Why I’m Making a Facebook Game

Last night I went to a poker tournament sponsored by Adobe and had an absolutely amazing night for many, many reasons.  Firstly, it was a very well organized and orchestrated event.  They really tapped right into the jugular of crossover between poker players and programmers.  Secondly, as a start up, we’ve really been trying to watch every penny we spend and one big cost that we’ve been trying to push off for as long as possible is Flash.  As I somehow lucked my way into the final table, I should be getting a free copy of Flash posted to me soon.  However, saving £600 was surprisingly not the highlight of the night.

For me, the highlight of the night was just getting a chance to talk to all the other Flash developers there.  When we were working on HashBangTV, I spent as much time talking to random people about my ideas as I did actually implementing them.  It was partially because we still had to figure out if the concept had any legs but also because it’s just more fun to talk about a big, crazy idea that doesn’t currently exist.  Since we’ve changed direction toward social gaming, I’ve mostly just been coding along as quickly as I can.  So, it was nice to get out at all and talk to people, but it was even more interesting talking to Flash devs.

I’ve received a lot of flack for moving away from console game development and building a Facebook game and with a room full of flash developers, with many of them wanted to move into what they referred to as “real” games, there was no lack of doubt regarding my move.  I guess I can see their perspective.  From the outside, people must wonder why anyone would ever walk away from working on a project like LittleBigPlanet and even more so walking away from working with the likes of Alex and Mark.  And there really is no bigger betrayal to the hardcore gamer than making “casual games” or “social games.”  But from the inside, it’s a very different view for me and it was nice for people to hear me out on my decision.

To start, I’m the type of person that really fears stagnation more than anything else.  I’d much rather be completely shit at something new than to keep on doing the same thing that I’m good at.  I decided that I wanted to do something that would allow me to develop my skills other than programming.  When I think back on my career up to this point, ironically, the thing I’m most proud of isn’t a programming task.  The thing I’m most proud of is the hiring that I did at Insomniac for the Ratchet and Clank Future gameplay team.  To complete my team of 7, I hired 3 guys with either no experience or relatively little experience and they took on the work load of a much bigger and much more experienced team that preceded them.  Going from a 150+ team at Insomniac to a 30+ team at Media Molecule was a great experience, but it really got me wondering if there were projects that would interest me that would require 8 or less people.

As I mentioned, our first idea was HashBangTV, a social game around video aggregation.  It was trying to embrace the growing concept of real world gaming, but we decided that it was a big gamble into a space that we didn’t know anything about.  So then we started looking a bit more closely at social games on Facebook.  I’ll admit that when this all started, I was one of those people who thought social games were just games for idiots.  It’s just that if you analyze the mechanics of a social game from the perspective of hardcore games, it doesn’t make any sense.  There is no risk-reward balance.  There are no obstacles.  There is no twitch skill.  There is no “trying too hard to be epic” storyline to follow.  But then once I started playing some of these games, I realized that social game mechanics are fundamentally different than hardcore game mechanics.  Hardcore game mechanics are fundamentally based on users trying to stand out.  Almost every game is about playing a character that overcomes the impossible obstacle to become the ultimate warrior.  When we play hardcore multiplayer games it’s trying to get into that top position.  It’s about trying to defeat others so you can get ahead.  Social game mechanics are the opposite.  Social game mechanics are about how you can work together with your friends to reach common goals.  They’re about bettering yourself such that you can help others better.  It’s about having a common framework with which to communicate with people you wouldn’t otherwise have much to communicate about.  Once I made this realization, I became obsessed with social game mechanics.  It’s not just that social games reach a new audience, social games provide a game designer with a whole new set of mechanics to engage users.  During the PR campaign of LittleBigPlanet, the word “coopetition” was used for better or worse.  Social games are the cooperation end of the spectrum while hardcore games tend to occupy the competition end of the spectrum.

The other big appeal of doing HashBangTV is that it was embracing the technologies of web development, and more importantly, the iteration time of web development.  When I applied to Media Molecule, there was one aspect of the potential of LittleBigPlanet that got me most excited.  I had this idea that we’d be fully integrated into the community and we could just implement whatever crazy ideas the community had whenever they had them.  Just as I hadn’t been satiated by the drastic improvement from a 150 person team to a 30 person team, I wasn’t satisfied with the patching approval speed compared to the instantaneous deployment of the web.  I can’t wait to launch our first Facebook game because I really want to work on the dream of being able to connect with a community and respond fast enough to keep them engaged.  I’ve always had this dream that I could be working on a game and see some random idea on the forums over lunch and code it and deploy it in the game by the end of the day.  I’d really like to build a community who really cares about a game and match it with a development team to make them feel justified in their engagement.

There has been so much work put into getting games to be recognized as a respectable medium and there is still much work to do.  However, I think one big step is finding out how to really engage a proper distribution of the human population.  The Wii and Guitar Hero have done a lot of good bringing non-gamers to the television screen, but I think social games are a big part of the next wave.  I dream of one day creating or working at the Pixar of games–the company that truly creates masterpieces for all audiences.  I’ve never been very interested in the “can games be art” debate.  I’m much more interested in trying to prove that games can have universal appeal and a big step on that path is really understanding the mechanics that appeal to all the various audiences.

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