Idle Games is trying to do something different with social gaming. The company's first game, the upcoming Idle Worship, is a massively multiplayer god game that features both synchronous and asynchronous play, superb production values, and is supported by some impressive tech. Whereas most social games are developed in just a few months, Idle Worship has been in the works for close to two years. Gamezebo recently spoke with studio co-founder Jeffrey Hyman about the company, the game, and their lofty ambition to become "the Pixar of casual games."
To start, can you tell us a little bit about what Idle Games is, since a lot of people might now know who you are?
Idle Games was founded by Rick Thompson and myself. You’re probably familiar with Rick and his previous company Playdom, and before that he has a bit of a storied history. Basically the interesting part is that 11 years prior to founding this company I had an interactive advertising agency and Rick and a couple of his start-ups were clients of mine, and about in August of ‘09 Rick came to me and said that he was tired of the highly derivative and sort of uninspired creative that was prevalent in all of the companies at that time, and he asked me to start coming up with an original concept.
One of the original concepts that I came up with is what became Idle Worship. The funny thing is we ended up with a 148 page sort of game bible on Idle Worship. He took it home, he read it over the weekend, they invited me to lunch on the following Thursday, and he said “Here’s what I want you to do Jeff. I want you to sell your company. I’m going to go ahead and finance this company and let’s go ahead and build this game ourselves.”
Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, is that my child was actually going to be born two days later, and so I said “OK Rick, just let me get through the birth of my second child and on Monday I’ll give you a call and figure out if I want to throw this amount of life change into the mix as well.”
Sure enough, like Cortes, I burned the boat behind me. I sold my company, got a new house, had a new kid. Back on November 1 was about trying to get the company off the ground.
You guys were just at TechCrunch Disrupt, where you were the only game company. What was that experience like?
It was great to be recognized and that they were even able to understand the fundamentally different approach that we were taking to social gaming/casual gaming. It was excited to be recognized there about not only … I think that quality isn’t even a word that’s associated with disruptive behavior in business. They’re more looking for sort of the cool engineering and technology that’s disrupting the business, whereas I think we have both that in spades, but in addition it’s our whole mindset and ethos about what we’re trying to bring to the casual/social game space. So it was really great to be able to be there and give people a little showcase of what we’ve actually made.
So what is it about the Facebook and social games space that interests you guys so much?
I very much believe that it’s a form of the entertainment industry. John Lasseter, the great creative director at Pixar, put it best when he said in any form of entertainment the only stable business plan that works is quality. And I firmly believe that the social/casual games industry is the entertainment industry and therefore should be driven by quality. And also your number one goal you should be driving towards should be to provide an entertaining, enriching, and interactive experience for the end user. And quality can be defined as not only art and animation, it should also be the level of engagement and the entertainment experience that you provide to the user, as well as the engineering of what we’re trying to do behind the scenes.
When Rick and I started talking about co-founding the company we really focused, and I said in the advertising world, and specifically the interactive advertising world, the only thing that a creative director or firm has its originality and the originality of the concept. And the worst insult someone can levy against you is to be “derivative.” What we’ve said is that if we’re going to do this we’re going to create everything from the ground up and we’re going to need the time to do this right.
You know, I’ve been able to be very lucky to win many different awards from my peers, and that was always because we had to focus on creating something very special, something unique that we wanted to do. And when Rick and I founded the company we had a couple very different ideas. One, that this was the entertainment industry. And that you can’t have a social game without offering up at least the ability to play synchronously. But at the same time, any viable Facebook game is going to have to support both asynchronous and synchronous gameplay. I just, I think that it’s important to have it, I think that it would be a fool’s errand not to actually enable a person to play asynchronously if they want.
Also we thought that to have a social game you had to offer up an unsharded world. Meaning that it doesn’t matter what server you’re on: everybody plays with everyone. And we wanted to provide the benefits of the massive world with some very clever, and patent pending social mechanics that we engineered in there. There’s also a visual experience that hasn’t been seen on Facebook. So I guess I was foolish enough to want to take on both the challenge of making something very visually different, as well as completely, from an engineering and technology perspective, really pushing the envelope. And that excited me. Excited me enough that I sold my company of 11 years.
So one of the things that makes you guys disruptive is the quality factor, but why do you think that is? Facebook games have been around for a few years, why do you think that there’s such a lack of focus on quality game experiences?
It’s because, to their own admission, like that Wall Street Journal article where the higher ups at Zynga are saying “We’re a analytics company masquerading as a games company.” And that is working very well, and that’s sort of the underlying ethos. There was a front page article in the SF Weekly that was called “FarmVillains,” where I believe that the quote was something like “I don’t f***ing want innovation.” I don’t kow if that’s true or not but that’s what was reported in SF Weekly, and it was coming from the top brass over at Zynga. And I think it’s a fundamentally different mindset and ethos about what we’re trying to create. We’re trying to create something that is going to genuinely delight our users.
And then if we succeed in that, well then we’ll succeed in being viral. Because in my world I have created lots of Facebook applications and websites that went viral; the thing is you have to create something that people want to legitimately share with their friends and therefore it will go viral regardless of bashing them over the head with the monetization and virality and those mechanisms. And I think it’s just the focus. It’s true, and Rick and I firmly believe, that the rules are changing in social games. The winning strategy was, without question, which app will spam their users the most, quality really didn’t matter, and the difference between then and now is that users were free, there was no competition, and that the viral channels on Facebook were wide open.
The companies that grew up in that world are going to have a hard time adapting to this new world. And they try to incrementally patch and fix what I think is a fundamentally broken model. I think that when you’re sitting down with a money printing machine, you’re not changing that, you’re just busy counting the money. And you will not look up and all of a sudden your nose has been bashed in. The parables are the publishing industry and the music industry … they didn’t see that something was going on that was changing the industry.
I guess it’s the fundamental assumption that Rick and I hold near and dear that gaming, whether it’s social, casual, or console, is the entertainment industry.
Can you tell us a bit about your first game, Idle Worship?
So Idle Worship is a god game. So it follows the brilliant Populous and Peter Molyneux sort of defining that genre. And I had always loved Black and White, which was his follow up game, and I’d always been completely enamoured with god games. But I always felt that it didn’t really make me feel like that much of a deity. Like, I’m a god and I’m controlling non-playable characters, and I thought to myself that social networking provided an opportunity that’s completely unique to make me feel more like a deity. I would feel a hell of a lot more like a deity if I was controlling you specifically, or my friend John. If I was controlling you guys, or large swaths of people with a single click, that would really help satisfy clearly what I have as a god complex.
So Idle Worship is, we like to call it a polytheistic god game, where every player is a god that finds the worship and adoration of friends, strangers, and our indigenous population of little characters that we call mudlings. And what you do is, the biggest and best thing that you can possibly do in the game to advance is you have your real friends and strangers be worshipping you. You can play cooperatively in the game or you can play competitively. Cooperatively, you know, you might be a more powerful deity than I am and I will broker a trade with you and I’ll tell my little mudlings that they should be worshipping you, which is generating the sort of currency of the realm, which is called belief, which is akin to our energy. But I can give you altars and can get real time chat messages in the game, what we call prayers, and I can go ahead and pray to you for what I need. And hopefully that might be something to help me out or I might be praying to evil people to go ahead and try to have them smite my enemies.
You can also play competitively. And competitively is I can send missionaries to your island that espouse my belief system, which slowly erodes the faith that your mudlings have. I can convert your little mudlings by repeatedly cursing them to the point of disbelief when they just say “chill already, I believe in you.” And they’re now generating belief for you that you go around and harvest.
On the highest level that’s the game. You can play cooperatively, play competitively, you can fluctuate wildly between those two things. The game is tuned and balanced so that the only way to be 100 percent efficient is to be somewhere in that gray area. And what you’re trying to do is get more and more real people to believe in you either through acts of benevolence or malevolence. And the more and more power that you ascertain the more and more that you can affect the world dramatically in a single click. So that it comes to a certain point that you’ll be able to bless 100, 1,000, 10,000 different players in a single action. Or the antithesis of course, is to negatively affect that large swath of people in a single action.
And what we did is we have some very unique social mechanics that are bringing together people in rather unique ways.
You mentioned that the game has both synchronous and asynchronous play. How does that work?
Idle Worship is a persistent, simulated world that’s always on. So when I’m on your land and you’re online, you can go ahead and see my actions. If anybody else is watching me interacting with you or just interacting with your land they can go ahead and jump in or they can just sit back and passively watch. We have a saying here that it’s “come for the asynchronous and stay for the synchronous.” What I mean by that is let’s say you and I are playing, I already know that you’re going to be playing with all of your friends. And I also know that it doesn’t really matter, in fact it might be more optimal, if I want to attack you and raid your island when you’re not actually online. But what happens is about 80 or so percent of the game actions have unexpected, unadvertised effects that ripple throughout this universe.
And what I mean by that is [in the trailer you can see] a hand comes down and flicks one of the mudlings off the island, essentially killing that mudling. For example, if I went to your island and I flicked your mudling off your island, you’d get pissed off. If you were online you would’ve seen that happen. If you were offline in your in-game news feed you would’ve gotten a notification that that had occurred. But what also occurs the moment I flick your mudling on your island is the following: it immediately lands into the game space of another player and that player is, by definition, online, and thereby we create social context between these players. And though it feels delightfully random it actually isn’t, it’s completely algorithmic and part of a component of our technology stack, which is a recommendation engine. And what we’re always continuously trying to do is create new friends, new potential game friends, by essentially breaking the ice.
I think that the unrealized promise of social gaming is to create connections. We all know that all of the social games out there, as well as Facebook itself by design, is trying to create a walled garden for just you and your friends. And I always thought that social gaming should provide the opportunity to create connections. But at the same time, human nature is such that people aren’t going to take the time to meet new friends because, first of all people are inherently shy and it’s awkward to go up to someone and say “hey, will you be my friend?” The game needs to be your wingman. It needs to be your buddy. It needs to be able to introduce you to new guys and girls that the algorithm think you’re going to get along with.
So, in a way, we’re much more akin to a Match.com or eHarmony, where we’re looking at all of the users that come in from Facebook, we’re analyzing through the recommendation engine what your personality profile is like based on the information that you’ve provided Facebook. After that we identify you into one of these types of archetypes, and we know by training the algorithm what archetypes play well together. And then as you continually play the game more and more we continuously add to your dossier about how you play, and then we can continuously refine the people that we’re introducing you to. And actually refine the world that you see.
So the game has been in the works for around two years, whereas most Facebook games are built in around two to three months. Can you talk a bit about the development cycle? Do you think it’s risky?
Without question it’s risky. You can’t be risk averse doing what we’re doing. I think that the only way this whole company and this concept was possible was because of the opportunity that Rick Thompson afforded us. From the get go we knew that this was going to be a long-tail development cycle. It is incredibly risky, but Rick has become a very, very successful man based on taking risks. And as Rick would tell you, he’s not a risk averse person. And actually the only investor in our company to date has been Rick Thompson.
And why have we spent so long doing this? Well, first of all, from the get go we were building a platform. In the future we thought that most social games would have to offer up the ability to play synchronously, at least as a gameplay option. And the ability to play synchronously in an unsharded universe is not an easy feat. And to make that scalable so that we can have hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously playing with one another, and to have the entire thing be 100 percent cloud-based so that we can scale as popularity, virality increases.
So without question it was an ambitious endeavor from the technology side development. But also, it was equally ambitious from the artistic side. All of our art and animation is actually 2D, cel-based animation so that it’s much more akin to a tool chain used in film than the Flash games that are prevalent. So we chose to do something very disruptive, very difficult both on the technology and on the art side, because we were looking to shake up the industry. And nobody is going to shake up the industry by just quickly vomiting up something, see if it sticks, and then go to something else.
We wanted to build a technology platform that could be used for what we’re working on with games two and three and right now. We wanted it to look visually different. We wanted a person that, from the moment they see it, they know this is a different experience. And at the same time we thought that if we did it this we way we’d be able to not only benefit from having a highly successful Facebook game, but we would also be able to enjoy the kinds off-Facebook success and monetization opportunities like Rovio’s Angry Birds. Angry Birds is selling something like a million plush toys a month. And that’s just because it’s the first real casual game that actually has an eye towards quality, that actually wanted to make something with character. It’s clear that the consumer wants that kind of experience.
And time and time again you see people like Steve Jobs and Apple disrupting a very widely entrenched industry such as cell phones or smartphones, by taking the time to make things look different, more expensive, but there’s just such attention to UX and UI. And we’ve been in beta testing for months in the Phillipines, and we’ve just moved to Indonesia and our first English speaking country in Australia, and the numbers we’re seeing there are testament that if you take the time to do it right you’re going to blow away industry norms.
So what kind of feedback have you been getting from the beta?
We’re seeing day one retention...over half the people that install come back the next day. Close to half of the people are still coming back the following week. We’re seeing amazing numbers that are blowing away the industry norms.
The game is coming to Facebook. Do you have any plans to bring it to other platforms like Google+ or mobile platforms?
Without question. When we began Facebook was the place. You know like the old days when you used to play in the arcade at the mall, and you didn’t have a way to play at home. Facebook has the most foot traffic, so we wanted to go there, and they have the largest social graph. Our game is so inextricably tied into the social graph we couldn’t make any “idle” threats that we could pull it off, because the very fabric of the game is social. We like to believe that we’re the first truly social game that’s going to be on Facebook.
And this game needs to live on a social network. At the time Facebook was the only one that it could be, but we’re very excited and plan to go out onto Google+, we also want to start porting over to the tablets, and the game just looks beautiful on either Android or iOS tablets, as well as the Google version of the game. So we’re fully planning on bringing it to everywhere. All of the technology and the infrastructure on the back end is platform agnostic, it doesn’t care how you’re connected just that you’re getting in there.
Are you guys working on any other projects aside from Idle Worship?
Absolutely. We’ve already been several months into game two and we’re already working on game three, as well.
Can you talk about those yet?
We’re not going to talk about them yet. But we’d love to give you a first look when the time is right, which isn’t too far.
Any final words for your fans?
We’ve had our heads down making art and code for almost two years and it’s been a fantastic journey, and the most rewarding thing that we can have is being able to share our risk, and our vision, and our desire to people and show them that you can have something be profitable as well as of high quality. And I think that we want to be the Pixar of casual games and the Pixar of social games. That is our aspirational goal. But at the same time there’s plenty of room for - you know, Disney has it’s animation house that still produces both 2D and 3D art, as well as Disney owns Pixar, which produces a certain quality of both narrative and technology and art and character. And we believe that there’s totally room for all of these different types of players; the Zyngas of the world, as well as people that want to create something fundamentally different and disrupt the industry.
You can sign-up for the Idle Worship closed beta here.