Zynga’s gotten a lot of flack for everything from a lack of originality in their intellectual property to their post-IPO stock price. But one thing’s for sure: They’ve been one of the world’s most influential companies in the rise of social video games. In imbuing their games with an almost narcotically addictive quality, Zynga has tapped into something very human going on behind the pixels. They understand the psychology of game design, the fundamentals of interface design, the necessities of social design, and the importance of big data verifying every design hypothesis along the way. They know software because they know people.
We talked to Wright Bagwell, director of design, Mike McCarthy, creative director, and Maureen Fan, general manager, who all worked on Zynga’s mega-hit FarmVille 2, a recently released sequel to the game that changed Facebook forever, and the current No. 1 game on the platform with almost 60 million players. We wanted to know their secrets. And they obliged.
The original Farmville had the look of a typical digitized board game. Farmville 2 is a beautifully animated 3-D space, and the change was obviously intentional. One of the design pillars of the new interface is that it must "spring to life"—to beautifully react to a user’s touch. It should feel "electric," the team tells me.
"People know what it means to touch something," Bagwell explains. "They’ve touched things their whole lives. In the analog world, it’s instantaneous. When we come to the computer we expect that same interaction."
Raw speed is a big component of this effect, but a more subconscious sense of fluidity is equally important. Zynga engineers did an incredible amount of testing to find out how users reacted to the framerates of certain actions in the game. They came up with a magic number (that they won’t divulge, but you might be able to reverse engineer) that felt the most responsive and satisfying to users—a number that can change during more or less important events, too. This is a threshold they design around.
Zynga feels that the importance of UI cannot possibly be underplayed. It’s a modernist idea, really—the medium is the message—that applies particularly well to software design.
"You can get in a Toyota Camry, then drive a BMW M3. Both have steering wheels and brakes, but when you accelerate in a BMW, you’re hooked," Bagwell explains. "You can have two games that are basically the same game. But when you touch one, it’s a race car. The other is grandma’s grocery getter."
Games are inherently based on a work-reward structure. You work a bit, and you’re compensated in money, items, or new abilities. These new rewards improve your working skills, allowing you to reap even bigger rewards. And the cycle continues. "The thing that you want costs money, so it feels interesting to work for it. That’s a big part of the health of the game," Bagwell explains. "If you get to the point when you have so much money you don’t know how to spend it, you get too bored to play. "One of the best challenges of a game designer is how to make this challenging to a broad audience—for someone to kick back for a five-minute break, but appealing to someone who wants to think deeply about how to get the most out of the game."
In Farmville, the economy was based on simple one-way monetary transactions. If you grew tomatoes, you sold them, and bought new things with the profits. Farmville 2 upped the ante with deeper complexity, building a whole ecosystem around the farm. Instead of just growing crops for money, you might grow crops to feed animals, which produce fertilizer, eggs, and milk. The eggs might be part of a recipe to craft pie, the fertilizer supports the crops, and so on. It’s an entire, somewhat confounding circle of life when you really break it down.
"We found that players do play both ways. Some players come into the game and they just like moving their cursor around and seeing their animal dance around. But some players get really into the strategy," Bagwell explains. "Two weeks after the game launched, we saw people putting spreadsheets together, [asking] 'what’s the best recipe I could craft?'"
Balancing the economy to keep both casual and dedicated players moving through the game smoothly required careful consideration. The most basic experience needed to be rewarding enough to ensure progress, but the reward for the spreadsheet-makers couldn’t be too huge, lest the experience break down from too much success.
Video games are known for explosions, hyperbolic colors, and the occasional turtle murder. Zynga sees value in the opposite approach. After interviewing players as to why they loved the first Farmville, Zynga heard the same theme over and over: The game was just a way to get away from the grind of life. "One thing we heard constantly was they looked at our game as a place of peace," McCarthy explains. "What they were responding to was their cellphone going off all the time or being stuck in traffic. Farmville was a place where people could relax their shoulders for a moment."
So Zynga doubled down on the game’s most peaceful aspects. The game is modeled after a Norman Rockwell painting, full of 1950s idealism. Your quest? To bring a family farm back to its glory days. From a design perspective, the game has no music. All you can hear is the wind blowing and the birds chirping. The ambience is so effective that many players leave the game running in a separate tab, just to hear the soundscape.
"I think Google is the best search engine. Why? Because I go to google.com and it’s just a white board. Nothing’s screaming at me," McCarthy says. "That peaceful feeling someone has when they come to use your product is really critical."
The most surprising point the Farmville 2 team divulged to me was their background. While I don’t play Farmville, I love their creative lineage before arriving at Zynga: Various members of the team have worked on iconic games like Fallout 2, Deadspace 2, and Vampire: The Masquerade. I can tell you just how it felt to play each because, despite the fact that many were sequels, they each contained a whole universe crafted from tone, aesthetics, and storytelling.
But whereas these designers used to approach each game like a two-year gamble—would the players really like where Fallout 2 took the Fallout franchise?—Zynga empowers them to use a balance of qualitative and quantitative data to evolve the game continuously. Developers analyze user feedback, in-game usage data, and sales figures to know when decisions are right and wrong for a franchise. "In Farmville, people really liked fantastical things, like unicorns," Fan explains. "But in Farmville 2, when we released Halloween stuff that was more fantastical, our players told us that they liked how Farmville 2 was more realistic, and they wanted us to be more realistic. So when we’re creating animals now, we make sure we’re creating more realistic animals!"
Fans told Zynga they didn’t like the Halloween pack publicly—on message boards curated by community managers—and in the data. People weren’t buying the pack, and the few who did weren’t playing with it much. It was only with these two types of data combined that Zynga could know that the Halloween pack really was the wrong direction for Farmville 2.
"If you look at how many people are actually using something, not just purchasing it but decorating with it, we know if complaints are from a small vocal community, or a large set of players," Fan says.
"[But] we need to create a world that people want to be in," McCarthy adds quickly. "Even if we get data that says something might have been exciting to players, it might be exciting just because it’s new. People might click on a button just because it’s new.
"You have to temper some of the data you get with the long-term vision of where to take the product."