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Why the explosion of social games excites veteran developers

When simple games like Farmville snag 83 million users, designers who are used to working for years on a project have little choice but to embrace the era of Facebook titles.

The games industry has been taken over by social games like Farmville. That means veteran developers have little choice but to embrace the change. Zynga

SAN FRANCISCO--For game developers whose industry experience predates not just Facebook but even Mark Zuckerberg, you might expect that abandoning making big, complex games for simple titles like Farmville and similar social projects would be anathema.

But to hear a panel of respected industry veterans who spoke before a packed house in a huge room at the Game Developers Conference here Tuesday, the truth is exactly the opposite. In fact, to these four speakers at least, this may be the opporunity of a lifetime--making a transition from working on $25 million console-level games that take years to build to small projects that take just weeks or months to complete and which have orders-of-magnitude smaller budgets.

The moderator was Noah Falstein, one of the first 10 employees at LucasArts Entertainment precursor Lucasfilm Games and someone whose first game was for the Atari 2600 and fit on a 2-kilobyte cartridge. And the panel, "Why are gaming veterans flocking to social gaming" gave these four a chance to explain to a room full of eager young developers why they feel that because of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks, this may be one of the best times in the industry's history to be making games.

And some statistics bear that out. In another jam-packed talk earlier in the day titled "The state of social gaming," Inside Social Games analyst Justin Smith gave some context that supports the conclusions of Falstein and his fellow panelists, Zynga chief designer Brian Reynolds, Slide creative director Brenda Brathwaite and PlayDom vice president of game design Steve Meretzky, all of whom have years of industry experience.

For example, Smith said that in a social-gaming space that barely existed three years ago, publishers brought in $490 million in revenue in 2009 and is expected to have $835 million in 2010. Smith also said that there are at least 30 Facebook games with a million or more active users and that leading developers like Zynga, Playfish, and PlayDom are only looking at upside growth over the next few years, despite the fact that Facebook essentially changes the fundamental rules under which developers have to operate every six months or so.

From big and slow to small and nimble
For Falstein, Brathwaite, Reynolds, and Meretzky, perhaps the most common experience they shared was that they had all gotten used to working on large teams with big budgets that spent great deals of time making very big games. But while there are certainly benefits to getting to develop $25 million titles, each in their own way suggested they had begun to feel detached from the process of making games.

"In my early career, we'd make games in six months, then two years, then four years," Brathwaite said. "Children were born. Marriages started and marriages ended." Now, she said, she's become obsessed by Facebook games and loves the fact that at Slide she can work on projects with "super fast [game] iteration" and small, nimble teams.

For Falstein, the pleasure in working on social games comes from the reality that over the years, as AAA game titles had become first $10 million, then $20 million, and then even $30 million mega-projects, no one wanted to take design risks any more. By comparison, by digging into the realm of Facebook games and those for other social networks, he's back to feeling an "excitement that I've not experienced since the early 1980s."

And to Meretzky, too, the chance to go to PlayDom and work with small teams that are able to put out games very quickly that can reach huge potential audiences was too much to pass up, particularly as he looked at the emerging space and saw that huge amounts of money were being invested and that the games were reaching millions of people who had never before considered themselves gamers.

The explosive mass market
If one thing is clear about the era of social games, it's that it has blown away any previous truisms about how big the potential gaming market is. One element of that, Reynolds suggested, was that though there are tens of millions of people playing games like Farmville, which is published by Zynga, many of them probably still don't really think that what they're doing is playing games. Rather, he said, "they think of Farmville as an activity they do on the Internet."

Yet, even as games like Farmville, Pet Society, Bejeweled Blitz, and others attract millions of players--Smith's Inside Social Games reported Monday that Farmville has 83 million users--there is likely still plenty of upside, particularly because Facebook has yet to make much of a dent in certain parts of the world and because new operations like 6 Waves are popping up that are helping smaller developers make and build awareness for their games.

Smith argued in his talk that two of Facebook's own initiatives will lead to big new opportunities for developers: Facebook Credits, the social network's forthcoming virtual currency, and the existing Facebook Connect, which could become an even more important element in bridging Facebook and third-party games and applications.

Together, Credits and Facebook Connect could offer developers and users alike substantial new says to bridge third-party apps and reach across all devices, as well as a smoother and more consistent way of handling the virtual goods transactions that have become the financial lifeblood of the social games industry.

And of course, Smith added, there are opportunities for developers on other social networks with substantial audiences in the U.S. and around the world, including MySpace, which though on the decline, still has tens of millions of users, Hi5, Orkut, and even Friendster.

On the other hand, Smith said that any game developer trying to build a game that attracts audiences around the world would do well to concentrate on proper localization. Mistakes that have annoyed regional audiences, Smith said, have included one social game offering virtual goods timed for Christmas that didn't make sense to South Americans because they featured snow-oriented scenes.

'I know the people who made Farmville'
For Brathwaite, an aha moment about what the explosion of social games means came, she said, when she realized their cultural impact on her friends and family. "They don't care that I know a bunch of famous game designers," Brathwaite said. "They care that I know the people who made Farmville."

Of course, with the explosion of small projects like those that are proliferating on social networks, the question may be, Falstein asked, "are these really games?"

For many game developers, getting into the industry meant trying to make the next Medal of Honor, or the next huge shooter game, Falstein said, and now many may feel that small titles like Farmville barely count since they are short on complex game mechanics and don't offer hard-core players that much of an advantage over more casual users.

But that's part of the charm, he argued, and why many people who are casual players don't feel threatened by games like Farmville in the way they are by titles that require significant invest of time and attention. Still, the question remains, he asked: "Have we lost our soul" as developers? "Have we had to give up games in order to hit the mass market?"

To Brathwaite, it's a pointless question and one she said has been around the industry for years, whether it was because of the rapid inclusion of cinematics in games or because of other significant design evolutions that older industry veterans don't recognize.

Still, it may not matter whether developers consider social games to be bona fide games, Reynolds said. Rather, succeeding in the Facebook era may mean learning a lot more about social interactions than about game mechanics. "The magic is in the social interactions," Reynolds said. "And so we have to devise game mechanics that are very, very light...get the social right, and then work on the game mechanics."

What that means, Falstein then said, is that to succeed in the industry today, veterans may well have to give up their preconceptions of what game development is and embrace the new circumstances. Otherwise, he said, someone who refuses to adapt may become an expert at one kind of game design, only to be left in the dust as the industry passes them by.

But there's nothing wrong with that, Meretzky said. Indeed, that may be one of the best things about the rapid advance of social games.

"It's these new challenges that make this fun and exciting," Meretzky said. "With social gaming...again, there are a bunch of new challenges. That doesn't keep it from being fun, and that's what makes it fun and exciting."

Correction 2:27 p.m. April 12: This story incorrectly reported that Zynga had brought in revenue of $490 million in 2009 and was projected to bring in $835 million in 2010. Those numbers are for the entire social-games market.