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For a while, the makers of hardcore games belittled social game developers. While the hardcore game designers commanded budgets of $30 million, the social game folks — and their mobile game brethren — were viewed as second-class citizens working with shoestring budgets.
But the video game industry has changed. Facebook, the iPhone and Android devices have made social and mobile gaming into big businesses. Once greeted with outright hostility, social game developers are now commanding more respect, and social and mobile game speakers will be prominently featured at two of the traditional video game industry’s premiere events, the Dice Summit in Las Vegas next week (Feb. 9 to Feb. 11) and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco (Feb. 28 to March 4).
This kind of tension happens in any industry undergoing change, where the old guard don’t always welcome the upstarts who are both trashing tradition and breathing new life into the industry. The social and mobile game developers, from Zynga to Ngmoco, were easily dismissed when they were small. But now Zynga’s valuation (as determined on private exchanges) is bigger than Electronic Arts, which is one of the oldest and most venerable game companies. Smartphone and tablet game companies are also proving themselves by generating real revenues on platforms that are now selling by the hundreds of millions.
“The social and mobile developers are a new piece of the interactive industry,” said Martin Rae (pictured right), president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, which stages the Dice Summit, a sold-out and exclusive event for 700 of the key publishers, developers, and executives of the game industry. “They’re a piece of the business that is not going away.”
Adds Simon Carless (left), executive vice president of the UBM Techweb Game Group (which puts on the GDC), “There’s a lot less tension than there used to be. The social developers are using more game design concepts, and their games are more fun than they used to be. And the core game developers are learning how to create more social experiences.”
The summit includes speakers such as Zynga chief designer Brian Reynolds, Electronic Arts Mobile worldwide studio chief Travis Boatman, Google engineer Bill Budge, Facebook game company chief Richard Garriott, and Booyah CEO Keith Lee. Social and mobile game developers are also baked into the main speaking roster of the GDC; they’re not just relegated to the mini-event summits that precede the main GDC.
When Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, a former EA veteran, accepted an award at the GDC’s Game Developers Choice Awards a year ago, I heard a lot of boos from the audience. One speaker at the GDC held a “rant” against social games because they were so backward from the eye of a game developer.
But so much has changed in the past year. Zynga found huge audiences on Facebook among middle-aged women and others who had never played games before. Lots of seasoned game developers made the leap to the new companies, which became hot tickets because they promised riches in the form of valuable stock. Reynolds launched FrontierVille, a carefully designed game that was much more playable than its predecessor FarmVille. Virtually overnight, FrontierVille amassed an audience above 30 million, far more than the typical console game. And then Zynga launched CityVille late in the year and saw it soar above 100 million users in less than two months after its debut on Facebook. Carless said developers recognize that these social games are becoming better and more fun to play.
“If you look way back in history to the 8-bit game platforms, these social games are a lot like them,” Rae said. “You have to realize it’s early in the industry’s evolution. We’re finding that there are fascinating ways to be creative, no matter what the platforms are.”
This year, one of the finalists at the Dice Summit’s awards program is Angry Birds, the hot mobile game that has dominated the charts for the top iPhone games for the past year. Angry Birds wasn’t formally nominated, but a write-in campaign helped push it into the finalist list at the awards show, which happens on Feb. 11 at Dice. Rae said, “My mom plays Angry Birds, and she never played a game in her life.”
Another reason social and mobile are more accepted is that social and mobile game companies are creating most of the new jobs in the video game industry, while console game studios are still laying off people by the hundreds. In a couple of years, Zynga has grown well beyond 1,500 people, while just recently Disney laid off more than 200 console game makers as it steered its strategy into social and mobile games.
This year, Brenda Brathwaite is giving a rant on behalf of social game companies at the GDC. She is a game industry veteran who became the creative director at social game maker LOLapps, which recently published Ravenwood Fair, a game designed by Doom creator John Romero, who has opened his own social game studio.
One of the interesting bridges between the two industries — hardcore and social — is Bing Gordon (right), former chief creative officer of Electronic Arts and a current partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has funded Zynga and Ngmoco (the latter bought for $403 million by Japan’s DeNA). Gordon is getting the lifetime achievement award at the Dice Summit. And he’s getting it not just for his 25-year career at EA, but also because he helped create and navigate the fledgling social and mobile game industries.
“With social games, you also had to have a thick skin,” Gordon told us in an interview. “A few years ago, a lot of gamers despised social games. It was never as bad as the 1980s in terms of the disregard for games as a legitimate business. But it was still contrarian. It’s always nice to overcome that.”