Zynga has lots of veterans like Jim Veevaert, a general manager of the social game company’s studio in Seattle. An 18-year pro, Veevaert was previously cofounder and president of production at Jerry Bruckheimer Games and an executive producer at Microsoft. He led the production of of big budget games, such as Halo 3, Viva Pinata, and Gears of War. In 2011, he gave up hardcore games and joined casual game maker Zynga, which is often accused of being a copycat. Now he’s leading teams that create social games like Ruby Blast. Veevaert says now that he’s had a taste for designing games as a service, with daily updates and analytic feedback, there’s no going back. He has kissed the console development world goodbye. We caught up with him for a cup of coffee at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Jim Veevaert: At Vivendi, I was the executive producer on the Half-Life franchise. We were starting this thing called the Mod Pack, which I wanted to do. I was a big proponent of it. [The company] said, “We don’t need to do a Mod Pack. They’re all free.” I said, “No, I think this is a really good idea. We could use Counter-Strike, and it would be really cool.” They said, “Nobody’s going to buy that.” I ended up having to convince Vivendi. They said, “Nobody in sales is interested in something like Counter-Strike.” I thought it was really going to catch on. I pushed it and pushed it. I had to shove it into the retail channel. They loaded in maybe 100,000 units, and it was just like, whoosh! Like that. Never looked back. It was amazing.
We even helped start Gearbox. When we did the first add-on pack for Half-Life, Opposing Force, that was the beginning of Gearbox. That’s how we got them started. It was pretty cool. Good days. What I like about this industry now — what’s so great — is that it’s so reminiscent of the way the industry felt back in the early ’90s: small teams and getting games done quickly. Being really close to the product. Making progress on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. It’s amazing. We can sit down, brainstorm out a design, and have a prototype of that design in two to three days. On Halo, it would be like…. We had to have a meeting. We had to have a conversation, talking about design and environmental art. We’d have meetings about how we would execute pulling the systems together. It would take a lot longer. The results were great, but it was a huge operation pushing Halo 3 forward.
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GamesBeat: Mark Pincus mentioned that they had more than 100 developers working on CityVille. I thought, “That sounds like the team for a console game to me.”
Veevaert: I know. We’re operating on a much smaller scale, but we’re looking at…. Ruby Blast — what we just did. We’ve already got a mobile version of it running right now. It’s working on iPhone. We’re going to be doing it on iPad and iPhone. We’re looking at how we’re sort of cross-developing. We’re doing a new IP, as well, the same way. We’re developing platforms and connectivity at the same time. That’s what’s really fun. Working with a handful of developers and just figuring out what’s the best way to make the game work. How fun can we make it? How will the PC connect with mobile? What is a unique experience or gameplay mechanic that we can apply in mobile that’s linked, in case somebody never connects to the web? We’re also finding that there’s not necessarily a great process for that. People who play one game don’t always go and play on mobile, as well. We need to make sure the experiences are stand-alone enough on mobile and the PC.
GamesBeat: Do you have the same developers on social and mobile?
Veevaert: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what’s fun. Having to design for the smaller screen and make it more…. Like in Ruby Blast’s case, we had to collapse it, shrink it down, and experiment. How far can we push the visual effects on the iOS? If it’s not iOS, what if we start working with Adobe Air? So we work within the technology some way or another and see. That’s what’s been fun: leveraging technology.
GamesBeat: The Kixeye guy, Will Harbin, was getting really excited about Flash 11.4. It’s using more hardware acceleration to make really fast 3D games.
Veevaert: Oh, it’s incredible. It’s actually getting to the point where you can do that. You can bring in 3D games and start pushing it. But Flash 11 adoption isn’t as high just yet. Most of the audience is still on Flash 10. We’re being very mindful of that. We’re looking at it with Ruby. It was the case with Ruby Blast that we had to do two versions. We did a Flash 11 version and a Flash 10. Flash 11 is catching up, but Flash 10 is clearly the dominant one.
GamesBeat: Making two versions sounds difficult to do.
Veevaert: Well, what’s interesting is you have a certain amount of people who just have software renderers. No hardware acceleration in their computers. So we have to make the game fun for people who’ve got a 4-year-old computer and still want to play. They won’t have any hardware-accelerated effects, but for people who have great laptops and great computers, why not leverage all that technology? That’s the thing that’s interesting. In console, you had a unified platform. You knew exactly what you were developing to. Here we have to scale high and low. It’s like back in the PC days, when you had to support everybody. Windows 95 and 98, remember that?
GamesBeat: So does choice of technology also matter? Like when Mark did that demo of four players on the Bubble Safari game. If you start moving to synchronous multiplayer like that, then technology matters again?
Veevaert: Well, I think it does matter. It matters that you have a good chain. I think it will still work in software mode, but if you take advantage of hardware acceleration, then yeah, it’s absolutely going to be better. Loading times are still great, so that’s not the issue. It’s just a playable framerate. That’s what we can find out, depending on what people’s connection speeds or processors are like. It’s a matter of how it scales.
Veevaert: I should! I should talk to Bungie and see if they want to do it. The thing that’s interesting to me is I’ve been thinking a lot about the casual gamer. What is a casual gamer anymore? Is this somebody who plays on their phone for a few minutes a day? You were talking about CityVille, where somebody can spend way more time playing a game like CityVille than they could a “hardcore” game. Up to 300 hours a year playing it — that’s far more than somebody might put into a game like even Oblivion or Halo 3, depending on how much they want to spend. So I’m curious as to your thoughts. What is a casual gamer? Is it someone who just plays for a short period of time? Or is it the style of game? And then what denotes a casual game?
GamesBeat: It seems like everybody has some kind of split personality these days.
Veevaert: I mean, aren’t you playing some games on your phone? I’m sure you are.
GamesBeat: Yeah. And if I don’t have enough time to play hardcore games, then I’m only playing these smaller games. So am I still a hardcore gamer?
Veevaert: Yeah! If you haven’t done your routine 14 hours a week, then you have to give up your status as a hardcore gamer. It’s funny because all the guys on my friends list who are core gamers, and all the guys I work and develop with — we’re all playing the same casual games together. I just think that now, the persistence of entertainment has spread so far with mobile that it’s sort of leveled the waters across the board.
GamesBeat: Do you see it as a question like, “If you had infinite time, what games would you play?” And you could sort people out better that way. I would go back to a lot of these console games if I had 60 hours to kill, but then there’s a lot of people who would never get there even if they had all that time. They’re only going to play casual titles.
Veevaert: So I’ll challenge you again because I like going back and forth. I don’t have the time I used to have five years ago to sit down in front of the TV, throw a game in a console, and get invested in it. Because I know, even in something like Dead Space 2, I had to finish that game. I had to go from start to finish. Or Red Dead Redemption. I had to put my 23 hours in and finish the game. I didn’t feel like playing it incrementally: half a level today and come back to it next week. You have to be on it every night to stay in the experience of it. I found that, as far as my own lifestyle, that just doesn’t fit anymore. I’m curious about you. Does that still work for you?