Liveblogging Inside Social Apps: Trends in Social Gaming

We’re at the San Francisco Design center, blogging Inside Network’s third annual Inside Social Apps conference.

The second panel of the day is “Trends in Social Gaming”. Joining moderator AJ Glasser on stage is Loot Drop’s COO and game designer Brenda Garno Brathwaite, Zynga Dallas’ creative director Bill Jackson, Gaia Interactive’s CEO Mike Sego and’s co-founder and chief creative officer Sebastian Knutsson. The following is a paraphrased transcript of the discussion.

AJ: I wanted to talk about the evolution of social games. Are they going to mimic the path of traditional games?

Bill: I come from that sector — for me it’s not a separate path, it’s the same path and one continuum. Atari, Nintendo and PCs all brought in larger audiences. I think the mission in my mind is to make the audience larger and make room for play.

Mike: I think the evolution of social games has been in an interesting path. It’s been very different from the evolution of console games. Games that evolve with better graphics are missing the point, I think the point of social and mobile is to expand the audience and bring in new players. I think it there is room for a wider variety of games. Three developers working out of a garage can open up a new segment on social and mobile and invent a new genre of game.

Brenda: I do see a trend that the social space is actually following the development path of the traditional games industry. The traditional games industry got very “genre-fied” and the social game space is following that. We’re getting a culture of fast-follow where we take things and copy it and there’s a lack of innovation.

AJ: has been very good at innovating on older games like Snood and Puzzle Bobble and making it into a totally different game. Can you tell us about your development process?

Sebastian: Our focus as has been to stay with our core demographic and make games that are easy to play and get into. Even though people are asking for more advanced graphics, the strength is social. People want to play with their friends.

AJ: What do you see as the future use of friends in social games? Will it just be leader boards?

Sebastian: I think the focus will be on cooperative and collaborative gaming, allowing people to hook up with other players, not just their friends.

Brenda: I think playing with your friends is just a bribery function right now. In the game I’m working on I very deliberately didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make sure that having it there felt like a natural and intrinsic part of gameplay for both casual and hardcore players. That was probably one of the most important features in the design.

AJ: One of the trends that we’ve seen is combat – what impact do you think real-time competitive play will have on social games?

Bill: I think that’s a tool and the game needs to demand that tool to use it well. I think there’s an opportunity in the space for synchronous play. So far we haven’t had a giant hit but I don’t think there’s a reason there couldn’t be. I’m excited to expand on asynchronous play because I think that’s one space where social games have innovated.

Mike: I think Facebook and the web is very successful as an asynchronous platform. It’s a platform where I can update what I did three hours ago and get feedback on it. I think the success of Words With Friends is based off how well it fits with Facebook’s usage habits. That said there’s a lot of people playing games on Facebook and people are interested in playing synchronous combat games. Facebook does compete with other platforms, and when you play a game on Facebook you’re not playing on another a platform. For synchronous play to be a hit, there needs to be a game were you can bring in players that wouldn’t play a real-time combat game and bring them into that experience, even if they’re not the type to play a game for two hours on a console.

AJ: When we talk about branching out the different genres of social games, where do you see the opportunities to go into new territory and bring in new users?

Brenda: I see Facebook as one part of a whole. My game may be on Facebook, iOS and PC, but it needs to work together for the greatest monetization. If the game is fun you’ll get money. If you have to bribe or use tricks you’ll break the game. The most social game I’ve ever played is Minecraft. That game doesn’t have a marketing budget but it’s a wonderfully social game and I’m happy to give that guy money regularly.

Bill: As a game developer I think that fun is something you need to aspire to, but it’s not everything — for example some players have limited time and you need to give players a way to keep up with their friends if they’re limited on time. That means there are other items like accelerators that people will covet, but fun is the core.

Brenda: You can have fun or pay to have fun faster.

Mike: I think what monetizes is what people feel strongly about — creating an emotional experience. Size is also what monetizes. There’s a much wider variety of what monetizes on Facebook now. If you looked at the top three games last year it was CityVille, FarmVille and maybe poker and the other games were following along those lines and trying to make the same kinds of game. Today there’s a much broader variety of games that can all monetize in different ways and monetize thorough different audiences.

AJ: When you’re testing your games, how do you know when you’ve hit that sweet spot of “fun?”

Bill: I follow a combination of design and metrics. When we’re designing a game we start with design and then you start collaborating with players to improve the game. It’s a combination of feedback, the data that backs up that feedback and working from that feedback.

Sebastian: We find the real issue is hitting the sweet spot in the difficulty curve. If it’s too easy or too hard they won’t come back or they’ll get frustrated. Users tend to prefer shorter playtimes so we err on that side.

AJ: Bill — was there anythigng that you changed or fixed in the first 14 days of CastleVille being live?

Bill: There’s definitely issues with difficulty curves. In Castleville we had issues with balance and crafting and getting that right. In this discussion we talked about fun, but these are social games and so it’s not just a conversation, but that it will scale when it gets to be truly social and how players will interact together. How is it that you’re engaged as a single player and how are you engaged as a community? I think people will love a game world and the environment when they’re engaged in a larger community.

Mike: I think that goes back to user feedback and that’s not just user feedback that comes to you but that users share with each other and the meta community that springs up. I think if people both love your game and hate your game it means you tapped into an emotional response.

Brenda: I don’t think we’ve tapped into feeling that users get from games like World of Warcraft where you will feel bad if you don’t log in and do something at 10 pm every night because you’ll be letting your guild down. Social games haven’t done that yet.

AJ: How do you feel about mobile? How do you approach bringing a game to mobile?

Sebastian: We’ve focused on keeping the game the same on each platform. Our games are simple and it fits us very well to create cross platform games.

Bill: I also think it depends on the type of game and what’s right for the platform. I do see mobile as a way to keep in touch with a comfort zone of what you’ve established. Our express apps have been very popular.

AJ: My last question is a difficult one that Brenda has agreed to take. What about what could harm the social game space? What about cloning?

Brenda: Cloning is a disgusting subject. The technology isn’t a challenge. You can license an engine and outsource the art and develop a game in two months. What matters now is the idea. Inside of Loot Drop we had a meeting with a publisher and a game designer discussed an idea for a game and the publisher came back next week and said they’d be making the game and they might need us to consult on it. That game had been cloned before a line of code had even been written. I’d never heard the term fast-follow until I came into the social games industry. We as game developers need to be phenomenally protective of our games — in the traditional space, a great game would come out and you would say “how can we make a game that good and improve on that?” What we have now is “how can we change the narrative and make the same game?” That’s like putting out the Peaches of Wrath rather than the Grapes of Wrath. In any other medium it would be considered a tremendous fail and I think its because the space is about monetization and not about creativity. I think that could hurt innovation because developers may not come into this space and may choose to stay in console development. I think its very unfortunate. As we see bigger companies come in, they’ll have money to fight the clone wars that smaller developers may not be able to do.