GamesBeat

A walk on the California coast with Eric Schiermeyer, the cofounder and former analytics expert at Zynga (interview)

Half Moon Bay near Ritz Carlton

Above: Half Moon Bay near Ritz Carlton

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: You mentioned the analytics issue. That was always what you brought to Zynga. I overheard some of those stories in the early days – how easily accepted was that, or how controversial was that, when you first proposed it at Zynga?

Schiermeyer: It was quite controversial to get it going. I don’t think Mike Luxton will mind if I tell this story. He and I had a shouting match over that, back when he was CTO. He was my friend that I knew from high school. When we started the company, I brought him in right away.

Mike and I were talking about poker. We were getting it ready to launch on Facebook, and we started arguing about what should and shouldn’t be tracked. Mike wanted to get the game out there. He wanted to focus on other aspects of the app and make them work. For example, two pair would beat a straight about 75 percent of the time when we first launched it. I was like, “We’re flying blind. We don’t know what’s going on. We have no idea what people like about this game. Let’s put some metrics in there.”

But that wasn’t the only time we had arguments. We launched another game, a simple car racing game. I remember having a huge argument with the guy who was responsible for it. We weren’t even tracking unique user IDs. We had no idea who was playing. Luckily, Mark didn’t have any objections to it. He came out of the finance industry. He was already sensitized to the importance of data. He had some sensitivity to understanding what users were doing. But it was really me who was forcing it to happen.

GamesBeat: It seems like it just continued to be controversial the whole time, with more and more game designers weighing in. They’re either jealous or appalled that the intuition of the game designer is less of a priority than the analytics.

Schiermeyer: That’s been an interesting debate that I’ve been a part of for the last seven or eight years. When I started pushing this forward and establishing it as an actual discipline at Zynga, I think I pissed off a lot of people. Back then, the very beginning of this, people would not think in terms of what they were trying to accomplish. You had this game. It was live. It was in existence. People would just come up with random ideas because they thought it was cool. There was no basis for even why they thought it was cool. It was the game developer’s intuition. I remember Bing had a term for it. He used to call it “the golden gut.”

What happened was, I was fighting that tooth and nail for quite a number of years. One of my biggest regrets, when I was leaving Zynga, was that I wasn’t finished with creating the product management discipline in the way that I saw it needed to be created. The main thing that was missing was the game designer’s intuition. It turned into this thing that fed itself. People began to worship analytics in the same irrational way that game designers were worshipping their navels.

It got to this point—It was so incredibly incremental. People would sit down and have entire two-hour meetings about how to move daily active users by 10,000. They’d give this big presentation, explain it all in great detail, all their justifications for doing that or this. Just so they could change it by 0.1 percent. I’m not kidding. This actually happened, more than once. Meanwhile, the debate around game design intuition was going on. Game designers were feeling left out of the equation. Product managers were running rampant with their Powerpoints.

Greedy Goblins gives you a reason to run.

Above: Greedy Goblins gives you a reason to run.

Image Credit: Luminary

GamesBeat: I remember they were saying that there were 150 people with the title of game designer. At the time it was around 3,000-ish in the traditional game industry. I don’t know if they had the chance to be really creative.

Schiermeyer: That was a problem. The traditional game industry did not know how to run a game as a service. When you’re in a two- or four-year development cycle, making a console or PC game, there’s no other choice but to trust somebody’s intuition. Somebody has to bet on what the future’s going to hold. You can’t do that when you can actually know what’s occurring. You can make a change and then see what the result is.

What I was trying to make happen was to combine the intuitive minds of the game developers and the analytic minds of the product managers into one discipline. The guys who really got it, who were nailing it, who were the most successful ones at the company. Mark Skaggs [the project lead on the Ville titles] was one of the first guys who worked with me. He took everything I had to share with him about the analytic side and mixed it with his own product sense.

GamesBeat: I talked to him a lot in those days. He said that he had made artsy games in the past and nobody played them. He was tired of that. And then he made the Ville series. Was that some of what put an end to the debate within Zynga, the success of games like that? Did it validate the use of analytics?

Schiermeyer: There was no question that the use of analytics was an immensely powerful tool. But by the time I left, the organization had become pretty divided along analytics versus creative. It was frustrating for me, because it was obvious that it needed to be the same discipline. One or the other wasn’t enough to be successful.

GamesBeat: It sounds like most of you in the new company are more technical. Is there some design talent there as well?

Schiermeyer: Dave Glenn, yeah. He’s more of a game designer and artist. My background is in technology, but I at least respect the need for creativity.

GamesBeat: And mobile, is that the target? That’s the one that makes sense?

Schiermeyer: Yeah. It’s the one that makes sense. We’ve found something that nobody’s done yet. I can show you a bit of it, actually. What you’re going to see here is part of the single-player experience. This is the basic track editor interface. It’ll be a lot prettier in a couple of days. You’re picking from track sections here. These right now are 100 meters long — mechanical, magical, wooden, stone.

Each of these guys here has a different capability. This guy can defeat mechanical. This guy can defeat magical. This guy can bust through things like stone. Right here, you see there’s some glue on the track. The idea is, let’s say this is your castle. I’m trying to get to your vault. This is your gold. I’m trying to steal all your gold. I have only a certain amount of bag space left. But if I die, all my stuff is left there. The gold goes back into the vault, but all the items that I picked up—This stuff that I left here, you can use to get more troops.

GamesBeat: An endless runner, then?

Schiermeyer: No, it’s a finite runner. We’re calling it a strategic runner. What we’re building now is the strategy aspect – your base management and a simplified take on the stuff that you’d see in something like Clash of Clans. You’re building a base and getting resources and going out to attack other people.

GamesBeat: Do you see this as a series, or just this one game here at this point?

Schiermeyer: I can see it as a series. I can see different genres we can take this to. It’s a popular mechanic. We’re calling it Greedy Goblins. We’re trying to come up with a funny story about that.

GamesBeat: So did you conceive of the company on this trail here?

Schiermeyer: That’s a good question. It was probably down in Encinitas, where I thought of it. I spend a good chunk of the summer down there. It’s so cloudy up in San Francisco.

GamesBeat: It’s an interesting idea. I don’t think anyone has come near doing it before.

Schiermeyer: Not that I’ve seen.

GamesBeat: Why is the idea of ending it important, too? As opposed to making it endless.

Schiermeyer: I’ve played most of the runners that are out right now. Part of my process is that I’ll play anything. Anything that’s growing or anything that’s successful. I’ll deconstruct it. I looked at the different runners out there, and I just get bored. Every single one, no matter what the graphics were or what the fantasy was, I’d always get bored, every time.

My analysis of my own internal feelings—I’ve played games my entire life. The idea for Zynga was because of World of Warcraft. When Mark and I got together, he was talking about Tribe and how he wanted to buy C|Net. I was telling him, “You have to realize, World of Warcraft is the most profitable social network on the planet right now.”

One of the things that I’ve noticed about runners in particular is that I get bored. It’s meaningless. I don’t care if I get 100 meters more or 1,000 meters more than I did last time. I don’t give a shit if my friends do. It’s meaningless to me. It becomes, at best, an addictive experience that I could waste some time doing. I’ve never spent money on it, not once.

I really pay attention to that. If I don’t spend money on a game, I always try to figure out why. I’ll spend money on Candy Crush. I’ve spent money on Clash of Clans and Fire Age. All the top games, I’ll spend money on.

temple run 2GamesBeat: Is the category mostly ad-driven? I don’t even know how Temple Run makes its money.

Schiermeyer: They’ve since tried to include a microtransaction model, in-game purchases. But nobody cares, mechanically. Can you imagine enough people caring to break in to the top 10 grossing on iOS? I can’t imagine that, with the way they’re currently structured.

The idea behind the strategic runner is, I want you to care. If you’re playing against your friend or some stranger who’s attacked you, and you have that bag of gold as you run back to your base, you’re going to care if you make it or not. If you’re picking up loot along the way, and the loot actually has value instead of just something you have to have 10,000 of in order to do anything meaningful, you’re going to care. That’s what I want.

And I don’t want you to spend money just because, as you’re playing the game, you inadvertently press some button that costs you gems, like some games that every so often come out.

GamesBeat: I’ve played The Hobbit. It did that. Buy instantly!

Schiermeyer: Yeah. I didn’t want to do that. That just cost me money. If you’re going to spend money, I want it to be because you care that much.

GamesBeat: Is there something useful that analytics have already told you about this? To be honest, it sounds more like a game designer’s idea than an analytics-driven idea. It sounds more creative.

Schiermeyer: That’s good. I’m trying to marry those two disciplines together. Once I’ve got it, if I’ve got it, I’m going to create an organization that has it too.

There’s basically three things you care about in this process. You care about building your game. You care about monetizing your game. And you care about retaining your users. If I’m going to create a structure around what it is that I’m building, I’m going to try my very best to fit the game mechanics into one of those three categories, in a blended way that’s balanced. Hopefully leaving out the fourth pillar, which is ego.

All of this is informed by my experience. I don’t have access to anyone’s metrics, so I couldn’t necessarily tell you that this is going to be better than that based on this number. But I’ve experienced managing games and developing games enough now to know that when I’ve deconstructed something, I’m usually in the ballpark as far as understanding what’s going on.

GamesBeat: One of the things people say about Clash of Clans is that they monetize revenge.That’s why people spend money in it. I think the other part is, when you’re in a clan, you feel an obligation to the clan to keep up with everyone. I’m in last place right now in my clan in The Hobbit. I’m very afraid I’m going to get kicked out.

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