The Paul Stephanouk Interview

The following is the full text of the interview I conducted with Zynga Senior Designer Paul Stephanouk for my column on social gaming:

Q: Before working at Zynga, you worked as a designer at Big Huge Games. Exactly what type of design work did you do?

A: I worked on several games over my nine years at Big Huge Games. The design process was very collaborative, particularly on Rise of Nations and its expansion, so I was able to touch just about every aspect of design and production at some point. I did a lot of work on core gameplay, unit design and balance. I also led the campaign team for Rise of Legends and wrote design treatments to pitch our ideas to publishers.

Q: Why did you decide to switch over to work on social games?

A: Several years ago, I got hooked on web-based games like Travian and the stuff on Kongregate. When Facebook games started to gain traction, I began to get excited about building games in that space. In early 2009, I had the opportunity to not only join Zynga but to reunite with my old boss and Jedi Master Brian Reynolds to help launch the Zynga East studio.

Q: Which titles have you worked on at Zynga? What has your role been on these teams?

A: At Zynga I wear the dual-hat of lead developer for Zynga East and senior game designer. I’ve worked on several projects since landing at Zynga.  Teams at Zynga can be fluid so it is not uncommon to end up moving across various projects from time to time as we continue to innovate in game design. I’ve done work for FarmVille and other titles on occasion as well.

Q: We often hear that FarmVille was built and launched in six weeks. If the three games you have worked on so far are still unreleased, is it fair to say that the development cycles are getting longer before launch? If so, how do you know you are going down the right path without working in front of a live audience?

A: Launch standards have risen a modest amount in the last nine months, in part because Zynga continues to develop a game after it is released. FarmVille enjoys nine months of post-launch development on top of the famous six week figure and new games have to measure up. Our ability to share best practices and game mechanics across our games is vital to launching new games that have to compete with titles with considerably more development hours. The recent success of Treasure Isle, at almost 4 million users in a week, is a great illustration of how we can launch new products that leverage both our network and our knowledge to compete in the market.

Q: What are the biggest things which have changed about your job now? What have you had to unlearn?

A: So much has changed it’s hard to list it all. We’re using a fundamentally different process, building with very different tools, reaching a very different type of player, with a very different business model. And we build games in months instead of years. And I use Mac.

I had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about what players want. All of that was information about videogame fans, not Jane and Joe Everyperson. What’s more, a lot of what I thought I knew wasn’t necessarily rooted in solid data. Learning to focus heavily on observing users and their patterns of play can be a challenge.

Q: What’s fundamentally different about the Everyperson, the mainstream audience? What can you build for them that you can’t build for the core gamer?

A: Everyperson doesn’t come equipped with a built-in library of game experiences. This limits what a game can put in front of the player without having to resort to teaching them how to play. On the other hand that lack of exposure means there are many experiences that are new to the Everyperson that may seem less exciting to the core player simply because they are familiar.

As for what you can build, I don’t recall ever thinking about it in that way. We don’t specifically try to build something that core games can’t or won’t want to play and all of our games enjoy significant numbers of core gamers.

Q: You say that a lot of your assumptions were not rooted in solid data? What have we gotten wrong as designers from working in the dark? What mistake have you learned to avoid?

A: Well, I can’t speak for all designers everywhere. One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that for many people the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

I’ve also come to understand that facilitating social interaction has tremendous value. It’s not just another feature – it is core. People value social connections. As humans it’s who we are and what we do. Most of us tend to like activities that facilitate social interaction. It follows that games with broader appeal facilitate more players and thus have a higher “network value”. No matter what I may think of Wii Sports as a game, the fun I’ve had playing it with my family means I value it as an experience. Clearly I wasn’t alone in that assessment given its popularity.

Q: So if social mechanics are not primarily competitive, I assume they are cooperative? If so, what works the best? What are examples of some of the best social mechanics on Facebook?

A: Two of the most popular mechanics are energy, a resource that is required for continued play, and giving gifts to your friends. Sometimes you can see both of these combined such as with the Energy Packs in Mafia Wars. Players can send a single Energy Pack to their friends once per day. The Energy Pack restores your energy bar and lets you take additional actions without having to wait.

Across social games there are a lot of different variants on gifting. A successful form that I like can be seen in FarmVille. Players can make a request for assistance to a friend. That friend can respond to the request by selecting both the form of gift to send and the reward for sending the gift. This helps the exchange better match the desires of both players.

Q: A number of games (such as Pet Society or FarmVille) encourage me to take care of my friend’s stuff, but I’m unclear if my actions actually make a difference. Is the coop mostly psychological, or are there examples of social games where closer coordination is encouraged?

A: I wouldn’t under-value the visiting experience on it’s own merit. Social contact is a vital component of the experience in its own right. That said, it does make a difference. For example, in FarmVille when I visit your farm I can spread fertilizer on some of your crops that produces a bonus. Players that coordinate this feature can get a substantial amount of benefit in the growth of their crops. There are also buildings in FarmVille that require collections of specific items to complete. These require a fair amount of interaction between players to accomplish.

Q: As a former designer of traditional games, what have you brought to Zynga that social games have lacked so far?

A: I like a wide range of game styles but tend to prefer designs that use simple rules to produce interesting results. I don’t think a game being easy to grasp for a novice precludes it from also being rewarding for more advanced players. I like to focus on the core rules, the systems, and I think I can help improve our games on both fronts. My love of card and board games is probably also an asset.

Q: Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom, has made the point that, with social games, business and design are unified as never before. Do you agree with this assertion? Have you needed to learn more about the business side of your games to do your job?

A: I’ve always paid attention to the “business side of the business”. I mean, how can you take yourself seriously as a commercial designer and *not* care about who is buying your product and why? In the past it was just something I paid attention to out of enlightened self-interest. In social games the connection is out in the open. If you can’t command an understanding of both the business and the game rules you are trying to row with only one oar.

Q: Still, with retail games, the designers always have a clear incentive to make the game better, without reservation. However, many successful free-to-play games, like Travian, charge players for specific features, such as a more efficient UI. Is it possible to design without putting one’s best foot forward?

A: I think you’re overlooking the fact that price IS a feature of a game as much as the UI. What customers are willing to pay and how many are willing to pay  shapes almost every commercial project. What designer hasn’t had to reduce or even cut a feature? Even on a well-funded project it’s not uncommon for a designer’s best foot forward to be constrained because there isn’t enough time or because it would require “too much art.” That’s the business model talking to the features of the game right there.

Q: How does Zynga make a decision about what to charge for and what to give users for free? Is the internal decision making top-down or bottom-up? How do you know if you are being either too restrictive or too generous?

A: Because our games are so rooted in social mechanics the quality of a player’s experience is a function of the number of players in the game. The games are free to play and the majority of our players never purchase any virtual goods. With over 235 million monthly players that’s a lot of people playing for free. To be successful we have to provide all of our players a high quality experience, not just the ones that pay.  With virtual goods we take our best ideas, try them, and immediately measure the results. I want to stress that we don’t try every single idea nor do we build our games according to some robotic polling process. We have the ability to put ideas in front of our users quickly and measure the results. We do that when we think it makes sense and try to go about it in a way that grounds our lessons in real empirical data.

Q: Sid defines a good game as a series of interesting decisions. What are the interesting decisions in a social game? Or does the social aspect trump the need for interesting decisions?

A: I think there are gameplay decisions within our games that are meaningful. Beyond that I also feel that decisions tied to social mechanics are probably the most meaningful. That probably isn’t news to many designers. Lots of videogames have social patterns at their core. The Sims. Wii Play. Pokemon. Nintendogs. These games and others are successful on the point of social patterns or even real social interaction. That social games use social mechanics at their core isn’t a new idea. The key for Zynga is that we connect our games to your real social network–your real friends. Decisions around your real social network produce very Sid-interesting situations for most people.

Q: How so? An interesting decision is usually one based on the game’s context. For example, in an RTS, building cavalry is not always the right decision. The answer depends on the terrain, the opponent, the stage of the battle, and so on. What do players have to ponder and balance in a social game?

A: There is a lot of room for economic optimization in these games. Just like in an RTS game, a player that makes the right choices can progress faster than those that don’t. Some players like to “race” or compare their level or rate of progress. Players might also optimize because they want to fund a visual experience akin to players spending game money in the Sims to outfit their avatar and decorate their home.

Q: Let’s talk about the time-based mechanics of social games which have emerged, built around an expectation that play is done in small, five-minute bursts. Some games (such as FarmVille and Social City) use an appointment mechanic which locks players out for a certain period of time once a task is started. Other games (such as Mafia Wars or Treasure Island) use an energy mechanic, which limits player’s action but is constantly refilling, perhaps encouraging players to micromanage more. What are the pluses and minuses of these two systems?

A: Progress-oriented players tend to respond better to the energy approach – Mafia Wars is an excellent example of this. Appointment, or “return”, mechanics are perceived as a softer approach. Return works well in games like FarmVille where players are, as a whole, less competitive and more focused on the social and building components. Overall it really depends on the game. Both methods can be successful and can even be combined. FarmVille has examples of both models – tractor fuel is an example of energy.

Q: Charles Husdon, formerly of social game developer Serious Business (which was acquired by Zynga), said about the genre that “who wants to play a game that’s almost always up and to the right so long as you do what you’re supposed to do?” Social games do primarily seem to just reward time. Is there a place for skill or challenge?

A: With due respect to Mr. Husdon, it doesn’t sound like he’s tried to keep up with another competitive player in a level-up race. Which isn’t to say that level-up racing is all social games are about. Far from it. I’m just stating that competitive play can and does exist in the space. Beyond that I’d like to go back to what I mentioned earlier, which is that competitive play is NOT the universal assumption for all players of social games like it is for traditional games and any given social game may or may not cater to that sort of thing.

Q: How does the design process change when development is based so much on metrics and user feedback? Do you feel less like the “author” of the game experience?

A: Metrics are everything I thought they might be – or at least what I hoped they would be every time I found myself sitting in a room of designers fighting over if a player would rather press one button over another. Why would a designer want to remain in the dark on something that has a clear, knowable answer? Undersanding how players play doesn’t stifle creatitivity in game design any more than understanding how people live stifles creativity in architecture. I think it’s the other way around – knowledge helps us understand constraints, and constraints are usually the building blocks of good design.

Do I feel less like an “author”? That depends, fiction or non-fiction?

Q: Following that question, if games like Farmville and Mafia Wars are “non-fiction” – as they are designed by learning from data how to make games about their topics – is there room to make “fiction” social games? Games that adhere to a designer’s vision even if that vision is not appealing to the average user?

A: I’m not going to declare that something can’t be done, particularly in such a young space. In my mind it is almost certainly the case that somebody will succeed with a single-vision game. Depending on how you measure success somebody might have already done so. I also think the popular approach has growth potential. We’ve got a lot ground to cover before we’ve truly reached the average person. Facebook continues to grow as do social networks in general. I think you’ll see social games built to appeal to your average person continue to grow right along with them.

Q: Will the primary future growth of Facebook games come from a few, enormous mass-market games or from a proliferation of more “niche” games aimed at specific, underserved audiences?

A: Broad appeal is clearly the order of the day and I don’t see that changing in the short term. I think niche games can be successful, particularly as the size of the niches continues to grow but it would take a lot of successful niches to make that the primary driver of growth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *