GDC Online 11: Zynga With Friends' Thakkar on why the studio forces users to update their games

#gdc_online Rules from the cross platform trenches

GDC Online 11: Zynga With Friends' Thakkar on why the studio forces users to update their games
Establishing himself as a must-attend on the mobile scene, Vijay Thakkar, a principal engineer with Zynga With Friends, gave his third GDC talk - this year about the challenges of running the multiplayer server-based With Friends games.

Despite being part of the huge Zynga family, Thakkar said supporting 12 unique apps (Words With Friends, Hanging With Friends, Chess With Friends) across iOS, Android and Facebook was a situation that required plenty of thought, and pragmatic but firm decision making.

One example was releasing the iPad version of Words With Friends, which highlighted unforeseen user behaviour with many people playing the same game across two devices. Unfortunately, at the time, the game's streamlined log-in process didn't really allow this.

"Another platform is more than another app," Thakkar pointed out.

Learning the rules

This sort of realistic thinking was underlined with lessons that taught the company it's rarely a good idea to rewrite a game from scratch; for example when taking Words With Friends from iOS to Android.

This approach has led to the iOS and Android game teams working closely together, with tools such as Github, Campfire and PivotalTracker used to enable collaboration for internal and external development.

"You have to really understand what pieces of your code you need to keep independent and which pieces you should integrate," he said.

All about control

Another significant reveal was that Zynga With Friends always adds a server-side kill switch for each new feature included in a game so any problems can be dealt with without updating via App Store or Android Market.

It also forces users to upgrade their games, although this forced step is only triggered after a period allowing most people to actively update the games themselves.

"Otherwise, it becomes unmanageable to support your applications," Thakkar said.

But sometimes, human psychology can be just important as technical expertise.

For example, changing the error screen generated when a game crashed mid-move to a label that said "re syncing" didn't solve the problems, but heavily reduced customer complaints.

As for over arching philosophy that shapes the way Zynga With Friends approaches game making, Thakkar stated 'Minimise anything that stifles innovation', and 'Trust your intuition but confirm with metrics', ending with the extortion "You can not ship a successful game unless you are in love with it."
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A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.