"I saw a lot of creative potential"
Scott Jon Siegel has spent virtually his entire career in social games, joining Zynga in 2008 when there were just 80 employees. By 2009, he was at Playdom during its acquisition by Disney, urging independent game designers to disrupt the rigid business logic of social games with genuinely-playful works.
It was Area/code's successful 2008 Parking Wars Facebook game that jump-started Siegel's faith in the idea that games on Facebook didn't have to be "evil."
"From that game I saw a ton of creative potential," he says. "Here was a platform that allowed its games to tap into the social graph, and games that could do this well could allow us to think differently about our connections to other people. It was a platform of play built upon the connections shared with friends and family. That should have been huge. And it was huge. It was just huge in a 'business, exploitation' sort of way, rather than a 'setting new creative benchmarks' sort of way."
"When we made [Parking Wars], our first Facebook game, the platform seemed like a genuinely interesting new way to make games," says Kevin Cancienne, formerly Area/code's director of game development. "We were always interested in games as social interaction -- that games are almost always more interesting when there are other real people involved."
Working on the asynchronous Facebook platform seemed like a rich vein of potential for multiplayer games that bypassed the significant tech and design challenges of realtime multiplayer, Cancienne says. "In many ways for us, back in the beginning, Facebook was simply an amazing, enormous lobby for asynchronous multiplayer games."
In general, Area/code did work-for-hire development projects for companies looking to use games for promotion, focusing on bypassing the usual cynicism of tie-in projects in favor of making honest games. Parking Wars itself was promotion for the A&E television show of the same name; Cancienne says Area/code won the contract versus a few non-digital game projects on "purely creative terms."
Parking Wars had the fortune of hitting the market before microtransactions became essential to Facebook game design, and of only having to satisfy the goal of "getting a lot of eyeballs on a thing." In that regard it could be seen as "pure," but it's often hard to discover where the line between the sheer possibility in connected play and shrewd business interest lies.
Area/code was co-founded by Frank Lantz, a close friend of Ian Bogost's. The company was bought by Zynga in 2011, right as Cow Clicker's popularity reached neurotic proportions. Bogost often drew controversy for publicly questioning whether social game designers felt honest about their philosophy or were swallowing greater concerns in favor of business opportunity.
"I think a great many social game developers are mistaking the success of their games for positive contributions to humanity," Bogost told me in 2010. By then, the growth of popular games was already beginning to slow down, but it didn't stop Disney from acquiring Playdom for $563 million -- not long after Electronic Arts spent $300 million up-front for Playfish.
"My guess would be that lots of those people were either talking nice and/or wearing extremely rose-colored glasses when they spoke about the great potential made possible by the Zyngas and the Lolappses of the world," says Cancienne. "We used to joke about it, back at Area/code (before we ourselves gave into the dark side) that it was awfully convenient that the place all these veteran game designers said was super-promising also happened to be the places that were suddenly offering huge compensation packages."