By James Brightman
Zynga’s success over the past couple years has taken the games industry by storm. With big growth, however, also comes big scrutiny. Many in the traditional games space feel that Zynga’s games aren’t really creative at all, and that they’re crafted entirely based on metrics the company analyses from its users.
Naturally, Zynga doesn’t see it that way, and the social giant’s chief games designer Brian Reynolds talked to IndustryGamers about the distinction between design and metrics.
“Game designers don’t necessarily do a lot with metrics. Zynga does a lot with metrics,” clarified Reynolds. “But that’s a discipline, that’s a craft for us and there are people that do that and they bring that in and add that. And some game designers get interested in that and they want to do some of that themselves, and anybody on my team, I love it when they want to have two specialties and learn more but it’s not actually the thing we’re looking for in a game designer.
It is something that’s in our culture, having come out of the web industry. Zynga’s original DNA was more web than game and so that learning is there and we’ve gotten really good at it… and the great thing is, at its best, it adds on to the creative field of game design.”
He continued, “It used to be that when we would launch a game we wouldn’t know what was going to happen and then when stuff did happen we got feedback or ‘This is broken’ or ‘People are saying this on the boards.’ First of all, we would have to say, ‘Well, is that good or bad? Is it just anecdotal, that it’s just the loudest voices or the craziest people saying those things or is it actually true?’
And we had a very hard time figuring out if we were going to patch something or should we make a balance change in a strategy game or is it just because people are whining too much and we actually shouldn’t change it? Well now with social games we know that stuff. It’s very easy to figure that stuff out. We can run a test. We can try a different way out.”
“One we did on Frontierville was – we used to give people 10 horseshoes when they start the game – then we did a little test of, ‘Well, what if we gave 15?’ We thought that maybe that would help them get over the hump of building the cabin because we noticed that people who make it to finishing the cabin were more likely to stick and keep coming back. We tried 15 horseshoes and sure enough we had a substantial uptick in early retention – in people getting to the cabin and therefore sticking as players.
In that way, essentially, it made the game more fun. It made it easier to get into the game without being blocked too early by stuff that wasn’t fun. It lets you get to the point where it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I have a cabin and now there’s new stuff happening.’ That’s just a very simple example of how we can do stuff but on our teams.”
Reynolds stressed that the designers are separate from those analysing the metrics, but that creativity is absolutely needed to design Zynga’s titles and that metrics are needed to make the designs work better for the end-user.
“For example, on the Frontierville team, there’s a big team of designers and then there’s a team of product managers that are doing this analysis and they work together to make features, and so the numbers give us an idea of roughly what kind of feature to do because there are some kinds of features that are more likely to drive people to pay or to drive people to stick and come back a lot or to invite their friends or things like that. So you can kind of aim a feature at different things or different combinations of things, but then you still have to have someone to be creative to make it cool and to make it fun and to make it fit into a long term story that makes sense to people. So I think that the metrics are something that help us make the games better,” he said.
Reynolds concluded, “To game designers who feel like if they came to Zynga, all they would be doing is massaging numbers and tweaking them, well, no, that’s not even what game designers do. They think of the idea ‘Well let’s have romance in the game’ or ‘Let’s have characters and put them in there and let the player choose who’s going to fall in love with who’ and ‘How many whatevers are you going to have to do to do that’ and ‘What are you going to click on’ and ‘What’s the story and how does this fit into the picture?’ That’s what the game designers do.”