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Soren Johnson on Why He’s Left EA for Zynga

Chalk up another designer heading to the foothills of social game design. This GI Biz piece lays it all out there as to why the designer of Civ IV will be setting up shop at a Farmville near you. This is worth a read, and Soren is such a nice guy — I personally wish him nothing but success.

Here’s a big takeaway and is something we continue to talk about here at NHS. This sort of says it all:

Q: You’re the latest in a string of former EA employees to join Zynga. What do you think this says about EA and what does it say about Zynga?

Soren Johnson: The shift we’re seeing with industry talent moving towards social and mobile games illustrates the challenges of the old model. That model demands selling a $60 box product, which requires exceptionally high production values to sway the consumer. Of course, AAA production means development costs measured in the tens (or perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars, which then requires a game to sell at least several million copies at the $60 price to be worth developing. This business model can work, but the margins are not great, and they keep getting worse as development costs increase and retail sales soften.

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Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

17 thoughts to “Soren Johnson on Why He’s Left EA for Zynga”

  1. I feel like every time a game developer moves into the social gaming world, it’s a pure business decision and it makes me sad. It’s as if they used to love making games, but now they are just doing business and social is currently the easiest to make profitable. This isn’t a scientific statement at all, it’s just a feeling I get so I can’t necessarily back it up with facts.

    But the whole bit about development costs and profit margins speaks to that feeling. Why not, I don’t know, make awesome games on the indie level – something like Monday Night Combat or Legend of Grimrock or Hawken (please be great!). But going from corporate behemoth to corporate behemoth doesn’t seem like something that will relieve the pressure of a project being driven by profit margins alone.

    1. You’re not wrong. “The margins are not great” is what I got from that.

      We all like to rail on here about the sustainability of the $60 AAA title, but Zynga doesn’t make games — they make social products that scratch OCD neurons in order to nickle and dime you to death. Essentially it’s similar to a baker that once loved making baked goods, but the margins weren’t right for his most decadent products, so he moved on to selling heroin.

      1. Ha, that baking analogy is pretty much it in a nutshell.

        There is no game to social gaming. It’s a pyramid scheme where you buy in and harass your friends to get ahead.

        I agree AAA is in trouble, but vehemently disagree casual freemium is the answer. I think some people see greener pastures, but I see nothing viable in Zynga. The ADD riddled social gaming landscape has too many titles and they flash in the pan pretty quickly. I’d look at Draw Something which still has a good sized playerbase but has already peaked and gone into decline.

        1. I am, like the posters above, very skeptical of the “game” aspect of the current crop of social (especially Zynga) games. Right now they are much more similar to Skinner Boxes than they are games.

          My initial reaction to this move as well as several others (Brian Reynolds is another great designer that works for Zynga) is disappointment. I have to wonder though, if “real” game designers start working for Zynga maybe they will start making “real” games.

        1. At the end of the day, money is money. As Krusty the Clown once said, “they had a dumptruck full of money, I’m not made of stone!”

          It’s the cold, bitter, hard truth of it. And right now, the money is in social, casual, and “freemium” gaming and that’s where it’s going to be for the next couple of years. No matter how much gnashing of teeth over Angry Birds and Farmville there is.

          Folks like Soren and Brian Reynolds, being professionals, are going to where the money is because it’s their jobs. They feed their families with what they do for a living. When you’re a professional and interested in advancing your career and making more money than you did last year to take care of yourself and your family, the approval of more serious or traditional gamers (won’t say hardcore, because hardcore is Black Flag and Minor Threat, not Zelda and Tomb Raider) doesn’t mean too much.

          Sure, we want the talented, good people to stay in position to make AAA, gamer-focused titles. But we’ve seen- particularly over the past two years- that the numbers there are moving in the wrong direction for the reasons Soren points out and others. There’s a very serious reckoning (har har) about to happen, and a winnowing out of AAA, corporate development is on the cusp of happening. I’m beginning to believe that this current, twilight console generation is going to be the last that follows the business models and expectations we all- and the industry itself- grew up with.

          In other words, get used to there being a very small number of AAA, blockbuster titles and almost all sequels at that. Get used to pay-to-play monetization schemes. Get used to more social and casual games integrated with things like Facebook and other mainstream social media. And get used to smart, talented people jumping the fence.

          The upshot is that maybe having folks like Soren and Brian Reynolds on that side of things will legitimatize and innovate that kind of gaming, leading to a greater integration of more traditional gaming values and new concepts that appeal to game players, not just dilletantes and dabblers.

          The downside is that talk like that is probably a pipe dream. Get your credit cards ready.

          1. Yay for bleak cynicism! I don’t understand why we need to get our credit cards ready. I don’t have to pay these people for the types of games I don’t like. I have a massive backlog of games to play to hold me over for a long time. And at some point I’ll get the Witcher 2 and I’ll be busy for another console generation to have passed.
            I like my games to be robust experiences with some semblance of completion available. Endless grinding is not for me, and I love a good narrative. I’m not afraid of losing access to the types of games I do like.

  2. “[The old] model demands selling a $60 box product“.

    No, the big boys think it demands selling a $60 box, and are digging the trench deeper instead of looking for ways to go around the hill. There are alternatives to pitching it all and going to a social gaming/fremium model.

    /wanders off to the Paradox forums….

    1. This is very, very true. The industry has gotten locked into this concept of the $60 box product…and it’s a fucking _dinosaur_ of a business model at this point.

      There has been some adaptation- XBLA, PSN, Steam, and other services demonstrate that. But there’s still this idea that people want a $60, physical game.

      Yet consumers are pretty clearly saying “no” to that, over and over again.

  3. Would have liked to see some questions that would get answers I couldn’t have predicted in my sleep. I love Soren and resperct him greatly so I’m sure he’s going to do something neat. But the fact of the matter is what he’s talking about is advertised gaming.

    They’re not gonto nickel-and-dime us to death, so there will be ads plastered all over. The safety aspect is if people won’t buy stuff, they still make money off ads.

    What we really need is moderation. Developer companies that sell in a fashion where they (not a publisher) keep the most of the money. Decent working hours. Less stress so people wtih vision can be their games.

    Soren will do ncie stuff, but it’s not for me. When I sit down to play a computer game I don’t want to see ads, I don’t want to be distracted, I don’t want to be nickle and dimed, I want to be immersed to take me away from this planet.

    1. Typos? Hey, we just call that freeballin’ here at NHS. It’s how we roll.

      Anyway, you hit on something interesting here whether you meant to or not.

      Most people- the very mainstream, casual audience that freemium and social games are targetted at- _don’t_ want to be taken away from this planet. At least not by video games. They want video games that mesh with their lives, their schedules, and their routines. They don’t want to commit to learning, grinding, or keeping up with games. At least not in an overt way, as I would argue that the Farmville model is more tedious, time-consuming, and demanding than most “real” games. But it’s parceled out, integrated into routine (Facebook), and it’s non-obstrusive.

      The stigma of the pudgy loner staring dead-eyed at a video game in his parents’ basement is still very much alive in the mainstream…but mom playing Angry Birds while waiting for the kids to finish soccer practice or whatever isn’t viewed with the same negative connotation.

      I run into this a lot with my wife, actually. She has a very mainstream view on games. She thinks that they’re something that people somatize themselves with, causing them to ignore real-world obligations and responsibilities. People talking about their “accomplishments” in video games makes her sick (it does me too, really). This is how a lot of people still think of video games. This immersion/escape from the planet thing is a negative.

      But when these games are more integrated in life and don’t require three hours of sitting on the couch per session, it makes more sense to people that think like this.

      And this is why there’s millions and millions of dollars to be made there. Because you reach millions and millions more people that _don’t_ think like you and I do about games, which is a more marginal, hobby-centric view of the subject.

  4. Why do we not think of Lord of the Rings Online as a”F2P Social Game”? Or League of Legends? Neptune’s Pride? TF2? These are all “real” games, made by “real” developers– TF2 was made by a AAA developer!– and they all require the cooperation and social construction of others. Each of them relies on microtransactions to continue funding.

    None of them caries the stigma associated with a Facebook game.

    If Soren Johnson comes out with a Neptune’s Pride clone, I think all the hardcore gamers are going to be very pleased– and Zynga will make a ton of money for themselves.

    Let’s wait and see what he develops, then decide if the end product is worth playing.

    1. I think the stigma has to do with the level of investment. I had an interesting conversation with a cowoerker who was trying really hard to get me into iPhone games. I told him (with an appropriate sneer) that I thought they were a waste of time. He looked at me incredulously and exclaimed that I loved games. I responded by saying that I loved games that invited me to engage them, learn in game systems and skills, and that could show me something I hadn’t seen before. iPhone/Facebook/casual games only existed in my mind for me to kill a few minutes so I wouldn’t be bored and I felt that was actually a detrimental use of my time. I’d rather be reading or doing something that engaged me mentally, not just passing the time. That’s my little anecdote to explain, at least I think it explains, the stigma with “our crowd.”. Suitably haughty of me.

      Also, I might be the only person I know who really, really likes the F2P model in “AAA” games.

  5. Quick question: Wasn’t Soren already doing social games at EA with Dragon Age Legends? I mean, moving to Zynga doesn’t seem to be that big of a leap.

    Then again, the purpose of this isn’t where he’s going, it’s the reasons for the move. Anyway, moving on.

  6. Hard not to agree with what you say.

    I’ve always found it laughable that the same people that stigmatise those that play games, (my father was famous for this) are the very same people that sit in front of reality television shows and soaps all day and night.

    Oh yes, my father now spends more time on his computer then I ever did. Casual my arse.

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