GDC 2010 – Thursday

GDC plods on! i have moments when i can’t stomach meeting a single new person, and others where i get nervous about not making the most of my days here. i’m back in the hotel room chilling and blogging, so that i can be up at 7:30 tomorrow morning for a breakfast with fellow kids’ game developers.


Om nom nom nom nom. Breffist!

Here’s what i saw today:

The 4 Most Important Emotions for Social Games

* view the slides here! *

Nicole Lazzaro (@nicolelazzaro) is a psychologist and games industry consultant who’s been around for quite a while. She has studied emotion in games, and based on her findings, has split fun into four categories:

  1. Easy fun – exploration and discovery
  2. Hard fun – overcoming really tough challenges
  3. Serious Fun – high scores, collections, competition
  4. Social Fun – trading, chatting, suprPoking

She found that most of the emotions that players experienced while playing games fall into the “Social Fun” category. She further elaborated on the four emotions that make players share (this lady has a thing for fours, i guess):

  1. Amusement – dancing, teasing, chatting and jokes
  2. Amici (chumminess) – neighbourliness, visiting, people, plants & pets
  3. Amidar (admiration) – ranking, status
  4. Amigro (reciprocity) – mechanisms for players to respond to each other socially

She also has a thing for words that start with “a”, and – apparently – using Italian words when English words will do. A few times during her talk, she’d say something like “the concept i’m trying to describe doesn’t have an equivalent in English, so i’ll use the Italian word, ‘casa’.” (um … lady, i think you mean “house.”)


There’s just no possible way i can describe it – i’ll just have to be pretentious.

It all came off as sort of elitist and obnoxious, and got under my skin. i really got annoyed when Nicole wondered aloud what we have to do to make a game so socially viable and connected that all 6 billion of us on the planet will play it.

It just … does she realize that a significant portion of the world doesn’t have food, let alone electricity, to play her theoretical Facebook game? Here are some facts from WorldVision: 840 million people in the world are hungry. 2.1 billion live on less than $2 a day, and 880 million live on less than $1 a day. 26 000 children die every day from preventable disease – that 9 million kids a year. Games are great and all, but damn, Nicole … the world has different priorities.

Sudanese child

Finishing New Super Mario Bros. Wii: not a priority.

One of the concepts Nicole brought up in her talk played into another talk later in the day. She called it “fiero”, which may very well be an Italian sportscar or gelato flavour, but also describes the burning passion that fills your gut when you finally conquer a difficult challenge, after repeated failed attempts. Remember fiero – it’ll come up later in this article.

Creating Successful Social Games: Understanding Player Behaviour / Developing a Metric Mindset

Speaker Mark Skaggs from Zynga redeemed himself a tiny bit from his very tight-lipped panel at the Flash Gaming Summit on Monday. It’s almost as if GDC was important, and FGS was not, so he weighted most of his efforts to today’s talk. He came off snippy and a bit pompous, but it’s easy to think you’re awesome when you’re wearing underpants woven from the fibers of shredded hundred dollar bills.

dollar bill boxers

i think these are called “munderpants”.

The thrust of Mark’s talk compelled listeners to move toward a “metric mindset”. That means that instead of championing design decisions by making statements like “on my last game, we did it this way” or “i worked hard on this feature and i think players will love it,” or “i’m the boss, so we’ll do it my way,” you move toward a place where you say things like “what do the numbers tell us?” and “thank God we have these numbers!” His point was that numbers would essentially design your game for you.

Mark gave the example of a text link above the game cross-promoting their latest game MafiaFishTown, or whatever. The team thought that red was absolutely the right colour for the link, but they tested a bunch of colours, and found that pink was the best choice. That bit came up again in another talk, so remember that too! Keep reading to find out how this all comes together.

The biggest and most straight-forward take-away from this talk was Mark’s list of what to measure in your games:

  1. How many people install?
  2. How many people make it through the first 5 minutes/past the tutorial?
  3. How many people are playing today?
  4. Do players tell their friends?
  5. Who’s coming back?
  6. Who isn’t?
  7. How much money do players spend in the game?
  8. What do players enjoy doing?

Mark said that instead of trying to answer “what is fun?”, try answering “what do players enjoy doing?”

On the last point, Mark offered the example of Super Berries. The team already knew that players loved planting fast-growing strawberries, so they created a virtual item called SuperBerries. SuperBerries cost more than strawberries, but they gave a 3x return in half the time. The important point is that they chose a strawberry-like skin for the item instead of watermelons or blackberries, because the players liked strawberries. SuperBerries were incredibly successful.

Farmville SuperBerries

“SuperBerries” was also my nickname in high school.


Lunch was sponsored by PlayHaven. Unfortunately, the best thing about this panel was the food. PlayHaven assembled a room and a panel filled with iPhone developers, lawyers, and assorted hangers-on. The panel questions and responses were far too basic for my taste … stuff about how to register your business, the 99 cent race to the bottom in the App Store, and the difference between copyright and trademark.

The one bit i think that was worth mentioning came from someone i noted as “bald guy” – i was too far in the back of the room to hear everybody’s names. (Bald Guy! If you’re reading this, please identify yourself!)

Bald Guy said that the only way you can make money in the App Store is to crack the top 100, and without smart marketing, the only way to do THAT is to spend $50k on AdMob inventory. So if it’s down to marketing, Bald Guy listed the following tools for getting the word out about your iPhone game outside the App Store:

  1. Create a landing page ( You have a lot more control over it than you do over your game’s App Store page.
  2. Use video (trailers, etc) to promote your game. 53% of visitors click on a video. Bald Guy claimed that having video doubles your conversion rate. (conversion to paid, not to Judaism)
  3. Use PR firms. Lots of firms will do cheap grassroots campaigns for you. (Ryan’s counterpoint: don’t waste your money! The quality of the campaign you get out of these guys for chump change is just as easy to pull off yourself for free)
  4. Involve bloggers, ScoreLoop, OpenFeint, etc.

Crushing the Overhead: Case Study of a Microstudio Start-up

Randy Smith from Tiger Style, creators of Spider, gave this talk. i’m not going to say too much about it, because it made no sense. He might as well have been up there saying “here’s how we made our game: first, i hit myself in the face with a hammer. Then, we made gumdrop shoes and drove a tank into four lighthouses. Finally, dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache.”

Rabid seal


i was just mystified during the whole talk. Randy told us about how he got laid off from his job at EA and decided to make a game. He emailed a bunch of people to ask if they wanted to work on a game with him for free, and they said “yes”. He didn’t draw up any legal contracts, but wrote all the contracts himself. He gave everyone royalty points based on how many hours a week they pulled on the project. Some people did 2.5 hours a week. Everyone telecommuted. If something didn’t get done because people flaked out on him, he or his partner did it themselves. When the game turned a $300k+ profit, everyone got paid at the same rate – artists and programmers alike. Dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache. i left with my head spinning.

As long as i’m being contentious, i may as well take exception to something Randy said:

“We’re good business people, not evil try-to-get-rich business people.”

i hope Randy’s distinguishing here between trying to get rich, and trying to earn a living. i have a wife, two children, a mortgage, and a diabolical cocaine habit. i make no apologies for trying to be profitable in my bidness.

Little Hands, Foul Moods, and Runny Noses 3: Research for Developing Kid-Friendly Social Gaming Experiences

i saw Carla’s talk last year, and actually preferred it to this one. There was a bit of repeat here, like the term “prosocial”, which means “not being a dick.” It’s the concept of doing something for someone else even when you don’t profit. Carla offered a few interesting points about prosocial behaviour and gaming:

  • Young people who play aggressive games (Face-Stabber 4: The Stabbening, etc) donate less than prosocial game players
  • When presented with a story starter like “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and …” young adults who play prosocial games finish the story in prosocial ways, like “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and a kindly young gentleman helped her across the street”, instead of “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and bitch got FACE-STABBED, yo!!”

i admit i drifted off with most of Carla’s presentation … a lot of heavy slides came up with stuff like “kids between the ages of whatever and whatever like co-play in groups of like-gendered individuals, while kids of gendered play-co prosocial prefer harmonizing trade agreements passive repsonse play dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache.” There’s only so much GDC i can take.

Still, i hope to make it to Carla’s breakfast tomorrow morning, if only to brag about my four-year-old daughter, who can do a lot of the things that Carla said 4-year-olds can’t do during the session question period. Yes, there IS a great game that a parent and child can play together: Super Mario Galaxy. (Daddy does all the running and jumping while his little girl collects star bits with the second controller) Yes, 4-year-olds CAN understand asynchronous play – my daughter gets Fishville gifts from her Facebook friends all the time, and seems to grasp the concept.

Achievements Considered Harmful?

The most provocative and best talk of the day, and the one that the Nicole and Mark talks led up to, was this session by Chris Hecker. Chris C’d his A at the beginning of the talk by defensively pointing out that psychological studies are fallible, and went on to talk about research that suggests that rewarding people to do stuff is a bad idea.

To put it simply, if i give you a tchotchke for doing something – a gold star, an achievement, a paycheque – you’re less likely to be motivated to do that thing again. If you pay people to wear their seat belts, they’re less likely to wear their seat belts when they’re not being paid. If you reward people for trying new foods, they’re less likely to eat those foods again. If you praise or reward someone for doing a puzzle, he’s more likely to seek out a different activity than to continue doing the puzzle.

The researchers tested out all kinds of different types of rewards. Here are a few:

  • tangible/symbolic (achievements, candy, money) vs. verbal
  • expected vs. unexpected
  • informational (“you killed 5 orcs”) vs controlling (“you killed 5 orcs, just as you ought to”)
  • dull tasks vs. interesting tasks
  • contingent (do this to get this) vs. non-contingent (do this, or not – you’ll be rewarded anyway)
  • endogenous (read a book, get a book as a reward) vs. exogenous (read a book, get a dollar as a reward)

A meta-analysis of over 100-such tests on reward systems found that when you had an interesting (vs. dull) task that was rewarded with something tangible, expected, and contingent (like XBox Achievements, or many other reward systems we use in gaming), you reduced intrinsic meaning (giving a f*ck).

However, for an interesting task where the reward was verbal, informational, and unexpected (Hey! You killed 5 orcs!) free choice increased, and subjects self-reported higher instances of giving a f*ck.

He also mentioned that this not giving a f*ck effect has a larger impact on females than it does males.

Hecker took on Jesse Schell’s oft-blogged talk from DICE 2010, where he imagined a world where everything around you gave you points – your toothbrush gave you points for brushing, the government gave you points or money for raising your kids well, etc. Hecker suggested that Schell and two other respected colleagues were talking out of their collective asses, because they haven’t looked at the research, which says (among other things) that when you pay a kid for getting good grades, the kid’s grades subsequently drop. Fascinating stuff!

And in the climax of his presentation, Hecker took a juicy bite out of Zynga. i paraphrase:

If you’re intentionally making dull games with extrinsically motivating factors (rewards) to separate people from their money, i pity you.

i really enjoyed this talk because it was thought-provoking and controversial. Hecker didn’t declare himself right, but he made a compelling case based on the evidence. i got into a conversation during the question period with another small studio head, who lined up to ask the same question i did: if rewards demotivate women more than men, why does Farmville seem to be doing so well with such a large female audience? (i found his answer unsatisfying, to the point where i honestly can’t even remember it!)

The other dev and i went over a pile of cases where the research didn’t bear out: he remembers going to the arcade and practicing Dance Dance Revolution until he could get a Perfect rating on most of the songs on a high difficulty level. Remembering that earlier session, i told him that he was experiencing fiero when he overcame those challenges, which is part of Nicole’s “Serious Fun” quadrant.

The session provided a lot of food for thought, but there were too many DDR anecdotes and exceptions to take the research results as gospel. Still, it helped me cook up a never-before-seen style of reward that i’m excited to pioneer in Spellirium! i’ll leave it on that mysterious note.

The Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards

Lots of great games, lots of worthy award-winners … a big sweep by Naughty Dog for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. i left mid-way through Gabe Newell’s speech (he heads Valve), because i had to pee and i was kinda bored.

Let me just mention that Farmville won the award in the new Social Gaming category, and that absolutely had to happen. Farmville will go down in gaming history as the first social game to make people stand up and take notice of these new social play mechanics. The guy who accepted the award (didn’t recognize him – anyone know?) gave a very defensive, almost hostile speech, goading the largely triple-A console audience to come fill the over 200 job postings at Zynga. He drew at least one “boo” from where i was sitting. The speech was a bit tense. There was only polite applause when Zynga was announced the winner.

People will say bad things about you when they feel you’ve been very successful (financially or otherwise) and they feel you don’t deserve it. i can’t tell if the many, many Zynga opponents take issue with the exploitative, addictive and manipulative nature of the company’s games, or whether they’re simply jealous? Before Zynga came along and struck gold, we were all talking about how to make games more sticky and addictive. When Zynga finally pulled it off and made a game that was ACTUALLY ADDICTIVE, everyone started shaking their fists. For years, developers have been making games that make players fat, that make them aggressive, and that make them anti-social. Let’s face it, folks: the track record for the games indudstry has not been jam-packed with redeeming qualities. It’s just in the past few years that i’ve seen people really start talking about games for the Greater Good. i feel it’s untoward for the industry to shake torches and pitchforks at the monster they themselves helped to create.


Grr! Why can’t Zynga produce redeeming games like the rest of us – games like Face-Stabber 4?

13 thoughts on “GDC 2010 – Thursday

  1. Facebook Indie Games

    Nice work Ryan another tip top write up. The 4 Emotions talk sounds right up my street despite the bella bella. I love it when somebody breaks the world down into easily understood categories.

  2. Pingback: It came from GDC: Are achievements harmful? « Welcome to Spinksville!

  3. paul

    “Finally, dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache.”

    I can’t stop laughing at that…I look away but when I look back the humor is still there!

  4. Scarybug

    Raph Koster mentions “fiero” in “Theory of Fun”. That’s a pretty good read if you haven’t seen it. His main thesis is that the most important type of “fun” comes from mastering a skill. Not even necessarily a hard skill.

    The evolutionary “purpose” of fun is to reward play, and the point of play is to practice skills that might come in handy. Even a game like Face-Stabber gives you a skill to master. That skill probably isn’t real face-stabbing, but some kind of combo of aggressive tactics and hand-eye coordination and timing. These might not be especially redeeming skills, but at least your brain is learning SOMETHING from this kind of play. This is the thesis I use to make games that contain educational gameplay, versus “edutainment” games, which stuff didactic information into a game, or reskin a fun game with a mildly educationy look and feel.

    Meanwhile the achievements that reward completing a repetitive task n times, and games that use the same psychological hooks as a Skinner Box are just addictive, they aren’t also fun.

    I wonder what the value of achievements can be if they are structured to only re-enforce the awesomeness of a player who plays a game in a way that they have the most fun. Instead of “Shoot 200 guys to win this badge” what about “Wow! You just killed 8 guys with one grenade! Did you see that? That was crazy!” badges that only show up once you have them, and are only there to mark an occasion of awesomeness. Even if you do know ahead of time, a badge that is awarded for “Kill 8 guys with one grenade” is at least a skill that has to be mastered, versus a repetitive easy task.

    I’ve had 6 hours of sleep, so I apologies if this all sounds like caterpillar brass stove wind sprints.

  5. Michael

    Awesome. Thanks so much for writing all this up. I have to go next year.

    It’s been nagging at me that the Chris Hecker talk seems so familiar… and I finally figured out why. A psychologist named Edward Deci did similar experiments way back in the 70s, getting students to play a block puzzle game called Soma and paying some of them to do so. Results were the same as Hecker’s. Interesting! Found a section from his book on it here (starts at “The Effects of Monetary Rewards”).

    1. Ryan

      Tinctature – i’m amazed you’re the only one getting on my case about that! Hahaha. It’s worth a whole blog post, which i promise i’ll write this week!

  6. Rob Segal

    I’m gathering by your counterpoint in the article about marketing that you have dumped alot of dollars into this area? We’ve been thinking about doing this with Get Set Games but the process often comes to a standstill because we really don’t know the best way to approach this or whether it would be worth it. I was wondering if you might speak a bit about your experiences in this area.

    1. Ryan

      Rob – i’ve never actually run an ad campaign myself, but i’ve spoken to about a dozen small studios about their campaigns, and almost to a man, they say it wasn’t worth the money.

      The exception is Facebook advertising. There was a lot of talk at the Flash Gaming Summit about running cheap $50 campaigns on Facebook to test social game ideas, but that’s not really what you’re doing.

      If you’re considering buying some inventory on TouchArcade for PopTweets, i’d say buyer beware for sure.

      - Ryan

  7. Pingback: » GDC 2010 – Friday

  8. Luis Soto

    You know most of your opinions were great but I really didn’t appreciate you making people who play violent games seem like assholes. I play very violent games I’ll admit they can be exaggeratedly terrible but I do all I can to help people when I can so you know it’s kind of unfair to just generalize people like me.


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