Zynga’s VP Game Development Interview

Facebook Social Apps: It's a whole different way of making games. It's fast, quick releases...

Via IGN – Many hardcore players disparage Facebook games, slamming their frills-free graphics and simplified gameplay; some even see these titles as a threat to console and PC games. But Zynga’s Mark Skaggs — who has been making games for 17 years — argues that Facebook games don’t hurt the market. In fact, he sees titles like Farmville and Cafe World leading the charge into the next generation of gaming.

IGN: You come from a gaming development background, right?

Mark Skaggs: Yes. I started my first game company in 1993 [then] went to work for Virgin and Westwood and got lucky enough to get the chance to do Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. [In 2005 I] started another company called Trilogy, and that was about online downloadable MMO games that maybe you could play on a console. It was kind of an interesting idea, but a little bit before its time.

IGN: So what’s been the biggest change in going from traditional games to Facebook games?

Mark Skaggs: It’s a whole different way of making games. It’s fast, quick releases…

IGN: I know FarmVille took five weeks [to make], but what’s the average development cycle?

Mark Skaggs: It really depends on the game. I don’t think we’ve made anything that’s taken more than six months.

IGN: And the team size?

Mark Skaggs: It’s much smaller than traditional games. It’s a shorter dev cycle, because we’re not making a big product. We’re making the minimum viable product. What can we put out there to know if it’s going to work? Then we iterate afterward. With traditional games, it took us maybe two years to do most of the work up front. If it’s console, you release it, maybe you patch it, but if not, surprise, see if it’s going to sit on shelves, and you’re off to the new thing. In this business, you do a little bit of work, and then everything comes after.

IGN: There’s a sense from [hardcore gamers] that Facebook games are going to hurt the traditional games that they love.

Mark Skaggs: I think that they’re different markets. FarmVille, Cafe World, and FishVille, they’re going after a different market. That said, I think it’s going to help, and here’s why: because this new influx of ideas, this new iteration on a business model, turning around faster, finding out what works, is going to bleed back.

People are going to stop saying “social games.” Any game that doesn’t have a social component is going to feel old-fashioned. That’s where I think traditional game companies, console game makers, are going to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we can add this social element that’s been worked out en masse by all these social game companies, and that’s going to make our games more successful.” That’s where I think things are going to change.

IGN: Do you see Facebook being replaced by something else? Or do you think Facebook’s going to be like Google, which has been the default search engine for several years?

Mark Skaggs: I don’t know if they’re going to be replaced. Certainly Facebook is an insanely great partner for us. They create an ecosystem that we all need and they manage it very well. But I know that people like alternatives. If you just look at what’s there right now, Facebook is good for some stuff, but LinkedIn is good for other stuff. You see that evolving, everybody says, “Hey, I like this social thing, but one size doesn’t fit all.”

IGN: So, in this new world of games-as-service, instead of games-as-product, is there room for sequels? Since you’re constantly iterating, a game isn’t static anymore. Will there be a FarmVille 2?

Mark Skaggs: How do you do a FarmVille 2 when FarmVille 1’s not done yet? Mafia Wars has this great example where they do new locations — Cuba, all those kinds of things. So I think that’s probably the direction it’s going to go. At least that’s one we’ve seen that works. But let’s flip it around and say, “Is there going to be a World of Warcraft 2?” I don’t know. Why? Why not just open it more? Would you have to throw away all your experience and everything, can you just port it to a new character?

IGN: Do you think people are going to be afraid of going towards game complexity just because they’re worried about alienating the mass audience?

Mark Skaggs: Oh, yeah. Complexity has a trick to it. Mario Galaxy still survives in a world with the Unreal games, the Unreal Engine games, right? And it survives along with World of Warcraft, it’s a very simple game… Well, let me rephrase that, it’s a great game that doesn’t feel complex. There was a big push a couple months at a conference, “These games are too simple, they’re not really games, they need to be complex.” And I just came in and say, “Really? 80 million people who played FarmVille last month might argue against that.” So rather than sitting here trying to decide, I just say, “OK, I’d love to see what you do.” You have to prove it and show me the numbers. If it is, I’m there. If not, hey, thanks for helping.

IGN: One of the frustrations I find with Facebook games, is that a lot is made of the social aspect, but you don’t actually play “with” someone. You can visit someone else’s town, but you’re not actually playing with people. Do you see that evolving into something like in WoW?

Mark Skaggs: I used to think that’s what social meant — you had to be sitting with someone, real-time simultaneous play. And then I kinda realized that that works in some cases, playing poker at a poker table, that works, but in other cases, it’s maybe annoying or not as much fun as you want it to be. It could be fun for people…