Dan Porter's company, the game publisher OMGPOP, had released about 35 games before he, as CEO, decided to try his own hand at game design. He had a goal: create a mobile game that would get 5 million downloads in three months.
His concept to reach this goal? He had two specifications. First, he says, "it should be hilarious." Second: "it's designed for an 11th-grade boy to flirt with an 11th-grade girl."
The design brief became Draw Something, which can most succinctly be described as the word-guessing game Pictionary for a tablet computer, even though Potter claims he never played Pictionary. It certainly has reached its goal. Released just five weeks ago, it got to 10 million download in two weeks. It's now got more than 20 million downloads, and both free and paid versions are at the tops of the download charts. It's also the biggest social game, measured by use of the Facebook Connect log-in feature, but it doesn't, itself, play on Facebook.
Zynga must be spitting fire.
How did Porter do this? "I spend half my time trying reverse-engineer what we did right," he says.
In an interview, he runs down some of the things the game has going for it. It's collaborative and self-expressive, he says. And it's not game mechanics that make it work. "It's the mechanics of relationships between people."
He says it's like poker, where, "You don't play the cards. You play the player."
"I have this weird outsider perspective," Porter says, "I've never been good at making games that fit into the definition of games." That's why it has no leaderboard, no badges, and fundamentally no concept of winning or losing.
By some definitions, it's not even a game.
What is, though, is a business smash. It's the No. 1 top-grossing game. Revenues come from the paid version (extra features and words to guess), from in-game purchases (extra colors, and hint "bombs"), and from advertising between rounds. "We serve 1 billion ad impressions a day," Porter says. "Do the math."
In addition to viral growth, Porter says Draw Something keeps its users engaged. Some 75 percent of his weekly users play every day.
Like Rovio did with Angry Birds, Porter's plans to have OMGPOP extend on his megahit's success with free upgrades: game levels (new words) and features.
Features that are coming include:
- A way to save drawings from within the game. (People want to save their friends' drawings more than their own; Porter says, "It's like a picture of a friend.") Related to that will be the capability to share drawings on social networks. This may require a serious infrastructure upgrade, however. "Right now, we're pushing 5 terabytes of game data a day and we're not even saving the drawings."
- More colors and controls.
- Achievements and accomplishment badges. But probably not leaderboards. Porter: "You know who likes leaderboards? People who play games. But for a lot of our users, Draw Something is their only game. They're not game players."
- In-game chat.
- Porter is considering a player-matching service (see also: Zynga.com) or perhaps a feature that tells you which of your friends you're most Draw Something-compatible with, based on time taken to solve particular words.
- More traditional game mechanics, as an option. Porter says, "At some point we will branch out and have a challenge level, with timed games. And there will be a final level, with rewards."
- I asked if he's going to implement something I'd like, a "phone a friend" feature to enlist the help of other players to solve a vexing word. It's coming, he said. It's a common request.
- On the revenue side, Porter is considering showing paid words, and then following the play of those words with related interstitial ads. Currently, brand words appear (and, he says, are very popular) simply because Porter thought they'd be good in the game. "People are excited to draw Nike or Cap'n Crunch."
When talking about expansion, Porter says, "The hard thing is, this game just works. It's good as is. Usually, features make things worse and bloated." He did say he has three conceptually-similar games in development. Also, he's been approached to help create a TV game show based on Draw Something.
"There's so much to learn from this game," he admits.
Speaking of learning, Porter recommends you learn these tips if you're a Draw Something player:
- Play on an iPad. It's the best experience.
- "Shave" thick lines with the eraser tool for a 3D or more layered effect.
- The Trash function "wipes" the drawing during playback. Use it to create flip-book-like narratives.