Some random thoughts (and surprising ‘learnings’) on web game development at AOL’s Games.com
I’m currently producing seven online games for Games.com. We’re building everything from a brain game (to make America smarter) to a Zombie game (to make America dumber).
While they’re mostly in the Alpha stage it’s pretty clear which titles will need more TLC than the others. It’s always interesting to see how quality, or lack thereof, can emerge almost immediately. Every game is a “game-of-the-year” contender before it starts getting built, but the sheen of a fine-tuned spec is the first element to dim.
Even in the face of problems on the battleground, I enjoy the process of guiding the design and getting at the fun of a title. It can be tough, especially when tackling a few at a time, but good teams ultimately hit a stride where the final product comes into focus and everyone converges on what needs to be done.
In many ways it’s like writing a book with an outline. But in the case of crafting online games, the outline’s ending is doomed from the moment fingertip meets keyboard and the first line of code is laid down. With online games, in fact with any game development, you’re working with committee (especially at AOL). This means the product is more at risk to get paralyzed by points of view; and conversely, a team effort can blossom into tremendous gains for the title.
Case in point is a game we made last year called Ice Breakers. There were only 3 people building it — all of us focused on making the same game. Then we had the larger Games.com team, which had other tweak ideas and various methods of communicating said ideas. For a while it was a mess. But as we hammered through the frustrating meetings, the harrowing internal tests, the hurt feelings and late nights, we arrived at launch with a great game. Ice Breakers now sits at #2 on Games.com and has been there, consistently, for a year now. It rarely has less than 2000 people playing at any given time. People spend an average of 30+ minutes engaged and enjoying themselves. That’s what I call a success, by any standard.
Will any of the other games we’re making reach that level of success? Definitely. Will it be because of well-crafted specs, clear communication and hierarchical design decisions that sweep confusion and delay aside? Not a chance in hell. But the semi-organized mess of opinions, ideas, sweeping arguments and eurekas that will get us to the next hit will likely be as fun as the product we launch. In hindsight, of course…