GamesBeat

Game designer crosses over from making Halo games to Zynga’s social games — he’s never going back (interview)

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.

veevaert 1GamesBeat: Tell us about your early days.

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.

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.

veevaert 3GamesBeat: 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 5GamesBeat: Do you wish you had your Halo multiplayer developers to go to work on that?

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?

GamesBeat: Yeah, I think that’s true. All these things have happened at once: the arrival and the usefulness of smartphones, and how they can take your time away. Because now you can do work at any time. I can work 24 hours a day now. I can be productive on my smartphone. I’ve got kids going to soccer games a lot. Maybe at halftime I’ve got some time to do something.

Veevaert: Isn’t that funny? I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old boy. He took the controller away from me, literally, and became the default core gamer in the house. He’s the guy who plays everything. But even he’s pulling away from console games. He got more interested in the iPad and in playing more quick, accessible games. It’s been this interesting transition. How do I find the level of fulfillment I used to think was great in a console game, where I put in 15 or 20 hours a week? Now it’s just not the same thing anymore.

GamesBeat: They’ve grown up in a way that I didn’t expect. When they have their free time, they will stay on the iPod Touch or the iPad. Or if they turn on a console, they’ll turn on the Wii to play New Super Mario Bros., which they’ve been playing for two years.

Veevaert: Yeah. My son’s been dredging up old stuff like Mario Kart — just fun stuff we like to play. It’s interesting. In my console history, we spent so much time working on graphics and on the 720p resolution, making sure we had proper tiling. The framerate had to be perfect. There couldn’t be any latency loss between anything — just as seamless as possible. There are these interesting stats we came across about how many people finished Halo 3. This is what blew us away. We thought the numbers would be a lot higher, but it was actually around 20 percent. If you flipped it around, it would be like if people went to a movie and 80 percent of them walked out of the film before it was over. But people didn’t feel compelled enough to keep going. It’s a game that sold 12 million units, and yet only 20 percent of those people bothered to finish it. I thought, “God, isn’t that interesting?”

GamesBeat: What about some differences between mobile and PC? Updating is easy on the PC. I may update the software on my phone, but I don’t update my games often. I have too many apps. I don’t update a lot of those.

Veevaert: That’s one of the challenges we have with the content we create. On the web, every time you reload a game like Ruby Blast, you’re getting an update whether you like it or not. The game updates itself. You get new content, a new experience, and new features — new things we want to serve to you. That may not be true on the phone because you may not update the Ruby Blast phone app for a month or two. There’s all this content left sitting out there. It’s one of the interesting challenges that we have in terms of how we connect these games together and how, if people never update their phones, we make sure they still have a great experience.

GamesBeat: Zynga being Zynga, would you ever go make a game for a console where you couldn’t update it? Like, I will make a game for the PlayStation Network, if and only if you let me update it every day. If you didn’t get to update every day, would you still have a Zynga game?

Veevaert: Well, mobile updates on a weekly basis. It would be interesting to see if that cadence works. I wonder what the turnoff rate is on the PlayStation 3, where people just say, “Ah, it’s taking too long.”

GamesBeat: I saw a column by, I think, Christian Svensson on that a while back. I never heard of an answer coming back from any of the console companies….

Veevaert: Sony wanted you to buy the premium membership, so it auto-updates in the night, right? They wanted you to buy that premium membership, and your box would automatically turn on, take the update, and turn off, so you didn’t have to switch on, sit there, and wait for 20 minutes. With Xbox, they’re trying to minimize the customer dissatisfaction. If you turn on your console, you don’t want to have to take an update. For console, the rules are that it can’t look and act like a computer game. When you have a game that’s played on Facebook, you make all these allowances. It could take longer to load; you don’t know how long it’s going to take to load. The Xbox had specific loading directions that developers had to follow. The way that data was streamed in had to not take advantage of the hard drive. It had to run from the disc — all this stuff had to. There’s not really directions for, say, Facebook.

veevaert 2GamesBeat: As a game designer, do you ever want to go back to that world?

Veevaert: No.

GamesBeat: You’re addicted to daily updates now?

Veevaert: I love this stuff. See, here’s what’s exciting. As we make the games, and as we build them, we have access to a lot of great data. But the data now has become so informative that it’s not just driving us as far as what to do, but also informing us on how to make decisions that we’re making creatively. What I have found is that getting a console game done, getting it finished, and shipped to retail…. There was a period of time, sometimes 25 or 28 days, between going gold and the game sitting at retail. That could go faster for an online game, but all you could really see was how fast your game was getting downloaded. What I wasn’t getting was the real-time information on how people were adopting, what features they were enjoying, and why. We can look at it now and see that. After we change one feature, we can see the adoption rate go up or go down — or the way people are sending gifts to each other, and how they’re responding from a social perspective. Like, that’s interesting. We’re prompting people to post more. By getting the realtime information, all that’s done is solidified our relationship with the audience. We can work hand in hand. You have the audience helping to motivate the developer and the developer helping to motivate the audience. There was a real distance between us, the way it worked in the console world. We would do updates and look at Bungie.net to get information, and think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But it’s only the core of the core that are posting on Bungie.net and telling you what’s going on. Of the 12 million people who bought the game, I had no idea what the vast majority were doing. Now, I love this process. It’s great, and it’s fast. We can get to a prototype really quickly. We can get to benchmark tests quickly as well.

GamesBeat: There are some features of the platform that turn out to be a better way to design games than the way they were designed in the last couple of decades.

Veevaert: Oh, yeah. Now we can focus on pure mechanics. We can get a prototype up and running very quickly, test that mechanic, and look at. Okay, now that we have a great mechanic that we like, how do we start building an experience, adding a narrative, and working with renderers? The sky’s the limit. There doesn’t seem to be a limitation to what we can actually do in the space of Facebook, and now it’s happening on mobile. Technology is improving so fast, and we’re racing with it. You just read about Flash 11.4, right? Suddenly now you can have console games being played right in the Facebook window. That’s incredible.

GamesBeat: So if Mark Pincus gives you 100 people to work on one game for a long time, what would you do?

Veevaert: I don’t know. One hundred people…. I might break that into a few different teams and do several smaller projects, look at what’s gaining heat and momentum, and then reproportion it. I think that’s how it used to be in the old days of consoles. Fable had hundreds of people, and then they had to just move over to Fable II, and then take that whole operation to Fable III. I think now, we can get a lot of what he likes to call “shots on goal.” You can look at things that are working and have the ability to test new ideas and experiment. That’s what’s so fulfilling about this industry right now: the sense of being able to be creative, responsive, and move fast — really moving fast and finding satisfaction in what we’re creating today and what we’re going to get done in one, two, or three weeks. It’s having the team feeling a sense of momentum and connectedness. I just love it. Like I said, if I was working on a game today, I would be reluctant to think about.

Maybe that’s going to take me another two-and-a-half or three years to build? I don’t know what the year’s going to be like in three years. Or, as has happened to me in the past, you start developing a game, and then they say, “Yeah, that would look good on Xbox 1, but we really need you to make this for the 360. Here’s a boatload of tall, noisy Macintoshes. Can you please emulate the 360 and start working on it?” And you don’t have the speed. You just have something kind of like the development environment. I’ll never forget being at Rare when they were trying to get Kameo done. There was this wall of those Quadras — like 80 of them — and in the UK there’s never any air conditioning. You walk in there at three in the afternoon, it’s burning hot, and everyone’s sweating and trying to get this game done because it was all destined for Xbox 1, but it had to be moved to the 360. So I don’t know that I look back and want to go through that again. I’m not sure I would want to try to transition to a new platform. And, guaranteed, if you’re going to develop a game that takes two or three years, you run the risk that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

veevaert 6GamesBeat: So now, if you have to share the market on something like Facebook with all these other 3D games, what’s going to happen? If those console gamemakers move over, or they make some tablet-first games that become 3D games on Facebook, is there still an audience for all the Zynga stuff?

Veevaert: Well, I don’t think there’s a big crossover between Kixeye and Zynga right now. I really don’t. And he’s very clear about his business that these are the guys he’s going after.

GamesBeat: I think there’s one drawback to what they have so far. It seems like they’re trying to stretch the platform too far. They’re doing some of these before you can really do it synchronously the right way. They’re almost there. But I’m wondering, once they get there, will more people start liking those games?

Veevaert: I think there’s a lot our company knows about building games on the Facebook platform. I think in all that knowledge base — about what works from the social perspective — there are some amazing best practices and learned lessons about how connect games socially and how to have people play together socially. People are people, and people are really social beings. Xbox Live proved that in a big way. Core gamers love to talk to each other; they love to have a good time connecting. We have a lot of great skills in terms of how to connect people together and how to create content that motivates people to share their experiences with others. I’m not worried about a company like Kixeye creating core content because at the end of the day, it’s all about expanding this market. I mean, how big is the Facebook ecosphere? Is it 750 million people worldwide?

GamesBeat: Yeah.

Veevaert: Something like that. And how big is the gameplay world, so to speak? The volume of people playing games?

GamesBeat: EA talks about how we’re going from 300 million gamers to 2 billion.

Veevaert: Yeah. I think they’re talking about mobile there. When you talk about mobile, it’s monumental: what happens to the new iPhone, the new iPad, and how tablets take off. See, it’s interesting. A lot of times, the competition for that core market added up to everybody going for the same guy. That same 25-to-34-year-old. Everybody was competing for that same guy. Here’s the next first-person shooter. Here’s the next real-time strategy game.

The market here is so wide open, it’s amazing. And we see how fast games can grow on the Zynga network. It’s incredible. Even a game like Slingo grew to 4 million relatively quickly. People were able to adopt it, play it, and have a great time. Now it’s a matter of how we keep those people engaged in playing those games. How do we create cadenced content that keeps them engaged over a longer period of time? That’s what it’s about. I think that for a lot of console companies getting into the space, there are a lot of lessons to be learned. It’s not a matter of just putting the game up and letting people play it. Facebook and the web culture in general indicate to people that content is going to be fresh and hot. You’re not going to get the same game every time you go back. Do you look for something different every time you go back and play a game?

bubble safariGamesBeat: How do you match your own goals to the company’s goals? You may want to do Halo on Facebook personally. I see the day where you could do that on this kind of platform and get hundreds of millions of people to play it. But in the meantime, you may have to do a clone game, or you may have to do another casino game or something. These may be games that, personally, designers don’t necessarily get excited about. How do you do that, and how do you inspire people to work on these things: games that are smaller than what you’ve done in the past?

Veevaert: I think a lot of people go through the same process I did. I assumed that game development and design was going to be really simplistic and rudimentary. Like, how complicated could this be? And even with a game like Ruby Blast or Slingo, we were shocked at the level of design: level to level, moment to moment, click to click. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in thinking about, “What do we get from that first two to three to four minutes of gameplay?” We never thought that way in the console world. We’d be saying, by level three, here’s where the player is going to be. We just assumed you were going to get to level three. We assumed you’d get here, move a bit forward, shoot, keep going, and you’d just get to level three.

Now we need to make sure you’re going to load the game. We’re working with you along the way. So design has to start with the first-time user experience. We spend a great deal of time even thinking about how we introduce the gameplay mechanics to you. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in watching the adoption and what we call the falloff rate. How fast do people fall off when they’re playing with the first-time user experience? The FTUE, we call it. How fast do they fall off, and how often do they stay engaged? And what happens when they start inviting their friends into the experience? It’s all based on design. A game designer likes to design game mechanics. When they get great feedback, and when they get validation and their decisions are working, that’s fun.

I’ll tell you, the greatest high-level console core designer will have the same satisfaction when they have an audience satisfied with their design. They get validated by that process. So I’m finding the same level of fun and satisfaction in a game like Ruby Blast as I would in bringing a game like Halo 3 and working on it level by level. It’s like a minuet versus a symphony. Both are complex. Both have a lot to offer. Both have a lot of richness and depth, and both have something for a different audience.

If I could go off on the slightest tangent, I saw this play in LA called 33 Variations. Jane Fonda was in it. It was really awesome because it was about this one waltz composer in the 1800s who did this silly little waltz, and he offered money to anybody who would be willing to compose variations on it. So several composers came up with variations on this very simple theme. What Beethoven found is that it almost possessed him. He couldn’t stop until he had created these 33 variations on this very rudimentary theme. What he found was this depth, where he could go to all these different levels. These simple variations on one basic theme became some of his greatest work, and that’s almost analogous to the surface of these games. There are these very complex structures underneath that are creating some level of satisfaction and validation through connecting people to their friends, improving relationships, and having this fun experience where the mechanic is no longer just about the point and click. It’s about the exchange that happens between friends: the collection, the sharing, and the building that happens in that process. That’s why this is amazing. I never did this on consoles. To me, that’s where that extra layer of satisfaction and fun gets built into it.

veevaert 4GamesBeat: A lot of games seem like they’ve been stretched out from one hour to 10 hours. Painfully sometimes, right? But how do you stretch out a game that has a story so that you play it for months?

Veevaert: I don’t know if you had an example in mind.

GamesBeat: More on the console side — something like Uncharted 3 definitely has a couple of people you want to take care of. By the end of that game, though, they’ve inserted a thousand other people that you had to shoot.

Veevaert: Yeah. You ever look at your counter at the end of the game? I looked at the end of Uncharted 2. What was it, 1,800 people? You never realize it, but the count was that high. Extraordinary. That was a lot of guys in black suits.

GamesBeat: They had this story, and they just stretched it out.

Veevaert: Yeah, they stretched it out and kept adding people that you had to take out. Well, the difference in what we do and what we think about it is a sense of progression. You can look at Bubble Safari, where you have this progression map. As you get through a level and you try something new, you see that you’re advancing through the map. What’s cool about that is you can keep adding to the narrative. As the player progresses through this map and gets to a new area, it’s possible to keep adding more territory to that map and allow people to have a means by which to progress further into the story. Then you can introduce new elements into that story, and it becomes something fun. You can add gameplay elements right onto the map itself, too. That’s where it changes. You’re no longer just moving around the board. You’re actually having gameplay moments take place on the map between your friends. You’re clicking and adding lives and energy. Some days you see that your friends have been blocked from advancing unless you help them advance. So there’s all kinds of ways you can think about adding support. There’s constantly new areas you can design. You can look at what stimulates great social interactions. That’s the part that’s fun. You might be playing on the phone, I’d be playing on the web, she’d be playing on the iPad, and all three of us could be adding to each other’s experiences, no matter where we are. That, to me, is awesome. You don’t have to be in front of the TV at 8 o’clock tonight. I can contribute to your gameplay experience today, wherever I’m traveling and wherever you’re traveling. I like the idea that we’re creating content that has a light narrative, and collectively we’re sharing and exploring the story together.

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