Mark Skaggs on 'the matriarch network', building 24/7 businesses and keeping play light

GDC11: Zynga’s five tips for social game success

Today at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a top game developer from Zynga spoke candidly of rushed and problematic development of FarmVille.

Mark Skaggs, Zynga VP of product development, explained in an hour-long lecture how his FarmVille team stole code, made guesses, sped through the project’s development and – in the end – make history.

Permeating this grand tale – which you can read here – Skaggs offered other developers in the room tips on how to make the best and most lucrative social experiences.

Develop has compiled and listed them, below:

1: “You can’t make up from boring with volume.”

Here, Skaggs is explaining to the audience that all games, especially social networking games, need to prioritise fun. Importantly, adding extra content to a boring game won’t make it better. “If you buy a sixty dollar game and, by the first level, you realise it’s not fun, you don’t say to yourself ‘well at least there are 999 more of these levels to play’. No, you just stop playing.”

2. “You’re no longer building games.”

Skaggs told other developers in the room to drill this idea into their heads. “You’re building a twenty-four-seven business. Once you launch a game, you have to grow it.” He is speaking from the famous games-as-a-service ethos well practiced in recent years by successful digital games companies. “In fact, I like to see Zynga as a developer of platforms, not games.” He added that much of battle can be won before a game ships: “After launch everything is much harder. There’s bugs to fix, users to look at, and lots more to do”.

3. Never mind the males

“I’ve seen my wife play solitaire, Bejeweled, and the rest, days on end in their spare time,” Skaggs said. “When you apply that to the social elements of Facebook, that’s when a game’s popularity can explode”. Here he spoke of what he calls “the matriarch network”, a suggestion that it is actually mothers and housewives that can provide your core audience.

4. “Keep it light, fun and happy”

Skaggs said that, even more so with social games than traditional, people join for a light entertainment experience.” He said it was paramount that this is what social games provided, and told developers to see their games as a webpage. He said social games needed to be fast to load and easy to move around in to retain audiences.

5. Retention is the battle

Taking questions at the end of his well-received speech, Skaggs told one attendee to think of his social game as a bucket with holes, and that retaining his audience’s attention was like plugging those holes. “It doesn’t matter how much water you pour into the bucket, if you don’t retain the water you’ll always end up with the same amount,” he said.

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