Social Games at the Speed of Light at GDC Canada

Farmville and Mafia Wars have consumed the waking hours of many, many Facebook users, and in the process made Zynga a lot of money with 27 million people playing their games and trading virtual goods for real cash. Bill Mooney of Zynga presented “Building Social Games: Gaming at the Speed of Light” at the Game Developers Conference Canada keynote today. 

Mooney started by pointing out that social gaming has grown 324 per cent in the last year, and not only on Facebook but on other platforms. But what’s interesting, Zynga said, is that a lot of the people playing social games have never played the game before, and are also turning into a form of hardcore gamer. 

This model has been seen before around the world in games such as Maple Story, but now the same phenomenon is repeating itself in North America. 

The value of the game increases as more friends join the game, and interestingly people will also pay for virtual goods, a behaviour that was not expected to occur in North America. 

Social interactions are key to the game. Though people sometimes complain about requests to play games, it is in fact an important part of growing the game. But Mooney said they wanted to find deeper ways for people to connect, such as requests for help. Gifting is another way to bring people into the game, though Mooney stressed there’s more to learn on that front. People will also use interactive components, such as Facebook chat or simply calling up friends to trade in-game items.

“Go Fast” is another key feature of the Zynga approach. New features are rolled out on a weekly basis, and “social gaming lives in dog years”, Mooney said. 

This is still a market where “8 smart guys out of nowhere” can rise to the top, Mooney said. The uptake for Zynga is that they had to get better, faster. He said this event marked the second generation of social games.

Measuring user behaviour is key to success, he said. Finding out how many people like cows vs. how many like sheep may seem trivial, but delving into users preferences and continuous testing means you cna constantly tweak the game without betting on huge risks, as big console games often do. 

Creating “user delight” is very important. Making the users happy is key to continued success, but the audience will tell you what they think, either by you asking or by voting with their feet. People will also pitch ideas, and “a lot of people are smarter than just a couple of people,” Mooney said. 

Social gaming can be broken down into a mantra: play, invest, and express. People have to enjoy the game, but they also have to put in their own sweat equity, in ways such as forming their own “Farmville groups” or extending the game’s reach on their own. People also need to express their own creativity within the game through customization.