When you sit and look at a social game, are they in a sense driven by pure game mechanics?
BR: Well, this is the funny thing. Game mechanics in the traditional sense of -- I spent 18, 19 years designing traditional games, particularly strategy games, and it was all about fun.
Fun was the number one thing, and, once you'd made the game fun, you knew you were gonna succeed; if you didn't make the game fun, you knew you probably weren't going to succeed very well. Everything was based around that.
The interesting thing is that what's different in social games is that the most important thing isn't the fun per se; it's the social element. It's the quality of the social interaction, and it's because the social interactions are with your real friends, not just people that you met online.
How do you hook that in? What I've been hearing from different people I've spoken to in social games is that the people who come from the traditional games industry really understand making games; what they don't understand as much is the web and social stuff.
BR: Yeah! Yeah!
So is that a tremendous learning curve?
BR: It is a huge learning curve. Now, mind you, this is a fast-moving space, so I started at Zynga in May, and here I am the supposed authority... (Laughs) The emissary to the traditional games industry.
But if you want to join this industry -- if you want to go from being a traditional game developer to being a social game developer -- I would say that the most important thing is humility; it's coming in and realizing that it's not about the same thing.
You've got to come in and embrace the socialness of it, and learn the socialness of it. There will be a place for your knowledge of game mechanics, but you've got to kind of unlearn that first, particularly unlearn the idea that that's the most important thing, that that's what it's all about. Then you'll find ways to integrate it in.
I'm finding, in my own work, that I'm having a lot of use for my knowledge of game mechanics and traditional game mechanics, and it makes me a really valuable person on the Zynga team, because I can go to these different projects and work trying to solve this problem, because we've got this, and it works like this, and we want to drive toward some goal. And I can say, "Oh! Well, I know five different ways to do that! There's this, or there's that, or there's that."
I can bring that to the table because I have been studying traditional game mechanics for years, and so I can give them a lot of tools to solve the social problems; but I couldn't really do it before I understood what the social problems were and embraced the fact that that's the most important part -- that it's not all about "Do the game mechanics all fit together just as game mechanics?" It's about "Do they drive the inherent social nature of the game?"
The cycles are way, way, way shorter compared to traditional games at this point. How many projects have you worked on since you got to Zynga?
BR: Well, I have this kind of funny dual role. So I'm chief game designer for Zynga, which is a much more minor role at a social game company than it would be at some traditional place! (Laughs)
One thing that means is I kind of go strike team to strike team to strike team, touching all of the big projects. I flew out for a week and just worked solid on FarmVille, and then I'm going to a Mafia Wars usability session this afternoon; I went to PetVille this morning. So there's all these different kind of touching all the little teams, and that's where I'm kind of Mr. Toolkit, where I'm "Here's the tools to solve your problem. What are your problems? How do we go to the next step?"
And at the same time I also have my own little studio where we're actually making games, and I kind of operate on a "Please steal this!" basis with all the other teams. If you're seeing my prototype and you see stuff you like, don't ask me, just take it and put it in, because we're experimenting with new ways to drive social through game mechanics -- but in the mode of game. I can't talk about when we're launching this kind of stuff.
Sure. I think that, if you talk to people who are really into games, the quality of the gameplay in social games has been called into question. Do you think that there's a push forward on the game-making side as well as the social interaction side?
BR: Yeah! Don't you feel like this already happened -- that that's already going on and that the games are getting more and more fun? That's how I feel, even if I look at games that I did play a year ago and look at the same game now, I find them more fun, more compelling as a player.
I'm a big Mafia Wars fan and player, and the new Bangkok [content] and Moscow -- some of these recent ones are so much more tightly tuned, and they have so many more of what I feel like is a traditional game mechanic. They have boss battles, and I think the boss battles are a lot better tuned than boss battles that we've seen before in social games.
Yeah, I think the craft of game design has really taken root in social games. Obviously, it's not the only thing that's important in this space, and the other thing is traditional game developers -- I get a lot of push-back about, "Oh, well these aren't very complicated, not very deep" or whatever pejorative term they want to come up with; it's not the kind of games that they have traditionally played, right? And the thing that you have to realize in this space is we're talking to a whole, massive set of people that we've never been able to talk to with games before.
My Aunt plays Mafia Wars. The average social gamer... There was the article last month that's like a 43-year-old female; that's definitely not the traditional game target demographic. Part of what makes the social nature of these games so compelling is being able to play with your real friends, so the more of your real friends and relatives you can play with, the more we get that kind of social critical mass.
That's why we do look for things that everybody will want to play; it is a very much more mass-market kind of experience. I think that's really exciting, that we're communicating with not just three million people anymore but eighties of millions! (Laughs)