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Social game makers took the stage this afternoon at our GamesBeat@GDC event in San Francisco, where much of the discussion revolved around how building social games differs from people’s preconceptions.

John Vechey (pictured above), co-founder of Bejewled maker Popcap Games, said building social games is not “the easy path to riches” that some believe. Every aspect of these games requires a lot of thought. And if you’ve got a hit on your hand, it’s a challenge just to keep up with the user base, not to mention adding new technology at the same time.

“Every single aspect of this is harder than people think,” Vechey said.

Another speaker, Brian Reynolds (pictured below), is in particularly a good position to compare different types of game design. Reynolds led design on classic games like Civilization II, but he’s now chief designer at social gaming giant Zynga. He said the biggest mistake that game developers make when they first move into the social gaming market is to think, “We’re going to make a fun game like we’ve always been making, and we’ll put some social stuff in later.” You should be thinking about the social components from the beginning, because they need to be an integral part of the game.

That’s one of the reasons for the success of Zynga’s FarmVille, Reynolds said. It’s not designed so there’s a gameplay component and then a sharing/social component, but rather “the gameplay and the social element of the game are hand-in-hand.”

Reynolds also said he had to adjust to Zynga’s “metrics-based” design method. Traditional game design emphasizes intuition and long-term thinking, because you spend a lot of time building a game based on what you think is fun, then you put it out in the world. With social gaming, you release a game then revise quickly based on user data — it’s based on “shorter-term, tactical beats.”

But Vechey wondered if that kind of numbers-driven optimization can really make a big difference. Can it turn a Grade C game into an A game, or does it just turn a C game into a C+ game?

“It’s worked pretty well for us,” Reynolds said.

Read all of our coverage from GamesBeat@GDC.

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