Less than a year ago, veteran strategy game designer (Civilization II, Rise Of Nations) Brian Reynolds left Big Huge Games for Zynga, developer and publisher of the most popular games on Facebook, like FarmVille and Mafia Wars.
It was a surprising move, since these games were largely perceived as being less-than-compelling from a design perspective -- and it seemed like a guy with a background in complicated strategy titles might not fit in with the casual, social bent of the company.
Since that time, it's become more and more apparent that social games are on the rise; major developers of console and PC games, on the other hand, have shut down and had layoffs.
Many people will be making the transition to the new market whether they want to or not. The good news is that Reynolds, however, has a genuine enthusiasm and interest for the space.
Here, he details what he finds most fascinating, challenging, and exciting about his work at Zynga.
When you made the leap, were you anticipating the market transition, or did you just see an opportunity that you liked?
BR: Well, the interesting thing for me and my sort of life story in general -- I mean, I've been making games 19 and a half years, something like that -- is that usually, the kind of game I'm making, I'm making it because, partially, it's the thing that I'm addicted to right now. (Laughs)
Like, I see new kinds of games, and I want to make 'em, and then I kind of learn about them and do them for awhile... and whatever's the next thing and so on. There was also the sort of serendipitous timing of my company, after we had sold it... to THQ and THQ resold it; well, that let me off all my covenants and stuff. It was like, "Hey! I'm a free man! I can do what I want!"
Facebook games were what I was playing. I had gotten back in touch with an old friend from EA who was now a VC for Zynga, and I was playing Scramble and Mafia Wars and that kind of stuff. So I wanted to make one, and at the same time, it was clear that Facebook was taking off.
I knew that Zynga was kind of right then starting to pull away as the biggest player in the space, so it seemed like this was a good chance to get onto something -- I didn't predict that FarmVille was going to go boom and all that stuff. It wasn't like I'm some kind of financial investment genius; no, I just kind of vote with my feet, of what I want to make and what's cool and what's exciting.
Electronic Arts, on one hand, closed Pandemic and acquired Playfish, so suddenly it seems like these are profound shakeups that are going to impact a lot of people. A lot of people are going to have to make this transition, maybe -- unlike you -- whether they want to or not.
BR: Well, I hope everybody can keep working on games that they would like to work on. I would like to -- as a message to my former compatriots in the traditional game industry -- say that it's really fun making social games! There are some skills that were important skills in the traditional industry that I don't see anytime soon being all that important in the social game industry, of course, but it's not like I think that there's not going to be a traditional game industry.
I just think that social games are the big thing that's happening, and I could see it coming to be that social games are the largest space in games. If you look at games overall, that's kind of what happened with console games and PC games, right? They used to just be PC games, and then consoles grew; then suddenly they were so much bigger than just traditional PC games that you couldn't get as much money to make a straight PC game. I just think it's a business change, but there's still always going to be all that other stuff.
You said that you were really attracted to and were playing a lot of these games, but they are definitely different from what you've worked on in the past. What drew you and made you say, "This is a space that I want to be in"?
BR: Mostly the fact that I was really enjoying playing them. (Laughs) I make games that I like to play, and I try to find ways to get involved in that; but, to speak to the sort of deeper parts of that question, what do I think I have to offer is another way of asking it.
What I think I have to offer in this space is I'm a game mechanic specialist. Taking simple parts and fitting them together so that they work well and figuring out how you make a game more compelling or more fun, how you take something that's already working and take it up to the next notch -- that's the stuff I'm good at, the stuff I've done over the years. The nice thing in the social space is that that's almost like the entire thing that's going on!
In the traditional space these days, when it's a $30 million project with a hundred people, I would go for weeks without needing to do any game design or any game mechanics stuff. I could even imagine these days going an entire year on a project and no new game mechanics get designed or no new substantial play -- because you're all busy working on the technology and the art, just making content now that you've designed the thing; that kind of stuff.
In social games, where it's just every week's some new stuff and keeping it going and keeping it exciting and "How can we make it even better?" and "We need a new feature over here!", it's just really exciting for someone in my space because there's not the friction of having to make a lot of art and having to make a lot of production value and having writers making story. It's just game mechanics; straight game mechanics. That's cool! It keeps me really, really busy.