How the FarmVille team stole code, made guesses, sped through development and achieved the impossible

GDC11: Zynga opens its heart on studio culture

Zynga became the social games kingpin by building product with minimal volume at break-neck speed, says a key designer of company’s most important titles.

Mark Skaggs, Zynga VP of product development, summarised the firm’s success snappily: “Speed wins. Get to the market fast.”

Such a claim may only enforce Zynga’s public image as a commercially ruthless, results-first company – yet Skagg’s well-received lecture at the Game Developers Conference today challenged many assumptions.

As the game design veteran spoke to a packed conference room – filled in part by friends he’s met over his eighteen-year career – the dark unknowns surrounding Zynga began to lift.

He, a developer who helped build various Command and Conquer and Lord of the Rings games, looked back on Zynga’s humble beginnings when it had around 100 employees, and FarmVille wasn’t even an idea on the table.

Skaggs (pictured above) said the firm was, by that point, thinking of building a medieval-themed RTS game for the Facebook platform.

“But we were in creative limbo due, in part, to the limitations of the Flash platform,” he recalled.

“So I was in a meeting and sitting behind me was [Zynga board member and industry exec] Bing Gordon, and he said, ‘why don’t you just make a farming game?”

That quick suggestion became inspirational. Farming can be about resource collection and area management much in the same way any RTS title can, Skaggs said.

"We all had something to prove, so we just did it.”

Though he was speaking in composed manner, Skaggs was nevertheless opening his heart on Zynga – one of the most media-shy billion-dollar companies in the world.

He went on to recount how the FarmVille project was rapidly built on a core philosophy of “light, fast and right”, in that the minimum should be built and released as fast as possible.

“If we couldn’t figure out what was most fun, we went for the most obvious thing,” he said.

He also spoke candidly of the studio’s ‘5 Minute design’ philosophy, meaning that the team created only what the player sees and does.

Skaggs even admitted the company stole existing code from another Zynga game, YoVille, to create FarmVille’s avatars.

“We just didn’t have time to make them ourselves,” he said. “We only did the minimum amount of art that was needed to ship.

“At the time discussions were like, ‘can we get away with only twelve types of crops for launch? Well, we only have time for nine’. It was about doing the minimum to get the game out the door.”

And, in what demonstrated the level of raw honesty Scaggs was prepared to go, in a question and answer session he was asked how the team knew FarmVille was a viable product when it launched.

“Quite frankly, I was guessing,” Skaggs responded.

In a reversal to Zynga’s general ‘no comment’ media ethos, Scaggs voluntarily extended the Q&A session.

Executive bets

He also spoke of how Zynga’s management team set ‘impossible’ FarmVille popularity targets. Goals which the dev team, famously, went on to achieve.

“Mafia Wars at the time had 2 million active users,” Skaggs said.

“Our team had an internal goal of getting 400,000 unique players by June 30th…. thing is, we launched June 19th.”

FarmVille, built under its ‘fast as possible’ philosophy, attracted one million daily active users in the space of five days.

“No one thought it was possible to get one million in five days,” Skaggs said.

He went on to claim that certain individuals, particularly the industry’s “old guard”, then claimed FarmVille would struggle to expand past the 8 million mark.

“They were dead wrong,” Skaggs said.

He revealed that some 32.5 million people played Farmville on the most active day in the game’s history.

And, in a calculation which revealed how much he’s enjoyed that achievement, Skaggs said that 32.5 million users equates to a queue of people stretching from New York City to San Francisco six times over.

“It was two years ago when we launched that game. The universe has changed a lot since then. FarmVille has taken over the world,” he concluded.

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