Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
The Strategic Evolution Of Social Gaming
View All     RSS
October 26, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 26, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

The Strategic Evolution Of Social Gaming

April 15, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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]

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — London, Ontario, Canada

Character Artist
Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — London, Ontario, Canada

Sound Designer
Disruptor Beam, Inc.
Disruptor Beam, Inc. — Framingham, Massachusetts, United States

Lead 3D Artist
Red 5 Studios
Red 5 Studios — Orange County, California, United States

Graphics Programmer


Jose Resines
profile image
It's sad to see Reynolds, Shelley and Soren Johnson wasting their talent on this drivel.

Carlo Delallana
profile image
On the contrary, I think its a really good thing that there are talented game designers helming Zynga. As the interview points out, Social Games are evolving strategically. There's so much untapped potential in this space, so many more ways for games to create more meaningful interactions between players.

You either open your eyes and recognize change, adapt, and innovate to create even bigger disruptions in the space or you just put your head in the sand and hope all this goes away one day. The same thing applies to the big guns within the space. Eventually wearing out your player will backfire on you.

You recognize change, adapt, and innovate...or someone else will.

Geoffrey Sheets
profile image
I agree with you Carlo. Think of it this way, it may be drivel to you, but I defy you to go out to your local Best Buy and find any new games that are really worth it for a computer. You can find the same ones on an XBOX or PS3 that you see on a PC now and the casual market is where it's at now because, and let's face it, most people have the attention span of a flea and don't want Age of Empire-type games anymore that require lots of time to fully enjoy.

Jamie Riesdorph
profile image
I have played Puzzle Pirates and feel they have created an awesome game with very few glitches and great graphics, mobility, variety, interaction, and very little lag unlike Zynga games that have multiple glitches and issues constantly and dont seem to have enough servers or whats needed to drive the game. Animation hardly works, more u have the more the lag and of course seems to be more about making money than making quality fun games.

I believe if Zynga put the time, effort, and money into quality first then new ideas and money will flow. It seems they are putting too much new stuff out too fast instead of making it work first. Its sad when there is the same issues from the beginning of the game creation that years later still has not been addressed!

It seems like Zynga got popular fast and they weren't prepared and the success went to their heads.

Derek Tumolo
profile image
@Carlo - yes, definitely glad there is a chance now, but still not seeing anything in the Zynga world for which I would want to spend a Civilization game's time commitment.

@Geoffrey - You should try Steam instead of Best Buy. A lot of great games aren't available physically, because they don't need to.

Matthew Kerr
profile image
People thought the first video games for Coleco, Intellivision, etc were drivel as well...

Neil Sorens
profile image
Agree with the above. If Zynga was using their metrics to increase the level of entertainment their games provided, that would be one thing. But from what I can tell, because their games continue to be compulsion-based rehashes, their metrics are geared towards figuring out how to extract the maximum amount of money from players - it's almost about how to keep them hooked but dissatisfied, rather than satisfied. Because if they ever feel that sense of completion, they might stop emptying their wallets into yours.

Carlo Delallana
profile image
"So what I think will happen with social games... the trick -- if you're a game designer -- is to figure out how to put depth in. Because it's the choices and the patterns and all that stuff that makes the game fun, and last for awhile, and makes you be able to play the game more than one time, makes you always kind of looking for the next little hidden thing, or trying to get over the next challenge." - Bryan Reynolds

You know what the real "trick" is (and it's not even a trick), put some meaning in your game. Some of my more profound gaming experiences have been games that embraced meaning even though the systems and mechanics were as shallow as rainwater on concrete. I'm talking to you Tiny Wings!

There are 2 generations of people that are tackling meaning and purpose in their lives: Baby Boomers and Millennials. Boomers are starting to look back at their lives and wonder if they've truly lived. They will seek out experiences that provide them with meaning and purpose. Then you have the Millennials, the new generation entering adulthood. PEW research on this new audience paints a very interesting picture regarding their views and beliefs but purpose and meaning are also important.

This is where I hope social games will evolve towards.

Daniel Gooding
profile image
I wonder if social gaming will ever one day be able to accomplish what Will Wright had attempted to achieve with his Sim Series. A full blown world with the ability to play whatever part of the world you wanted, whether it be building commercial towers, or raising a family, or raising a farm, it all would be one interconnected world, and everything people did effected the world, and it grew together. A true Sim City.

I guess you could Say Minecraft had elements of this. I would just like to have it taken to the level of "the sims" with social responsibilities, and forming relationships. I also realize their was a sims on-line. However Sims on-line had social elements, but was lacking in the whole 'city' feel.

Perhaps what I am hoping for is too complicated. And I know if it came to reality there is a good chance it wouldn't be browser based.

JB Vorderkunz
profile image
This is not meant to be snarky: isn't strategic evolution an oxymoron. What I mean is that evolutionary processes are used as a metaphor within the social sciences to describe the unplanned, organic development of a system. Strategic implies the top-down planning and directed construction of a system based upon a preselected ideal.

Evolution == player interest drives design

Strategery == corporate profit drives design

Altug Isigan
profile image
--and then maybe you notice, "Oh look, if I put a sheep here, then the grass doesn't grow back."And so if I don't want the grass to grow back, then that's a good place that I'll put my animals around to eat the grass. But there's nothing that said you had to do that, and there's no manual that tells you, and there wasn't even a pop up that said, "Hey, by the way, the sheep eats the grass." It's just you kind of play, and you notice, and then you think, "Hey, I learned something!--

that must be a nice example for "Play, don't tell" ;)

Todd Williams
profile image
Can someone explain why Frontierville et al get such a bad rap?

If they weren't good games, people wouldn't play them. Just because they re-theme the same game and make even more money on it, there's so much to be learned about how they approach and execute their design. I think it's easy to get caught up in the fact that eventually you will become disheartened and uninterested in the game because it doesn't end and it doesn't have a bigger meaning or an epic story, but that doesn't mean that it's a game (or a company, for that matter) that can be looked down at.

Michael Joseph
profile image
"If they weren't good games, people wouldn't play them."

You can't be serious? Sometimes the emperor has no clothes.

Advertising executive Gary Dahl made over a million dollars selling the pet rock.

Millions of people like Britney Spears' music.

Is there something to be learned? Sure. You don't need to make something good to make a lot of money. There's a psychology that can be exploited instead. And you can leverage certain cultural trends

But not everybody feels just because you can do something to make a lot of money that you should. For some game developers, the game comes first. Admittedly corporations aren't run that way. But that's corporations for you. You're starting to see a lot of people use corporate speak and suggest that the corporate game development method and mentality is the only legitimate one. Games exist to make money and everything should be done to maximize the money extraction. God help us.

Zynga's made a lot of money but what else have they done? Have they created anything really memorable? I still have fond memories of playing EotL with my friends. Who is going to remember their FarmVille escapades 20 years from now?

And is anybody even questioning the mentality of ONE GAME TO RULE THEM ALL? "How can we create a game that is so milk toast (void of friction?) that we can attract as many people as possible? Maybe we can put some subliminal messages in there?"

Traditionally developers make a game that they want to play and which they think and hope others will enjoy. The corporate model seemed to accept that in the beginning but quickly switched to "we know games of type X are popular so lets make a type X game ourselve so we can capitalize on this new trend." Social games pervert the process even more by forsaking any artistic vision at all and designing games by psychology and metrics alone. They don't make games to serve any artistic vision or even to serve the players; they make games to serve the company. There's no balance, there's no responsibility. It's Gordan Gecko school of game production. It's pathological.

Todd Williams
profile image
Ah yes, sometimes I forget that if I don't like something, then it must not be good. You need to get off of your high horse. Saying things like, "Zynga's made a lot of money but what else have they done" makes you sound arrogant and elitist.

Adam Bishop
profile image
I think it depends what you mean by "good". Is it good at making money? Sure. Is it good at improving peoples' lives? That's much more debatable. It clearly fills a void for some people. But I wouldn't consider everything that fills a void to be "good". Prostitution clearly fills a void, but I still think it's extremely problematic.

Michael Joseph
profile image
@Todd Williams

Ah yes, sometimes I forget that if I don't like someone's message, then they must be on a high horse. Don't like that line of reasoning?

As for how I sound, I'm not seeking your approval. Calling someone arrogant and elitist rather than discuss the actual subject matter is an ad hominem. I won't say how that makes you sound.