6 Tips on Developing Games for Mobile, from Richard Rabbat of Zynga

by Nina Curley, March 14, 2013

As Zynga looks to make a comeback by focusing on mobile, developers in the Middle East may want to take notes on its tips and tricks- whether or not the company succeeds.

This week has been especially rocky for the ailing game developer. First, their VP, Dan Porter, was quoted admitting that Zynga copies games (although he later clarified that “everyone in the games business copies games”).

After rumors swirled about a potential acquisition by Yahoo, Zynga’s ailing stock jumped up, only to retreat quickly afterwards as most realized that this was unlikely (especially because CEO Mark Pincus has stated that he has no intention to ever sell the company).

Yet despite the fact that Zynga laid off 5% of its employees last October and may have lost 130 million users since the end of 2012, it’s not in the deadpool yet. A Q1 2013 revenue report that surpassed expectations has given its stock price a boost, and its next moves may be especially interesting for game developers in the Middle East, as the company bets on mobile and international players.

After all, mobile isn’t just the future of Zynga, it’s the future of gaming in the Arab world as well.

After launching Farmville 2 last year in Arabic as well as 15 other languages, Zynga released six new titles in the fourth quarter of 2012 that included mobile versions of games that were previously web-only. 24% of its users currently play on mobile, a number that the gaming company is looking to boost by scaling its mobile team from 20 to hundreds of employees.

Stock may still be trading at 60% of its IPO price, but if it continues to axe dinosaurs like CityVille and create another mobile game as popular as Draw Something, which they acquired along with Omgpop, it might keep stakeholders in the game.

Lebanon's Man at Zynga

For American University of Beirut graduate Richard Rabbat, who grew up in Lebanon, joining the Zynga team three years ago was an exciting departure from Google, where things had become a bit corporate- “there wasn’t that sense of emergency.”

Rabbat improved monetization for Google’s AdSense by 10%, helping boost its global use. “When you deliver ads faster, it’s a huge boon in international markets,” he says. After building out Page Speed, a platform that allows developers to evaluate the performance of websites, he came to Zynga to improve game performance. 

Now serving as a General Manager at Zynga, he’ll be at the heart of its new experiments. “We think mobile is a huge growth opportunity.” Yet, of course, he says, “social will be different on mobile.”

With its back against the wall, Zynga likely won’t be afraid to do whatever it takes to make revenue- including acquiring companies that do well, which it has done successfully in the past. Rabbat says they’d be open to acquiring a studio from the Middle East- “It would depend on the opportunity.”

Here are his 6 tips for building mobile games:

  1. Keep your teams small. If you build a team that's too big, your games will be expensive, says Rabbat. Small teams can see changes in the market and adapt more quickly. This is critical, as it's a dynamic space, and what works today might not work in six months. 
     
  2. Look at what's in the market and build upon those ideas. This might not be as blunt as Porter’s assertion that “all games are derived from other games,” but Rabbat points out that those who enter the market with an utterly new idea have a high risk of failure. By the time Farmville 2 launched, Zynga had been in the farming genre for many years. The concept itself was hardly original, but by starting with a base that people understand, and innovating on social aspects, developers can find success more easily. 
     
  3. Continue to delight your users. This may seem obvious, but gamers get bored. Quickly. “What’s more important than the launch of a game is having a plan for keeping people engaged,” says Rabbat. For Zynga, this means weekend challenges on games like Words with Friends, or the release of new features, like snow angels, that people come to the game to see. 
     
  4. Focus on performance. Users can’t wait a whole minute for a game to start, and they have even less appetite for slowdown on mobile, says Rabbat. It’s tough to keep users engaged when they are going through dead zones, or slow areas, like, well Lebanon. And the responsiveness of the game is also critical. To optimize games at Zynga, Rabbat runs experiments that compare different cohorts of players to determine how performance drives retention. Improving performance significantly improved monetization on CityVille, he says.
     
  5. Don't consider smartphone and tablet the same thing. “If you design a game for web and then bring it to a tablet, you need to re-think the interaction,” says Rabbat.  “Replacing a click with a touch directly as a one on one replacement will look foreign.” On tablets, designers should focus on the interaction, and design separately for smartphones; the game is simply different at different sizes. iPhone, he says, has been the most popular platform for Zynga.
     
  6. If a game might not work, don’t launch it. No matter how much investment you’ve poured into a game, consider it a sunk cost, says Rabbat. “If you play-test the game, and it's not fun, go back to the drawing board. Don't think you might as well launch it. If people don't think it's fun, it won't succeed in the market. Never think about the time that you've spent on the game.”

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Nina [nine-uh] is the Editor-in-Chief at Wamda. You can reach her through Wamda, on Twitter @9aa, on Facebook, Google+ or at nina [AT] wamda.com. 

 
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