How A Game Design Rookie Accidentally Built A $200 Million Hit

When Dan Porter set out to create Draw Something, he barely knew what he was doing. Here’s how his naiveté made him millions.

How A Game Design Rookie Accidentally Built A $200 Million Hit
[Image: Flickr user Edwin Torres]

When Dan Porter starts working with a new client, he has a unique history from which to draw lessons. The head of digital for agency William Morris Endeavor is best known as the guy who designed Draw Something, the explosively popular mobile game that got his studio OMGPop bought by Zynga for $200 million. WME recently signed on to consult with the makers of popular trivia app QuizUp, so Porter’s experience will come in handy–even though his massive success was a happy accident.


For OMGPop, the stakes were high. The studio had achieved moderate success with its dozens of web-based Flash games, but smartphone adoption was exploding and mobile gaming was becoming all the rage. To stay relevant, the company would need its own mobile hit to rival the likes of Angry Birds and Words With Friends.

So Porter sat down to design what turned out to be a modern, social network-infused version of Pictionary. But despite the smartphone-based game’s roots in an established classic, Porter’s approach to creating it was surprisingly lacking in the traditions of game design methodology.

Throwing Out The Conventional Wisdom Of Game Design

Normally, a game designer starts by sketching out a few core elements: the goals of the game, the space in which it takes place, the characters, mechanics, and rules. These nitty-gritty details are typically outlined and documented long before the interface gets sketched or a line of code is written. But not for Porter.

“I had no preconceptions about what was needed or not needed,” says Porter. “If you’re a game designer, you start with a bunch of building blocks: The objective of the game. The powers of each player of the game. Things like that. And then you use those things to put together a game.”

But–forget the details normally obsessed over by people who create video games, he thought. Porter had a hankering to do the whole thing backwards: Start with a broader concept that fills gaps in the marketplace and then build the whole thing out from there. Fill in the details later.


“I didn’t really know or understand the rules of making games,” Porter admits. “But I had these things that I really wanted to solve for. Rather than looking at the blocks normally used to build a game, I was like, ‘Here’s where I think there’s an opportunity.'”

Despite Porter’s self-professed naiveté, Draw Something went ballistic in the App Store rankings, reeling in over 1 million users over a span of nine days. Before long, it topped 35 million downloads. At one point in early 2012, it seemed like everyone was playing–and talking about–Draw Something.

At the time, for instance, most of the popular mobile games were single player. This was the era of Angry Birds. Early examples of social, smartphone-based titles like Words With Friends were starting to catch fire, bolstering Porter’s hunch that people wanted a more interactive mobile gaming experience.

Creating a mobile game that’s also social–in addition to satisfying the buzzword quota of the time–would also solve one of Draw Something’s inherent design challenges: Preventing dick scribbles. That is, by using Facebook to connect players who actually know each other, the game would limit the prevalence of nonsense and crudely drawn obscenity. It’s not that Porter and his team were prudes. They just figured that connecting strangers by default would result in far more irrelevant drawings, undermining the point of the game and limiting its potential for viral success. There’s a reason you never hear anybody talk about Chatroulette anymore.

“The way a game developer solves that is to have penalties or a timer or a ‘report’ button,” says Porter. “I basically thought, ‘You know what? It’s probably impossible to solve.’ The only way that I could think to solve that is to play with somebody you know.”


No Losers Allowed

In Porter’s mind, even a well-executed social video game would still present challenges. Chief among them: the problem of losing.

Long before OMGPop birthed a smash hit, it created dozens of browser-based games. None of them took off like Draw Something later would, but all that gameplay offered a trove of data-driven lessons. As it turned out, even the most popular games have a feature built into them that sends some players fleeing: You can lose. It seems like a necessary part of any game, but apparently the cold reality of crippling defeat is poisonous for user engagement metrics.

“Instead of starting from scratch and creating the game, I was like, ‘Wow, how do you solve the problem of not having someone lose?” Porter says. “Because I’ve now, for four years, seen the downside of losing: 50% of the time the person who loses never comes back to play the game.”

So, instead of the drawn-out, ego-bruising loss of a game like Words With Friends, Draw Something would treat players–very few of whom were likely to be artists–much more humanely. As counterintuitive as this seems, the approach appears to have helped keep Draw Something users tapping away, helping to fuel its rise to the top of the App Store charts.

But before Draw Everything took off, plenty of people questioned the team’s approach.


“All of the feedback would consistently say things like, “Where’s the leader board?” Porter says. “How can you have a game if it’s not competitive? They were taking the language of games that they understood and telling me that language was missing. And I would say, ‘I don’t really want to do that.'”

Learning From Users In The Wild

If you’ve ever ridden a subway car with Dan Porter, you’ll have to forgive him for staring. For this particular New York City resident, the subway is not only a means to get to work; It’s also a bit of a laboratory. In his OMGPop days, Porter would spend his commute time observing what people do on their phones. Since New York doesn’t have cellular reception underground, many people indulge in offline-friendly activities like reading or playing games.

“For me, it became less about ‘What are the traditional rules of game design and more about ‘How do people hold their phone? Where’s their thumb? What do they like to do? Are they on a subway ride?'” he says. “It’s how I learn about games that are popular. I just wanted to make a game that I could see other people playing.”

Porter credits this impromptu, in-the-wild research with helping his team build a game that turned into an overnight success. For most people, the staggering download numbers would paint a flattering enough picture. But for Porter, Draw Something’s success wasn’t official until one day when he was taking a walk in Prospect Park.

“I saw this couple huddled together and laughing and I was with my son and I said, ‘Oh I wonder if they’re playing my game.'” Porter says. “He was mortally embarrassed. I walked behind them and I looked and they were playing my game and I was like “That’s it!” That’s what I wanted.'”


Lessons That Carry Over Beyond Gaming

As anybody who follows tech news knows, the Draw Something saga didn’t have the happiest of endings. In 2012, OMGPop was acquired by Zynga for a headline-grabbing $200 million. A year later, the studio and most of its titles were shut down after an unsuccessful attempt by its founders to buy it back. Draw Something remains available, but has since been eclipsed in popularity by the incessant parade of mobile game hits, most recently Flappy Bird and its many knock-offs.

Porter, who left Zynga in April 2013, now heads up digital at talent agency William Morris Endeavor. But he says he approaches projects similarly to the way he tackled Draw Something.

“For all of the things that I’ve been working on subsequently, I’ve kind of had a similar mind-set,” Porter says. “What is the thing that’s the open market opportunity? Or the thing that I feel is missing? And how do I work backwards from there?”

It’s a wildly differently world from gaming, of course, but he says the same principles apply. Whatever industry his firm may be dealing with, he tries to think of it from a naive, outside perspective. When working with the fashion industry, for instance, he’ll try applying a paradigm from the sports world and seeing what happens.

“It’s all about putting constructs from other industries on top as as way to force yourself to try to see it differently,” he says. “I’d rather have people say Dan Porter did something different and it failed than say he did another version of something that’s already out there and it’s pretty good.”