The makers of some of Zynga's most popular games talk about why they've stayed and why they will continue to stay with Zynga.
Some days the headlines can be punishing. Reading the stories about the game development company he works for, Zynga, Kevin Holme can't help but feel weighed down by the noise. Here's a story about the company's falling share prices, here's another about the legal action being brought against the company, and there are many more about discontent employees throwing in the towel and jumping ship. It's all over, the headlines claim – things can't get any worse for Zynga. He scrolls down the pages. He sighs.
"It's a little frustrating at times," says Holme, a director of design on the With Friends games at Zynga. "Especially for me. In my day-to-day I don't see any of these problems. I'm super happy. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else, and in any other job I wouldn't be learning as much, I wouldn't be on the cutting edge of the industry."
Holme joined Zynga when the small studio he worked for, Newtoy, was acquired by the social game company in late 2010. Formed from the closure of Ensemble Studios (Age of Empires, Halo Wars), Newtoy had a few successes under its belt, namely Chess With friends and the Scrabble-esque mega hit, Words With Friends. Zynga reportedly paid $53.3 million – the most money it had ever committed to a studio acquisition at the time – to bring the 20-something-person team and its games on board. Upon being acquired, Newtoy became known as Zynga With Friends.
"Words With Friends was becoming so huge at the time and it was consuming our whole studio"
Holme was there when Ensemble closed its doors, he was there when Newtoy experienced enormous success with the release of Words With Friends, and he was there when Zynga came knocking. He says that the idea of Zynga swooping down on small studios and gobbling up their talent and games is a common misconception and far from the reality of what happened with Newtoy.
"Our studio hasn't really changed too much [since the acquisition]," Holme tells Polygon. "One of the reasons we joined Zynga was because we didn't want ourselves to change, which is kind of interesting.
"Words With Friends was becoming so huge at the time and it was consuming our whole studio. The whole studio was having to support Words With Friends, and that's not really what we wanted to do."
Holme says that partnering with Zynga meant that Zynga could take on the role of supporting Words With Friends, freeing up Zynga With Friends to work on new ideas and new games. The Zynga partnership catapulted Words With Friends even further than the developers could ever imagine. The game's audience multiplied tenfold after the acquisition, and almost two years on it remains one of the most popular games on mobile devices.
Having Zynga's support freed the studio up to make make Hanging With Friends – a digital take on the pen and paper game of Hangman, Scramble With Friends – a puzzle word game, Matching With Friends – a color block matching game, and its most recent release, Gems With Friends – a match-three game with a twist involving numbers and power-ups.
CROSSING OVER TO THE OTHER SIDE
Before Holme joined Zynga – before he even became involved with Newtoy – he admits he was scared about what it would mean for him as a game designer to move into the social and casual game space. As someone who had spent years working on hardcore games for an audience that was very much like him, he was unsure what it would be like to make games for people who may have never played video games before.
"I'm a gamer through and through, so when I came here I was a bit worried," he says.
"What I found out right away was it was phenomenally more rewarding to work on a With Friends game because even though they may not be quite as complex as some of the AAA games and, by the way, I do consider the games we make AAA – they're just on a smaller scope, what's interesting about it is I can now make games for an audience 10 times as big as the audience I used to make games for. Now I've got my mom and my sister playing and they talk about it all the time.
"I go to my dentist and they talk about how they play Words With Friends or Hanging With Friends or any of the other games we work on, and it's really exciting for me. If I wear my Words With Friends t-shirt somewhere, I get stopped on the street and people want to talk to me about it. It's really exciting to be able to reach that many people and have them all really entertained and enjoy something I worked on."
An executive producer at Zynga who led the development of Mafia Wars, Jon-Paul Dumont, expresses a similar sentiment. Dumont used to work at EA where he was a combat designer on Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age, worked as a designer on James Bond: From Russia With Love, and was AI designer on The Godfather 2. He says he was initially apprehensive about moving into the social games space, but he found it no less rewarding than working on AAA games.
"I had an interesting experience where in my last couple of years at EA I went from working on a console game to a Sims game and I really got a shot of adrenaline working on a game that a lot of people had heard of," Dumont tells Polygon. "When you work on a lot of hardcore console titles, you're kind of lucky to know someone who has played the game you made. You're lucky to have a good friend or someone you're related to play the game, like maybe a cousin somewhere or a buddy from college says ‘Hey I beat that Lord of the Rings game you made', and that's fun.
"If I wear my Words With Friends t-shirt somewhere, I get stopped on the street and people want to talk to me about it"
"But the difference between that and then working on a game like The Sims or Mafia Wars where I went from not knowing anyone who played the previous game I'd done at EA to all of a sudden I had 50 or 60 people that I actually knew and hung out with – not just game industry people – that was huge. Not only were they playing that game, they were starting to bug me about stuff like when's this loot going to come out or when's the next city expansion going to happen? So that shift from the circle of people I interact with personally that play the games I make shifted from this kind of wider extended circle to a much closer circle. That is really exciting and fun. That's what I thought was interesting about being at a place like Zynga."
Dumont says that when he first began his career as a game developer he was warned by a recruiter that if he moved into casual games, he'd never make AAA games again. That was a mentality he had to fight when he decided to make the leap from EA to Zynga. He understood that not everyone in the industry viewed casual and social games with the same esteem as AAA role-playing games and shooters. When he finally made the leap to Zynga, he admits it was a leap of faith.
"The interesting thing was the people I talked to that were at Zynga didn't feel like they were making casual games; they didn't feel like they were making some throwaway or downloadable thing or anything like that," Dumont says. "They were working on something that felt different, and that's what I experienced when I got to Zynga. We weren't making this subset of something for the game industry; it was like we had hit a vein on something completely different.
"It was like console makers were mining gold and we found this whole other metal in another mountain somewhere that felt the same but it had a whole different aesthetic, it had a different dynamic, the games were different, the kinds of people playing them were different, that was really energizing for somebody like me."
THE OMNIVORES AND THEIR GEMS
Dumont describes developers as omnivores when it comes to games – they make games because they love games, they're creative people who want to try every genre, who will make board games and card games and try tabletop games if given the tools. It should be no surprise then that so many have put their hand up to make social games.
"In that way it didn't feel like that huge of a leap [going from AAA to casual games] – it felt like a return to something a bit simpler," he says. "With a console game or a shooter you've usually got a big team with a lot of layers between you and the player. All the people you work with, the executives at the company, there's the marketing machine, there's the press, there's the retailer, so you're a lot of degrees away from the player. But if you go way to the other direction to a board or card game, there's nothing quite as humbling as a game designer than putting together a board game that you think is really fun and then having your friends and family play it and having to look at them in the face when they're kind of not having fun, but they're too nice to tell you."
For Holme, this is part of the thrill of making With Friends games. As a game designer, he has more people engaging with his games now than ever before. He's also finding new challenges that he didn't encounter as a designer on larger, more elaborate games.
"Part of the reason why I came here is because you get to learn a whole new world of game design," Holme says. "The focus isn't on the complexity, the focus is on the simplicity. You're building something that you can just hand to someone who has never seen it before, and you have to design it in a way where they can just start playing without you even having to explain what to do. On top of that, it has to be fun and engaging. It's a pretty challenging task figuring that out!"
Holme says that one of the rules he designs by is a play on a Lord of the Rings line: one mechanic to rule them all. All of Zynga With Friends game are defined by one predominant mechanic, whether it be to make a word, match tiles, or perform a move.
"Part of the reason why I came here is because you get to learn a whole new world of game design"
In a game like Gems With Friends, the mechanic is to combine existing gems on a board to make new gems. It's a twist on the match-three game. Most players understand how to play match-three games, but where most of them reward players based on how many matches they can make, Gems With Friends assigns a value to each gem. All gems are numbered and can be merged using power-ups. The greater the number on the gem, the more it's worth. The aim is to not only match three or more gems to remove them from the board, but to also obtain the highest score possible. In this case, the simple mechanic of matching and merging makes room for a strategy game where players have to decide where they will place their gems, which gems they merge, and in what order they clear the board.
Holme says that as simple as many of Zynga's games may look on the surface, they're actually incredibly polished and have a lot of depth underneath. Gems With friends underwent so many iterations it was unrecognizable by the time it was released. While the idea for the game came in a day, it was playtested and tweaked and polished over and over again before the developers even considered releasing it to the public. The sounds had to be just right, the gems had to have the right amount of sparkle, and all the mechanics and user interface had to make sense.
THE FUTURE WITH FRIENDS
Holme hasn't gotten tired of making With Friends games. Not yet. He still gets a kick out of making games that millions of people play, he still finds challenges in making games that have to be super simple but also have the potential to be complex. He likes that every time a player makes a move in a game, it's almost like sending a friend a text message. It's a mini conversation. It makes playing games on your phone that little bit more meaningful.
"There's a really big space in With Friends still left to explore; it's really, in my mind, the best way to do social games on mobile right now," he says.
And Zynga is increasingly understanding what people want in mobile games. All With Friends games are asynchronous, which allows players to play and respond in their own time. All their games are played with the phone held vertically so that workers in office meetings can look like they're typing emails on their phones when they're actually playing a game (holding a smartphone horizontally is often a much bigger giveaway).
Holmes says he'd love to make even more complex games in the future, and he sees Gems With Friends as a step in that direction. It's one of the fastest, twitch-based games the studio has created and, while it's no shooter, it's a sign of what might be possible.
So yes, sometimes Holme sighs when he reads the headlines. It's frustrating, and most of it is out of his control. But he's not going anywhere soon.
"When I see what's in the media I get a little bummed out," he says. "But then I just go outside and I totally get reaffirmed immediately by all the players who still love everything we're doing.
"I stay because I love designing games and I want to make games that everybody in the world can play. Gems With Friends is going to be played by millions of people – to try to find that opportunity anywhere else is really unlikely.
"Gems With Friends is an idea that I had, that I wanted to do, and Zynga basically said okay and let me do this. They let me build this game that I was excited about and now I'm being able to release it and millions of people are going to play it. I want to do that again."