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['Core' game industry notables like Brian Reynolds and Steve Meretzky have been redirecting their design efforts to social network games on Facebook and MySpace -- but why? Gamasutra talks to them and other social game experts to discuss opportunities in this fleet of foot market.]
Brian Reynolds is perhaps best known as Sid Meier's collaborator on Sid Meier's Colonization. One of the three founders of Firaxis, he was also lead designer on such other long-admired, real-time strategy games as Civilization II and Alpha Centauri. And Steve Meretzky was lead designer on mainstream classics like Planetfall and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
But today, both men are making casual web games for Facebook and MySpace -- and loving it. So are other developers who have been saying good-bye to the retail game sector to find opportunities in the wild and wooly west of social networks.
It's quite a transition but, according to Justin Smith, "the traditional game developers who do the math see social network gaming as one of the most interesting growth markets around. My projection for 2009 is that it will be a $300 to 400-million market across all the social networks."
Smith is editor of Inside Social Games, a site he started a year and a half ago to "track innovation at the convergence of games and social platforms."
"It became clear to me back then that there was a big disruption happening in the gaming space as more and more developers were finding that by entering this new area, they were able to build new businesses. And so I decided to report on this emerging industry."
Indeed, the opportunities in social gaming were also apparent to a few high-profile execs, like former Electronic Arts COO John Pleasants who, last June, became CEO of Playdom, a social gaming studio that had already claimed Steve Meretzky. And EA founder Bing Gordon is a board member at Zynga, Brian Reynolds' new home.
Both Meretzky, who is now VP of game design at Playdom, and Reynolds, who is now chief designer at Zynga, say they've happily made the leap to social gaming -- the former in November, the latter in May -- and haven't looked back.
"For me, the 'ah-ha' moment when I decided to make the switch was when I was playing Mafia Wars on Facebook," recalls Reynolds. "Not only were my friends playing it more and more, but I noticed that my aunt was also playing it, and I remember thinking that it was kind of funny for a middle-aged woman who is a generation ahead of me to be putting hits on people."
"Then one day I got an e-mail from her saying, 'Brian, thanks for all the energy packs. I love you. Aunt Susie.' I thought, wow, that's great. My aunt loves me even more since I'm playing Mafia Wars."
"I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, but I realized that not only I was building social capital with my real friends when we were playing these games, I also had a wider variety of people to interact with than in typical gaming because Facebook attracts a much wider cross-section of people to play with. That's when I was sold on social gaming."
Having sold his company, Timonium, MD-based Big Huge Games, to THQ, Reynolds settled in at Zynga, joined by his three Big Huge Games alumni, senior designer Doug Kaufman, senior game designer Paul Stephanouk, and senior UI designer/artist Dan Halka.
According to Reynolds, the lure was mainly the audience -- "bigger, wider, and, maybe most important, growing," he says. "It's also a space that is new and not a place where everybody's figured out all the right answers. It's evolving so quickly that this is a chance to get in on the ground floor."
The typical social network title is an online casual game, free to play, and usually monetized through virtual goods micro-transactions. The philosophy at Zynga is worlds apart from what Reynolds had been used to; the design model, he says, is to ship something very quickly without a huge set of features.
"You're no longer spending three or four years trying for perfection. Here, we throw the game out there, hope the viewers like it, and, if they do, we evolve it after seeing what they like and what they don't; it's all about using the player's energy to build momentum to make the game better. That is very attractive and refreshing to me coming from the background I come from."
Indeed, whereas the team creating Rise Of Nations at Big Huge Games consisted of 30 or so people working for three years, Zynga's teams are typically 12 to 15 working for two to three months.
"That's where you get your huge difference in terms of financial risk," observes Reynolds. "Here the budgets are tiny. I'm not a heavy-duty numbers guy but you can figure it out for yourself -- take the latest salary survey data and multiply it by 10 people and then again by two months and make an estimate."