing it to control the game experience dynamically in real time.

Even though we haven’t spent millions in marketing and our games haven’t hit the top charts more than briefly, YesGnome is still a profitable company.

One of our first games, FairyTale City, has hit the top charts only briefly, and has not been wildly popular, but we consider it a success for a simple reason: on a month to month basis, it makes significantly more money than we spend on it.

This does not mean that we are seeing dramatically high Lifetime value (LTV). In general, our games on iOS make around $1 on a 90-day average revenue per user. True, this is not even close to what some of the top mid-core developers are seeing, but when you do the math, these numbers still make us very profitable. This article is an attempt to demonstrate how to be a successful and profitable social games developer even with average revenue per daily active user in the range of $0.06 to $0.08. (more…)

Guest post: How Zynga can turn its fate around in the next 6 months

[Editor's note: The following article comes from CEO and founder of YetiZen Sana N Choudary. It suggests how Zynga can improve its position by improving its relationship with developers. YetiZen, is a cornerstone of the game development community that organizes the wildly popular San Francisco Game Developer’s Workshop series and runs the only games exclusive accelerator program. Recently YetiZen launched the YetiZen Innovation Lab, 20,000 square feet of a games community center in the heart of San Francisco which is focused on empowering all aspects of the games community. To learn more about the YetiZen Innovation Lab, its events and free coplay opportunities please visit]

Unless you have been living under a rock you have seen the doom and gloom stories of Zynga—low Wall Street confidence, falling stock price, demotion and resignation of major executives and the list goes on. Industry veterans say it’s because Zynga has been focusing on tactics and metrics rather than creativity and innovation. Game designers say the non-gamer turned gamers have finally realized Zynga is giving them glorified slot machines filled with clicking grinds and meaningless rewards and that just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Meanwhile, Zynga’s fast follows have become faster–new skins of games launched by other developers with higher production quality, fancier sounds and shorter times before the player hits a paywall. All its games are based on doing that which has helped them succeed in the past—a zealous focus on traffic arbitrage, retention and monetization and iterating based on the metrics that measure them.

It is this metrics drive that helped it win against Playdom and Playfish by establishing and maintaining the strongest customer acquisition strategic position. Unfortunately for Zynga this strategy only contributes to company growth when you are expanding the pie by adding new non-gamers into the gamer mix. Many thanks to Tadhg Kelly for his detailed post describing Zynga’s current state of affairs.

To continue to grow, a new strategic position must be found and a metrics only approach cannot help provide insight into what that would be. This is because the insights that metrics provide are limited to what they have been designed to measure. They never help you ask new qualitative questions that the data does not reflect and in the famous words of Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.”

So how does Zynga find its new strategic position? After all they do have a large player base that believes and trusts in the Zynga brand to bring in new game experiences. The answer is the infusion to the company of new DNA primarily of developers who are focused on new game play innovation. To do this Zynga would have to do things very differently than what they are used to.

Invest in makers of innovative game franchises

Here is a list of Zynga’s acquisitions this year.

If you look closely at size of company, the number of games launched and their performance you will start seeing a trend. With the exception of one, all the acquisitions were talent acquisitions of teams bought in to scale up existing Zynga tech infrastructure. The one exception to this was OMGPOP, bought for Draw Something’s userbase as it was the same demo as Zynga’s existing mobile games.

None of these acquisitions were of studios bought for their ability to innovate on new ways to compete or make new types of games that meet underserved customer demos or unmet needs—the ingredients of truly innovative successful game IPs.

Those types of studios exist and despite the rocky investment climate for game studios* many of them have not only survived but thrived. They have passionate players playing the game for much longer lifetimes than the Zynga games (I have seen upwards of 9 month lifetimes in several games recently).

To get a choice to select from the best–Zynga should strategically invest in innovative franchise game creators that have shown some traction in initial user uptake and monetization at low or no distribution budgets. It should then leave these studios to create for 6-8 months on its own with little Zynga interference. At the end of this time any studio that has successfully created new innovative IPs even if it does not match Zynga’s demo should than be acquired to run an internal studio focused on fully leveraging that market.

Fix reputations problems in parallel to win win publishing deal offers

Zynga has become more active with publishing recently. From those who have entered these deals I have only heard good things. Unlike some of the Draconian “kill all other options for startup deals” offered by companies like 6waves, Zynga deals have been pretty fair—they do not own IP, do not require exclusive right of first refusal on sequels or future IPs. In short, they are letting your first born stay with you.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of small to mid-sized developers (the truly innovative of the bunch) will never approach Zynga for publishing deals. A quick survey to YetiZen’s San Francisco Game Developer Workshop community which has over 5000 members came back with 61 percent of developers claiming they will never consider working with Zynga in any capacity.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Lets face it developers love digging on Zynga. Let’s stick it to the man! That being said, Zynga has had questionable practices in the past affecting developers. News travels fast in the developer community and reputations become entrenched.

At the end of the day most large publishers have the exact same key selling point to developers—a large distribution base. Some like Zynga have it and others buy it. What distinguishes publishers is reputation and personal relationships. Instead of believing this bad reputation is not a real issue and their fair deals will pave the way to bringing more developers to work with them, Zynga must really begin repairing its relationships with game developers.

The best way to do this is showing support for education in the game developer ecosystem. Sure at first developers will take pug shots but if Zynga consistently educates the market on what it has learned in launching various successful titles developers will start trusting it more, allowing it to adequately canvas the market for strong IPs it can publish.

Guest post: Vostu’s insights on retention patterns in social vs. casual games

[Editor's Note: The following article comes from Vostu co-founder and Chief Scientist Mario Schlosser and Chief Researcher Neil Molino. It compares retention patterns between Vostu's city-building sim, MegaCity, and its recently-released real time soccer sim, Gol Mania.]

In Vostu’s experience, what makes a successful traditional social game (defined here as games with common social features like quests and gifting) is building a highly dedicated and engaged long-term userbase that plays up into very high levels in the game. Game play in high levels becomes complex and extremely social. (High-level users exchange a lot more gifts than low-level ones, for example.) These games lose a lot of users early on, but those who stay (at least in a good game) are there for long periods of time and are highly engaged with the game. And, hopefully, they’re paying users.

In contrast, casual games (defined here as games that are social but rely less heavily on traditional social features like quests and gifting) have a tougher time engaging a long-term audience. Gameplay in high levels tends to be the same straightforward, simple activity that it was in lower levels. That means it is harder to continuously engage users in casual games when they reach high levels. This game type does have its advantages, however, as it is easier for users to re-engage with a casual game after a lapse.

From our perspective, social games are soap operas while casual games are sitcoms. The retention characteristics for a traditional social game like MegaCity, our city-building simulation, are very different than those we see in a casual game like Gol Mania, our real-time soccer game. But some of these differences clearly point to opportunities for casual games to learn from social games and vice versa.

We’ll quantify a number of key differences between MegaCity and Gol Mania below. First, at a very basic level, we see the amount of minutes that users play per day shows a divergence between the two games. When we drill into this and break down the userbase of the two games by level, we see that this divergence really stems from the fact that (a) social games have a higher portion of high-level dedicated users and (b) these high-level dedicated users actually play longer each day than their analogous users in casual games. The chart below shows the percentage of users who play x minutes or less per day. “Social game” stands for Vostu’s MegaCity, and “Casual game” is Vostu’s Gol Mania. For example, in Gol Mania, 80 percent of users play 30 minutes or less per day, while in MegaCity, just 60 percent play 30 minutes or less per day.

In the graph below, we see that low-level users show very similar time played per day for both games. Note that it normally doesn’t make sense to compare levels across games, as level 10 in a poker game is bound to be different than level 10 in a cafe game. In our case, however, we can calculate our games’ level curves in a way that an average user levels up every 1-1.5 days regardless of which type of game they are playing. This is interesting: in a user’s early days, casual vs. social games don’t differ.

Mid-level users start to show differences in the duration of play per day:

This difference becomes even more extreme as we progress to very high levels. Hard-core users in MegaCity are highly engaged. A full 50 percent plays more than 30 minutes per day. That’s not the case for long-standing fans of Gol Mania, which are less engaged.

As we can see, the main difference between the two games in minutes played per day is that MegaCity enjoys a larger portion of high-level users and that these users play more minutes per day than those we find in Gol Mania.

Similarly, we see that as a whole, the games show a different distribution of their users’ “login intensity.” We define this term as the fraction of distinct days since registration that the user actually played the game. For example, if you played eight out of 10 days since you joined, your login intensity would be 80 percent.

The left skew for MegaCity is apparent. As a whole, its userbase logs in more frequently; in fact, nearly one in five MegaCity users has logged in more than 80 percent of the days since registering. We can attribute some of this behavior to the fact that MegaCity does a better job pulling users into higher levels. We can also say, however, that the game’s age plays a significant role, as MegaCity is old enough to have accumulated a lot of high level users whereas Gol Mania is comparatively young.

So we’ll look at login intensity by level below, across both games:

In terms of login intensity, casual and social games actually turn out to be pretty similar once you normalize correctly for game age, etc. While active users log into both games at about the same rate, they play casual games less intensely once they’re logged in, however. This behavior is very clearly a function of the fact that casual games are less social than social games.

The chart below illustrates the point. It shows the percentage of game sessions that started with the user entering the game through a “social” channel, like clicking on a news feed story or accepting a gift.

There are a number of powerful observations in this chart. First, casual games and social games work very similarly when it comes to viral acquisition. In early levels, users are about equally likely to enter the game because of some viral channel like a canvas app ticker story.

But social games exhibit a higher virality via in-game activity. At higher levels, users in a social game are a lot more likely to get back into the game because of some viral activity like an in-game gift request. This is because viral activities like exchanging gifts to build stuff are the bread-and-butter of the high level user experience. That type of gameplay also explains some of the differences we’ve seen in previous charts: viral mechanics like gifting lead to more intense engagement for higher levels in social games.

In contrast, there is no high-level gameplay loop at work in casual games. We’ve recently begun experimenting with this by adding more personalization to Gol Mania. For example, we introduced in-game “private rooms,” where users can directly challenge their friends to an immediate real-time match. In a period of a few days, roughly 7 percent of active users invite their friends to Gol Mania, whereas 17 percent of those users who enter a private room invite their friends to a match. So, there are ways of making casual game more social — and therefore more viral.

To us, this represents an opportunity for casual games. An important share of a social game’s everyday traffic is users who had left the game “waking up” from a lapse in daily play and returning. If casual games could recreate the viral “wake up call,” they could potentially enjoy an even larger audience of high level users.

That may be easier said than done, however, as social games naturally encourage users to return — or suffer consequences like withering crops or expired storyline quests. Here, casual games gain the upper hand as users suffer fewer consequences for a lapse in gameplay, meaning there’s less of a barrier to returning. The chart below is a bit complicated: it shows the probability that a user returns to the game after being gone, depending on how long the user has been away from the game. While it is true that the longer a user is away, the less likely they are to return (the lines both slope down), an extended break does not decrease the probability as rapidly in a casual game as in a social game:

In casual games, crops don’t wither, quests don’t expire and the gameplay is more or less the same as it was when the user left. No matter how long a user is gone, it’s just as easy to return to the game as it was when the user was playing daily. The effect is powerful. Casual games get a lot more out of waking-up users than social games.

Moreover, once a user wakes up in a casual game, they are more likely to play more frequently. We believe this is because a casual game feels new and more self-contained each time a user plays. The graph below shows the login intensity for users who wake up and return to a game:

Social and casual games need to learn from each other. Social games need to make it less burdensome for users to return: ease users back into the game instead of showing them the one hundred feature launches they missed while they were gone. Casual games need long-term investment opportunities for the user.

For Vostu, it makes sense to keep a portfolio of both social and casual games. Our casual games have a higher chance of getting users back into our portfolio and also bridge the gap between big social game launches. We think of them as the sitcoms you flip to during the commercial breaks in your prime time soap opera. Having the soap opera, though, is necessary to really build a longer-term, engaged and paying audience.

Lessons In Facebook Game Design: Mike Sellers on Online Alchemy’s Holiday Village

[Editor's note: We've been covering the latest discussion around possibilities in social game design this week. What's the place of synchronous gaming on the Facebook platform? What about races, tournaments, deception, tolls, and all sorts of other mechanics?  Below, Mike Sellers of game developer Online Alchemy shares his experiences building a game that featured a shared virtual space -- and the trouble he and his team encountered given the current mindsets of Facebook gamers. For context on the topic of social game design innovation, see this recent presentation by Playdom's Raph Koster and follow-up commentary by guest columnist Tadhg Kelly.]

Holiday Village is a social game developed by Online Alchemy and launched on Facebook in late 2010. It allows multiple players to create a small “Christmas village” together.

The game, in my view, is notable for several reasons: First, it’s a game that is actually social – you play collaboratively with your friends in the same space at the same time.  Second, it embodied several successful design concepts that do not derive from the current design tropes commonly seen in Facebook games. And third, we were able to develop it as an original IP with a small team in a very short amount of time – about 7 weeks from first concept doc to launch. In some ways this effort was highly successful, in other ways it didn’t match what we hoped for. As you might expect, we learned a lot along the way.

Holiday Village started out as an idea by Samantha LeCraft, a designer at Online Alchemy. We had one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversations during the holiday season in 2009 about people building little Christmas towns together – putting online the kind of experience many have at the holidays when they arrange little buildings into a sort of small fantasy town. I thought she had a great idea for a holiday app, and told her to remind me of it the next summer, when we might have time to actually do something with it.

By summer 2010 we were working hard on another project, and so we weren’t really able to get started on our “holiday game” as we loosely thought of it until the autumn. By then we knew we had a very short amount of time until the holidays and few resources to put toward the game. But we had looked at the market and it seemed viable, we had a technology stack that would support a collaborative social app, and we wanted to have this little game see the light of day. In the first part of October we wrote up the first iteration of the design, and by late November we launched Holiday Village on Facebook.

I should note that not only was the backend technology terrific, but we were fortunate to have amazing Flash/Flex programmers creating the client, a great art director who quickly understood how important the feel of the app was to it, and a fast, flexible, and professional group of contract artists. This team while small and geographically distributed (and working on other projects), was able to develop and iterate quickly and effectively.

The primary design goal for Holiday Village was to evoke an emotional response unlike those typically found in current social games: since this was a game built around holidays, we wanted people to feel a sense of family, warmth, comfort, and nostalgia – even nostalgia for a time and place they may have never seen.  We chose an abstract 1930s/40s American style for the art, evoking classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life without being directly derivative or too specific with the era.

We also chose the UI, sound effects and music very carefully: we wanted mellow nostalgia, the warm feeling for friends and family not present that people often feel at the holidays – but not tilting over into feelings of sadness or loss. Our primary experiential goal was for family and friends who are far apart to be able to gather together around building their own iconic, ideal holiday villages. We complemented the main initial activities of building the village with quietly falling snow, the ability to see the village in daylight or night, and the ability to turn on a “music box” mode where the village scrolls slowly by as the snow falls and the quiet music plays.

Based on the player reports we received, we believe we hit this emotional goal well. Our players (mostly women) definitely resonated with the emotional tone the game presented. They enjoyed being able to see their village in the day or night (and especially with the holiday lights on), playing with the falling snow, and actually playing the game too. Comments like “now I want a mug of hot chocolate!” were common.

In addition to the emotion-related design goal, another important goal for us was to try out having players on Facebook create and build their own shared spaces. Each village is a “space” defined by the players and private to them and their friends. Unlike many games on Facebook today where each player has their own space (e.g. farm, city, etc.), these villages are shared fully between players. One person starts a village and can invite others. Anyone who is a “member” of a village can edit it with equal authority (though the person who started it can always kick others out). Players do not share their personal inventory of buildings or in-game coins, but they can gift building to others — and the village itself acts as a form of shared inventory, since any member can move, add, or delete items there.

While shared spaces are nothing new in MMOGs and similar games, they are not yet common on Facebook. In fact, many of our players seemed to not understand the concept at first, or did not believe that they could actually be in the same village with another person and both be interacting with it at the same time. Facebook users seem to have been well-trained that games are single-player with carefully limited avenues for socialization (usually consisting of asking someone else for help – a form of “begging as gameplay” that we wanted to avoid).

The expectations set up in current players of Facebook games took us by surprise in another way as well. When we first released Holiday Village we did so as an “app” rather than a “game.” We knew that many people buy small holiday buildings at prices of $50 to $100 each to build villages in their homes (there are literally thousands of YouTube videos made by people proudly showing off their town displays).  The question was, would people be willing to buy a virtual building for a dollar or two, or a set of trees for fifty cents?

In part, the answer was yes:  Our initial monetization was good (as was our viral spread – we did a little advertising, but by far most of our users came in via word-of-mouth from other players), but it was paralleled by questions and complaints about the open-ended app-like rather than directed game-like experience we provided: “What’s my goal?” “How can I earn coins?”  “How do I play the game?”  “Why should I have to spend money?”  Clearly, the free-to-play mindset has taken hold in the players we were seeing, and the idea of an app that did not provide gameplay-that-makes-coins, did not lead the player somewhat by the nose, and did not provide non-monetary options for gaining rewards was not popular. This may seem obvious, but it was worth the experiment. While some are still wondering whether the free-to-play model will really work, our experience indicates that with the mass market, it has become the de facto expectation.

As a result we quickly added in gameplay to create a more game-like directed experience. The challenge was to make the gameplay thematically consistent with the idea of building your holiday village. Within a few days we designed and launched an integrated matching game based on which buildings you chose to put in your village: each day, each building in your village generates one or more “value” tokens that contribute to the well-being of a community – happiness, prosperity, and unity. A home tends to create more happiness tokens for example, while a store provides more prosperity and a church or post office creates more unity.

These tokens were then used to fill in matching spaces (randomly determined) in bars of increasing length. Abstractly, the bars represented “what your village needs to thrive,” with the value tokens supplied by your buildings. The more buildings of different types you had, the more bars you could fill, and the more coins you received.

Overall, this gameplay was very well received: players played and enjoyed it, and used the rewards to purchase more buildings.  This of course dampened our direct monetary sales, but also appeared to increase player satisfaction overall. Unfortunately, this also confirmed to us what we knew we were missing: while the gameplay and monetization connection worked well, we had insufficient “consumable” goods (speed-ups or other one-time-use items) that could be bought, and we lacked a secondary currency loop for purchasing premium goods. While we were aware of these shortcomings, at the time we lacked the resources to act on them.

This leads us into the “what went wrong” category, or perhaps, how our limitations constrained us. The gameplay we had was well-received by the players, but was clearly not sufficient.  This is an example of how we were exploring the “M” in MVP (Minimum Viable Product): because we were highly time-and resource-bound from the very start, we kept extremely tight control on the scope for this game. Our programmers and artists were able to put in a few extras, but overall we kept a firm, even ruthless clamp on the design scope for the game.

Keeping to this enabled us to develop and launch the game at all – but there is a minimum below which a product is no longer commercially viable. If you cannot start above that line or get above it quickly post-launch, even a game that is loved by its players and is nicely viral will die. We did not have the time during the holiday push nor the resources to devote to adding in the features that we believed were needed to keep the game’s popularity going once it has first flared up.

Overall, we learned a lot with Holiday Village as most companies do with their first Facebook game. Just putting a game up on Facebook these days is an exercise in learning and frustration — in part because the Facebook API is so poorly documented and changes so rapidly (without any versioning or way to tell what will work or not work, since older games are not required to match to new changes). We learned to trust our design instincts and research in terms of addressing the mass-market female demographic, as well as how this market has had its expectations set by current games. We also saw how readily they took to the more social aspects of villages as shared private spaces, and believe these will be a differentiator for games in the coming year. Finally, we learned quite a bit about the importance of recognizing what features can be removed from an MVP candidate and which must be present to maintain the “viable” part of MVP. By now everyone knows that launching the game is only the first big milestone, not the last; as we experienced, being resource-constrained at and after launch can strangle even a game that otherwise hits its design and technical goals.

Mike Sellers is the Chief Alchemist of Online Alchemy, a social games developer and designer artificial intelligence engines.

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