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From EA to Zynga to startups, game industry stalwart Mike Verdu has been a designer, a software engineer and a high-level exec. Here he explains how he keeps up with an industry that's in constant flux.

Kris Graft, Contributor

May 3, 2013

7 Min Read

Mike Verdu gets around. He's built adventure games, role-playing games, shooters and strategy games. He's engineered code, designed games, produced them, founded small companies and has served as an exec at some big ones. The term "game industry veteran" gets thrown around a lot, but that's really what he is. His last job at a "traditional" game publisher was with EA, where he was the creative lead for the company's real-time strategy game business, home to Command & Conquer, and later served as general manager of EA LA. He then found himself at Zynga, where he brought on design talent who made successful social games like FrontierVille, Empires & Allies, CastleVille and Adventure World. Verdu apparently got restless last summer, when he left his lofty position at Zynga to start a new company, TapZen, which will focus on making free-to-play tablet games. His former employer, Zynga, still has faith in Verdu -- Mark Pincus' company invested $10 million in Verdu's studio. We caught up with Verdu following that investment in this Q&A, conducted via email.

What would you say are the biggest differences working with EA, then Zynga, and now TapZen?

At EA I made $25 million bets on new games based on gut instinct and prayed that each game would be good enough - and sell enough units - to let me keep my job and make the next $25 million bet. My teams were successful because we were making RTS games... and we LOVED RTS games. As RTS fanatics and fans, we were basically making games for ourselves. It was all about art, instinct, and craftsmanship. At Zynga, I learned how to turn a few hundred million non-gamers into gamers with games that were accessible, free, and social. I was fortunate enough to live through an amazing and transcendent time where the overall world-wide gaming audience grew dramatically. I also learned how to run a game as a living, breathing service, about the importance and power of big data and metrics, and how to use data to make decisions both large and small. Zynga was fiercely data driven. Love Zynga or not, the company changed the landscape of gaming forever. With TapZen I want to bring the two approaches into balance. For us, the art of game design is king but it's informed by data and metrics from our players; we want to use data to make our games better. Our games draw on core genres, but we are unlocking the fun of core gaming for everyone. And our games are being built to evolve with our players. There's something amazing and wonderful when you're in a collaborative, creative dance with your players... and they are helping you to create the experience that they're having.

Zynga has admitted to hitting rough waters and that this year will be a tough transitional year. What's your take on Zynga, social network games and their current state?

I wouldn't count Zynga out. They still have some awesome talent. Think of Mark Skaggs, who made FarmVille and CityVille but also Command & Conquer Red Alert 2 and Command & Conquer Generals. Mark taught me how to make great RTS games. Then there's Tim LeTourneau, who was the heart and soul of The Sims franchise at EA for many years. And Mark Turmell, a legend. There are many other great people there as well at all levels. If Zynga can unlock that talent, they can make the jump to mobile, which is where they need to break through.

Why the focus on tablets? What about smartphones and the web?

Tablets are going to rule the world. I view them all collectively as the best gaming platform ever. Think about it - your tablet is portable, its graphics are amazing, it's a damned powerful computer, and it's more than likely connected to the internet. Best of all, the whole screen is an interface... no joystick, no mouse, just a surface that invites you to touch it. How sweet is that? People play tablet games while they are in bed, on the road, watching TV, or just hanging out. A tablet game is probably the most intimate and personal entertainment experience you're going to have until we figure out a way to upload games directly into your brain. Oh, and if all that weren't enough, these devices are evolving incredibly quickly. We're basically getting the equivalent of a console or PC generation every six months. Smartphones are cool, but their screens are way too small. I still play games on my phone but that experience just makes me want to get back to my tablet to play games the way they were meant to be played. And yes, the PC is still around, but I feel like it's finally met its match. All those years that I was building core PC games I worried that consoles were going to kill the PC gaming market. Turns out the real threat is coming from an entirely unexpected direction. Watch out! Tablets are the next major disruption and they've hit a tipping point. And that's actually great news for gamers.

The term "mid-core" is thrown about a lot lately. What's your company's definition of the term?

I actually hate the term "mid-core" even though my company is all about making mid-core games. Ugh. It's an awkward term... and it's not precise. We all know that a mid-core game is somewhere between Words with Friends and Starcraft 2. But everyone seems to have a different definition of where "mid-core" lies on that spectrum. What does it mean to us? It means a rich, deep, fun experience that is still accessible. It means unlocking the fun in "hardcore" genres like strategy and RPG for a large audience that isn't necessarily famillar with the genre conventions. It means great games that hardcore gamers and casual gamers can both play. It means games with interesting systems that are simple to learn but difficult to master. It means short sessions. It means elegantly, cleanly, and simply expressing the core of a great game. To me, Settlers of Catan, Plants vs. Zombies, the Risk board game, and Civilization: Revolutions for console are all examples of great mid-core games.

Lastly, could you give three pieces of advice to developers who are developing tablet games?

First of all, design for the platform. Put touch and swipe at the core of your game design and make sure the result just feels right, like the game was born to live on a tablet. So many tablet games feel like adaptations from PCs, smartphones, or handheld gaming systems with clunky controls. Say "no" to virtual joysticks. Move beyond the mouse. Open your mind. And then think deeply about pacing and precision. Think about how large your characters, objects, and buttons need to be given that people will be touching them with their fingers. When a game has been designed for tablet *first*, you can tell. It feels good. It feels natural. If we all hit this hard, we'll discover the language and grammar of great tablet design together. Second, think about distribution. App stores are bottlenecks from hell. Discovery is the key to the universe. How are you going to get found in a sea of a million apps? You need a great game that's easy to explain with a crystal clear value proposition for players. And you may need some form of virality. I don't mean channel virality like Facebook. I mean good old fashioned word of mouth virality. Think about this as you design. Why is your game naturally better when it's played with friends? Why is someone going to want to talk about this game? You may find that your discovery and distribution problems get solved with great social design. Third, keep it simple. Make sure the core gameplay is simply and cleanly expressed. Players don't like tutorials, so they're going to be figuring out your game by playing it. Make sure that they actually can!

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