If you had talked to FrontierVille creator Brian Reynolds a decade or so ago, he probably would have never dreamed that he'd be a pioneer of the social gaming movement, creating a Wild West-themed game for something called 'Facebook.' At that time he was knee-deep in creating real-time strategy games like Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations, which generally appealed to geeky guys with powerful PCs and a penchant for military maneuvers.
Reynold's time spent creating those PC games are, ironically, exactly what helped him create one of the most popular games in the world, played by both men and women of all ages, many of whom have never played a computer game. He went into more detail on how that's possible in his recent keynote speech at the GDC Online conference in Austin. I caught up with him afterwards to take his temperature on FrontierVille five months later and the state of social gaming.
FrontierVille launched in June and now it's the #3 most popular game on Facebook? Would it be right to say the game exceeded your expectations?
It exceeded mine. I made the game feeling like "OK, well this is going to be my first social game as a designer and most of my colleagues, certainly on the design side, we were all new to social gaming, and we were all, you know, trying to learn about it and pick it up, and I felt like "Well this will be our game that's 'Okay.'" I felt like, I was proud of it. I felt like ...
Really? You thought FrontierVille would be just 'OK'? That's funny.
Well, don't you sometimes feel like when you do something new you have to, like, screw one up to then learn it? So my expectation, was like "It will be fine. It will be in there with some of our middle games, and it will make money, and then we'll make the next one." Then we put it out and it's like "Oh, OK, well I guess I'm doing this now." (Laughing) Because FrontierVille did do really well, and I'm sure that there are others within the company that did expect it to do well.
Yes I'm sure. So, before you made FrontierVille, you created games for the more traditional PC gaming set. Has there been anything surprising about making games for a so-called 'casual' gaming crowd?
I'm suddenly talking to a whole different group of players than I've ever been able to talk to. I mean, it's a bigger one, and it's just totally different... You get to talk to people who have never been engaged with games before and suddenly they're into it, and realizing that it's something about the Facebook thing. I mean the web, and Facebook have finally gotten games to the point where, they've lost a lot of, really they've totally lost the stigma of geekiness. And it's because you don't have to climb your way through all of the computer setup stuff to do 'em. Being able to play games on the web is no longer -- you no longer need any computer skills, like at least no more than you need to just be a human being in modern society now.
I think, with the web, it would be possible now to make games for more niche markets that have never been targetable, really, with games before. I just don't think those would make great social games, necessarily.
What do you mean when you say "make games for more niche markets?"
Think about different demographics, because typically video games have been mostly for young men, that's kinda like, 15 to 25 is the core range, and that means you're making games about war and aliens and shooting and that kind of stuff. Now it doesn't have to be about that anymore, in fact, in social games, in mass marketing, it really can't be about that. You don't see mass market games about any of that stuff, you see people try in some of the social games, but they don't end up being very big. You know, maybe they're like making a lot of money from the people that they are getting, but they're not getting all that many people compared to the mass market games.
Do you expect to see big blockbuster video game series making the jump to social? Will we ever see Halo on Facebook?
Well, I think you're probably going to see that stuff. I think the Triple A people are going to see the advantage in having the social graph, so I think Triple A are going to find ways [to get onto Facebook]. They're not stupid; they're seeing this stuff going on, and they see the power of social.
I mean, it takes long time to turn the aircraft carrier of a Triple A game, you know, in a new direction. And social games are, two or three years old, so people started making games before there were ever social games at all, which still haven't come out yet! [LAUGHS] So in terms of just turning the battleship its going to take a little bit of time, but I think they're going to see the benefits of social graphs in those games.
At the same time, I don't think that's going to be a significant thing in the social games industry. I think that adding 'social' onto a Triple A game, like the kinds that are currently being made, is not going to create some big social game phenomenon,
There was a great panel at GDC Online this year called "Do Social Games Suck?" I'm curious -- what's your response to that question?
An eye roll, I suppose. It's... you know? I mean, I realize that part of the triple A industry thing--you know, we all got to get into triple A games--is you know, we were all kind of geeky guys making games for ourselves that we wanted to play. And I can certainly understand some of the backlash. "Well, you know, this isn't the kind of game that you know I'm personally into," or whatever. That's not actually true for me, because I actually am kind of a social game addict.
You know, I can understand the resistance too. You know, coming in, thinking you're going to have a career in hardcore game. Finding the industry in decline. Or at least consolidation, you know. Kind of in a recession, I guess is the technical term. And you know a lot of studios are either not hiring or laying off and all those kind of unpleasant things. I have experienced those things in my time.
It was pretty interesting for you to admit in your recent GDC Online talk that FrontierVille is the most popular game you've ever worked on.
Yep, yep, yep. You know, probably. On any given day, probably more people play FrontierVille than ever bought all of my other games combined.
Do you think social games have reached a saturation point yet?
No, actually. I don't. Because I think we're still finding out. You know what I mean? We're still making the games better. Just look at last year, when we suddenly realized that you could make them more polished with a Flash front end. And suddenly you could have 10, 20 times more players than you could ever have before. Just because they liked the experience, it was just a more clean, pleasant experience.
But we haven't. I don't feel like we've necessarily have learned what all of the topics are. We haven't educated everybody about the fact that there is this new form of entertainment, and that it actually is fun.