CastleVille designer leaves Zynga to lead a (much) smaller team

"As we look back on our careers, the experiences from the five or 10 person teams have consistently produced our fondest memories," says Dave Pottinger, the ex-CastleVille lead who's gone on to form a new studio.
"I enjoyed my time at Zynga," says Dave Pottinger, ex-lead designer on Facebook behemoth CastleVille. "The reality is that I want to work on smaller projects with smaller teams." This yearning to run with the smaller teams is what led Pottinger (bottom right in picture) to found new studio BonusXP earlier this year, alongside a few other notable industry veterans, including former Robot Entertainment programmer John Evanson (bottom left in pic) and former id Software artist Jason Sallenbach (top). With BonusXP, the team is looking to develop mobile games with a particular focus on experiences that offer plenty of replay value to players. Pottinger tells Gamasutra that his move to be independent "has more to do with the opportunity BonusXP presented than anything about Zynga." "The CastleVille team was tremendous; it was an honor to lead and be part of that group," he adds. "I'm proud of the characters, stories, and depth we were able to put into CastleVille." His move to found BonusXP has just as much to do with his past position at Ensemble Studios, where he led a team of 100+ staffers in the development of multiple Age of Empires titles and Halo Wars alongside Evanson. "By the end of Ensemble, I was leading Halo Wars with the entire studio on the team. CastleVille was another team of around 80 people. While I got a lot of satisfaction from those efforts, I'm looking to do something else these days," he notes. By dropping down to a smaller outfit, Pottinger reasons that he'll be able to get a lot more done on his own terms. "We'd all like to work on smaller projects so that we can ship multiple games in a year and work in multiple genres," he says. "We want to create a culture where everyone is involved in the design of the games, where everyone can feel like it's their game. BonusXP is the right way to do that." "We firmly believe that a tight team, where everyone has a voice in the design, is the strongest way to make something great," he adds, noting, "as we look back on our careers, the experiences from the five or 10 person teams have consistently produced our fondest memories. We want to recapture that. The reason that we're so excited about BonusXP, excited enough to leave perfectly fine jobs at other studios, is to create that team-based culture."

Social games: A very different beast

Pottinger will be looking to carry over his experience in the casual game space at Zynga over to his work at BonusXP, although he notes that creating games for the casual audience is far more difficult than it may first appear. "I think one of the biggest takeaways [I took from my time at Zynga] is that it's not so easy to make a game for a truly broad audience," Pottinger explains. "For a long time, we always said 'Make the game for the hardcore, then simplify it for the casual player.' That's a great statement if you want to make a nicely polished hardcore game. It simply doesn't work for today's broad or casual market, though." "Building a game that anyone can play is a very different beast," he continues, adding that with each new feature that you add, it's necessary to be as vigilant as possible as to not ramp the complexity up too much. project freedom.jpg Says Pottinger, "It's difficult. You think of fantastic features then realize they can't go into the game because they'll add too much complexity. If you stop there, though, all you have is a simple game with no depth and little soul. The trick is figuring out how to add that depth and complexity without ruining the approachability." Of course, the industry veteran is more than aware of how crowded the mobile market already is, and that even the greatest mobile games may well not receive the attention that they deserve. However, he believes that by focusing on high polish and deep replay value, BonusXP can break through and get itself into the hands of as many players as possible. "With our collective background, we have a wide-ranging set of expertise," he says. "We're able to push our designs, art, and even our technology to produce something with that crucial mix of simplicity and depth. Those are the games that people will love and come back to time after time." He reiterates that the company's team-focused approach to design and development will pull it ahead of the crowd. "Everyone is fully involved in the process and not just checking things off a task list," he says. "Since we're self-funded, we can spend time where it's important rather than on external distractions. We can focus the team's priority on creating something fun first and put things like monetization second. That's how game development ought to be."

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