Social Games: Why Designers Keep Defecting

Social Games: Why Designers Keep Defecting

Last June, I traveled to the new Zynga office near Baltimore and interviewed Brian Reynolds for a GamePro  feature. Interviews can be a little nerve-wracking for the writer conducting the one-on-one, but more often than not, the rule your mom taught you about bears applies to game developers too: They’re more scared of you than you are of them.

Reynolds, however, was just the most cheerful and accommodating person I could ever have asked to interview. Which was great, because I had a hell of a word count to meet. No, wait… I mean, I wanted to be direct with him and come out with the question that had been flying around the Internet for better than a year at that point: Why had Reynolds, one of the most talented real-time strategy game developers in the industry, “defected” to Zynga to make what the kids might call “pissy little Facebook games?”

The simplest version of the answer is that Reynolds wanted to cultivate good times with friends. Facebook connects more than you and your mom, he said; it also puts you back in touch with your distant cousins, that aunt who moved across the country, and that guy who sat behind you in math class. Even if you’re stuck with pale, sickly Jamie Henderson on your Friends List (and your memory is forever branded with that rattling, wheezing cough he let fly every ten minutes in class), you can move beyond the simple exchange of a “Hi, how are you? Oh, great.” Now he can be your neighbor on FarmVille. He can help clear your land in FrontierVille, or join your mafia and watch your back.

The idea of establishing any kind of communication with high school acquaintances might send some of us into convulsions, but Reynolds was excited over the idea. Not because he simply likes people. He loves games, and wants as wide an audience as possible to enjoy them along with him. And social/Facebook gaming happens to be very hot right now.

I asked Reynolds if his transition spells an ending for console and PC games. He came back with a very sold, very assured “No.” There will always be an audience for consoles, he said, and there will always been talented game designers who enjoy working with the hundred-man team that’s needed to implement the AI necessary to run a one-player game. Facebook games are also meant to be distractions at work (“shhh,” Reynolds added), whereas people go home to their consoles and flop on the couch for the more drawn-out, epic gaming experience.

Reynolds admitted that he gets occasional emails begging him to step away from the so-called Dark Side. His answer is pretty simple: “Try FrontierVille. You might like it!” And sometimes they do. And sometimes they tell him to go suck an egg. But Reynolds shrugs it off.

When I was done the interview, I had no doubt: This was a man who loved his new job. In the end, nothing bad can come of that. Reynolds may well decide to return to developing PC games some day, after he’s recharged his batteries with the new tricks an d ideas he learns at Zynga. For me, that’s preferable to watching a veteran game developer break his heart over the same breed of project year in and out.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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