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Brian Reynolds On His Social Transition

As one of the biggest names to make the transition into social games with FarmVille developer Zynga, Brian Reynolds (Rise of Nations) is in a unique position to talk about the challenges and opportunities of the switch.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 3, 2010

24 Min Read

Less than a year ago, veteran strategy game designer (Civilization II, Rise Of Nations) Brian Reynolds left Big Huge Games for Zynga, developer and publisher of the most popular games on Facebook, like FarmVille and Mafia Wars.

It was a surprising move, since these games were largely perceived as being less-than-compelling from a design perspective -- and it seemed like a guy with a background in complicated strategy titles might not fit in with the casual, social bent of the company.

Since that time, it's become more and more apparent that social games are on the rise; major developers of console and PC games, on the other hand, have shut down and had layoffs. 

Many people will be making the transition to the new market whether they want to or not. The good news is that Reynolds, however, has a genuine enthusiasm and interest for the space.

Here, he details what he finds most fascinating, challenging, and exciting about his work at Zynga.

When you made the leap, were you anticipating the market transition, or did you just see an opportunity that you liked?

BR: Well, the interesting thing for me and my sort of life story in general -- I mean, I've been making games 19 and a half years, something like that -- is that usually, the kind of game I'm making, I'm making it because, partially, it's the thing that I'm addicted to right now. (Laughs)

Like, I see new kinds of games, and I want to make 'em, and then I kind of learn about them and do them for awhile... and whatever's the next thing and so on. There was also the sort of serendipitous timing of my company, after we had sold it... to THQ and THQ resold it; well, that let me off all my covenants and stuff. It was like, "Hey! I'm a free man! I can do what I want!"

Facebook games were what I was playing. I had gotten back in touch with an old friend from EA who was now a VC for Zynga, and I was playing Scramble and Mafia Wars and that kind of stuff. So I wanted to make one, and at the same time, it was clear that Facebook was taking off.

I knew that Zynga was kind of right then starting to pull away as the biggest player in the space, so it seemed like this was a good chance to get onto something -- I didn't predict that FarmVille was going to go boom and all that stuff. It wasn't like I'm some kind of financial investment genius; no, I just kind of vote with my feet, of what I want to make and what's cool and what's exciting.

Electronic Arts, on one hand, closed Pandemic and acquired Playfish, so suddenly it seems like these are profound shakeups that are going to impact a lot of people. A lot of people are going to have to make this transition, maybe -- unlike you -- whether they want to or not.

BR: Well, I hope everybody can keep working on games that they would like to work on. I would like to -- as a message to my former compatriots in the traditional game industry -- say that it's really fun making social games! There are some skills that were important skills in the traditional industry that I don't see anytime soon being all that important in the social game industry, of course, but it's not like I think that there's not going to be a traditional game industry.

I just think that social games are the big thing that's happening, and I could see it coming to be that social games are the largest space in games. If you look at games overall, that's kind of what happened with console games and PC games, right? They used to just be PC games, and then consoles grew; then suddenly they were so much bigger than just traditional PC games that you couldn't get as much money to make a straight PC game. I just think it's a business change, but there's still always going to be all that other stuff.

You said that you were really attracted to and were playing a lot of these games, but they are definitely different from what you've worked on in the past. What drew you and made you say, "This is a space that I want to be in"?

BR: Mostly the fact that I was really enjoying playing them. (Laughs) I make games that I like to play, and I try to find ways to get involved in that; but, to speak to the sort of deeper parts of that question, what do I think I have to offer is another way of asking it.

What I think I have to offer in this space is I'm a game mechanic specialist. Taking simple parts and fitting them together so that they work well and figuring out how you make a game more compelling or more fun, how you take something that's already working and take it up to the next notch -- that's the stuff I'm good at, the stuff I've done over the years. The nice thing in the social space is that that's almost like the entire thing that's going on!

In the traditional space these days, when it's a $30 million project with a hundred people, I would go for weeks without needing to do any game design or any game mechanics stuff. I could even imagine these days going an entire year on a project and no new game mechanics get designed or no new substantial play -- because you're all busy working on the technology and the art, just making content now that you've designed the thing; that kind of stuff.

In social games, where it's just every week's some new stuff and keeping it going and keeping it exciting and "How can we make it even better?" and "We need a new feature over here!", it's just really exciting for someone in my space because there's not the friction of having to make a lot of art and having to make a lot of production value and having writers making story. It's just game mechanics; straight game mechanics. That's cool! It keeps me really, really busy.

When you sit and look at a social game, are they in a sense driven by pure game mechanics?

BR: Well, this is the funny thing. Game mechanics in the traditional sense of -- I spent 18, 19 years designing traditional games, particularly strategy games, and it was all about fun.

Fun was the number one thing, and, once you'd made the game fun, you knew you were gonna succeed; if you didn't make the game fun, you knew you probably weren't going to succeed very well. Everything was based around that.

The interesting thing is that what's different in social games is that the most important thing isn't the fun per se; it's the social element. It's the quality of the social interaction, and it's because the social interactions are with your real friends, not just people that you met online.

How do you hook that in? What I've been hearing from different people I've spoken to in social games is that the people who come from the traditional games industry really understand making games; what they don't understand as much is the web and social stuff.

BR: Yeah! Yeah!

So is that a tremendous learning curve?

BR: It is a huge learning curve. Now, mind you, this is a fast-moving space, so I started at Zynga in May, and here I am the supposed authority... (Laughs) The emissary to the traditional games industry.

But if you want to join this industry -- if you want to go from being a traditional game developer to being a social game developer -- I would say that the most important thing is humility; it's coming in and realizing that it's not about the same thing.

You've got to come in and embrace the socialness of it, and learn the socialness of it. There will be a place for your knowledge of game mechanics, but you've got to kind of unlearn that first, particularly unlearn the idea that that's the most important thing, that that's what it's all about. Then you'll find ways to integrate it in.

I'm finding, in my own work, that I'm having a lot of use for my knowledge of game mechanics and traditional game mechanics, and it makes me a really valuable person on the Zynga team, because I can go to these different projects and work trying to solve this problem, because we've got this, and it works like this, and we want to drive toward some goal. And I can say, "Oh! Well, I know five different ways to do that! There's this, or there's that, or there's that."

I can bring that to the table because I have been studying traditional game mechanics for years, and so I can give them a lot of tools to solve the social problems; but I couldn't really do it before I understood what the social problems were and embraced the fact that that's the most important part -- that it's not all about "Do the game mechanics all fit together just as game mechanics?" It's about "Do they drive the inherent social nature of the game?"

The cycles are way, way, way shorter compared to traditional games at this point. How many projects have you worked on since you got to Zynga?

BR: Well, I have this kind of funny dual role. So I'm chief game designer for Zynga, which is a much more minor role at a social game company than it would be at some traditional place! (Laughs)

One thing that means is I kind of go strike team to strike team to strike team, touching all of the big projects. I flew out for a week and just worked solid on FarmVille, and then I'm going to a Mafia Wars usability session this afternoon; I went to PetVille this morning. So there's all these different kind of touching all the little teams, and that's where I'm kind of Mr. Toolkit, where I'm "Here's the tools to solve your problem. What are your problems? How do we go to the next step?"

And at the same time I also have my own little studio where we're actually making games, and I kind of operate on a "Please steal this!" basis with all the other teams. If you're seeing my prototype and you see stuff you like, don't ask me, just take it and put it in, because we're experimenting with new ways to drive social through game mechanics -- but in the mode of game. I can't talk about when we're launching this kind of stuff.

Sure. I think that, if you talk to people who are really into games, the quality of the gameplay in social games has been called into question. Do you think that there's a push forward on the game-making side as well as the social interaction side?

BR: Yeah! Don't you feel like this already happened -- that that's already going on and that the games are getting more and more fun? That's how I feel, even if I look at games that I did play a year ago and look at the same game now, I find them more fun, more compelling as a player.

I'm a big Mafia Wars fan and player, and the new Bangkok [content] and Moscow -- some of these recent ones are so much more tightly tuned, and they have so many more of what I feel like is a traditional game mechanic. They have boss battles, and I think the boss battles are a lot better tuned than boss battles that we've seen before in social games.

Yeah, I think the craft of game design has really taken root in social games. Obviously, it's not the only thing that's important in this space, and the other thing is traditional game developers -- I get a lot of push-back about, "Oh, well these aren't very complicated, not very deep" or whatever pejorative term they want to come up with; it's not the kind of games that they have traditionally played, right? And the thing that you have to realize in this space is we're talking to a whole, massive set of people that we've never been able to talk to with games before.

My Aunt plays Mafia Wars. The average social gamer... There was the article last month that's like a 43-year-old female; that's definitely not the traditional game target demographic. Part of what makes the social nature of these games so compelling is being able to play with your real friends, so the more of your real friends and relatives you can play with, the more we get that kind of social critical mass.

That's why we do look for things that everybody will want to play; it is a very much more mass-market kind of experience. I think that's really exciting, that we're communicating with not just three million people anymore but eighties of millions! (Laughs)

I think that where a lot of people probably get bogged down is we have a certain type of content or style that we appreciate as gamers, and I think that, typically -- you would, I think, agree with this -- the people who make games are the people who are really into games, primarily. So it's a shift in mindset.

BR: Mm-hmm; it is. I think that most of the people making these games are really into games, and I work with a whole building full of people that are really excited to be making social games. I do think that not only will there always be a place for sort of traditional, hardcore games, but I also think that social elements can make those games stronger.

It's not like you couldn't have a traditional game and strengthen it with social elements, but that doesn't put you at sort of the epicenter of this new space.

I think that's gonna happen; there's going to be more social -- even Bejeweled Blitz is a game that is right on the edge of traditional game and social game kind of linked together with some new stuff.

So you're already kind of seeing that at the casual level, and I think ultimately through things like Facebook Connect you'll see it with the bigger games too; but that's not gonna suddenly make them appeal to this huge crowd of people that like to play FarmVille. It's just a different kind of demographic.

When you talk about the social interaction that these games provide, it's actually generally in the form of like, "I gave you something; you gave me something." We're aware of each other; it's not the same social interaction that you get when you're playing a traditional game together in multiplayer.

BR: It's not, no; it's not. In some ways, it's safer because it's lighter. You have to remember that, with the social games, unlike all the old multiplayer experiences -- so, back in the '90s, you'd go onto Battle.net and you're playing against all the people, but then in the last decade we saw World of Warcraft, and that's this whole new kind of thing; you go online into a world, and you make new friends. But even then, they're completely separate from your real-world friends.

Now that you're interacting in the game with real people that you actually know, you have to remember that there's kind of more skin in the game. There's actual real-world risk and reward at stake in the social interactions, which both makes the games really compelling but also means that part of the appeal of them is to make it safe.

Some of the purposes of these interactions is also partially a tool for players to be able to affect the social relationships. It's also an excuse to have the contact in the first place.

I give the example of, I've, over the last few years, been finding people on Facebook that I went to college with. For me, that's like 20 years ago. So I have the initial set of emails -- like, "Oh, wow! You're on Facebook! What are you doing? Well, I'm doing this!" And that lasts you about two cycles of email, and then you're kind of done. I live on the East coast, and they live in Tennessee; what do you say?

But then, with the social game, it's like, "Oh! I still like you; here's a thing for your mafia." Some of the most valuable ones are not just the game transaction of give-you-the-thing, but then you make a little comment like "Ha ha ha! I bet you need a tommy gun!" and you actually end up, from the player's point-of-view, being able to start a conversation or have a little light interaction with your friend, someone that you want to keep up with or what-have-you.

I mean, there's all these different levels of social interaction that you can have, and these games provide tools for people to have those interactions.

I have to admit that I'm not a big social games player. I feel like, when you're trying to be pulled into a social game, usually the thing is, you know, particularly in FarmVille, a lost duck; then every game has a lost duck. It's just a different skin. It's a power pack, or whatever. I know that it didn't cost that person anything to do it, and it doesn't hurt them to reject it, so that doesn't suck me in.

BR: Well, one of the things that we're working on -- and you're actually seeing gradually the evolution of -- is improvement in the quality of the social interaction.

The social interactions now are a lot better than they were a year ago in terms of the quality of what's going on, and they're getting less and less unwanted and more and more kind of narrow-cast to the people that actually want to see 'em and participate. I think that part of what we're learning in the art form is how to do a better and better job of that.

What would draw me into social games is if they were more concerned with being meaningfully social. If I felt like a social game would be more interesting to me than simply having a conversation with a person, I might play.

BR: Well, I'm going to say that I don't think that there's something in a game that, as a game qua game, is going to be more socially compelling than having a conversation with a live human being, because that's kind of the ultimate goal. But what we're there to do is kind of facilitate getting those things started and carrying them on, and that's where the game comes in.

It's like an icebreaker in some ways. I'd have to think real hard of an excuse to talk to so-and-so... But if we're both playing FarmVille or we're both playing Mafia Wars, then it becomes kind of a fun thing to go back and forth and play the thing together.

It's funny: I kind of got my current job through social networking because I ran into an old friend online playing Scramble. We started playing it together, and we played it for months before we talked about work or anything; but then it turned out he was like a VC for Zynga -- "Oh, you like this game? You want to come...?"

And that's kind of a slightly meta example, but there is, I think, real interesting, useful, human value in these things, is what I'm kind of fascinated with.

Yeah. I think the stumbling block for me is I feel like people overuse the word "friend."

BR: (Laughs)

I have 600 "friends" on Facebook, and nothing against anybody, but some of these are people I don't even know; some of these are really acquaintances. I think what you're saying is that it can improve the quality of your interaction with this broad range of people. With my real friends, the people I really consider my true friends, probably FarmVille is not going to be the best way for us to interact.

BR: So, here's what my experience has been. I've got about 400 friends on Facebook, so, yeah, I have my friends from high school, my friends from college, people I've worked with at various jobs, my family, my relatives, distant relatives, people I know from around the industry... There's a big difference in level of closeness and degree between my Mom and somebody that I kind of have a conversation with once or twice a year at a show or something.

But the thing that is in common between all of those relationships even if there's a huge difference in degree is that all of my Facebook friend relationships represent a real-world relationship I do care about in some way.

I do find myself having quality social interaction in the form of the game all the way up and down the scale. My Aunt and I play Mafia Wars; I got a note from her like, "Oh, thanks for the energy packs! I love you, Aunt Judy." It's like, wow, that's kind of cool! My Aunt loves me more because I sent her energy packs!

I mean, it's light, but it's real; and conversations get started about it, and I do that straight up and down the line with the people that -- not everybody likes the games, or some like one game and some like another game. Some like the games I don't like, so I don't end up doing that. But I find it a pretty fun little tool. It's an excuse to say something to somebody and start a conversation.

What I find tough is that typical acquisition tool into a game is you got a lost duck. You say different people like different games, but, short of my deciding to spend a lot more time researching what's on Facebook the way I would what's on Xbox, how do you get people interested?

BR: It's getting better and better. Facebook's making ways that we can kind of give people a little sample of the game before they have to click the allow box and essentially install the app. Again, that's an area that has certainly been a challenge before, but I think it's getting better.

One thing I want to talk about is that the speed of change is very, very fast, and it's on the platform level, it's on the game level, it's on the audience level. Everything is just rapidly, rapidly, rapidly evolving. Social games are -- what are we gonna say? -- two years old now or something? Two and a half?

BR: Yeeeaah... I think if you looked at the top ten, the earliest launch would be... There might be one of them, and it'd be poker that launched in 2007; everything else launched in '08 or '09. Like half of them at least, including the top four, launched in 2009. So, yeah, pretty young.

Do you find it difficult not only to keep up with change, but to anticipate future change as well?

BR: Oh, yeah! But the nice thing is that we have this really rapid iteration loop, and so we're able to respond really fast to changes and opportunities.

Also, obviously, you get this again and again, but it's very data-driven, isn't it?

BR: Oh, yeah, very much so, because -- unlike the sort of traditional situation where you put the thing on the CD and then you ship it and you're done, and what you kind of really mostly know is what kind of reviews you get and how many people buy it; I think that's about all you know -- we're a website.

It's coming into our computer: what everybody's doing, and so we know how many people clicked this button; how many people went to this part of the game; how many people did it how many times before they went on to the next thing; or what did they click before they bought something.

All of that stuff you can kind of look at and analyze, and it means both that there's huge new opportunity; but there's this whole new skill to learn. That's the web world as opposed to the game world coming in there.

That's very useful from a usability perspective, and interesting from a monetization perspective, but is it interesting from a creative perspective?

BR: Oh, yeah! Really, really interesting, because there's all these things you can do! You can put two or three different versions of the features side-by-side with a statistically significant sample of people, not just like go get a hundred college kids or something but your actual players, and see which version works better.

I mean, one of our famous examples we talk about is how, at one point, we had seven different versions of the Mafia Wars tutorial all going at once; there were big differences in which ones were more effective in doing what tutorials are supposed to do, which is retain players and get them to come back again and want to play the game. There were substantial differences, and they weren't all intuitive -- that's the other exciting thing.

So one of the skills to be a sort of metric-driven game designer is learning good questions to ask the metrics and figuring out ways that you can learn the counter-intuitive answers because the answers aren't always intuitive. I've been used to relying solely on intuition, essentially, because there was very little actual data that could be collected. So it's exciting and new -- and I don't claim to be the expert on how to do it, but there's lots of excitement in that for a game designer.

You used to put things in a box and sell them for 50 bucks; now you have to convince people to pay you on a regular basis, and that's intrinsically tied to the game design. So, again, is that creatively interesting?

BR: Very.

Is it scary?

BR: Well, any part of game design can always be scary, including traditional game design. In the world I come from, you put your whole job on the line when you ship something because, if it's not a hit, everybody's gonna get laid off. They're not gonna sign you for the next [project]... Whichever version of the industry you're in -- if you're first-party, third-party, or whatever -- there's always dire financial consequences if you're not successful.

There's two great things in this industry on that point, and one of them is the fact that we have this very fast iteration loop; so you can do work and very quickly get positive or negative feedback on it. You can cut off and stop doing the thing that isn't working; (laughing) if it's taking your numbers down, you stop doing it! You do something else. And if it is taking them up, you do some more of it and see how far you can go. That's exciting.

There's a big difference in investment of players in this space that -- when you're selling a game for 50 bucks, if somebody walked down to the store, shelled out 50 bucks, and brought it home, they probably did it because they saw a good review or something; but they're probably going to give you at least five or ten minutes before they decide it sucks and take it back to GameStop.

That's a level of investment, whereas with a free-to-play game, we can lose people on the loading bar, right? The loading bar's too long: done. I mean, nevermind. Whatever. You have to get players interested really early and really fast, and then it's just a matter of getting them to like the user experience and having a good time.

Somebody was asking me, "What's the secret of selling virtual goods?" Just like with anything else, make something that people want to buy! That's just what we've been doing as game designers all through my career -- because it's an industry. We're trying to make things that people want to buy. So it's really no different in ultimate principal. It's a little bit different business model, but, as a game designer, it's just a matter of learning how to make things that appeal to players.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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