Half the Sky Game: Lessons Learned (Part 4)

Frima Studio, developer of Half the Sky Movement: The Game

Since its debut less than three months ago on March 4, the Half the Sky game has seen more than 780,000 players, who in total have contributed more than $321,400 in donations directly or through sponsors. Players have already unlocked 179,700 free books and $110,500 worth of life-changing surgeries.

While we’re proud of this incredible success, there are some important lessons that we can draw from our experience on Half the Sky Movement: The Game — making a game to those who care, a game that seriously wants to reach as many people as possible and present them with the issues women around the world are facing right now.

This part, written by Gabriel Lefebvre, game design director at Frima Studio (pictured above is the team from Frima), concentrates on how to deal with the more day-to-day constraints of production and development, while crafting something that had never been done before in the realm of games for social good.

What Was Great?

1. We nailed the art style on first pitch. When Games for Change (G4C) approached us as a potential vendor, we developed a possible art style for the game. We hit the bull’s-eye on the first proposal, which is one of the reasons a partnership was struck so quickly. It also meant that the preproduction phase could focus on other elements, such as defining the environments and the overall setting. The character art was already solid, and we already had a strong cast of potential main characters. We just had to breathe a bit more life into them.

2. The multinational setting was perfect. In the beginning, we couldn’t decide between a global village (a fictional area where a bunch of cultures coexisted) and a multinational setting. After thorough discussions, we opted for multiple countries to provide deeper roots in real life and avoid what we call the “pizza effect,” or too many disjointed visual elements on-screen at the same time. It also offered varied narrative contexts and provided a basis on which to convey a feeling of progression by having the players unlock countries one after the other.

(Pictured right: Shown above is the behind-the-scenes, branching dialogue system. Below shows a screenshot from the game and how this dialogue is displayed.)

3. Unique client relationship. G4C are our clients… Well, technically. In reality, we developed a close relationship with them, one of mutual trust. This endeavor is not one for the usual pursuit of profit, but one to change lives for the better. Working on this game changed our lives as well. It created a connection between Frima and G4C. Whenever we communicate with each other, every time we meet, it’s obvious we share a special bond.
4. Our relationship with Zynga was warm and candid. Zynga.org was also involved in the project. Third-party involvement always makes developers wary — they don’t have our production constraints. As advisors, they don’t even have the usual constraints of their own projects. In this case, however, this was not an issue at all. We had open, cheerful, fruitful discussions with Zynga. We exchanged best practices and discussed our goals in depth. Their extensive experience and metrics to back it up were tremendously helpful and allowed us to set priorities and fuel our own arguments when bringing forth design elements.

5. Great support from upper management. Frima is a big company (over 350 employees), where a lot of projects are being developed simultaneously. But this one was special. We got great support from upper management, which was instrumental in making this project possible. They were infected by the same caring attitude about the project that we had. It made us proud and motivated to work even harder.

6. Our social engine made the game possible. Frima has its own social game engine, which was honed on previous projects. Without it, we would not have been able to deliver a game of this quality and scope within the allotted timeframe. Better yet, our tech proved its dependability when it was able to support the load of players without any performance issues. This is not mere boasting: for a developer, being able to depend on its own tools and technologies is one of the most important instruments of success.

7. A strong, flexible dialogue system. On top of our social engine, we built a robust dialogue system. Since dialogue is the heart of this narrative-based game, we had to create something what we could change easily and build tools that the content designers could use to create and integrate the dialogues. We did, and it worked great.

What Was Challenging?

1. The focus on written content reduced the accessibility of the game. We had the right tools to create lots of dialogue, however, as a result, the game focused on reading. Text reduces the accessibility of a game because many players do not want to invest the time and effort required by reading. It is also a challenge to accommodate non-English speakers (we launched a French version on April 4, and plan to launch additional languages in the future).

2. Balancing fun gameplay and serious issues. The situation of women around the world is an incredibly difficult topic to address. Text is one of the few ways that can attempt to convey the subtleties of the issues. Our journey was one of compromises and concessions as we attempted to balance fun with realism, drawing from the “Half the Sky” book’s content. There’s a French expression: “Ménager la chèvre et le chou.” By trying to meet two opposite goals, you run the risk of missing them both.

3. The time required to produce quests. We had many sets of stories to produce and great tools to integrate them. You may think that because it’s mainly text, it’s fast to produce. But because our dialogues are interactive and branching, this means creating much more content than any one player actually gets to experience. Moreover, any change in setting, character, theme, or branch requires a round of rewriting and reintegration. We tried to plan and minimize these changes but still underestimated the scope and had to increase the size of the design team late in production to catch up.

4. The mini-game was not prioritized. Because we had to focus on creating content and implementing donations into the game flow, other elements slid down the priority list. That meant that we couldn’t give as much love to the mini-games as we would have wanted to. We had big plans: how to make them more varied with new game modes, how to better implement power-ups and provide more feedback. We believe that this would have increased the stickiness of the game, and stimulated donations and revenue. Our priorities were on other things — and for valid reasons.

5. Post-launch content strategies. We put so much effort on delivering a solid, well-polished and large-scale game for launch that we ran out of resources to fully address post-launch development. For a Facebook game to thrive, it requires as much effort after launch than before, with new content and special events to keep the player engaged, in addition to addressing the issues that come up along the way. As more players reach the end of the game, we risk losing hardcore fans who have explored all the narrative content.

6. Focus on virality. Our efforts to improve virality based on players’ feedback and metrics were also limited. We came up with a great set of features at launch and following the beta phase but lacked the resources to turn some of them into reality.

7. Maximizing conversion from media. In the first weeks of launch, we received unprecedented media attention. We knew from experience that converting this exposure into players on Facebook was difficult. Nonetheless, we were hopeful that the half of billion press impressions (!) will drive many more players. Looking back, putting resources aside to facilitate this conversion with rewards, exclusive content, or other design initiatives could have resulted in a higher conversion rate. But it’s not too late! If you’re reading this and haven’t played yet, log into Facebook and see what it’s all about: http://apps.facebook.com/halftheskymovement.

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