Veteran gamers cross to the social side
The world of gaming has been shaken up by the rise of social gaming over the last couple of years.
And at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the big news on the opening day was how social gaming is going mainstream and boasts an audience of hundreds of millions.
And social games are attracting not just a new type of gamer, but also an old type of game developer.
A panel discussing why veterans are flocking to social gaming was addressed by some of the industry's big names, including Noah Falstein, president of The Inspiracy and one of the first 10 employees at Lucasfilm Games.
He was joined by Brenda Brathwaite, the creative director for the online social entertainment company Slide.
And the final panel member was "Game God" Steve Meretzky, vice president of game design at another social gaming leader, Playdom. His bragging rights include The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Spellcasting trilogy.
Mr Falstein led the panel and began by asking why this venerable stable of designers had jumped ship to social games? They all seemed to have made the leap for similar reasons.
"Since I was 15, all I have ever done was make games. I became obsessed with Facebook games early on and the socialisation reminded me in some sense of board games, my first passion. I like the fast iteration and the small teams. I remember early in my career working on games for six months and then two years and then four and children were born, and marriages were started and marriages were ended."
"I remember when $2m was a lot of money to make a AAA game. And last month I heard about people asking $10m for a medium-sized game. You also ended up working in this giant team of 100 people and really, I came to feel very detached from the process of actually making anything."
"It was about getting back to a space where small teams could make games really quickly. I looked at the social space and saw a lot of early success in terms of huge numbers of people playing... and thought: wow, this is just beginning to scratch the potential on these social networks."
"I also had that feeling of being increasingly detached. I like small teams. There is a much smaller monetary risk [with social games]... and by lowering the cost, it frees you up and lets you take more risk. It made for a lot more experimentation and that is what has drawn me to this. This was interesting and exciting. I haven't experienced this since the early 80s."
Mr Falstein then asked the panel about the surprises they have seen since entering the social space. Everyone seemed to coalesce around Farmville, the virtual farming game made by Zynga which boasts over 80m uses a month.
"I wasn't surprised by the farming thing. I was surprised by a call I got from my niece who is 36-years-old. She said I need you to be my neighbour on Farmville. This is the daughter of my sister who said 'What is dungeons and Dragons?' Now my family knows what I do. They don't care that I know a lot of famous game designers but that I know the people who made Farmville."
"After almost two decades... where we had always talked about reaching the mass market... and then you look at Farmville reaching people who never thought of themselves as gamers. Still don't. They think of Farmville as something they do on the internet with friends and family."
"Nothing surprised me more than Farmville where being a farmer is not what I thought of as a wide aspirational goal."
Mr Falstein then moved the discussion onto whether or not social games are really "games" and asked "have we lost our soul?"
"The thing that is key is not the game mechanic. This is no longer about can you devise the most compelling story or most balanced system. It's about the social interaction. The magic is in the social interaction between people who know each other in the real world."
"I've had to yet again recalibrate my game design thinking, not just in a minor way, but in a radically different way because we are hitting people who are not gamers - an audience (the size of which) we have always aspired to but never managed to capture before."
Next Mr Falstein posed the "dark" question; that is: now that they have landed these mass audiences they always dreamed about, does this mean that "suddenly we have finally broken out of the ghetto, but is there no place left to expand?"
"There is a ton of room to grow and we are in the infancy stages of this medium."
"So we have got 100m people playing a game but only for five minutes. My journey over the last year is realising the very simplicity of these games makes them widely accessible. We can search for more meaningful experiences. We can bring the quality up and the quality of experience. The level of competition will become more intense, but the games will stay light and simple because the magic in the social space is that you do it with your real friends."
Ms Brathwaite asked if the industry is too busy copying one another to really innovate.
"I don't believe cloning is inherently more prevalent in this area. It is inherently easier to do and we see it more than others. In the past, if you did a clone, it took a year or two to do and it had to be a lot better. Now we are talking about a few hundred thousand dollars to do stuff. We can try stuff and it's OK to fail."
"I agree the lack of innovation claim is relatively unfair. This space is only two-and-a-half-years-old, and look how far we have come. Yes, there is a lot of copying, but also a lot of innovation. Copying has been going on since the 80s - it's just now it's more visible."
Mr Falstein's final thought was:
"This is the most exciting time the games industry has ever had and social games is one of the many new ways of opening it up."