Do Game Designers Really Get It?

Do Game Designers Really Get It?

One thing that is always striking about the mainstream game industry is how surprised game developers seem when they learn about the success of games, virtual worlds, and game-like systems that wouldn’t impress professional game designers. I don’t think the problem is elitism, just that the world of entertainment looks very different from inside the fuzzy vertical market called the games industry.

Game Insiders Were Some of the Last to Know

This past spring, I sat dumbstruck in my home office, watching a video of genius entertainment designer Jesse Schell building the intro to his DICE 2010 presentation (about the future of pervasive gaming) around the idea that professional game industry people were surprised by mega-hits like Facebook’s FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Really? OK, maybe some people just took a while to get onto Facebook (I know I avoided it as long as I could because I needed another online social network like RollerCoaster Tycoon needed a movie adaptation). Some degree of Facebook cluelessness is comprehensible.

But Schell masterfully builds rapport with his audience by highlighting “surprise” hits like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit, and inquiring who in the audience thought the Wii would be the winner in the last-gen console war (to which I wondered “who didn’t know the Wii was the only console with mass market potential?”). This makes more sense if you were following the games industry in the earlier half of this decade when every conference was full of game devs trying to comprehend how people could make money creating cheesy match-three games instead of real games like Battlefield 1942 (thankfully, casual games are now given a lot more respect in the industry, but in 2002 they were a target of much dismissal and derision).

I know Schell was resonating with his target audience because I’ve attended these types of events myself and I keep in touch with game dev friends. There are certain mentalities and opinions that are oddly pervasive, until the overwhelming evidence and thought leaders like Schell convince everyone that these other kinds of entertainment experiences matter. DICE gets more of a diverse crowd than the Game Developers Conference (GDC), but still people with too much games industry focus and too little attention to the broader entertainment industry and what most people actually do for recreation.

Still, you’d think the games business types would have seen the money, and lit a fire under their developers to learn these new markets.

Game Devs Didn’t See Where the Real Money Was

You might think it’s crazy that game developers didn’t see that the big revenue in Facebook games wasn’t really the “viral effect” of inviting as many people as possible, but rather it was the way the game design pushed certain players into socially competitive, almost irrational, behaviors: Logging in every single day for repetitive low-production-value gameplay, paying real cash for game advancement, and participating in ridiculous sponsor offers for products players had no genuine interest in. There was next to no value in the 20 friends you begged to join you in Vampire Wars if they only signed up to help you out and barely played.

The real value was the power player (who invited all their friends just to increase their game influence, regardless of the friends’ interest in the game). The viral effect did pay off when power players roped in new power players who also started playing like it was their job. But overall, it wasn’t a volume racket, it was a social hack to put people into a hyper-competitive situation trying to one-up people they knew in real life (while clobbering random Internet adversaries on the ever-present leaderboards).

So, even though many game developers tried to dismiss Facebook games as some bastardized multi-level marketing scheme that only served to collect as many registered users as possible, the real money was in the familiar place that game devs should have recognized right off: The passionate player. People were genuinely invested in Facebook games. And why was that so difficult to see?

Facebook Games Are Considered Lame by Gamers and Game Developers

Bottom of the barrel. Any hack could design Fashion Wars. We’re talking text-based games that any beginning web programmer can whip up in a week, with one to three central mechanics, no audio or music, and scant 2D interface art. Who would play these games passionately? Who would pay to play them?

Schell explained to the DICE crowd that the sponsored offers and paid game advancement were psychologically justifiable because as the players did what the game motivated them to do (log in, invite friends, advance slowly, become impatient…), they had to justify their continued investment in the game. Eventually, it made sense to do the sponsor offers, to kick in some cash. It made sense to ask people who didn’t want to play to sign up anyway. It made sense to friend people and join groups just to find more people for your pirate crew or mafia gang. Basically, these simple bare-bones games that would earn you nothing but derision and eye-rolls from the pro game dev community had mastered something that many AAA games couldn’t get right: Motivating the player to generate revenue for you.

Remember The Sims Online? It took a massive professional team, tens of millions of dollars, and over 3 million lines of code to launch that world of fail that barely motivated players to play, pay, or, hell, just keep logging in. If The Sims Online were free to play (and at the end, it basically was), it still would have bombed. That’s how awful the experience was, despite all the talent, craftsmanship, and innovation they tried to put into it. Yet here are these crappy online multiplayer Facebook games motivating the cash right out of players’ wallets for next to nothing in return.

You’d think game devs would be studying this phenomena to figure out what was pushing player engagement and motivation, but most game designers I’ve talked to basically dismissed Facebook games as crappy designs with repetitive, unimaginative gameplay. According to real game designers, these Facebook games were only successful in the sense that they had a lot of registered players, and they only got those players because of their viral invite features (which are simply the tequest forms provided by the Facebook Apps API). It was unthinkable that these games were successful for any other reason.

About Kelly Rued
Kelly Rued is an entrepreneur, entertainment designer and Internet marketer specializing in adult markets. She designs websites and apps that target measurable business results. Her blog explores marketing games, user engagement and productivity/entertainment.


  1. Nobody sees where the “real money’ is in social games, because it isn’t there.

    Any claims you look at are always either (a) wild guesses about undisclosed numbers or (b) impressive sounding numbers that, when you actually analyze them, are all full of enough holes to make it impossible to actually calculate revenue.
    The only honest reporter in this whole industry is Daniel James at 3-Rings, and everyone dismisses him because his number don’t match their fantasies.

    I believe Zynga *will* make a lot of money… the same way media always has. Now that they have a TV sized audience they can get TV sized advertising fees.

    But you need the kind of market share Zynga has to make that feasible, and that doesn’t leave room for many others. The recent spate of sell-outs by big players in this industry *aught* to give those hunting gold some pause– you don’t cash out a highly productive mine.

  2. Long comment, bear with me? I always feel bad for having long comments.

    I pretty much agree that yes marketing do need to go hand-in-hand with game design. After all, we can’t deny the reality of the need to rake in revenues. And it’s true that game design would benefit from outside perspective, just to create even more entertaining and innovative games. It would be cool to see some sort game mechanics in daily objects around us.

    However, I disagree with the opinion that the “real” game designers are too obsessed with the notion of fun and too stubborn to focus on other aspects. Mentions of Ico, Shadow of Colossus, flOw, Flower,etc are getting too old to justify that games do in fact cater to the emotional engagements of players. Fun alone is motivation for players to engage in games. After all, isn’t that what got a lot of players hooked onto Farmville in the first place?

    While revenues are important, game designers often deem success of game design as being fun for the players. And aside from fun being the basic building block of games, it is also about sustainability. It creates a base of loyal fans/players, which keep coming back more even if there is a break in the series. Look at StarCraft II. Or at any IP games out there, Uncharted, BioShock, and Assassin’s Creed.
    Would anyone go for a Farmville 2, maybe with more glorified graphics, more crops, more animals, but with the same mindless clicking mechanism? Or if Zynga takes Farmville now for a couple of months to get Farmville 2 out? [which they probably never will, hence solving sustainability issue.]

    While I don’t believe that they may exit out of the whole industry, ultimately social games are going to die down, and it’s starting to happen judging from the recent state of social gaming. Even Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, is saying that shallow gameplay wouldn’t do for social gaming anymore.

    Another part of sustainability is that it still serves to entertain you, when you go back and revisit it. Even for movies and books, if it’s really good, you either keep waiting for more or you go back and revisit them. I still play some of my favourite games, over a decade old, because it still proves to be fun to me. I would play Braid again and again, and maybe when I think of it a few years down the road, I would take it out and play again.
    But would anyone want to play Farmville, maybe 10-15 years down the road?

    It’s true games are meant to entertain. But what game designers want to do entertain. Not force people to be entertained, when sometimes you’re not even entertained, you’re just compelled by whatever there is to continue it. I don’t know about others, but when I ask my fellow friends, classmates on why they still play Farmville, despite it encroaching onto their lives.

    They do not reply with “Because it’s fun” or “Because it’s entertaining”. It’s usually more along the lines of having no reason at all or “I just have to.” Does this still fit along the goals of a part of the entertainment business? The business part probably, the entertainment part, maybe not so much.

    And no offense to anyone.
    If it is a crappy product, it IS a crappy product, no matter how much money it rakes in.
    All we can say is, good for it since it’s raking in money.
    But does that mean we should all make crappy products, just because it makes money?

    Maybe I’m still on the side of old-school games industry, which will actually prove you right. But I do believe that focusing on making games fun to play is still an essential part of game design. Maybe both marketing and game mechanics can be integrated to produce engaging products, but fun still should remain a cornerstone of game design and should not be forgone entirely just for the sake of profits.

    And believe me, it’s not just the game designers that gets turned off, when the design goal becomes “just for profits”. Look at the number of gamers bitching about DLCs. [though I admit some DLCs are really worth bitching about.]

  3. The Farmville and Mafia Wars type of games achieved huge success because they successfully piggy backed on a massive social networking phenomenon. Many of the people avidly logging in to Farmville now have never played a computer game, and only chose to because their friends sent them an invite. Remember the feeling the first time you played an Atari 2600 game? That’s the experience millions of people are getting now for the first time.

    Looking ahead now, how many of those people are going to be satisfied with another Farmville in 2 years time? A simple game has hooked them, and now that branch of social networking gaming will go through the same arms race as the games industry as a whole did over the last 30 years.

    As a designer I’m grateful for some of the lessons social gaming has taught us, but let’s not start kidding ourselves that this is some completely new form of gaming. It’s just a fresh new market that was captured due to someone finally finding a way to make gaming accessible.

  4. The primary difference between these two groups isn’t whether they think ‘fun’ is important or not, or whether or not they make ‘good’ games, it’s their business model. The newer products you mentioned (Farmville, Club Penguin, etc.) offer games as an ongoing service and therefore rely on viral hooks, time-based mechanics, and constant opportunities to monetize players. The “traditional” game design folks make products that are sold at a high up-front cost. Those products are happy to live in their own bubble once they’re purchased, not needing to continually make revenue or motivate the player to continue playing. They need only convince the player that his/her purchase was worth it so that he/she tells friends and relatives to also buy the game.

    The reason people who make these games-as-products are put off by the games-as-service is that games that don’t need to constantly bug their players for money are, generally, better games. But they’re only better *once you’re playing them.* If you need to pay $50 bucks to play those games, then OBVIOUSLY most people are going to prefer to play the free ones instead. And those people have all gotten very used to the way these games monetize already.

    But the things that make these games “fun” are all the same. They let you compete and cooperate, they’re a form of escapism, they let you collect, manage complex things in a simple way, and they let you achieve little by little. Animal Crossing and Farmville are similar games. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has more “casual game” hooks in it than almost any game on the 360.

  5. Some of us “insiders” see how big Farmville is just fine too. Thanks. (And we see how big McDonald’s is, and that Everyone Loves Raymond was more popular than Arrested Development.)

    Many of us just happen to be driven by passion for a particular gameplay experience. If that experience eventually goes away, so be it. But the conclusion of this essay is not being proven out by reality.

    Instead, what’s happening is that games are expanding to include many new segments. And many of the older types of games are growing too, at a smaller rate. Madden, WoW, CoD are just fine, thanks. And some of us insiders are thrilled that social gaming is exploding…the more the merrier.

    Sorry, we’re just not all “market driven,” silly marketing person.

Leave a Reply