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Words With Friends dev: Single player mode ‘would have crippled our game’

by Phil Hornshaw

The way to really be successful with a mobile game is to distill it down to its core element, and make sure that everything that goes into the game after that builds on, and complements, that experience.

That’s the trick, according to Zynga With Friends Technical Director Vijay Thakkar: a concise, clear concept has been essential the success to the developer’s marquis title, Words With Friends. Thakkar described the developer’s process in creating successful mobile titles during his talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference (GDC), entitled “Changing the Way We Make Games: Lessons Learned in the Transition from AAA to Mobile Development.”

“You have to experiment (with your game) until you find a nugget of fun, remove everything that doesn’t augment that fun, then polish the crap out of it,” Thakker said at the conference, which is a week-long event in which game developers talk about their projects, processes, success and failures

Thakkar said Words With Friends, the massively popular social Scrabble-esque title Zynga With Friends created back when it was called Newtoy, almost fell into victim to the pitfall of making sure every feature built upon the “nugget of fun.”

During the development of the game, Newtoy’s game developers argued about whether the game should include an artificial reality component: basically, a single-player option.

“With Words, we had massive arguments about an AI mode. We kept asking ourselves, ‘Will this product succeed without this feature?’”

Ultimately, the decision was made to stay true to the game’s absolute core concept, which was a social experience played against other people. Since it was completed, Words With Friends has expanded from being solely an iPhone game to include iPad and, most recently, Android versions, all of which are designed to interact with each other regardless of platform. The original concept for the game, inspired by the core fun derrived of big multiplayer video games like World of Warcraft, was its social aspect.

But it could have gone differently.

“Obviously it [Words With Friends] didn’t ship with a single-player mode, and if it had shipped with one, it probably would have crippled our game,” Thakkar said.

Centering the talk around Newtoy’s decision to make smaller, downloadable or mobile games rather than big traditional AAA video game titles such as those found in the Halo or World of Warcraft franchises, Thakkar described the developer’s approach as being highly agile and true to the scale of the platforms for which it makes games. Cutting features -- even features staff members really wanted or believed in -- is a big part of the company’s philosophy when it comes to making sure every part of a game supports the fun at its core.

The small approach seems to be working. Words With Friends is an extremely popular title: Thakkar said it was logging four million daily users and had another 20 million unique users who regularly played the game. And those figures were already out of date, he said, since the recent release of Words With Friends for Android.

The small-scale, core-concept design philosophy is interesting, considering Gameloft’s VP of worldwide publishing, Gonzague de Vallois, said that the rising cost of developing games for the mobile platform -- or at least AAA games more reminiscent of traditional video games, like what Gameloft makes -- will push app prices up and push out developers who make smaller games.

Based on Words With Friends’ success, though, if that shift is coming, it doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. Meanwhile, the mobile space continues to expand and accelerate, and players continue to pull enjoyment out of Zynga With Friends’ “nuggets of fun.” Thakkar said, during his talk, that his company’s servers for the With Friends titles, Words and Chess, process 1,000 “moves,” or game actions, every single second.