As a Product Manager on social games, I know that adding innovation to a game is a really tough challenge that involves a lot of risk. In fact, the design of social games has made a lot of appearances in the news lately – specifically how they are often ‘cloned’ or ‘fast-followed’ and are rarely genuinely new. For example, EA is currently suing Zynga because they believe The Ville is too close to The Sims Social.
In general, I believe fast-follows are a valid way to produce games as long as the company puts their own ‘spin’ on the game. Fast-follows are a well-known method of reducing risk since the production of games is so costly. This poses a unique challenge for Game Designers. The purpose of game design is to bring something new and innovative to the games – and that innately means ‘risk.’ And worst of all, the risks associated with innovative game design are not easily measured.
Game designers have a weird job. At root, it is their responsibility to ensure that a game is fun to play. The problem with being a game designer is ‘fun’ is an extremely relative term.
– Kevin Levine, Mastermind of Bioshock
However, I believe we need to push the boundaries of game design at least a little in order to get break-out hits. Take Dragonvale for example – it’s not much different than many other animal collecting games, but the simple and unique new features it adds to the genre are enough to make it feel new – and now it’s a break-out success. Dragonvale has even created a new genre of breeding games which has multiple fast-follows of it’s own.
In my roles at Namco and IDEO, I was taught to use a top-down approach to design. This meant we would start designing the game from the player’s perspective and think of the big picture before diving into any of the smaller details (see David Kelly’s TED talk on human-centered design). However, due to the nature of fast-follows and the fact that many social games companies are new to the games industry, they often take a bottom-up approach. A bottom-up approach means figuring out the smaller details of the components desired in a game before thinking about the bigger picture. For fast-follows, it seems natural to ‘add’ details to the already existing game vs.what may seem like a more risky method of finding ways to impact the overall experience. See this gamasutra article – The Designer’s Notebook: The Perils of Bottom-up Game Design. The most striking line in the article:
…you run a serious risk that a few months before gold master, you’ll suddenly be asking yourself the dreaded question: “Why isn’t this more fun?” And then you’re in real trouble.
In order to create a cohesive design, maintain a solid vision and produce a fun experience, I find the top-down approach to be essential, even if the game is intended to be a fast-follow. However, in order to really push the boundaries of game design, I believe it’s important to start even further out than the ‘big picture’ i.e. start with blue sky ideation and few limitations. Then, narrow in on a feasible game design. For me, this means I start with ideas way crazier than I know I’d ever do and then narrow in by finding feasible ways to achieve the same effect. As the saying goes, shoot for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
Having held roles in game design, production and product management, I have the experience necessary to add innovation with minimal risk from a game design perspective, to know what is feasible from a production standpoint and to have an understanding of what works from a product management perspective. Therefore, I’m ready to bridge the gap between Game Design and Product management. I’m going to shoot for the moon and start pushing the boundaries of social game design!