Plarium was founded in 2009, when casual games on social networks were at the peak of their popularity. As long time game fanatics, the founders of Plarium were excited to begin developing games driven by the growing demand on social platforms.

We started out by developing applications such as a social poker platform for Russia and Eastern Europe, initially focusing on the social network VKontakte and then expanding to other sites such as Mail.Ru. During this time, we understood that in order to become a global player in the gaming arena, we would have to create unique content.

That’s when we decided to create a new experience on social platforms and began developing hardcore, real-time strategy games with deep game play mechanics. We noticed that many social strategy games that we liked had great gameplay, but basically looked like glorified Excel spreadsheets. There was an opportunity to offer something more visually appealing.

We kept the deep game balance we loved from older titles and focused on adding high-end 3D graphics, fully-voiced characters and sound production, social features, and the ability for players to customize their game with various improvements and skins. We wanted to move away from just numbers and statistics, and introduced the visual polish people have come to expect from classic PC titles.

In our experience our most successful social games are the ones that have those intricate elements – plotlines, eye-catching artwork, well-written copy, and voiceovers that guide players through the game, as well as continuously updated content – which keep players engaged. That’s been Plarium’s goal with our most recent games, which have led us to become a top hardcore game developer on Facebook.

With so many components factoring into the design and development of a social game, it is difficult for developers to make sure that the end result is engaging and impressive to a wide audience. In this article, I’ll share Plarium’s own strategy and recommendations for best practices, by providing an inside look into the studio culture, as well as showcasing how our setup affects the products we launch. This is what works for us, and what could work for you too.

The Bottom-Up Approach

Plarium is made up of several studios. While the assumption may be that the studios work together closely on each game launch, the truth is that each one is independently self-sufficient. They work independently on projects with dedicated teams. Each studio has the tools to create and release a game from A to Z. Each studio has an art, game design, and programming department, as well as game analysts for each game release.

We’ve experienced incredible growth over the past few years, and as we’ve scaled up, we’ve found what works best for us as developers, is a “bottom-up” management style. In support of this, we put ideas into the hands of those closest to our audience and the team members who will ultimately be responsible for implementing each new idea. Everyone feels very much involved, and this investment is what motivates us to create games that millions of players around the world enjoy and play.

This bottom-up process includes everyone from our community management staff, artists, translators, game designers, QA testers, and ultimately, our users. For example, our game designers will directly bounce an idea off our community management team to find out if a new feature is too complicated or undermines a game play strategy before it goes to prototyping and QA, or our junior artists can directly jump in and help rethink a new unit concept that doesn’t fit with the look and feel of the title before we waste a week playing with the balance and unit statistics. The connections are very non-linear.

Listening to Your Audience

At Plarium, the launch of a game is just the beginning. Only then do we start building the true value of the game, by beginning to engage with our players, learning who they are and what they are looking for. We want our players to feel that we are loyal to them and build a long-term relationship with them by providing them with relevant content and ongoing feature updates.

We receive customer feedback about every aspect of the game, and we tend to think of our players as the underlying foundation of this bottom-up approach. Before we look up the chain for guidance, we run our ideas by them. They tell us what works, what doesn’t, and what they would like to see (or what we’re not seeing).

All this enables us to create more features and continuously make updates to the game, which drives better engagement. You can see the result of this approach in our games. Our players submit and design their own custom content and artwork, vote and debate on new unit concepts, help us tweak interfaces to better suit players’ needs, adjust the game pace and production speeds as the game has matured, tweak unit statistics, and help us come up with entirely new features.

For example, with one of our most popular games, Total Domination, our Emitter-based clan warfare system and map scale was our response to player-submitted ideas for bringing more competition into the game, and offering a better visual representation of their political influence. These are now core features of the team gameplay and rankings within Total Domination.

Having this bottom-up approach as opposed to a top-down structure gives us a huge advantage in putting out products people want to play, and lets us respond to our users more fluidly than other studios. It allows us to quickly try out new ideas, analyze them, and discard the ones that don’t work without waiting for things to filter up and down the management chain.

The Process

To give you a better idea of the inner workings at Plarium, here is a rough picture of the development cycle for a major game feature on one of our existing titles: “Emitters.” Emitters are part of our defense clan warfare model for our game, Total Domination. They are giant fortresses/terra-forming machines scattered across the game map that serve a “king of the hill” game objective. Your goal is to capture, defend, and upgrade as many as possible simultaneously.

We first started by reviewing our user comments and feedback from our different networks, our community management team, and from a core group of senior players to identify gaps in our existing gameplay. When we do this, we try and quantify the feedback across a range of different players (paying, non-paying, clan-oriented, single-player oriented, etc.) to get an accurate feel for what our users want to see, or for what we could do better. Then we prioritize their concerns based on demand, company goals, development time, and resources. There’s also a large “Oh, cool! Let’s try that!” factor involved in this process.

In this review, we got the distinct impression that there was a lot more we could be doing with our clan warfare system. When we first introduced clan functionality into the game, we had the clan rankings determined by a simple aggregate point calculation – we simply added up the individual scores of the members of a clan and made it their overall global rank. After talking to our user community, we found that while users liked being able to team up, it wasn’t exactly earth shattering from a strategic gameplay perspective. Most players ended up focusing on offensive gameplay, leaving defensive players out in the cold.

The clans also began to self-stratify, with senior users automatically banding together to increase their aggregate ranking and powering out the lower-level clans. Players also reported not feeling as if the clan gameplay connected them to any deeper storyline, and that they didn’t see any visual representation of the effort they were investing. Our technical director circulated some of these concerns, and we started looking at different ways to address them while adding more depth to the clan gameplay experience.

After spending some time individually coming up ideas to reinvent clan gameplay, we scheduled a brainstorming session with the creative team. Our technical director, lead designer, project managers, community management director, writing team, and lead programmer got together came up with a few alternate methods for approaching clan warfare. Once we had narrowed down our favorite choices, we met again several times over the following weeks to further develop concepts, poke holes in designs, and check what we came up with against our analytics. Eventually we settled on our current system, in which users take on different roles within each clan to capture, develop, and defend points on a larger game map to exert political influence on a larger map scale.

After deciding upon a rough outline of what we wanted to do, the process continued after the “official” meetings with live chats with everyone involved in the project. Anyone could put in their two cents, everyone had a chance to raise a red flag, and if we found ourselves stuck we could always call in the rest of the studio for a vote. We do this for everything, from casting voice talent to picking out new content designs. Aside from helping us power through creative log-jams, the added mutual investment in the project helped to inspire the team to work to their highest potential, and move past pet ideas without bruising any egos.

Once felt we had discussed the feature from every possible angle, our project manager broke up the concept into departmental tasks and each team went into prototyping. Our lead designer came up with several different approaches to the look and feel of the Emitters, brought them back for approval, and then passed them on to his team for modeling.

Our designers added a “charging up” electric arc animation to the final upgrade level on the Emitter towers. This, in turn, led the writing team to call another meeting, rewrite their original backstory, and include a mysterious final purpose for the emitters in the game storyline.

The process went back for another loop and we integrated the feature with a much better-developed story and added new non-player characters (NPC) characters – Morgana, Mutants, and a deep back history explaining the origins and eventual goal of the Emitters (we were still fairly early on in the game and still had the freedom to do this). This new concept was the basis for many of our in-game missions further down the line.

After finalizing all storyline and design concepts, our programmers tried several different methods of sharing control and allocation of units and resources within Clans before settling on a “collective defense, individual offense” model.

Once the programming team had something workable, it went on to our QA testers on a closed server. After hammering out the inevitable bugs, we had the basic mechanics working well enough for gameplay. We followed up with a limited test release for some of our core users to check on feedback and get more user input. Sometimes a new feature is a hit, and sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board — and for this feature we had to go back and forth a few times before we developed an interface they felt was intuitive enough to use.

Anyone whose done any development work knows how frustrating it can be when a feature gets a red light right before a release – but it’s much better than hearing it after we’ve gone live. Once we got the thumbs-up, we moved on to localizing and recording the content in all languages (we always try and release updates to various regions simultaneously), and added it to the main servers.

Since integrating the Emitter system into core gameplay, we’ve gone back and repeated this process for the clan functionality several times, each time tweaking usability or giving our players more control over their clan. The procedure we used for developing this feature is more or less the same way we do with everything – listen, brainstorm, work until we think it’s perfect, get told we’re wrong, fix it until it’s right, launch.

While there is nothing particularly unique about this production cycle within the industry, the pace at which we do it is dizzying. The non-linear communication somehow works, and you never end up getting the feeling that you’re a cog on an assembly line.

An added advantage is that the speed at which we implement new features buys us a lot of extra time to experiment. If something doesn’t work, that’s okay – we can just go back and take an old idea in a different direction. We also have the time to go back and tie the story around the feature or content more deeply, or improve some of the artwork, until we really pin down the result we want. The most rewarding part is that with social gaming you can see the audience response to all of this within minutes, and then can immediately go back and make adjustments. It’s a bit like fine-tuning the engine on a jet fighter… while it’s going at Mach 2 in a dogfight.

The Result

We encourage fellow developers to be unique. We didn’t reach global success until we started to think outside the box. We were one of the first social network gaming companies to really start integrating sound production, 3D graphics and storyline with our games. By themselves, those elements are not anything revolutionary in gaming, but by spending the time to develop real characters, to tell real stories, and to invest in quality artwork, we are able to immerse people in a way they hadn’t come to expect in this medium. With each of our new titles we’re able to build on this experience and make it better.

We look forward to taking it further. The game play is at the core of any game, but it’s those details that give a game its soul and brings the player into the experience… and social gaming could use a little more soul.

We’ve also overcome some considerable challenges to reach the audiences we have. As we’ve offered our games to people of different languages, nationalities, and cultures, we’ve had to adapt our ways of thinking and reinvent ourselves to make that connection. In the process, we’ve learned how to help our users build an international community.

To reach global success, we didn’t have to have our studios located in major gaming regions around the world. Rather, our success was a result of the fact that we ventured away from the norms of casual gaming into something we felt was more inspiring. Furthermore, the direct feedback we have from our players guides us to continuously enhance and update our games.

As a result we grew over 500 percent since the beginning of last year, just on Facebook’s platform, and our goal is to release at least five more Plarium games in 2013. Games with invested players lead to monetary investments that allow developers to expand both regionally and across multiple platforms.

Plarium is now the number two hardcore game developer on Facebook and we’re constantly growing. The latest project we’ve been working on is the expansion of our social games to mobile. Players can anticipate that to come in the forthcoming weeks, and we look forward to seeing what everyone thinks of the Plarium gaming experience on new platforms. We truly believe that passionate game developers, make for passionate games and our ultimate goal is to position Plarium as a benchmark for hardcore game developers to come.

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