[Zynga stunned the industry when it hired veteran PC strategy developer Brian Reynolds to head up its Zynga East studio -- but the success of FrontierVille put to rest any questions about the decision. Here, he and Ensenble co-founder Bruce Shelley chart the future of social games.]
With the hire of Brian Reynolds away from Big Huge Games in 2009, Zynga made clear that part of its strategy going forward was to hire "traditional" game developers from outside of the social space to inject tried and true methods and design philosophies into an emerging area. That strategy was no doubt cemented into place by the success of his first game with the company, FrontierVille.
Along with Reynolds, Bruce Shelley, co-founder of shuttered Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios, explains how and why he's come on as a design consultant for Zynga, and what he's taught and learned.
The two speak to the evolving nature of the social space -- pointing out in how in a very short time the games have massively grown in scope and quality. They also discuss the need to be better designers, explaining how the need to hook audiences quickly with simple but meaningful gameplay makes the process much more challenging.
Can you explain how you interact with Zynga and how you ended up with the consultancy gig?
Bruce Shelley: Well, Brian talked to me about how [Zynga] would like to have more people from the "Sid Meier School of Design" to help with the gameplay of the games, and not worry about any aspect except how the games play. So I've been working with a couple of Zynga's external studios.
Basically I'm assigned to work with the external studios, the ones that are not in San Francisco; they have something like five or six studios around the country, and I work with a couple of those. I'm probably going to be plugging into one of those for most of my work for maybe the next year -- I'm not sure -- and try to make one really good game, to make something really good.
So I'm another design voice. In this case, the studio there, they see me as a person with experience, who can help with young designers. Also they want to assign parts of the game to me to be in charge of, at least for awhile. Most studios have a creative director and a lead designer, and maybe a product manager, and sometimes they all have different ideas about something. So in this case, they see me as another voice, and a voice of experience, that can help them arbitrate their decision making.
What is it about the Sid Meier school of design that seems to meld so well with the social games space?
Brian Reynolds: So I think it's partially the fact that Sid created a system of making games where the core of it was rapid prototyping, and he was the best at it, ever. You would say 'firemen', and he would -- two weeks later -- have a game where you'd be like going down poles and pointing hoses at stuff and there'd be fire engines. So he could kind of make a game out of anything and get the core of it up running really fast, and then you play it and you revise it, and you play it and revise it.
And it's the act of sort of pushing on it, of actually experiencing the game and seeing the parts that are fun, and then changing them and making them more fun, or taking out the parts that aren't fun that then goes on for however much time you have. And by the time you launch, you got something that really is fun.
That method turns out to work really well in the social space, where our games really are substantially about the design. Because we're bandwidth constrained, we make the game board look nice and put nice art, but it's not like it's 3D and a gigabyte of content coming down -- there's a very finite amount of stuff that you can put through the internet in time for the player to not get tired of the loading bar.
So what that means is that it's actually how well we design it that dictates how entertaining it's going to be. I mean, it's a really key coefficient in how entertaining the game's going to be is how well we designed it. And so the fact that we can prototype, and iterate and prototype and iterate, and that for having done it for 20, 30 years we know a lot of the touchstones of where to look for the fun.
When you joined Zynga two years ago, was that jarring for the people that worked there -- that method?
BR: Well, the iterating part was not, and that's one reason that I felt like it was going to be a good fit. Because they were already used to the fact that they had this new, cool advantage of, you can get a game out and you can still keep changing it, and that was what was really fascinating to me. Talk about a great opportunity -- to be able to continue to evolve your game once you have all the users pushing on it.
Now the idea of game designers, per se, for a company that really came out of the web space, well there was some culture shock there, and we had to figure out how to work together. But we did it successfully first in the form of FrontierVille, and had a really big success with that. So now everybody's happy and working together pretty well. [laughs]