Interview: Brian Reynolds Leaves Big Huge, Now Zynga East Chief Designer

Strategy game guru Brian Reynolds has left Big Huge Games to join the social gaming fray at Zynga East as chief designer. Gamasutra speaks with Reynolds about his new career, and why he departed Big Huge.
The strategy gaming faithful owe something to Brian Reynolds. The longtime game designer is responsible for such notable games as Alpha Centauri and Civilization II. Most recently, Reynolds, who co-founded strategy mainstay Firaxis Games, was with another respected strategy game maker, Rise of Nations and Catan house Big Huge Games, which he also co-founded. But with Big Huge's former parent THQ falling on financial hardship, the publisher had to sell off the studio, or close it down completely. Upstart online game developer 38 Studios managed to save Big Huge from closure by acquiring the company in May. But Reynolds didn't come with it. After leaving Big Huge that month, he is now with Zynga East, a new branch of the social game developer based in the Baltimore, Maryland area that opened on May 23. So instead of creating complex strategy games with long development cycles to sell at retail, Reynolds will be working with Zynga on mass market-focused strategy games that will show up on networking sites such as Facebook. Reynolds told Gamasutra that his new job isn't so displaced from his previous design work. "The game design fit is a lot sweeter than you’d think," he said. "My approach to game design has always been to iterate rapidly – try something out, play it, revise the game based on feedback, lather, rinse, repeat." "But in the 'retail videogame business' it has been getting harder and harder to really iterate on a game design, because the production times, technology development, and asset expenses have become so onerous – and you certainly can’t iterate after the game has been released." Now, he said, Zynga allows him to both move a new game idea or mechanic to market very rapidly, and continually tweak it while users play the game. Reynolds said he's been a "huge Facebook addict" for a couple of years, and that piqued his interest in the possibilities of integrating games with social sites. But if it weren't for THQ's financial shortfalls -- ones that led THQ to drop Big Huge as work continued on an unnamed RPG -- would Reynolds have considered following this supposed lure of social gaming? "If you’ve been following the company for the last few months you probably already know that something had to change one way or another, and it’s hard to know what the hypotheticals would be for other flavors of change," he said. "The biggest one being that I probably couldn’t have pursued the Zynga opportunity if the detachment from THQ hadn’t freed me of non-compete obligations." What counts now for Reynolds is that he's feeling "happiness, joy, and constant productive activity", as the new territory has given him fresh perspective and opportunities. As for his old chums at Big Huge, he still has an ongoing consulting relationship with the studio. There is no apparent animosity between the two parties, and he's on very good terms with Big Huge, or as Reynolds put it, "Twenty-year-old-single-malt-scotch-drinking terms."

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