The secret sauce of social games

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From Zynga to Kixeye to Storm8, we take a comprehensive look at what makes social games unique.

A rotund corgi - well groomed, adequately fluffy, perfectly pudgy - gently tugs on its leash as its owner walks it down Townsend Street in San Francisco. The corgi's feet make hacky-sack sounds as they flop against the ground; its owner, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, makes a turn into a building located at number 650.

Over the course of the day almost 2,000 individuals - mostly laid back 20-30 somethings, some with corgis, some with mixed-breed canines, and the odd person with a cat (who we shall not speak of) - will pass through the doors of 650 Townsend Street, an enormous four-story office that occupies an entire block in the district south of Market Street.

The brick building is home to Zynga, the world's largest game developer on Facebook. Its games boast more than 300 million monthly active users. It claims its players are performing one million in-game activities every second, and more than 55 million people from all around the world play at least one of Zynga's games every day. It has the market capital to rival some of the biggest video game publishers in the industry and flat out dwarf most traditional publishers that have been around for much longer.

Whether the corgis know it or not, their owners are making games that are played by millions and rake in billions. And they're not alone.

The dark horses of game development

TJ Murphy, co-founder of the company behind MinoMonsters - a social game where players build a team of cherubic monsters and battle with their friends - has been in the industry for years. He was a product manager at Zynga where he was responsible for guiding the viral, social, and game design elements of FarmVille and CityVille, games that are now household names. Murphy also boasts an achievement that no other developer - not even Zynga - can put its paw on: he created and launched the first social game to ever be released on Facebook.

"I had seen a lot of these web-based games that were more or less forums with game mechanics around them; they were very simple and they were like 'hit a button in a web forum to train troops' and 'hit a button in a web forum to attack someone else'," he says.

"I like the simplicity of those games; they remind me of when I was in school, kids would play games on their calculators because they didn't have phones. I used games like those as inspiration ... This was in 2007 when they first opened the Facebook platform so it was one of the very first apps on the platform."


That game was called Warbook. Social games as we now know them were non-existent at the time, but in the years that have passed since Facebook launched as a video game platform and Warbook made its debut, the industry has exploded.

"If we're just looking at Zynga, it has a market capital of almost $4 billion. It has hundreds of millions of players every month, and Zynga has more players now than Facebook had users in total five years ago," he says. "Social games in general have kind of blown up and become a phenomenon with FarmVille becoming part of the common vernacular. It's really kind of caught on as a new way of gaming."

FarmvilleFarmVille CityvilleCityVille
Zynga_exterior_2Zynga Storm8_signStorm8 Kixeye_-_main_floor_lobby_reception Kixeye

It's not just Zynga that's ballooning at a time when traditional publishers are clamping down and cutting costs. A few miles north of Zynga's Townsend Street headquarters, a social game developer called Kixeye has just moved into its new office in the heart of Downtown San Francisco. The studio currently occupies three floors of a high-rise building overlooking the city center. It's a shiny new office with an intergalactic-themed foyer that offers a superficial simulation of being on a spaceship. Best known for its real-time strategy social games, Kixeye is expanding rapidly, opening an Australian studio in Brisbane earlier this year and hiring more than 20 new employees every month. It's expanding so aggressively that, at the time of writing, it has job recruitment ads plastered all over San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains, buses, and stations. The studio plans to have 300 employees by the end of the year.

Over in Redwood City, about a half-hour's drive from Kixeye, a studio called Storm8 and its subsidiary studios are carving out a place for themselves as one of the top developers in social games. It, like Kixeye, may not be a household name, nor is it as well known as Zynga, but that doesn't make its achievements any less impressive.

The studio currently has 120 employees, with this number expected to double by the year's end. The studio has 33 live games across five brands. It has a combined network of five million daily active users, 300 million combined installs on over 100 million devices and, at the end of 2011 when Apple published its top 100 grossing games for the year, 10 of those games were by Storm8. When the company held a sale across all its games in July 2011, it made $1 million in a single day.

Who's spending?

Minomonsters MinoMonsters

These stories of success aren't unique to Zynga, Kixeye, or Storm8. All around the world studios that few people have heard of are growing at an unprecedented rate and attracting millions of users at a time when traditional publishers are losing millions of dollars. These developers are tapping into a market that was previously neglected by traditional game developers, and it's paying off.

"The majority of Facebook players are going to be your classic soccer mom," says Murphy, who spent years perfecting games for a Facebook audience.

"I read somewhere that Zynga killed soap operas. There's this group of older women that makes up the majority of social gaming who are spending more and more of their time on Facebook, and Facebook games in particular are killing things like soap operas that they typically used for entertainment before.

"Facebook gaming has kind of opened up the gaming market to different demographics that didn't play games before, in same way that the Wii did. It's bringing in all these moms into gaming; it's bringing families into gaming; it's bringing people that just weren't into gaming before," he says.

And with an influx of new players who have money to spend comes new opportunities to make money.


Melyssa Brown is the strategic communications manager at digital ad agency, Rokkan. In her line of work she sees trends come and go and she knows when a company has caught onto something good. The success of social games, she says, is no accident.

"The creators of social games like Zynga and PopCap have tapped into several universally shared attitudes and behaviors that helped skyrocket the time spent in gameplay and the unprecedented number of 'casual' gamers," she says. "If a game is easy, fun, and I can compete with my friends or band together with them toward a common goal, why wouldn't I play?"

She says that the layman is also highly aware of social gaming. Unlike traditional games that require players to own consoles or advanced PCs and possess a certain level of knowledge about games, social game platforms like Facebook and smartphones exist in almost every household, they're quick to download, and are often free-to-play. Players don't need to visit Best Buy or GameStop. They don't need to know about services like Steam or GOG, nor do they need to understand their graphics card's capabilities. When the barrier of entry is low, there's no special system or equipment requirement, and there's no long-term commitment or difficulty, it creates the perfect ecosystem for social games to thrive.

"The 'typical' social gamer is a 40 year old female who has high buying power and a revenue stream game creators can tap into via in-game microtransactions," Brown says.

"Cheap, easy, and simple fun is highly lucrative."

Storm8_dragon_storyDragon Story Storm8_city_story_metroCity Story Metro

Whales and outlaws

There are two dominant free-to-play models that social game developers use, according to TJ Murphy. The first is the model that companies like Zynga use. Zynga currently has approximately 3.5 million paying customers every quarter, and each of those users spends around $30 a month on virtual goods. This is not too dissimilar from more traditional PC games like League of Legends where players can play for free, but a percentage of users will spend $20-30 a month on microtransactions to buy items like colorful hats and other cosmetic goods. The second model is one that developers like Kixeye use where they sell the player time. In Kixeye's hardcore player versus player (PvP) games, players can spend money to speed up the game so that they can move more quickly, giving them an advantage over their opponent.
"A lot of these these games incite players to spend thousands of dollars, and those are the players we call whales," Murphy says, with the idea of "whales" being the small group of devoted players who are willing to spend much more than the average player. "So there's kind of two different strategies: there's the whale strategy where you have a hardcore PvP game where players spend thousands of dollars and you have to pay to win; then there's the mass market strategy that Zynga uses where a lot of people spend $20-30."

Zynga_sf_staff_in_atriumZynga's office

So if social games allow players to spend a limitless amount of money through microtransactions, what's to stop a developer from implementing measures that force a player to pay if they want any chance of winning?

"Well, there's plenty of people who see this as unethical," Murphy says. "Recently, Japan outlawed a game feature - and it sounds silly on the surface; why would you outlaw a game feature? It's just a game! But the Japanese social gaming market is driven on gambling features and there's one gambling feature called Complete Gacha that Japan thought was so abusive that they had to outlaw it."

In Complete Gacha, players spend money in exchange for a random item - this on its own is completely legal. But things get murky and veer into gambling territory when players are rewarded when they manage to collect all the items in a set. This gives players the incentive to collect all the items, but with some items being rarer than others and players not knowing what they are paying money for until it is too late, Complete Gacha often encourages players to recklessly spend while the game dangles the possibility of a reward that might never come to fruition.

Outbackrenekton_and_commandogalio_1League of Legends Featured-games-380-226-zp-game-board-02Zynga Poker

Similar systems exist in western social games, but none require the player to spend real-world money. Even in gambling-themed games like Zynga Poker, players are not able to trade in their chips for real-world money, which means players can't unintentionally lose money in a game.

Murphy says that while there are still some ill feelings towards social games in this regard, he believes that most do not take advantage of their players, and if they try to, most players are savvy enough to turn their backs on the game.

"There's definitely some feelings that these people spending thousands of dollars are being taken advantage of, but a lot of the time when you actually dig into it, people who are typically whales are not poor people being fleeced of all their money. They're typically very high net worth individuals," he says.

"I think there's also a common misconception that social game developers are out there to manipulate people into spending money. A lot of people think that companies like Zynga are filled with psychologists tuning the game mechanics to try to trick people into doing things, and I think if they had a strategy like that and it was working, you'd see a lot of people pay money for these games. But you don't.

"Zynga only has five to ten percent of its users actually spending money, so if they had some trick that tricked people into spending money, you'd see that number be way higher. The friction of taking out your credit card and spending money is so high, it's not like people are accidentally spending money. They're very purposefully saying 'I'm playing this game and I want to spend money on it.'"

Murphy says that a lot of people also have the misconception that if you're spending money on a free-to-play game, then you're doing it wrong. He believes the adverse reaction towards in-game spending is unwarranted and illogical.

"In the end, people spend much less money on free-to-play games than they're spending on retail boxed games," he says. "I could go out and buy a game for $60 from Best Buy, play it for two hours and feel like it's shit, and I've just lost $60. How's that different? How's that better than me spending 20 hours a week in a free-to-play social game and choosing to spend $10 a week over the course of a month on that? What's the better experience?"

The Zynga game


So what is the better experience? More specifically, what is it about these experiences that are so compelling that people are whipping out their wallets at whiplash-inducing speeds?

Bill Jackson is the creative director of Zynga Dallas. He worked on games like Age of Empires and Halo Wars at Ensemble Studios before forming Bonfire Studios, which was later bought by Zynga. As a developer who has crossed from traditional game development to leading the team that made CastleVille, he believes that what draws people to social games is their ability to take something complex and present it in a simpler, easier to understand way.

"So an example would be World of Warcraft compared to EverQuest," he says. "EverQuest is complex and the quest system is hard to understand and there's so much freedom and it's an amazing game experience, but World of Warcraft is a refinement of that. It's much simpler to control and understand."

An example of this refinement is in the game's buying and selling mechanism. In World of Warcraft, to buy or sell an item a player talks to a merchant to open up their bag. They right click on their own items to sell them, and they right click on the merchant's items to buy them. In EverQuest, to perform the same functions a player has to parse through different tabs for buying and selling.

"The gameplay underneath is very similar; there's a lot of complexity and a lot of depth, but the way you control the two games is very different," Jackson says, "which means one is going to appeal to a much broader audience than the other."

He says that while games like CastleVille might look incredibly simple on the surface, the quests and tasks players have to accomplish are not too different from those in many traditional games. For example, players in traditional role-playing games are often required to collect items, craft objects, and perform tasks for non-playable characters (NPCs) - tasks that can be found in many social games, albeit wrapped in a different interface with different characters and themes.


"I see lots of similarities between 'this character feels this way and is asking me to do these things; I do them and then they tell me how they feel about that and we progress through the story together,'" Jackson says. "Yes, I don't see right now a hardcore twitch-based instant gratification shooter in the social space. I bet we could create one that could exist there, but the question is how much of the audience would understand all the things they really need to play that game and understand it quickly? I guess what I say is I don't really see the difference.

"I know that there's animosity there sometimes from traditional gamers, but I don't have any and I come from both spaces."

Jackson says that the challenge for social game developers is creating an in-depth game that can become complex as the player delves into it, without complicating the interface and raising the barrier of entry. "The example I always give is chess," he says. "Chess is a very simple game; it's very easy to understand how all the pieces work and once you know you can play forever. That's really to me the holy grail and it's what you should be going after.

Zynga_hq_2Zynga's office

"It's a slow process to get there. The more complex the game is underneath, the harder it is to refine the interface to be very simple, and that's why we take incremental improvements with our audience and bring them along so that they learn from each game."

Jackson believes that he and other developers at Zynga are training a new generation of gamers and bringing that audience cautiously into a world that they may not have known before. In a game like CastleVille, players learn that there is a crafting system they can master and that certain characters interact with environments in different ways, and in a game like CityVilledifferent decorations on buildings yield different results. There's actually something that players can master if they delve a bit further into the game. When they understand how these game systems work, they're ready to take the next step and try something more complicated. Some day, if they're ready for a twitch-based shooter, Zynga will be there.

Good game design

Over at Storm8, the studio attributes much of its success to having the strongest game in every category it enters. It's not enough to create a city building simulation or a bakery simulation or a bubble shooter and expect people to flock to the game and throw dollar bills at the developer - players are not that simple.

Mitch Zamara, a senior designer at Storm8, says that while once upon a time developers could get away with releasing shallow games to an audience that didn't know better, social game developers now have to work a lot harder to earn those in-game transactions.


"When we push a title out, our goal is to be the best in that category," Zamara says. "I think a good example of that is the recent emerging category of the bubble shooter. It's taken over Facebook with Bubble Safari (Zynga) and Bubble Witch Saga (; everyone has a bubble game; every developer is announcing their own bubble game every two days. But the category hasn't really been super successful on mobile. We just put out a game called Bubble Mania and it's already in the top 25 free apps and it is the top 100 grossing as well."

Zamara says that social game developers have to create a game that is stimulating and exciting for the player. In a category like the bubble shooter where it is incredibly easy for developers to copy each other's puzzles and flog them at potential players, Zamara says it all comes down to the details, and it's the details that set Storm8 apart.

Bubble_safariBubble Safari Bubble_witch_sagaBubble Witch Saga
Bubble_maniaBubble Mania

In Bubble Mania players can play in different modes and use different bubble guns that are not available in any other bubble shooter. The texture of the bubbles are given a rubbery friction so that every bubble fired makes a satisfying "pop" noise and, when two bubbles collide, they spring against each other in the way balloons might behave. The game comes packaged with an aesthetic, a personality, and appeals to a certain type of player.

"We're updating new levels every week, constantly monitoring the progression and tuning of the games to make sure it's not too punishing and overly unfair for our users," Zamara says.

"I think as a whole these games just appeal to people that want a quick, 5-10 minute break away from whatever they're doing during the day. They want a quick release.

"I've heard the analogy that games like FarmVille orFrontierVille are almost like a mini zen garden for people. It's kind of their own little private sanctuary where they can be in control of everything."

Storm8's zen gardens are most clearly represented in its "Story" series of games, developed by subsidiary studio Team Lava. Players can choose to run a bakery inBakery Story, raise dragons in Dragon Story, or build a buzzing ant farm-like city in City Story Metro.

The games are played in short bursts, and players are given the satisfaction of seeing fluffy muffins spring forth from an oven they switched on five minutes earlier in Bakery Story, or they can pause and appreciate the tiny cars and people strolling through a bustling city they've crafted from scratch in City Story Metro.

"I think by looking at the overall kind of market and seeing the opportunities for creating these kinds of games, we can really give people their own kind of sanctuary to enjoy and play on their own throughout the day when they have that five minutes to spare," Zamara says.

Over in a slightly more hardcore territory, Kixeye believes that its success comes down to not compromising on the design of its real-time strategy games.

"You can create something that's incredibly shallow that will get somebody to play it once or twice or maybe 10 times, but to create something that somebody comes back to over 12 months or 18 months, it has to have a certain amount of depth and engagement," says Brandon Barber, senior vice president of marketing.

Mza_7179240138446333406Bakery Story Mza_8549785024413140529Dragon Story


"They have to want to play it; it has to be exciting to them on a very fundamental level. Any game you play whether it's on your cell phone or Facebook or in a browser or console, they all have something in common in that they have good game design. If a game that you're playing on any one of those platforms draws you in and catches your interest, it has some level of game design that's really working hard," he says.

"It doesn't really matter if it's on an Xbox 360 or if it's on a cell phone. It really comes down to whether or not that game is speaking to you in a way that is satisfying to you and scratches that itch you have to constructively fill up that time and compete and level up and best yourself. That's what gaming is."

Getting it wrong

Tynon_art Tynon

Despite social gaming's rapid growth and the impressive sales figures that put it in the same financial league as most traditional publishers, not everyone is ready to accept social games as "real games."

"We're still in a really infantile stage of development and right now you'll never see a social or mobile game ever being compared side-by-side to a traditional game; it just doesn't happen," says Mitch Zamara.

"They're seen as completely different categories. It's like we're the younger step-brother to the Wii. The Wii often gets criticized as being kind of a more casual mass market console that is not even in the same space as the Xbox or PlayStation, so social games and mobile games are in [their] own category even below that."

It's not just the platform that the games are played on that traditional gamers are skeptical about, either. Zamara says that in the early days, many social game developers approached the business as a land grab; everyone clamored to get as many users as possible to build their networks as fast as possible, often at the expense of game design, immersion, and enjoyment.

This initial land grab has done more harm than good for social games, according to Benjamin Gifford, business development director at uCool, which recently released the social RPG Tynon, and who worked on one of the earliest hardcore social strategy games, Evony. Gifford says that players have every right to be skeptical about today's social games because of the abusive tactics employed by developers in many early social games.

"People get burned and they remember why they got burned," Gifford says.

"Everybody remembers when they played a certain social game that just spammed all of their friends. It really started being abusive and it wasn't interesting. All they did was click an animal and that was considered a game.

"I think people got burned and now when they talk about social games they remember that experience and they remember that they definitely don't want to experience something like that again."


Copycats and clones

Every industry makes mistakes, and the social games industry is one that Gifford believes has made a generous amount of them. At the top of the list is the way many games have used their players as spambots by publishing their in-game activities all over Facebook and spamming their friends with invitations. A bit further down the list is shallow experiences that developers have tried to pass for games. They've lacked the design games so sorely need to be engaging and interesting and instead relied on spamming players and abusing the trust that friends have with each other - the trust that if a friend invites you to a game it is a personal recommendation - to gain users.

The third mistake - and the one that really gets up Gifford's grill - is copycats.

"I think there's a difference between copying and cloning," he says. "With cloning, I don't think it's necessarily a negative thing. The reason why is because most of the time a developer will see a previous game that's quite popular and they put their own little spin on it and it might introduce new mechanics, better server software, better customer service, things like that, so even though the experience might be similar, it's still different enough.

"I can't stand people who copy, though. I think all that does is rob hard work from the developers. To me, copying is the exact replica, except maybe I put a different sprite on it, or different artwork, or even the same artwork, so that's a big problem."

Gifford is no stranger to both. After Evony was released in 2009, it inspired 47 clones, all of which adopted its free-to-play, browser-based model with similar mechanics. He cites EA's Lords of Ultima as a clone of Evony tweaked with the skin of the Ultima IP. Fair enough, he says – some people will want to play a game set in the Ultima universe, and as long as developers make the effort to innovate and improve on an idea, then the practice of cloning is not the worst thing that can happen in the industry.

But in the same year as the game's release, Evony was outright copied by a contractor who swiped the game's code and released it with new sprites. The game was copied under the names Caesary, Epic X, and Call of Roma. The interface was the same, the code was identical down to the typos, and the copycats went as far as to replicate Evony's now infamous banner ads from 2009 that featured scantily clad women beckoning the player to "Come play, my Lord."

Gifford says that Evony hasn't run any of those ads since 2009, but because the copycat ads keep appearing under different names, many people assume that Evony is repackaging its product and pushing it out using the same strategies from three years ago. This, he says, is damaging for the brand and tricks players into thinking they're playing an Evony game when they are in fact playing a copied game from a development team that doesn't have a paper trail.

On top of that, copycats aren't innovating or contributing to the progression of the games industry. They are outright stealing.


Gifford and the Evony team took the copycats to court, spent three years tied up in a legal battle that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even though they won, they've since found that their copycats are based in China where the U.S. court's judgement cannot be enforced.

Copycats and clones aren't just a problem from the early days of social game development, either. One of the most visible targets in social games is Zynga, and the criticism it faces with regards to copying and cloning has only gotten worse as the company has grown.

It's hard to find anything written about the social game developer that doesn't come with a barrage of snark about the company's game development practices. The company has been accused of copying other's work, of employing game design tactics that abuse the player's trust, and at the time of writing Zynga is facing legal action from another industry heavyweight, Electronic Arts (EA), over claims that Zynga broke copyright infringement laws in its release of The Ville, a lifestyle simulation game that EA claims bears an uncanny resemblance to a game it released first, The Sims Social.

Cloning and copying are regarded as business tactics within game development, with one being more widely accepted than the other. But if developers like Zynga are bringing in more revenue than some of the world's biggest publishers, why don't they blow their competition out of the water with brand new games that no one has seen before? Why copy or clone in the first place?

Tynon_screenshot Tynon

Benjamin Gifford attributes the prevalence of cloning to developers' business strategies - some developers see their goal as making money by crushing their competition in the same category through cloning - while Mitch Zamara says that the answer lies in the similarities between social games and traditional game development.

"I think it's for the same reason that you don't see major game developers and publishers taking big risks either," Zamara says.

"Companies have to make smart calculated business decisions and there's often a bit of a fear in doing something that's super high risk because it still costs money and it might not be successful.

"You don't really often see AAA developers taking big leaps very often on something that's not proven or hasn't been validated in the market, and I think social and mobile developers kind of fall into the same category. There will always eventually be someone who's willing to take a risk, but rarely will you see the biggest players in the market be the first to jump into it."

A social future

Minomonsters2 MinoMonsters 215588_454246311272615_1070608845_nThe Ville

To those watching at home, Zynga's recent troubles seem to cast a dark cloud over social games, but to those playing at home, the only cloud they're aware of is the puffy nimbus whisking them from one social game to another.

Social games have become a part of our lives, whether we love to play them or love to avoid them, and despite one of the industry's biggest players facing a potential court case, the rest of the industry is unfazed: they have a job to do, a future to build.

"We're here to make games. We're here to make really fun games, and we want to work really hard to build something that's meaningful," says Brandon Barber from Kixeye, who believes that social games have a promising future, regardless of the competition gets up to.

"We're unafraid to experiment. We're unafraid to test what works, and if we follow what works we'll be in a much stronger place than when we started," he says.

"If you compare that to the traditional gaming industry, they spend $10 million with a hundred people to make a shiny plastic disc that goes into a console, and then they go on vacation and hope the game sells. They'll ship a game and they pray that the creative insight that some genius had two years ago is relevant in the marketplace today. For us, it's completely inverted."


Barber says social game developers are in a position to be more agile and responsive to their players. They can respond to feedback quicker, they can patch quicker, and if their players want something different or decide they want a twitch-based shooter they can go from concept to prototype to release in a matter of months rather than years. Not only are they developing fast, they're learning fast.

"It's very hard to not make mistakes when you're the first one to market or one of the market leaders," says Benjamin Gifford. "You should expect to make mistakes, but at least learn from them. A lot of developers are doing it right. They're doing business right by their customers by treating their customers with respect and putting value back to the player instead of abusing and milking the player for all they're worth."

Many social game developers will agree that the industry has made its fair share of mistakes, many of which have unfortunately played out publicly on their player's Facebook walls and, in the case of EA and Zynga, in the media. But they can also agree on another thing: social games are here to learn, they're here to grow, and they're here to stay.

Kixeye_-_elevator_lobby__2Kixeye's office, with the slogan "Innovation over imitation, quality over quantity, passion over profit" carved into the wall