Interview: Paulina Bozek

What other experiences did you and your team members find useful from your experience in game development?
A couple of things, I guess. We try to make it easy for people to make something look cool or cute with stickers and graphics that already look good. Also, I think social networking is very similar to social gaming on consoles. The latter is all about fun and interaction between players, and I’ve always said that it’s not about what’s happening on the screen, it’s about what’s happening in the living room. In social networking it is actually based on what’s happening on screen, but it’s a distributed togetherness – you are playing together, but you’re not in the same space, so we still focus social interaction. That’s why we’re not into making deep feature sets and powerful photo editing tools. We’re interested in how people can surprise their friends or express their individuality. Social interaction was the pillar underlying our work on SingStar.

How have you approached the way Facebook apps build audiences virally?
We focus on friends as distribution, so it’s very important for us to build in viral hooks that will enable people to share. In a traditional game, you’re relying on marketing – awareness, visibility – whether through TV, at retail, in magazines or online.

For this project we’ve taken the idea of “You’ve been Photo Sauced”, and we’re also putting in new content over time to drive different behaviour. Recently we did some Twilight-inspired stickers – we want the app to be very dynamic and be able to tap into popular culture. For example, we focused a lot on Halloween; the next thing will be Christmas, and we’re also into tapping into things like X Factor. So over time, as we pick up on popular culture moments and seasonal events it’ll open up new usage patterns.

Are these add-ons paid-for?
No, many of these are not officially licensed. For example the Twilight thing is just about vampires. So everything is free right now – it’s ad funded via banners, but as we move forward we’ll bring in micro-transaction elements for paying for premium content – sticker packs and so on – and we’ll also look for sponsorship opportunities because it’s a quality brand.

How long did the project take from conception to rolling out?
It took us about 13 weeks. Fast. We had the concept in June, we started building in July and launched in October. Three months. That’s the part that’s really rewarding. We launched as soon as we could. It’s all about evolving the feature set. We now launch a new feature every single week, and new content twice a week, so it’s a very live, evolving platform.

How have you found the Facebook API been to work with?
We learned the API fairly quickly. We were all new to it, but we’ve come from different places and some of us had experience with web-based games, but not specifically Facebook. But we learned it fairly rapidly. There’s a lot of good documentation online, very good forums, a very active developer community. The advantage of the Facebook platform is that there are so many things you can tap into – you don’t have to build your own communication layer; you can tap into the API that exists for sharing with friends and all the other things you see on the platform.

Of course, that comes with the disadvantage that if Facebook changes something, your app doesn’t work properly. Facebook recently announced some big changes so we’ve been studying those very carefully and planning how we’re going to deal with them. Some of the changes aren’t technical, either – they change the way the user engages with the application, or how they find out about it, so you have to stay on top of it.

Obviously, you come from a background in which everything stays the same until the next round of hardware comes out. So how did you deal with the challenge of adapting to a new mindset?
It comes with the territory. But I think Facebook is mostly good at communicating changes – they tend to be rolled out over several weeks rather than overnight, which is good! It understands that it’s a platform with a huge number of developers developing on it, so they respond to that in a responsible way. So yes, a little bit less is in your control, but it teaches you to evolve faster, launch faster and make better use of existing functionality. The visibility it brings you – through friends etc – is such a huge plus, so the unpredictability of change just comes with the territory.

Is this the start of more playful applications from Atari, or is it more experimental?
In terms of online gaming strategy there’s Champions Online and Star Trek Online, and social network gaming is seen at Atari as another pillar to this strategy. We’re all very excited about the potential, and from our London studio point of view we’ll stay in this playful space because that’s our heritage. That’s what we do. Inside Atari our studio is focused on massmarket social titles. And we do have a new project in development, which we’ll announce in the coming months. Some may be more gamey, but they’ll still have that mass market social potential.

So this is a new area that Atari will be further investing in over time? 
I can’t speak for the senior executives and how they’re going to roll out strategy, but we all agree that social networks are a very significant part of the gaming landscape – which is proven extremely clearly by the recent EA/Playfish acquisition.