Bittersweet: What Brian Reynolds Did Next

By Alec Meer on October 8th, 2010 at 6:34 pm.

SCAREBEAR. Yeah.

There was a collective sigh of sadness from global strategy game gonks like me at the news former Firaxis and Big Huge Games big huge brain Brian Reynolds had thrown in his trad-gaming towel and joined Farmville and Mafia Wars outfit Zynga last year. Did this mean an end to playful, progressive and p-thoughtful strategy titles like Civ II and Rise of Nations?

What with Zynga being a pretty closed-doors kinda company – rarely talking to the media – there’s been very little word on exactly what lovely Brian’s been up to there. A talk at GDC Online a couple of days ago saw him make a rare re-entrance into the limelight and reveal that, even if some of us aren’t interested in the games he’s now making, he’s still putting a fair bit of thought into it.

Sounds like FrontierVille’s been his baby and, again, even if you didn’t like it (which you’re entitled to do, though the mindset that cries for it and its ilk to be scrubbed from existence does trouble me), it does a least strive to add a bit more game to the endless crop-collecting.

Here’s a tell-tale quote from Gama’s coverage too:

“When you’re making entertainment you can’t just keep making the same things over and over again. Innovation doesn’t mean inventing a kind of game that nobody’s ever ever seen before. You’ll be lucky if you make one or two things like that in a whole career of game design. But innovation also means combining the things we know in new and innovative ways. Remember that in social games, the social innovations are the most important of all.”

Which suggests he’s genuinely interested in how to make people who don’t play, play – and that’s an argument we can all surely get behind. There’s a lot of stuff that might be worrying/irritating about many company’s approach gaming on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean the universal intentions and possibilities are sour.

This is nicely-intended too:

“Our tutorial just says, ‘Hey look, there’s stuff. You can click on it and everything you click on does something good. Go.’”

More coverage on Gamespot. Nothing especially revelatory in any of his comments, for me, but it’s the clear sense of enthusiasm, of still wanting to make something that entertains people, which made me feel a whole lot better about his departure from ‘our’ games.

Zynga’s a frightening entity to be sure, unbelievably huge – recently renting a 2000-person office – and historically prone to releasing projects arguably very similar to other studios’ titles, but all the devs and technologies it’s been buying recently hint it might be in a position to take a few more risks alongside its sure-fire click-based hits. I hope. I really, really do. And I hope that involves Reynolds turning his not inconsiderable experience and savvy to projects that might, say, appeal a bit more to RPS’ audience.

He also says a bunch of scary stuff, like ‘monetise’ and how it’s cool to make people pay to find out where the story goes next, but then again he is in the business of making microtransaction-funded games now, so it’d be pretty odd if he came out and said that stuff was bad. Just keep the flame burning, Brian, please.

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51 Comments »

  1. Fumarole says:

    http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-09-08/news/farmvillains/

    After reading the above link I don’t think I’ll ever play a Zynga game.

    • Fede says:

      Oh, yeah, I think Kieron linked to it last month in one of the Sunday Papers.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I really want to hate them, but there doesn’t seem to be any facts going against them. It’s all anonymous people claiming things so I don’t really trust it.

    • Joe says:

      @ DrGonzo

      The plagiarism’s pretty blatant, and doesn’t rely on anon sources.

  2. Torgen says:

    I think Zynga is trying to buy respectability. Will never work with me, after seeing the CEO laugh about his games being used to entice players to install malware on their computers, and laughing about how when he tried it, no one at Zynga could get it out of his computer.

  3. Unguided says:

    Stankman87348 is trying to build a sleazy run down tenement and needs more graffiti, click here to send him some.

    Facebook games are really bad. The only saving grace Zynga has is the interconnectivity between their products, though it’s only a ploy to get people to put money into all of them.

    • Unguided says:

      They were really a flavor-of-the-month kind of thing, they benefited from forcing viral marketing onto everybody and started to level off once people started getting bored with the lack of content.

      There are still tons of idiots who plow their savings into these purely cosmetic progress bars masquerading as games, so they won’t be dying off anytime soon. This push for innovation is a clear indicator that Zynga wants to keep earning the profits of their heyday rather than face the potential of losing more customers to boredom.

  4. pupsikaso says:

    “A fair bit of thought into it”

    Meaning that, not nearly as much thought as he’d be putting into non-facebook games. This is what I find pathetic about facebook games. They take so very little actual brain power to create. All you do is follow a viral-marketing formula and create your game in a way that milks “whales” as much as possible. That’s it! There’s no hard work or anything involved in it. Any half-wit can do it. And what this whole facebook games trend is doing is showing the industry who are in it just for the money, and will hop onto the lazy-train at the slightest opportunity, and who are the ones that are in it for making interesting games and further progressing the industry.

  5. serioustiger says:

    Mmmm, Rise of Nations. I have a sudden urge to play RoN again.

    Does anyone know where I can get it, and is it even playable today?

    • ChampionHyena says:

      Hell, I still have my two-pack with Thrones and Patriots lying around. Who owns the rights to that game? It could use a digital download release.

    • Jad says:

      Yeah definitely needs a DD release. I’ll admit that I played that back in my piratey days, I’d like to own it legitimately now.

  6. Ganders says:

    There is no redeeming value in this sort of predatorial, purely money-grabbing trash, or in its creators.

    “Which suggests he’s genuinely interested in how to make people who don’t play, play – and that’s an argument we can all surely get behind.”
    If you stand to profit off them?

    • Johnny Go-Time says:

      You like games that are made by compaines.
      If a company doesn’t make a profit, it stops producing games.

      Zynga is correct to try and profit from their games – even if you don’t like their games, millions of people do, and those people are content to spend their money on these games.

  7. Jimbo says:

    I loved him in Smokey and the Bandit, but he is dead to me now.

  8. destroy.all.monsters says:

    @ Alec – regarding why people think these kinds of games “should be scrubbed from existence” –

    1. they’re a naked money grab and it’s incredibly annoying to get messages from friends and acquaintances regarding these games. 2. They are generally mindless and require no strategy. 3. The people that play them aren’t gamers – as in they don’t identify in that way the same way that someone plying Bejeweled doesn’t think of themselves as a gamer – which leads into my next argument.

    “Which suggests he’s genuinely interested in how to make people who don’t play, play – and that’s an argument we can all surely get behind. ”

    I’m not at all sure I can. I would think that someone that only plays a Wii sports game at a party is vastly more likely to pick up a Zelda game or something and become a more well rounded gamer than those in the casual gaming ghetto.. Although it’s unlikely there’s any statistics for it. Frankly I think if anyone has a chance at bridging the the two worlds is concerned it would be Reynolds’s former boss with the upcoming Civ for facebook (or whatever it’s actually titled).

    The two most hated corporate speak words I can think of are “monetize” and “synergy”.

    • frags says:

      Also their ‘games’ are mainly centred around figuring out the psychology of their players. Not on game mechanics. Game mechanics purely for the purpose of getting non gamers addicted.

      I want a new Rise of Legends! Or sure another Rise of Nations. Damn you Microsoft!

    • destroy.all.monsters says:

      No frontier game is complete without killing indians and depriving them of their lands.

      “Help me buy more small pox infested blankets”".

    • destroy.all.monsters says:

      Reynolds’s SMAC is one of the greatest games I have ever played and remains in my top 5.

      The joy I got from playing Santiago the first time and nuking Miriam’s cities why she screamed “No!” at me is just immense Silencing the various faction leaders makes me ludicrously happy..

    • Jad says:

      I would think that someone that only plays a Wii sports game at a party is vastly more likely to pick up a Zelda game or something and become a more well rounded gamer than those in the casual gaming ghetto..

      I think you are much more right on this. A number of non-gamer-type people at my office picked up Wii’s back when they were newest fad — “A game system for everyone! You’ll even get a workout!”. And while they mostly played Wii Sports or Wii Fit with it, I know one of them played Mario Galaxy — which a great game, particularly the sequel — and I was shocked to hear my boss had even played Call of Duty: World at War! (I had just played COD4 recently, too, and it was such a weird experience to be talking to my boss about that kind of game)

      Anyway, the leap from Farmville to COD:W@W I think is a much larger one than from Wii Sports/Mario/Metroid.

    • Mo says:

      I would think that someone that only plays a Wii sports game at a party is vastly more likely to pick up a Zelda game or something and become a more well rounded gamer than those in the casual gaming ghetto.

      Why must everyone “graduate” out of the “casual gaming ghetto”? Can’t people just enjoy good casual games and leave it at that?

      Not to say FarmVille is a good casual game. It isn’t. But Bejeweled, Peggle, etc. are fantastic, and if that’s all a person played, I wouldn’t take issue with that.

    • destroy.all.monsters says:

      @Mo – Bringing casual gamers into a deeper gaming milieu is what Brian is attempting and appears to me what Alec is alluding to. Not my agenda – though I find it an interesting thought problem.

  9. Adam says:

    @DrGonzo, but they’re big, and trying to make money, so they must be EEEEVIL!

    • TenjouUtena says:

      So, I take exception to this.. Their two biggest hits were BLATANT ripoffs of other games. And not like the EA or Valve style of ‘Buy the studio and make the game’ but ‘I’m going to make a game exactly like yours and market it better’.

      It’s not trying to make money. It’s trying to make money through stealing things.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I simply think their games have crossed the threshold between something which was made to provide entertainment (and yield profits through the merits thereof) and something which was made to attract as many people as possible and make as much profit regardless of entertainment value.

      I think it’s fairly valid to discuss whether Farmville really is a game.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Remind me why EA is evil?

      Because if Zynga isn’t, then EA can’t be. Or Ubisoft. Or Jack Thompson. Or powdered sugar. Or the moon landing. Or playing as Nazis in shooters. Or Creepers. Or the Pope. Or Galactus. Or KG for leaving us.

    • DrGonzo says:

      People have been ripping each others games off since Space Invaders. If they were successfully sued over their games being copies then I would believe they were evil, as it is I just think they are a bit lame.

    • TenjouUtena says:

      Zynga setting out of court for millions of dollars with Mob Wars: http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/13/zynga-settles-mob-wars-litigation-as-it-settles-in-to-playdom-war/

      Also, Zynga suing someone else for stealing things, in hilarious irony: http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/10/zynga-accuses-playdom-of-stealing-trade-secrets-judge-issues-temporary-restraining-order/

      Evil yet?

  10. Vinraith says:

    So what you’re telling me is that I’m never going to get a proper sequel to my favorite RTS of all time: Rise of Nations? That blows.

  11. Neil says:

    Zynga calls their business strategy “fast follow.” That is, quickly copy whatever is successful, since the actual game part (as opposed to social and transaction components) of all these games is very easy (and fast) to reproduce. They are the enemy of innovation and creativity, doing none of their own, parasitically benefiting from that of others, and discouraging it altogether in the browser space because of their success.

    No self-respecting game designer would be working there for any reason than a fat paycheck. Obviously, Brian Reynolds is getting one.

    Frontierville is a piece of crap, slightly less stinky than Farmville.

  12. Robin says:

    Zynga have a toxic corporate culture. Reynolds is powerless to change this. He should get away now while most of the ugliness is still obscured by the florid prose of the business community. Because the honeymoon will end, just as it did for Jamster and countless other companies that have short-circuited a route to rapid growth on the backs of fucked-over consumers and rivals.

    destroy.all.monsters: Some of Playfish’s games (Restaurant City at least) require a surprising amount of strategic thought in the early stages. There’s nothing wrong with a game being a fishtank/zen garden type of experience, if it’s done well. Otherwise Animal Crossing and Minecraft would be bad games, and you’re not saying that are you?

    Oh and “identifying as gamers” yeaaahh, let’s buy Penny Arcade tshirts and read Kotaku. Blech.

    DrGonzo: That’s pretty naive. They’ve not limited themselves to making a game in the same genre or with a similar theme, they’ve directly copied specific elements of their target games en masse, in the way the sketchier domestic Chinese developers do. There’s no rational justification for developing games like this, beyond arrogance that they can outspend their victims in court and paranoid insecurity in their own abilities.

    • destroy.all.monsters says:

      @ Robin – Agreed on the whole Zynga thing. I read the SF Weekly article about them a few weeks ago. Before I just despised their marketing tactics.

      Vis a vis casual-ish games: I’ve never played any of the games you’ve mentioned and I am loathe to speak ill of something specific until I’ve played it. However, I despise getting the “x friend needs help doing x for x game” or even invites. It is the ubiquitousness of the advertising I hate.

      When I speak of identifying as gamers I mean that despite the fact that these folks play a casual game of some sort they *still* look down upon people that play more complex or involving games because they don’t see themselves as gamers. Basically I was exploring why I would thought Alec was stating that bringing casual gamers into the fold, as it were, was a good idea. I have never been to E3 or gone to a con dressed in a costume – but I certainly wouldn’t put down someone who did either.

  13. Bascule42 says:

    Sitting here in my fortress with molten lava moat and my pool of pirhana fish. I have to say you lot are being a tad unfair on Mr Pincus. Why, he was ’round for dinner just the other day and we had a delightful chat about many many things. His socialist view point on so called “intellectual property” is very forward thinking. He belives if I have an idea, the world should share my idea, and that he is the agent of a new era of a shared “hive mind” philosophy. Are Zynga evil? Oh no, thats just silly talk.

    (Captcha.. HM3P, Her Majesty Loves Prisons)

  14. Strand says:

    This is, verbatim, the conversation I had with my significant other the moment I finished reading this article:

    Me: You know the guy that was primarily responsible for Civilization II, Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations?
    Girlfriend: Oh, god. He’s dead, isn’t he?
    Me: Worse. He works for Zynga and his most recent contribution to gaming is FrontierVille.
    Girlfriend: Isn’t Alpha Centauri your favorite game of all time?
    Me: That’s the reason this is the saddest thing I’ve ever read on the internet.
    Girlfriend: Oh, it’ll be okay, sweetie. Maybe TimeGate’ll make another Kohan!

    • Vinraith says:

      Marry that girl.

    • Rinox says:

      I am in utter agreement with Vinraith.

      also: WHERE IS MY ALPHA CENTAURI 2?!!!

      I can’t believe Colonization won that remake fan poll on Firaxis. In fact; I don’t think it did, but they made it anyway.

    • Gap Gen says:

      FUNGUSVILLE. Get your friends to turn their superformers loose on your farm so that you can harvest enough energy to corner the global energy market!

      Actually, I don’t mind Brian Reynolds not making SMAC2, because it gives all those indie developers a chance to make things other than Mario clones.

  15. MadTinkerer says:

    Jumping into the fray here, @DrGonzo: “If they were successfully sued over their games being copies then I would believe they were evil, as it is I just think they are a bit lame.”

    Generally game companies don’t make exact copies of each others’ games. This is done for several reasons, not the least of which is that for quite a long time the pool of people who played games on particular systems (and or frequented a particular video arcade location) was kept fairly small. With an intimate community comes decent average level of knowlege about the particular subject. If you try to give Half Life fans an exact rip-off of Half Life down to the level layouts and the only thing different is that the headcrabs have smiley faces, the fans will rip you apart instead of spending money on your game. But also Valve will have grounds to sue you.

    Back in the day (and there are probably more recent cases) there were several Pac Man clones released on the Atari systems (because unlike Nintendo and Microsoft, Atari had no approval system preventing this). Several of them were exact clones, down to the level layout, with only the character art being different. Suits were filed and the copiers were forced to stop.

    The term “clone” is generally used to refer to a game that is in the same genre and uses many of the mechanics of another and is probably stylistically similar, but actually has a substantial amount of original content: at the very least, different levels. (example: Duke Nukem 3D was once considered a Doom clone) Which is perhaps where the confusion lies. Zynga has made games that really are direct rip-off copies of their competitors’ work, rather than what most would call a “clone”. The reason they get away with this is that they market their games to the seething mass of people who know little about gaming and less about what Zynga are ripping off.

    Zynga has not been stopped in court. Yet. They managed to achieve a ton of success very fast by ripping people off, and they’ve gotten away with it simply by being so fast and marginalizing the guys they ripped off. However, given the brazen attitude of the guys in charge, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before they’re put in their place.

    It’s a real pity because I’m sure Zynga would have been at least half as successful if they had actually developed their own games or made proper clones rather than rip-offs. And half of their current success would still be ridiculously good.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Oh, as another good example of the difference between clone and rip-off: Half Life has more than a few mechanical similarities to Quake, because it used the same engine. Gordon Freeman’s suit uses abstract “armor points” which are ablative and can be restored with pickups because that mechanic was a holdover from Doom. Yet the Half Life games have a ton of original elements, almost enough to obscure the fact that some of the core mechanics are exactly the same as earlier popular games. But Valve were never out to rip-off id software, something so obvious I doubt any but the most ignorant troll would even try to make that argument.

  16. terry says:

    What Brian Reynolds Did Next : Pointlessly attempt to justify why he’s not making real games.

    • Gap Gen says:

      How to tell if Brian Reynolds’ career is over: Do his games have Nietzsche in them any more?

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, man! But he’s done with the philosophizin’. He’s out West on the frontier, wrasslin’ up them varmints.

  17. TeeJay says:

    I am ashamed to admit it but I have been “playing” (if that is the right word) Zynga’s Mafia Wars on Facebook for a few weeks now (I also played their poker game initially to get a few more “points” for Mafia Wars). Happily I haven’t spent any money but I have wasted a lot of time clicking buttons and have probably a few people with the spam messages which the game encourages you to generate. I will hopefully stop playing now I have thought about it – I started out of curiousity, continued due to the obsessive-compulsive and can’t help this nagging feeling that I “have to” continue so to not throw away my ‘progress’ (argh! what does this even mean?).

    Are there any decent facebook games (also ones that actually have some sort of “game” involved) that anyone wants to recommend? (before anyone says it I do realise that I am better off logging out of facebook and playing some real games and/or getting minecraft and building a castle or something).

  18. Spacewalk says:

    I preferred Envirobears to Scarebears anyway.

  19. no says:

    Sad thing is, this prevents a lot of people from even bothering to enter the fray. Why bother, if your likely outcomes are to fail and have nobody care about your game project or be wildly successful and still fail, because someone who already has the captured mindshare just steels your project?

  20. Noumenon says:

    I’m not sure who Brian Reynolds is but I believe Zynga also got Soren Johnson, who was the person behind a whole lot of Civ 4′s awesome AI and design.

  21. Demiath says:

    Cognitive dissonance of the day: I misread the title as Ryan Reynolds. I like Brian better, obviously, but only becaus he made Alpha Centuari. Like most brain-enabled people of my generation, I can still recite those Augstine/Machiavelli/Random Smartass quotes from that game. Also, I still have a crush on Deidre Skye.

    Regardless of Reynolds exact whereabouts these days someone should make a SMAC2. Like, now.

  22. Consumatopia says:

    If the “Mass Hypnosis Hour” from Futurama were real, would Alec still find “the mindset that cries for it and its ilk to be scrubbed from existence” to be troubling? Television has always been at least as much about manipulating viewers as entertaining or informing them, but the idea that someone could make a sure that’s *pure* manipulation with little or no entertainment or information is creepy.

    Zynga games are like that. Commercial gaming was never innocent of manipulation–but along the way it usually had to serve up challenge or content. Now it’s been proven that you can make an insane amount of money on manipulation alone. I’m not going to launch a purge over this or anything, I’m just saying they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

    It’s possible that social network gaming could become better and more interesting than it is, but I think an important step in that happening is for potential social network gamers to step back and say to themselves “wait a minute, this is actually kind of terrible” and demanding something better. Shortly after Communism fell, Albania was rocked by a massive pyramid scheme. Thousands died in riots when it went bust. Like Albanians were new to the marketplace, some of the users Facebook is reaching are new to the games, the internet, and computers. Once this new audience builds psychological and cultural defenses against the kind of pointless manipulation going on here, they’ll stop falling for the same old tricks. That doesn’t mean we won’t be tricked anymore–but the tricks will have to become more subtle. Collateralized Debt Obligations instead of pyramid schemes. Or whatever, this metaphors gone off the rails, but the point is that dissatisfaction with social games is absolutely necessary in order to redeem social games, so anybody who thinks social gaming could actually become something non-shameful in the future (and I do) should keep up the bitching about it (and I do).

  23. Johnny Go-Time says:

    I don’t like any of Zynga’s games. But Zynga is a business – like every other professional game development entity – and needs to make money to survive. If people want to pay for the entertainment they derive from Zynga’s products, then it’s a win-win situation and everybody goes home happy (except for certain angry forum-dwellers…)

    I think much of the outcry is the sound of people who used to be “on the inside” playing video games before they were cool…and now resent games achieving any sort of mainstream success…it all reminds me of Metallica’s hardcore fans who resent their super-stardom:
    Fans: “Metallica sold out!”
    Metallica: “Yeah we sold out – every !@#$& arena in the goddamn country!”

  24. Consumatopia says:

    Everyone criticizing Zynga has posted reasons for their opinion. Facebook status spamming. Stealing from other companies. Taking consumer manipulation to new, previously unimagined levels.

    Do you have any refutation of those reasons? If you did, you kept it to yourself.

    Oh, Zynga is a business? Well so is Blackwater. So is Phillip Morris. If your business’s survival depends on you acting like a scumbag, the non-scummy thing to do is start a different business.

    I never liked any Metallica music, but, hey, whether their song is good or not is unrelated to how many people show up at their concert. Just because they have many more new fans doesn’t make their old fans wrong–unless you’re the kind of person who only enjoys something if everyone else does.

  25. rocketman71 says:

    Yep, that’s sad. Casualization is even worse than consolization. This is a fucked world.

  26. SapientWolf says:

    This article makes Zynga sound like the Borg.