The Road to Zynga

So, I’ve got a new job, which was revealed publicly in an interview at GamesIndustry International. I’ve actually been at Zynga for nine months now, so most of my games industry friends (and regular friends, for that matter) had known about it for quite awhile, making this move one of those “worst-kept secret” things. Surprisingly, the news stayed out the press, with the exception of an off-hand reference at Gamasutra during my first week of work! The turn of events which got me to Zynga is somewhat head-spinning, especially since I am now back in Maryland, working with Brian Reynolds, Tim Train, and a bunch of other former Big Huge Games people. I can’t helped be a little bemused because I was originally hired in 2000 to replace Brian & co. to finish (or, more accurately, to restart) the development of Civilization 3 after the mass exodus to BHG. Indeed, at the time, emotions were still a little raw at Firaxis, so my initial, second-hand impression of them was perhaps not ideal! Over the years, I got to know Tim and Brian in person, and I could always tell that their design culture would be a great fit for me if the opportunity ever arose. I didn’t always expect that opportunity to come at Zynga, but so far, so good. I’ll have a lot more to say on that topic once I can actually talk about my current project!

Here are some relevant bits from the interview:

Q: You’re the latest in a string of former EA employees to join Zynga. What do you think this says about EA and what does it say about Zynga?

A: The shift we’re seeing with industry talent moving towards social and mobile games illustrates the challenges of the old model. That model demands selling a $60 box product, which requires exceptionally high production values to sway the consumer. Of course, AAA production means development costs measured in the tens (or perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars, which then requires a game to sell at least several million copies at the $60 price to be worth developing. This business model can work, but the margins are not great, and they keep getting worse as development costs increase and retail sales soften. One of the bizarre paradoxes of this system is that some mid-tier games cost too little for traditional games companies to fund because the company needs to put all of its organizational weight behind a few key titles.

Mobile and social gaming suddenly became very attractive for game designers because they circumvent this problem entirely. As these games require a fraction of the cost of AAA games, radical new ideas can be tried out fairly easily and with little institutional pressure. Further, feedback is much easier to gather from the Web or connected smartphones, and teams can continually course-correct with regular updates. The old system of expensive, multi-year development, cut off from the oxygen of player feedback, suddenly became much less appealing.

Q: Given your experiences in the past on Civ IV and Spore, how well does what you’ve learned on traditional games apply to the social space and Zynga’s approach?

A: Fun still happens inside the player’s head, and that doesn’t change from platform to platform. What does change is that certain design possibilities are unlocked with each new technology, such as zero account overhead, assumed persistence, guaranteed connectivity, pre-made friends lists, built-in viral channels, universal access, and ever-improving game engines. These features let us explore areas of design that were previously unavailable. Indeed I feel like my work right now is a direct continuation of what I have done in the past, and I am simply using my twelve years of experience as a strategy game developer to take advantage of these new possibilities.

Q: Are you coding, or designing, or some of both?

A: I am doing the code and the design for the project, just as I did with Civ IV. I like working this way because I can spend less time explaining how I want a feature to function and more time watching how it works out in practice. I am using a somewhat unusual technology solution (GWT/PlayN) that enables me to write a HTML5 game in one language, including client and server, which means I have no duplicate, error-prone code and a very consistent style. Of course, doing code and design could make me a major bottleneck as the project grows larger, but one of the advantages of strategy games is that – because they are rules-driven instead of content-driven – a small amount of code can create a large amount of gameplay. Thus, extra engineering resources will be dedicated to features that work in parallel to the core game – scalability, UI, matchmaking, metrics, modding, and so on.

Q: Can you give us any hints at all about what your game project at Zynga entails?

A: I’m afraid that it’s too early to reveal much about what I’m currently working on, especially since a lot could change between now and our release date. However, I can say that I am working on a game that would not be a shocking departure from my development history, but one that is multiplayer-focused, free-to-play, persistent, and playable in the browser. Most importantly, the game is one that actually ends, with real winners and real losers. That’s a big departure for Zynga, but it’s a necessary element for many types of strategy games. Decisions matter in vastly different ways once games have an actual victory condition. Put another way, a bit of a level race does exist in persistent MMOs like World of Warcraft, but ultimately the race is just with yourself. No one else really cares how much time you put into your dwarf cleric. On the other hand, it’s a powerful feeling when you beat someone to a wonder in Civ IV.

Q: Do you see social games becoming more like familiar PC or console games in terms of mechanics?

A: After a couple years the term “social gaming” came to mean different things to different people, and many traditional game developers simply use the term to describe “games on Facebook that we don’t like.” On the other hand, some of the biggest hits (Words with Friends, Bejeweled Blitz, Draw Something) are not really thought of primarily as “social games” but simply as great games that take advantage of the possibilities of social gaming – guaranteed connectivity, account persistence, meaningful friends lists, etc. Therefore, the best-case scenario for social gaming is for the term itself to disappear as all games become more social, even ones that are traditionally thought of as primarily single-player. For example, consider how friend-based leaderboards drive the experience in console games like Trials Evolution or Burnout Paradise.

Ultimately, gameplay is determined by the input and output of the devices we use, which enables and encourages certain types of play, and there are currently three important formats – the consoles (defined as gamepad, high-def TV, couch-based), the PC (keyboard, mouse, monitor, desk-based), and mobile (small screen, touch-based, omnipresent). Consoles will continue to dominate avatar-based games as controllers are built to “pilot” characters or vehicles. PCs are the natural home for more complex games because of their precise input and “lean-in” environment. Mobile is perfect for asynchronous gaming, and the touch-based user interface creates entirely new types of games just like the Wii did with motion-based controls. The best games will take advantage of the unique power of their formats, which is why we shouldn’t necessarily expect Facebook games to suddenly become Halo.

Q: What’s your take on the impact of social and mobile games on the traditional console business model?

A: What’s interesting about the games business right now is that we have four different business models operating at once. For console games, retail still dominates with increasing revenues from microtransactions. On the PC side retail is dead, but traditional, single-purchase games still thrive on Steam. Furthermore, free-to-play games from CityVille to League of Legends can succeed purely via microtransactions. On mobile devices, the app store dominates with the big money coming from in-app purchases. Over time, these four models will almost certainly merge into one consistent system. We have already seen plenty of convergence; Steam made a big push to support microtransactions and free-to-play games while in-app purchases were an important later addition to Apple’s App Store. The big question is the next generation of consoles. The benefits of fully embracing an app store model are obvious, but there are many entrenched interests and historical relationships slowing down that transition.

App stores, in general, are very interesting simply because they make it possible to actually charge players for small-scale games. For example, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to buy Ascension for $4.99 to play in my browser, but the tradition simply does not exist to “buy” web pages. On the other hand, the Apple App Store combines frictionless purchasing, flexible pricing, automated submissions, and an enormous audience to create a market for games which didn’t exist previously. At some point, the importance of the browser (with open standards and cross-device support) needs to combine with the ease of the app store (with a standardized purchasing model), to hopefully create an even better system.

Q: Do you think the kind of hardcore PC player that you targeted with Civ IV will want to play your next game at Zynga, or do you have to change your design philosophy to cater to a new, more casual audience?

A: I expect Civ fans will absolutely be interested in my current project at Zynga; in fact, I anticipate them to be among the first wave of players to try out the game. As with Civ IV, I will be trying to make the game as simple as possible to keep it accessible for any kind of player. Remember that Civ itself is no typical strategy game and has an audience which is an order of magnitude larger than any other turn-based strategy game. The reason is that the series is infused with “Sid’s design parsimony” (to borrow a phrase from Chris Crawford), refusing to pile on more and more rules and mechanics in the name of realism. I hope to carry this tradition forward to make a game for every gamer.

3 thoughts on “The Road to Zynga

  1. ‘I expect Civ fans will absolutely be interested in my current project at Zynga; in fact, I anticipate them to be among the first wave of players to try out the game.’

    Dead wrong.

    It’s sad to see you and Brian Reynolds squandering your talent in a company like Zynga. I hope at least the pay is extraordinary.

  2. As someone who is quite pessimistic about the social network-based, free-to-play gaming model, my first reaction to this revelation was disappointment.

    Upon thinking about it a bit more deeply, though: if there are any developers I know of who could disprove my fear that games using this funding model must be vapid and who could use the “social platform” to create something wonderful, they are you and Brian Reynolds. (And if you don’t end up making the social model work for strategy, at least you are working together and can more easily form the dream team I’ve had in mind for a few years for Alpha Centauri II).

    Your choice of technologies is quite heartening, your mention of modding sounds incredible, and I’m happy to hear you’re both designing and programming your own vision. I’m still not sure even you can create a profitable game that is truly strategy at its roots within the confines of the social platform model, and beyond that, a game that I’d enjoy, but upon release I’ll definitely check it out and I’m cheering for you!

  3. Soren, I have to say that I’m surprised and intrigued by what you said of your secret project. Let’s see what happens.
    In addition, I must say I have some reservations regarding the prevalence of app stores (PSN, SBLA, Apple’s, Microsoft’s and so on) as it means complete dependence of developers on the store owners (except for Android) and limits the developer-fan interaction.

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