March 14, 2011

Lessons from Zynga – SXSW note #1

Zynga are a massive social and gaming force to be reckoned with, having recently been valued at more than EA, so having the chance to hear their chief game developer – Brian Reynolds – discuss tips of the trade was an awesome opportunity. Here’s what I learnt from Brian . . .

In the first part of Brian’s talk, he discussed the how gaming mechanics interact within the Facebook environment:

– Why do people use Facebook? To learn about my friends – therefore part of the role of social gaming is about making social statements.

What’s the most shareable word on Facebook? Sex. Followed by Facebook (which is 1/2 as shared

And what does Zynga do with these two insights: they push sex innuendo jokes via users feeds to make humorous social statements. For example, in Frontiersville one of the feed comments is “Scott’s just got wood”. N.B. Zynga this bizarre driver of engagement and virality by accident, an icon involving a character standing behind a sheep – which caused high levels of conversation and comment.

– And what’s the general lesson Zynga learnt from this behaviour: that people like Facebook feed posts to be *conversation catalysts* i.e. things to talk and share. Boring feed posts like “Chris has just got a level up” just don’t work.

Brian then went on to talk about how to make good social games – firstly talking about what fun is (Brian was apparently a philosophy major) and how to make games more fun:

– What does fun mean? Brian mentioned three things:

  • A series of interesting choices
  • Recognising and learning patterns
  • Surprising and causing delight and laughter

– How do you make a game more fun?

  • Prototype it. It’s very difficult to model fun on paper, so it’s important to trial it first. It’s the “subtle magics” that make stuff fun and viral.
  • Play it and revise iteratively.
  • Show it more people … testing is so important.

Finally Brian’s final comment was: “It’s pretty hard to schedule fun!” i.e. you have no idea when you might discover those “subtle magics”. This is obviously a problem when you’ve got deadlines and budgets to hit – a problem that Zynga with it’s billions doesn’t really have!