Tim LeTourneau knows a thing or two about game design. He’s worked in the industry for 25 years – as VP of the Sims Studio at EA, leading creation of Farmville and now working at Storm8 on titles like Restaurant Story.
At this year’s GDC, he shared insights on launching invest-express games (when users invest in building something and then can buy or earn features to express their style or personality).
Storm8, which just hit one billion unique downloads and 50M MAU, has more than 45 games across multiple genres. LeTourneau shared a case study from Storm8’s cafe simulator, Restaurant Story, and a few lessons learned along the way.
Find Your “Jennifer from Milwaukee”
The most important thing for any game developer, says LeTourneau, is understanding the player.
“Don’t game with yourself in mind. The most important thing for me in thinking about players is that they represent a very different audience than traditional gamers.”
For Restaurant Story, the typical player is a 30-something woman. Call her Jennifer.
“It’s important to have a Jennifer, to have a North Star, as you’re developing. Understand who your audience is and stay focused on that.”
Build Predictable Accomplishments
Players in the invest-express genre may only give your game a few minutes a day. Each time they play, whether it’s minutes or half an hour, you need to deliver moments of satisfaction and reward.
“It doesn’t even really matter the genre,” says LaTourneau. “It’s important you deliver moments of accomplishment…For players, these games represent a moment of escape. It’s when they get away from their hectic lives and relax and do something that’s theirs. They want to know the world, they don’t want the world to change.”
Players need this sense of control. In Sims Online, he mentioned, they never gave other players access to their friend’s houses to come in and move things around. Players need to feel proactive, not reactive.
Sequels Should Change the Player’s Context, not the Game Mechanic
“In the Sims 2 we gave the players a life span. We added aging. We didn’t change the mechanic or the game play. But we gave you a different reason to think about your play.”
LaTourneau and his team applied this same thinking to Restaurant Story 2. They decided to shift context by adding ingredients.
“We wanted it to feel more like cooking. Restaurant Story 1 didn’t have a sense of ingredients. It didn’t have the idea you were grabbing ingredients and deciding what to cook.”
“Stop playing the game in your head. Everything seems too simple, not cool enough. That’s when developers overdesign the game.”
When testing Restaurant Story, the team added a feature where shoppers would drop off random ingredients. Sure, the surprise was fun, but users found it frustrating that they couldn’t plan their meal. So, they tweaked it, giving players an option to buy ingredients and wait for delivery. The wait turned out to be too long, players forgot what they wanted to cook.
Finally, they let players select ingredients and get them immediately – the most simple solution that mimics the way you would shop in real-life.
“The core activity needs to be brain-dead simple,” says LaTourneau, “because most of the time they’re playing they don’t have a full mind focused on the game.”
Leverage Player Knowledge
LaTourneau encourages developers to build the game around processes users are familiar with.
“Make intuitive loops that lean into innate sensibilities. Like farming. We’ve all planted something and watched it grow. Or, everyone knows how cooking works. Don’t change how cooking works. The best games tap into what players innately know.”
Whether the genre is hardcore or casual, he says, you need to know your player and what knowledge you can leverage from their personal experience.
Launch. Learn. Iterate. Release.
Restaurant Story 2 had a soft launch in 1-2 countries. The team carefully reviewed analytics on player actions and product metrics. Then, they iterated the design and tuned the game before releasing worldwide.
“Put tuning out there, look at data and be willing to change. Understand up front what your targets are. How many actions you want people to take per session.”
Restaurant Story 2 was in soft launch for 6 months. LaTourneau recommends staying in soft launch until you get the kind of retention numbers you want to see day one of release.
In the meantime, he says, “Iterate to greatness. You have to wade through a lot of ‘meh’ to get there.”
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