[There's little detailed design discussion with social game creators thus far, so we enjoyed this Gamasutra interview by our own Christian Nutt -- Playfish's Are Mack talks about the company's latest title, My Empire, and his attitude to social game design.]

EA subsidiary Playfish develops social games for Facebook and mobile devices, and among its newest releases is the city building game My Empire. It allows players to build and manage cities based on classical civilizations; players can share resources to help build each other's cities and unlock new buildings and options.

It's the latest of 16 titles the company has released across a range of platforms. All of Playfish's games are free-to-play, and use a microtransaction model that allows players to purchase in-game items and services for a small fee.

Playfish's Are Mack says that with My Empire, the company aims to address a core market; in this interview with Gamasutra, he discusses traditional conceptions of social games and their steady evolution against them -- where is the line between social games and traditional titles, and how can players find meaning through simple in-game actions?

Could you provide a little background on My Empire?

Are Mack: It's a typical game that gamers like. It's the type of game that we all grew up playing. We just had an itch to make something like this, especially in our China studio. We were itching to do it for a long time, so we figured out how we'd go about doing it. That really came from just wanting to a strategic building game.

And then we chose a Roman theme because it shows our gamer heritage; we're a bit dramatic. We like games with nice storylines, we like to make them as immersive as we can tolerate in the social space. Instead of going in the contemporary direction as Social City did, we chose a more typical gamer theme.

Were you driven by the fact that My Empire was the kind of game you wanted to make? Or did you think that the audience was present for this game, but they were being underserved by the other social offerings?

AM: We thought there was an underserved market for this type of game. Looking at the user numbers on Facebook now, there should be a market for pretty much anything that's well produced.

Do you find that to be true after you launched the game?

AM: I think honestly that we have a very good game, but we are working on the sort of older gamer part of it. And I think that when you look at trajectory of users up to the game's launch and after that, the decline in daily active users, it shows that we had a really interesting game that people would pick up and play.

Once they got a little into it there, they were looking for the next step. And that's typical for social games. We always want to get things out the door easily, meet the audience, see what they like and don't like, and then build from there. We are working on adding those things to My Empire right now.

How do you reconcile traditional game design with driving user retention and interaction?

AM: It's quite different. We, like everyone else who has a gaming background, don't really see that so much in the beginning, but we see it more over time as we work with it. And also, of course, the market is evolving. For a market that was ultra-casual in the beginning it's wrong to use these old terms that we're used to like "casual" and "hardcore" and so on; we're lacking better terms. But in the beginning, we all saw it as an ultra-casual space, and user retention comes from actually doing stuff with your friends, achievements, and bragging rights more than, skill or other things that you typically learn in traditional games that make you feel achievement.

But that's also changing as the market evolves. Players are now looking for more depth, which, to a certain degree, we would call more hardcore mechanics in a traditional game. But they're not really hardcore; they're implemented in a relatively simple way. They are stages to evolve your game, and more and more layers are being added to it.

When you're building a game like this, you said that it's more about bragging rights and things like that. Do you think that the forms of social interaction have changed? Many of the other social games are about helping your friends or luring your friends in with items and such.

AM: I think it's going to evolve. The social game market started off extremely crude. Back in the day you would get an invite, you would click it, The game would tell you to invite 20 of your friends. That was step one; you didn't get to see the app unless you did this. When we launched our first game, that was the state of the market. We felt very proud that we were not doing it. When we launched Who Has The Biggest Brain?, you had to click the button that would open the invite interface. Gradually, it evolved from there.

In terms of very meaningful social interaction, there are not too many games that are letting you cooperate in a meaningful way. There's still a lot of room to do new things. In the most evolved form, you become a form of currency for your friends, and the amount of investment you put into the game helps them to achieve something in their game. But as the market evolves, for most designs, everyone is struggling with the fact that these games can evolve in a hardcore direction.

For example, real-time multiplayer would be an easy way to add a meaningful interaction with your friends. But that drives the game instantly to become something different than a social game. Other forms become difficult once you get into the details of the design, such as how to keep it totally asynchronous and not require people to invest a lot of time. For example, I don't want to design something where I don't progress in the game because some of my friends didn't want to progress in the game any longer; I have to be capable of progressing without my friends.

We will see different things over time. We will probably see more games that eventually evolve into playing with strangers, because at game companies, we would like you, and sometimes need you, to keep playing the game if you like it. And after a while, the number of your friends that are still active in the game will be relatively low, so it will become a deserted and sad world you would be forced to operate in unless we introduce you to strangers who still want to stay in the game.

One of the criticisms of social games is that you come in, and you do maintenance work. With a regular game, you have a challenge that you have to overcome. But in many social games, there is a low challenge level; you just manage the game. Is that something you've been working on?

AM: Yes. That's what I pointed out in the beginning. That's the gamer heritage. We all view the world that way, but I don't think it's necessarily true. We bring in all these concepts of what a game should be, and we would like the world to conform to those concepts. When we were making My Empire, we had an extremely strong desire to have the user use skill and think strategically and make difficult choices, and that implies being punished when you make the wrong choice. But that isn't really what this market is about. There's no given rule that a game has to be like that.

What the social game experience has shown is that there's a large market for a type of games that, at least at present, don't require you to go through the same time investment in operating the game, understanding the game, or making decisions, but people find pleasure in managing something. This is similar, for example, to Japanese games that only use one button where you click your way through a story, and those games are immensely popular. If you think about it, those concepts are a bit odd in a way.

My wife plays a game -- I'm not going to say the name -- but you have to organize three jewels in a line. The amount of time investment that she puts into this game is quite enormous. In a sense, it's also not a very meaningful task, not more than, for example, managing a farm somewhere. We went through this whole journey as game designers. (laughs) At one point, I remember we had a heated discussion where some of the older designers were saying, "Are we not going to be allowed to make games anymore?" That was the feeling that the social games are so departed from traditional games that we can't recognize them.

What is your background, you know, prior to Playfish?

AM: I'm actually a business school finance and strategy major, but I fell in love with making games, so I joined some startups in wireless and wireless value added services. That was very limiting in what you can do in terms of design, so I wanted to get into gaming. I was running the Chinese National e-Sports team, and then I started working with gaming through a Swedish company called Jade Storm. They were extremely strong on multiplayer mobile gaming, and I was doing a skill-based gambling game.

And then I started my own mobile studio doing 3D racing games for EA, Glu, and then Playfish. I like the whole challenge of producing these titles. It's a very interesting mix of soft and hard skills. You spend your day looking a little bit at art and then trying to get a feeling, and then make a short game pitch. It feels emotional, and then you spend a little bit of your day trying to work on marketing numbers and segments and number sizes.

You contrasted two games earlier, a few moments ago, saying one action is not more meaningful than another action. I can understand what you're saying; the actions that you take are very similar when reduced to a basic level, but don't you think the context for the actions is what adds the meaning?

AM: Yeah. There was a talk at GDC where the speaker had an interesting take on the whole thing where he sees this as a continuous evolution of lowering the barrier to play games, saying that games were social activities that you would mainly play for the social value of gathering with friends around the table playing cards and so on. Then, after it moved over to the PC, that whole side of it was lost, and it quickly became something where you were sitting alone, you're not interacting with anyone, and it's all about how fast you can twitch.

What social games do to that is bring the social value back into games and lowers the barrier to games by making them more meaningful. In most people's view, it's more meaningful to have social interaction than to something where you are arranging objects on your computer as a challenge with yourself. I think that's what the core of social games is and why they are so popular. It's possible to make that social interaction the core of the experience, which for most people feels valuable.

My sister, for example, never played games, even when we were kids. I could never get her to play anything; it was just impossible. She is now just finished as a psychologist, she has three kids; she's been extremely busy. But she suddenly started playing social games, and that's just one of the million examples of people who feel that the games are meaningful and they can justify it to themselves because they're sending a poke, it's like sending a little gift.

You're sending a little challenge, and that little extra social value of your action makes it something that you're interested in investing time in.