There’s a revolution happening in gaming. It’s been happening so swiftly and so subtly you may not have noticed until now, when it’s too late to do anything other than stare in open-mouthed wonder. You’re not alone in this. Attending this year’s Game Developer Conference revealed that, more and more, what’s been on the mind of the people who run the industry is the possibility that they’re not going to be running it for very long – unless they acknowledge the paradigm shift happening right under their noses – and adapt.
In session after session, the same key phrases were mentioned with equal parts wonder and fear. Sometimes they said social games, social networks or even Facebook, but what they really meant was Zynga.
Zynga, the three-year old company that now employs close to 1,000 game developers all over the world, and is the only company (or government entity) capable of influencing the will of Facebook, the social network juggernaut that, for more people than live in the entire United States of America, has come to define the internet. Why is Zynga such a monster? Because for that same number of people, Zynga has come to define games.
Through their massively-popular family of games (including Mafia Wars, FarmVille and FrontierVille), Zynga has, in just three years, come to dominate not only the single largest gaming platform in the universe, but by that measure, the game industry as a whole. Its little wonder the rest of the industry is lying awake at night, pondering the future. Name another single game, other than FarmVille, that had 80 million players at one point on a platform that reaches 500 million. (FrontierVille doesn’t count, it only has 20 million players.)
If you’re a game developer, though, working in the seemingly increasingly irrelevant AAA console market, or the desperately diminishing PC gaming market, or the slim-margined smart phone market, the name of your fear might not be Zynga, but Bryan Reynolds.
The name will sound familiar if you know your history of massively successful and addictive games. Reynolds is a 20 year veteran of the game industry, a co-founder of Firaxis and founder of Big Huge Games. Reynolds was a design lead on games like Civilization II, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations. He worked on Civilization as a designer. The first one. And he was the creative genius behind the successful reboot of the popular board game Settlers of Catan on Xbox Live. These days he works for Zynga as their Chief Designer. He was the lead designer of FrontierVille.
“When I found out Zynga was looking for somebody like me, it turned out to be a great fit,” Says Reynolds, of his transition from running Big Huge Games to making big, huge games on big, huge Facebook for big, huge Zynga.
Reynolds sold his company to publisher THQ in 2008, hoping to utilize the larger company’s resources to make a successful Wii game, or console RPG. Sadly, they didn’t get the chance. In 2009, THQ re-gifted Big Huge Games to 38 Studios, the company that MLB pitcher Curt Schilling built. Reynolds took advantage of the opportunity to become a free agent, shipping out to Zynga, a company he describes as “well organized chaos.”
“It’s very fast-moving,” he says. “There’s an emphasis on getting right on top of any kind of problem right away. Much more important that you grab the problem and solve it than if you ‘filled out all the right paperwork first.’ Folks from more traditional companies might find it kind of chaotic, but it’s … really well suited for the kind of game design I do.”
Reynolds expresses a touch of discontent describing the current state of game design, a discontent shared by many of his fellow design veterans, like industry legend Warren Spector, whose latest game is in many ways a return to a simple era of game design, when every molecule of every environment didn’t need to be rendered to exacting specifications.
” A lot of my last 20 years has felt like the ‘total amount of game design’ needed for any particular AAA game has stayed fairly constant, maybe grown just a tad, but the ‘total amount of time’ needed for a game has gone drastically upwards,” says Reynolds. “Games can take 3-4 years to make, and there are huge periods where there isn’t much useful game design … as opposed to talking yourself in circles in meetings or documents. So suddenly being back in a space where we can start throwing real gameplay together in a month or so, and have it ready for release in much less than a year, that’s fantastic!”
He says that, for him, the lure of social network games was the fun he had playing them himself. The appeal was immediate, as was his fascination with the games themselves and the opportunities they represented.
“By early 2009 I was starting to think ‘hey I could make a better one of these,’ which is usually the first step down the road to trying a new genre,” he says. “It’s a [kind of] game where most of the fun comes from playing with your real friends who are also on the platform. That’s really the special nuclear bomb of this kind of gaming … with social network games your real friends are all in one place, and you can play games with them as you keep up with them. That’s where the magic comes from.”
Magic – and money. Zynga games are money magnets, encouraging players to spend hard cash as they play, or participate in advertisers’ “opportunities” like taking surveys or signing up for free memberships. Advertiser partners pay Zynga good money for the opportunity to be placed in front of the eyeballs of the millions of players obsessively watering their gardens in FarmVille or “pushing buttons” on their friends in Mafia Wars.
The success hasn’t come without a price. Last year the rumors of aggressive plagiarism and ruthless profiteering swirled into a maelstrom of bad press for Zynga, none of which, however, seemed to bother CEO Marc Pincus, who outright admitted to “scamming users … from the start” in order to fuel Zynga’s rabid growth. If Pincus seemed unworried, he had reason to be, the “scandal” amounted to a storm in a teacup, and players kept right on playing, and clicking and getting scammed, or not, depending on who you ask.
Reynolds says the scandal wasn’t even on his radar.
“I had gotten into a new kind of game and was interested in finding a way to make them,” he says. “I certainly haven’t seen any horrible business practices going on in my time – some good old fashioned competitiveness for sure, but Zynga treats its employees amazingly well, has great partnerships, and otherwise doesn’t really seem all that different from anywhere else I’ve worked.”
According to Reynolds, the secret to making a Zynga game is appealing to the mass audience – the people who aren’t playing Gears of War.
“A game about tactics in the Napoleonic Wars wouldn’t be a very good fit,” he says, “and similarly a lot of the ‘traditional’ topics of AAA games (guns, spaceships, robots, aliens, wizards) that appealed to the traditionally young male crowd who bought those games don’t work as well … so I think that’s the first and most important thing we think about at a concept level. The second thing we think about is how can we make the concept social enough – because social network gaming is all about playing and interacting with your real friends. Once we’ve got a great and social topic, we’re off to the races!”
Asked what the next “off to the races” idea from Zynga will be, Reynolds admits that he has absolutely no idea. He’s been too busy making FrontierVille.
“In the world of social gaming ‘launching’ a game doesn’t mean you’re done with it,” he says, “it means you’re just beginning. I do eventually expect to begin tinkering with another franchise idea ‘on the side’ with a small team, but right now I’m not even ready to start something small yet!”
So what’s the next big game Brian Reynolds, mad hatter of Zynga, crusher of the industry, bane of AAA game makers is looking forward to?
“Gears of War 3,” he says. “I played through Mass Effect 2 three times this winter.”
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.