What does it feel like to have made arguably the most violent video games of all time, only 20 years later to make arguably the most adorable? For Doom creator John Romero, it feels like the good old days. After two decades of creating games for the trigger-happy hardcore crowd with originally a team of four at id Software (and later the MMO crowd through Slipgate Ironworks), the game design icon made a 180 and leaped into Facebook games with Ravenwood Fair by LOLapps.
Now, Romero has founded yet another studio, Loot Drop, which its first social game, Cloudforest Expedition, is due out this summer through publisher RockYou. We chatted with Romero recently for more details on his upcoming games, insight on the social games design process, and the answer to the ultimate question: Why?
Why did you decide to make such a leap from traditional hardcore games to social games? What's so appealing to you about Facebook games?
If you think of game development as a pyramid, I think the tip of the wedge is on Facebook, as far as design goes. The way you have to design a Facebook game is really different than normal games. It's really more difficult to design for this demographic, and the kinds of games you design are extremely different from other games. Most traditional games have a lot of space in them and places to go, while Facebook games typically have a small area that you expect players to spend a ton of time in.
And while they're in there you're trying to get them to buy stuff. To do that and to keep people excited in that area for months is a pretty big design challenge, and to do innovative things where there are so many people making games on Facebook is even more of a challenge. It's a challenging area that supports small teams, which is always more fun than, say, mammoth MMO teams. It's like making a mini MMO; instead of risking tens of millions of dollars on making an MMO that probably won't launch, you get to risk less money with a smaller and actually do launch it in live mode.
What traditional game design skills have served you well in creating Ravenwood Fair and now Cloudforest Expedition?
First of all, knowing how to ramp players through an initial experience is really important, and paying off players who have played the game for a long time-it's really important to do that. It's interesting, because in this space the design is a lot more shallow than hardcore games, but that shallowness is extremely wide. Basically, bringing the knowledge of developing games, knowing how to ramp games, knowing how to scale for millions of people [are all important skills].
So, having run a MMO [massively multiplayer online game] company before this, that part of it on an MMO was actually more sophisticated with a synchronous MMO game than an asynchronous Facebook game. So, that's actually great preparation for doing this. Pretty much everything I know about making games is applicable, but having to unlearn a lot of those things in design that hardcore players like and these casual players are not interested in.
Was there any specific instance that you felt like you had to let back on a design decision where normally you would have just went with it in a traditional game?
One interesting one on Ravenwood Fair was that we actually had everything in the store was basically priced really low when the game launched. We kind of went in and applied a formal ramping to the prices in the store. So, players would open the store and look at the stuff they wanted to buy and go, 'Oh, well I'm going to have to work to get that.' You know, just kind of ramping the game like normal RPGs [roleplaying games] do. When we put that new ramp in place, monetization just dropped in half immediately.
And we had to revert back to the previous cheap model, and basically we figured out that players want to buy everything in the store. So, you can't make every single thing purchasable, but you have to have a lot of stuff purchasable. [The players] not being able to buy the things in the store was gating monetization, because when they bought something from the store and placed it in the world they needed to finish it, and they could monetize. And the barrier was basically, 'Oh, now I need to work for these things, I can't buy as many.' And-boom-there goes monetization. So, letting them basically walk into Walmart and buy everything was exactly what they wanted to do. New games survive through monetization, so we needed to make sure we could get back to that. But it's not only about monetization, it's about the players having a great time, loving the game, but making things available for them to buy.
Loot DropWhich design attitudes did you have to leave behind or take on to create a successful Facebook game?
As a traditional designer, if you come into the social game space with an attitude like, 'Oh, I'm gonna' bring hardcore games to Facebook gamers,' that's not the right attitude. The right attitude is, 'What do these people like? What games are doing a successful job?' Let's play them and get hooked by them to know what makes them tick, and do that with several games and see what patterns are successful. Then, figure out how to apply those patterns to your own design. Not basically steamrolling in there and going, 'I'm bringing hardcore to the Facebook crowd.' That's not going to work.
Now, what can you say of certain studios that have made that their entire focus?
There are some studios out there focused on those hardcore gamers, because their belief is that the hardcore gamer is going to spend more money. Some studios are being smart about it and making multiple kinds of games. EA does stuff like that, and it's important to spread it around and get all kinds of players.
What are you most excited about when it comes to Cloudforest Expedition and your future RockYou project?
The second game is not like this first game-it's almost, possibly for a different kind of player, but still within the same demographic. So, the thing that you do is different, but it should appeal to a wide range of people. So, it's exciting to take this first game that's got it's own little world, and then start another game that's similar in a lot of ways but still really different.
The people on our team are getting better and better at working together, so at some point we've got to do something unexpected and crazy. Developing games is all about the process of developing games. It's not all about the profits you make; it's about the people you work with and how fun it is to actually do it.
Do you think your hardcore tendencies will ever find their way back into your current projects? Why?
Oh yeah, definitely. I always throw my humor into games, no matter what. There are some games that we're talking about doing that are definitely more on the violent shooterish side. A return to full shooter status is sometime in the future. I got some cool ideas, but I really want to do this first, because I think that the space is just awesome. And, somewhere down the road, I think that the ideas are going to converge.
John Romero, Brenda Brathwaite, Jon Knight
What ultimately do you think is missing from the social game space, and how do you plan to fill that void?
In the social space, we have a long ways to go to be able to play these games with our friends in a more meaningful way. So, in our game design we're trying to evolve the 'friend grind' into something that is not your typical friend grind. We want to explore different ways of like, 'Why do I have this friend? Is it because I just want to go take stuff from his land for free, and the more friends I have I get more free stuff?' Or can I do something more beneficial, helpful or meaningful with this friend than just going there and using him.
I think the evolution of that kind of thinking-what the friend ladder really is for-is something we're trying to work on. Well, obviously it's got to be applicable to the game, but in a wider industry sense we want to work on innovating what that 'thing' is.
I think a lot of people want to see those social connections injected with a little more meaning.
I kind of started playing around with that on Ravenwood with the Heart system, where you could take friends from your friend ladder and have them live in your space. I kind of like that direction.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about Cloudforest Expedition?
There are some really cool things we're doing with this game. When people look at Cloudforest they're not going to think, 'Oh, it's like Ravenwood exactly.' It'll be like, 'Wow, this is a really different game.' We're doing some amazing stuff with music-I'll just say that.