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Brian Reynolds On His Social Transition

May 3, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Matthew Mouras
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Well.... millions of players will make the Kool Aid look pretty tasty I guess. All the best to Mr. Reynolds as he drinks in gallons of it.

Really appreciated reading his perspective on social games. Thanks for this post!

Brian Colin
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" you have to convince people to pay you on a regular basis ... is that creatively interesting?"

Absolutely! Look at the coin-op origins of the industry...

Designing games for the Arcade forced us to “engage” players to a greater degree than retail games ... since the success of an Arcade Game was always dependent on getting the person who just “lost the game” to immediately insert another quarter. (...Whereas those who those who design games solely for retail sales don't really have to worry about anything beyond the sale of the title.)

This is exactly why I believe that coin-op Arcade Design skills might be particularly well suited for Social game design, and it's why I'll be making the transition myself, as the Director of Development at a new Social Start-Up, later this Month. (wish me Luck)

Thanks, guys, for the insightful interview...

Franklin Brown
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Flavor of the month. If you've played any of those games, you'll realize they get mighty tired and pointless after a while. Kudos to Reynolds for cashing in on a big fad, but I can't imagine these shitty Facebook games are really that personally satisfying (financially rewarding, sure... but, come on... FarmVille is absolute crap).

E Zachary Knight
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There's that "fad" word again. People claimed that the Wii was just a "fad" and would eventually fade away. We are still waiting for that prophecy to be fulfilled.

Now social games are the "fad" and will eventually fade away. Is that right?

These games are no more a fad than the countless FPS games found on the PS3 and 360. They are no more a fad than the countless RPGs released over the years.

Why is it that certain people treat those who see a need an fill it as some kind of heretic? These social games are providing a gaming experience to those people who wanted a light weight gaming experience.

Why is that bad?

Kriss Daniels
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I heard Miyamoto was getting into Facebook gaming.

Dave Endresak
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"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."

This is an inaccurate view of the history of electonic gaming. Various articles on Gamasutra and elsewhere have covered the history of the Western market in some depth as well as the East Asian market. Electronic gaming began on mainframes and the home console market with Ralph Baer's patented invention of the console for "TV games " (which is what they are still called in Japan, versus "PC games"). Intel and IBM actually ignored the idea of PC gaming much like the early developers of the telephone viewed it as solely a professional, business device rather than something for personal use between friends and family. The "two tier" of gaming in the English world due to the market crash during the 80s was not something that happened in Japan. The market developed differently there, and the nature of that development was felt in the Western markets when the Japanese exported their console systems (after our market had given up on the idea of home consoles being profitable).

I would agree with Ephriam that some people tend to view products that do not fit into their interests as fads or discount them in other ways. This happened with Japanese entertainment media in the English market a couple of times, for example, and it still is not viewed with proper respect in my opinion, even in the gaming industry. Diverse tastes is something we should embrace rather than discounting or denigrating in any way.

I'd also add that Mr. Reynolds may feel that social game development is "fun" but his statement is generalized to everyone, and that is misleading, once again, because not everyone would agree that such design efforts are "fun" (or that playing such games is "fun"). I see ads claiming "everyone's on Facebook" or "everyone's on Twitter." Well, no... certain people are, particularly people who do not tend to wish to maintain privacy or who do not tend to value solitude. Some people like to socialize, but many people do not.

Kevin Reese
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I'm happy for Mr .Reynolds working in the social gaming market.

In many social games, the over reliance on graphics and same-ole gaming genres takes a back seat to fun gameplay mechanics, and innovation. Seems like a natural fit to me.

Lo Pan
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I like this move, but I caution others that once you leave the hardcore, console gaming space it is VERY hard to return. Especially if you venture into mobile/social for longer than a couple years. Stereotyping is present in this business as it is in Hollywood.

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@Ephriam-- I view it as a fad because many of the games lack depth or a sense of purpose and plot (Mafia Wars, FarmVille). They cash in on the addictiveness, like a sugar high.

Eventually, you crash. I wouldn't be abbrasive to social gaming if they were to incoporate some traditional gaming.

Kevin Reese
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^^Well, just because many FB games are like you say, doesn't mean they have to be. There is plenty of space for creativity in design in social gaming... Brian Reynolds might come up with something that is the opposite of what you just described.

Samuel Green
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I'm an intern (i.e. I don't know anything) at a small development company and we're going to branch into social games very soon. As one of the traditional gamers, I completely despise Facebook games. As many have said, they're boring, shallow and just rely on a time investment.

BUT... like Reynolds I think this is a fad that isn't going away (someone mentioned the Wii as still being around... is it? Definitely didn't maintain anything near the levels it achieved when it was in full blown fad-dom). I think it would be great to bring in traditional gaming elements to these games, then eventually our mums, sisters and aunties will realize that games aren't a complete waste of time! There are already games on Facebook that aren't one-click-per-hour. Wild Ones is essentially Worms and Paradise Paintball is the first FPS on Facebook and while it's pretty crappy it's definitely got potential.

Prejudice against social games is just going to ensure they wallow in the depths of mediocrity

Brandon Van Every
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I'm late to the barbeque. Couldn't help but wonder as a long time 4X TBS player what a socialized SMAC would look like. :-) My Mom plays plenty of games, mostly through Big Fish Games. I see all kinds of hardcore mechanics creeping into what she's playing, not dumbed down so much as streamlined. She hasn't got a social bone in her body. So I figure social gaming can be totally ignored if you really don't like it. There are people out there who really just want single player games. Biz types just don't like those people because they're not offering viral opportunities to make more money.