Former Planet Moon CEO Aaron Loeb steps in to head up
Electronic Arts-owned Playfish's San Francisco branch with 10 years' experience behind him -- in the console space.
Although it's increasingly common these days to see veterans of more traditional AAA development tackle the Facebook frontier, running a social studio will be an interesting transition for Loeb.
"It's obviously a change to go from console development to social game development," Loeb tells Gamasutra. "It's an exciting change, and at the end of the day some of the guiding principles of game production are the same -- it's learning the differences between the two that's part of the fun."
Planet Moon ran into financial troubles
when, it claimed, numerous parties failed to pay it money owed, and much of its staff was bought by Bigpoint in January. But when it was thriving, Loeb says the studio's strength lay in being intently process-oriented.
"We always hit our budgets and our dates, and we worked very hard on making sure that our development procedures were well-documented," Loeb says. "Playfish also has a very process-oriented approach, so it's a really good fit there. They have a great culture and a good sense of what the path is and what they're working on."
That also makes work at Playfish something Loeb wants to contribute to. "We're going to grow the studio quite a bit, so I'm thinking about how to add people on and maintain their clear sense of identity. Within your studio that's always a challenge, especially if you grow rapidly."
Loeb notes the Bay Area's "interesting hodgepodge" of developer culture, where most people share, at some point or another, backgrounds at companies like Crystal Dynamics, Electronic Arts and others. "And all these places have totally different ways of doing things," he highlights. "On any given day, a new person carries with themselves all kinds of assumptions about how you make a game."
Creating a unified and "infectious" studio culture in the region can be challenging from a leadership perspective, Loeb feels. "You need a good way of prescribing the way you make games that carries people from the start, that they then spread to other members of the team so that it carries on moving on."
"The most basic thing that's haunted Bay Area game development is things like, 'what does a producer mean,'" suggests Loeb. "It's important to make sure that people have a clear picture. I think sometimes people think it doesn't matter, but this is all stuff that I worked on at Planet Moon -- a really strong culture with a clear picture of what it meant to work there."
That groundwork is part of why so many on the Planet Moon team wanted to move to Bigpoint together, Loeb says. "I really love building teams, and we're going to be adding a lot of people in the San Francisco studio with a lot of the same things I learned building an independent company."
That includes a departure from what he sees as the problematic "top down" approach that occurs on a lot of teams. "It's like, someone creates a spec and it's like 'here you are, monkeys!' What goes into making a great place to work is that everyone has a real participation in the process."
Loeb sees this as an alternative to assigning the role of process-planning to an individual -- a producer, project manager, "scrum master" or some such title, where "occasionally that person will show up and go, 'okay, everybody, here's the new process'. That is very disempowering, and it also ultimately results in breakdowns in the system. Process should belong to everyone on the team."
Playfish's San Francisco studio in particular will be dedicated both to building out existing IP, like Monopoly Millionaires
, but also to launching new games, although Loeb's not ready to talk details just yet.
But as to the idea that the social gaming boom on Facebook in particular is beginning to strain its bounds, he suggests: "I think that people often mistake the specifics of a phenomenon for the broad picture of a phenomenon. People might look at the Facebook games right now and say, 'I can't imagine that's what people will be doing 20 years from now, ergo this will never last and it's a bubble.'"
That sort of conceptualization is "absurd" to Loeb, who says that the power of daily connectivity to which people are becoming accustomed via social networking has a massive wellspring of power and relevance that will endure.
"It's just not going away," he says. "In fact it's only going to get stronger and better, and games are always at the forefront of how new technologies expand. We have no idea how huge this stuff can get, and it's going to be unbelievably important to the growth of companies, and to the growth of the industry. I have never been one of the console people rolling their eyes at the social game phenomenon."