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Veteran gamers cross to the social side

Maggie Shiels | 10:46 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

The world of gaming has been shaken up by the rise of social gaming over the last couple of years.

Sign for Game Developers ConferenceAnd 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.

His fingerprints are on everything from Sinistar to Battlehawks and Indiana Jones.

He was joined by Brenda Brathwaite, the creative director for the online social entertainment company Slide.

She has worked on seminal games like the Wizardry series and Dungeons & Dragons.

Brian Reynolds, chief designer at social games powerhouse Zynga, also joined the panel. His previous credits include Civilization II and Rise of Nations.

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.

Noah Falstein, Brian Reynolds, Brenda Brathwaite and Steve Meretzky

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.

Ms Brathwaite:

"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."

Mr Reynolds:

"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."

Mr Meretzky:

"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."

Mr Falstein:

"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.

Ms Brathwaite:

"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."

Mr Reynolds:

"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."

Mr Meretzky:

"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?"

Mr Reynolds:

"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."

Mr Falstein:

"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?"

Ms Brathwaite:

"There is a ton of room to grow and we are in the infancy stages of this medium."

Mr Meretzky:

"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.

Mr Falstein:

"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."

Mr Meretzky:

"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."


  • 1. At 12:53pm on 11 Mar 2010, James Rigby wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 2. At 2:39pm on 12 Mar 2010, funky wrote:

    You wouldn't happen to be the James Rigby who works for one of Sony's suppliers would you...? Huge coincidence if you're not LOL...

    Complain about this comment

  • 3. At 09:45am on 13 Mar 2010, Jim Sanders wrote:

    I think 'vets' (which I always though to be a misuse, will still play the traditional gamer games like battlefield and older classics like Zelda rather than play Farmville.

    Complain about this comment

  • 4. At 1:01pm on 13 Mar 2010, James Rigby wrote:

    To #2 funky72 - No I'm not (there's another one of me!?) and yes it is.

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  • 5. At 10:17pm on 14 Mar 2010, The_Hess wrote:

    Personally I doubt that the 'hardcore' gamers will move across to Facebook games entirely. No matter how technology advances, a browser based game is never going to be of the same quality (at least graphically) as a full screen game. The social side of gaming (outside Facebook) has already been tried and tested through the Steam network, and there are online communities for PS3 and 360 gamers as well. This isn't something entirely new, just an evolution of an idea.

    Just as long as 'proper' games continue to be made, and I'll be happy!

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  • 6. At 11:58am on 17 Mar 2010, calmandhope wrote:

    I don't think I know any "hardcore" gamers, who use any of them games on facebook or any of the other sites. It just isn't the same experience. The only game I'll play online is poker, and thats just to try and sharpen up my nonexistant skills.

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  • 7. At 6:12pm on 18 Mar 2010, chris wrote:

    all the FB games are really bad ;/ I've been gaming online since 1999,
    and I could never play anything like the flash based facebook stuff that's going on, World of Warcraft forever dude! :0)

    Complain about this comment

  • 8. At 08:50am on 20 Mar 2010, Lochnload wrote:

    The biggest difference is the fact that social games, like Farmville, are introducing new players to computer gaming as apposed to social networks being based around a group of people who play a particular game. A lot of these new players have never played computer games before or indeed actively dislike computer games.

    Is it actually a game? Since it is impossible to lose and takes no skill or thought?

    It has more in common with Pavlov’s dog experiment. 'Click the mouse button' and get a reward, than a game.

    Maybe, like we have experienced with television, we are seeing the start of 'dumbing down' of console and computer games to appeal to the widest possible market.

    I sincerely hope not.

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  • 9. At 9:52pm on 22 Mar 2010, barry wrote:

    Facebook games are designed just to keep you online, you get no prizes for skill just the length of time you are playing. I just dont get the point of a game where all you can do is repeatedly click on the same squares over and over again. the only reason it exists is to earn advertising revenue 80m weekly users has to be worth some serious coin

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  • 10. At 06:42am on 03 Apr 2010, Alice wrote:

    I agree with Barry. I have been with face book for years and I don't think playing online games at face book application is much of interest. Recent reports suggested that the face book has beaten search giant, Google for maximum US traffic. Face Book is huge in traffic and they want user stickiness so that they can earn big money via ads.

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  • 11. At 1:49pm on 06 Apr 2010, Dylan87 wrote:

    A game is not really a game when everybody wins. Thats an activity masquearding as a game, a time-sink if you will. You might argue that all games are essentially time-sinks, but then this is what differentiates "gamers" from people who play one of these so called facebook "games" in which it makes them feel good for next to no input.

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  • 12. At 3:53pm on 08 Jun 2010, lineswine wrote:

    Games...ahhh, yes. One of the few subjects you couldn't spin Apple in a positive way.
    Seeing it was so, you chose to not mention them at all.
    Steve WILL be pleased!

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  • 13. At 3:56pm on 08 Jun 2010, lineswine wrote:

    I also note there is no mention of the dominant platform in computer gaming, namely the IBM PC...couldn't bring yourself to mention it?

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