Jul 28, 2011

How To Build A Social Game

The Idea

You might be wondering what I’m doing building a game called BabySitter on Facebook. We all have our hobbies and one of mine is building apps for fun.

BabySitter

Sometimes the best ideas come from what’s right in front of your eyes. Friends, relatives, and colleagues were all having babies. I would go over to friends’ houses and they would be talking about their kids, about all the ups and downs. They would talk about baby food and potty training, babysitters and birthday parties. Of course there were also the big milestones: learning to walk, switching from soft food to solid, learning to read. And the difficult times like getting sick and having to go to the doctor.

I wanted to build a game where I could try out a bunch of interesting viral approaches. I thought about building a cool social car racing game where you started with an old beater you inherited from your Uncle, but it seemed complex for a first game. And I wanted something where I would have no shortage of new ideas, no limits to what I could add. Thus… BabySitter. When I needed a new idea I would go over to a friend’s house, listen to them talk, play with their kids, and yes, look at a few parenting magazines.

Was a little piece of me trying to get on the good side of the woman I was dating? I won’t deny it. And was my Stanford MBA schooled brain subconsciously optimizing for a highly desirable demographic and gap in the social gaming market? It’s entirely possible.

Development
Game development is incredibly fun because it’s so creative. It involves three very interesting aspects: game design itself, which includes human psychology, incentives, and rewards; the artwork, which while I make a terrible artist myself I have very strong opinions on; and monetization. What’s really great about building social games is that they’re social (duh!) and they are relatively inexpensive to build.

One challenge is finding or putting together a team that can build games. Game development is a lot different than web site design or mobile app development. A game requires artwork creation, animation, and back-end development. That’s not a particularly easy mix to find.

When I started out, I found a developer who did great graphics work. The babies he designed were cute. He added in music without my asking him… it looked great. But tortoises crawl faster than my app was being developed. I tried another development shop but disliked the babies that came out. I don’t have the images anymore, but they looked sickly and not cute at all. I sent them some samples and told them to plump up the babies, make them cute. They did, and the babies of BabySitter were born. The developers have been ultra-responsive and great to work with ever since.

A Conversation Piece
The other thing I love about working on BabySitter is people always have opinions on it. “You should add doctor’s visits…. You should add a school… What about doing something for Halloween?” Amusingly, I started enjoying all the conversations with my friends about their kids, because I was mentally making a huge list of exciting new features to add to the game. The list never ends, which is the beautiful thing about creating a game like this.

Plus people have a lot of fun with it. The looks of incredulity when I say I’m working on a baby game are worth every penny I’ve spent building it, and my friends get a great laugh and enjoy giving me no end of grief.

What really takes the cake, however, is the user feedback. Users are not shy about posting critical feedback on features that need improvement and bugs that need fixing, but there are also comments like, “I love this game.” That’s priceless. I’ve gone from nothing to something to something that more than a few people love playing. If you don’t get why that’s so cool, I won’t try to explain it, but having started companies and built software since the age of 12, there’s just nothing like creating something from scratch and then having people love it and pay money for it.

Learning The Facebook Platform
I did have a few other goals in starting this project. One was to learn about Facebook as a platform. How easy or hard was it to build apps? I wanted hands on experience with MAU’s and DAU’s so I could really internalize what those meant. When entrepreneurs talked about their MAU and DAU growth, it was very abstract. I needed to make it applied and real by experiencing it myself.

I also wanted to learn about monetization. People would tell me about the required shift to Facebook Credits, but what did it really mean? What was the impact on the applications and the user experience? Where the revenue went was obvious. But what about the product experience and monetization?

When it comes to startups, user acquisition and customer LTV are everything. How was Facebook as an advertising platform? A lot of people told me that social didn’t monetize well, that it was hard to convert. During business school, I started and ran a $750K run-rate consumer lead generation business. That meant I moved a lot of traffic. I wanted to understand and get a feel for this new traffic platform.

It turns out that spending money on Facebook ads and Sponsored stories is an excellent way to drive traffic. And equally as interesting are the implications for Facebook (and Apple for iPhone apps): not only do I spend money with the company to drive traffic, I also give them a portion of the revenue generated from that traffic!  With the right game dynamics (like Birthday Parties, which involve lots of friends), users will invite their friends and provide significant organic traffic growth.

Growing Pains
Just as growing up isn’t a cakewalk, neither is building BabySitter. Take for instance the day that the Facebook ads I was running wildly exceeded my expectations for new user acquisition, plus a database that was sorely in need of an overhaul. Dozens of users complained and the game screeched to a halt. It took two weeks to switch to Amazon RDS and revamp the database. But now BabySitter is back and growing. Yesterday users sent out more than 1,250 invites to their friends.

No startup grows as fast as it wants to. When it comes to BabySitter, I can’t build artwork and new game features as fast as I want. To do this, I need to expand the development and art teams. But sprints are now running smoothly.

Converting to Facebook credits also took some time. I liked the old gWallet offers because it meant that babysitters could do “work” in exchange for currency. The “work” was watching advertising videos or completing offers. I loved this because sometimes they could pay with their wallets, other times they could pay with their time. I haven’t yet found a replacement for gWallet and users are pushing for more ways to earn BabyCash. (Did I tell you about BabyCash? More on that next time.)

Then there was the day that Facebook shut down wall posting for my app (and others). I wasn’t feeling any “Developer Love” on that day. Suddenly, users were getting popups saying things like: Unable to publish stream. Most of the invite functionality stopped working. It was painful.

Yet my ads were still running. So I had lots of new users showing up getting a bad experience. I was brutally reminded of online marketing rule #3: turn off the ads if the site’s not working! Fortunately, after fixing some holes in the app, my request to re-instantiate wall publishing was approved. I recently turned ads and Sponsored Stories back on and users are joining in droves once again.

The End Game
Friends keep telling me how crowded the social gaming space is. That may be true, but it’s still a ton of fun building a social game. Did I tell you about the new Add-A-Dad feature? And yes, we do support multiple Dads.

The monetization opportunities are endless and the demographic is ordinarily a tough one to reach. Plus, there’s the sequel: Teenagers, where you have to shuttle your kids around to school…

1 Comment

  • Hi,

    I am Srikant Aggarwal, a Software Developer from India. I am interested in working in the Gaming Industry (currently involved in UI Development for corporate) and have previous experience working on Game Engine development for Casinos and Rendering Engine.
    I would like to start developing Games through a Social Game. Can you please give me guidance ?
    My email id is srikantaggarwal@gmail.com

    Regards,
    Srikant

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