All Aboard - Part One

A Bit Lucky's Frederic Descamps and Jordan Maynard on the rise of a Facebook developer

As the extent of the success of some companies based predominantly on the Facebook platform has emerged in the past year, another start-up could be on the same tracks as the likes of Zynga, Playdom and Playfish - but with a couple of crucial differences.

Here, Frederic Descamps, CEO and Jordan Maynard, chief creative officer, explain the origins of A Bit Lucky, the increasing success of first title Lucky Train, and why they think they can usher in a new era of gaming for the social network.

Q: Explain the background of A Bit Lucky - where did the idea come from?

Frederic Descamps: We got started in November of last year - Jordan and I met at Trion Worlds, where Jordan was one of the first technical hires. He was the senior director of technical game design on their first game, and was there for around three and a half years.

I was at Trion for a year and a half, and was the head of marketing and community management - and we left on very good terms, by the way.

One of the main ideas behind the company is that, as you know, social gaming has emerged almost as a separate field from gaming - and started for the most part by people who aren't from gaming. It grew very quickly, and you know better than I do about Zynga, Playdom, Playfish and so on, and they didn't even exist three years ago - but now they're really big companies making lots of money, with lots of users and several games published.

So we looked at the emergence of social gaming with great interest - especially the third generation - and there are a few things we've learned. One, it's a very fast-growing space - the fundamentals are super-strong. When you hear some people doom-saying about the space, or thinking it's a fad... well, not so.

Even if you take Facebook alone, you have 275 million people playing games. 275 million. Facebook is the single largest gaming platform in the world, and will probably remain so for a long, long time.

The other thing is that most of these players weren't gamers even a year ago, so this is a completely new field with lots of opportunities. When you look at the first crop of games, a lot of people were saying not too long ago that social gaming is very different from other gaming - the games and players are both different, so therefore they should be considered completely separate.

We both come from hardcore gaming - we're hardcore gamers, we've played all the games, whether it's World of Warcraft, or Minecraft, etc. When we looked at the space we were very surprised by a few things.

Lucky Train

A Golden Moskva Jet train picks up passengers from a bustling county stop in Lucky Train.

One, we saw the emergence of behaviour that was very similar to behaviour we've seen in gaming before - bragging rights, friendly competition, collaboration with your friends, and of course an addiction to certain games.

The other thing was that the incumbents - the first people on this stage - had done fantastic things and we have lots of admiration for them, but overall we thought that the first crop of third generation games on Facebook was, to put it mildly, a bit disappointing in terms of production quality, graphics and animation, but also in terms of gameplay mechanics - they were very simplistic.

But one of the most surprising things was the fact these supposedly social games weren't that social - they were called "social" because they sat on networks... but coming from Counter-Strike, World of Warcraft or even board games, all of those genres are way more social than any social games available when we started the company.

The fact that the space was growing super-strong... we still believe that's the case today. It's maybe the end of the beginning, but it's still the beginning - and a new generation of games is growing up. We want to be that new generation, especially as we think there are a lot of innovations possible in terms of bringing new, high quality, truly social games to Facebook.

So - we want to combine the best DNA of traditional games, which is fun, entertainment, engagement, compelling IP and also multiplayer gameplay - with the best DNA of social gaming, which is about iteration, being enlightened by the matrix.

Jordan Maynard: One of the big appeals for me of the social gaming space was the development iteration cycles, which are completely different to my previous experience. We started full development of the game in late January and we 'shipped it' in four or five months... that's completely different from traditional development, and very exciting.

And then what we shipped was really the base footprint of the game - something to build on top of and fill out, and we've been doing that since, with content and feature releases. That's one of the reasons why I want to get into this space and try and do something with a faster development capability.

Q: You mention that Facebook gamers are mostly new gamers - it does remind me a little of the Wii and music game genres which, while they ushered in new audiences that boosted the industry massively for a while, seem to have lapsed in large numbers now. Are you confident that these super-casual Facebook gamers will stick around?

Frederic Descamps: It's a very good question. When we started the company, when we were looking at the space and talking to people, there was an emphasis on the super-casual female gamers. If you were listening to some people, those were the only gamers on Facebook - but we were a little suspicious of that, because the numbers were growing so fast... and who is on Facebook? Well, everybody.

So it's hard to put all those people into one box now - but because it's free-to-play, because it's casual, between the time you're looking at the game and playing it... it's almost instant. That's absolutely fantastic - there are no long downloads. The behaviour therefore is very exploratory, and we heard a year ago that when a person tried one genre - let's say the Farm genre - they'd play on average four other games of that type.

The space definitely started on what you'd call snack gaming, where you play for a minute. The average play session on all games in Facebook is two and a half minutes - of course you can design lots of your game mechanics based on that, and it wouldn't be a mistake at all, to take that into account.

But we also come from a space where we sit down sometimes for hours. Maybe it's not the right time to do that exactly on Facebook, but we can try to increase that - and not only that. We think it starts and ends with games - do good games have a place on Facebook? We believe they do, and so that's our other philosophy.

We think the next generation of games on Facebook isn't going to be so much about spamming people, using all kinds of excuses to bring them in and then hammer them with repetitive gameplay. We think it's going to be about fun, engagement... and the proof is in the pudding - our average play session is close to 13 minutes.

But why is that? Well, we hope of course that people are having fun when they are playing our game, but it's because of the way we designed it - to be fun, addictive and quite entertaining. I think there are lots of new, untapped and - thanks to A Bit Lucky - emerging gameplay mechanics that will prove on Facebook we have a new breed of game that is possible.

Q: I suspect people stopped scoffing quite so loudly at Facebook games when they heard how much Zynga was valued at...

Jordan Maynard: Well, as recently as GDC this year... of course, game developers can be their own brand of cynics, but at the GDC awards when Zynga was awarded Best Social Game somebody in the audience yelled out "But you don't make games!"

I think that's totally the wrong attitude, but it was as recent as then... at that point you might just think it's sour grapes, right?

Q: The user journey is crucial - having played the game for a week or so the clear idea is to bring people in and then grow them up so that they can see the potential for what they have to do... if they just spend some time coming back every so often to get it done. It's an elegance of simplicity, but how do you design that?

Jordan Maynard: Designing simplicity is difficult - I've been on numerous games that have proven that, Spore being one of them of course. But obviously a huge inspiration for me with Lucky Train was Transport Tycoon by Chris Sawyer, so taking the base mechanics of that game and projecting them onto a social graph was sort of my main focus for design. Then it's a case of finding a way to make that understandable for people - accessible and playable.

That's the main challenge - and we did work on getting the base game design, the core, really playable and usable before we then add the other layers, which are coming soon now. Then we can get nearer to the endgame.

I play a lot of World of Warcraft and I almost believe that the game doesn't start until level 80 at this point - and I think Blizzard believe that too. They've done so many things to make that grind from 1 to 80 much less painful, the bulk of their content generation seems to be aimed at that endgame now, and we've got sort of the same thing.

We have a lot of features in design, and coming in very soon, that are for both our high-end players and the lower-level players. Right now we have just passenger gameplay, but one layer we're going to be adding on is cargo gameplay where you have supply chains.

What I really want to do is have pyramids, where say it takes 100 iron to make a piece of steel, 100 pieces of steel to make the Eiffel Tower - and have low level players gain access to the iron mine, the medium level players have access to steel mills, and at the top of the pyramid is the high-end players.

Everybody would then benefit from that - if somebody builds the Eiffel Tower, anybody who's connected to him on a train route will get the benefit, a bit like a Wonder in Civilization.

Frederic Descamps is CEO and Jordan Maynard is chief creative officer at A Bit Lucky. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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