The new frontier: online social games

In Mafia Wars, you recruit your friends into a virtual world of organized crime. In FarmVille, you and your friends help each other tend virtual animals and plots of land. And in FrontierVille, you endeavor to build a frontier town in the Wild West.

Welcome to the universe of online social games crafted by Zynga Game Network Inc. — a thriving San Francisco-based company that launched a major game design studio in Baltimore County last year. That office, known as Zynga East, was responsible in June for creating and launching FrontierVille, the company's second most popular game behind FarmVille, with nearly 35 million users.

For Baltimore County, where video-gaming expertise has clustered in companies in Timonium and Hunt Valley, Zynga's presence serves to solidify the region's standing as a top destination for video game designers. Zynga East has already outgrown its office and is planning to move soon to a nearby space that's triple the size, at 9,000 square feet.

"This is the entertainment industry," said Brian Reynolds, chief game designer for Zynga and head of the Timonium office and local gaming industry veteran. "We need to keep launching new products. We have to both find the new hits and give people a reason to get involved and keep playing."

The computer gaming sector in Maryland is part of the state's $5.5 billion digital media industry, which has grown rapidly in recent decades, according to a recent study commissioned by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the state Film Office.

With hundreds of games on mobile devices or online social networks like Facebook or MySpace, social gaming is hot right now — and Zynga is one of the top companies in the field.

Driving the growth is Facebook, which has become an online juggernaut, amassing more than 500 million users across the world. Online social games by Zynga have been embraced by Facebook users, millions of whom spend hours each day playing the company's games.

Many also spend real money to buy virtual goods that enhance their game play, thus turning Zynga into a virtual money-making machine with reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. (The private company doesn't release revenue figures.)

According to a report by Inside Network, the sale of virtual goods is expected be a $1.6 billion industry this year in the United States.

For gaming industry veterans, companies such as Zynga and its peers represent an exciting new expansion. In the 1980s, video gaming was tied to the new personal computers that emerged. Gamers then turned their attention to playing on dedicated consoles, such as those offered by Atari and Nintendo. More recently, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have dominated the console market.

But in the past few years, online games on popular social-networking websites such as Facebook have attracted droves of casual gamers. To some extent, social games have poached players from other types of games.

"The success of some of these games has been at the expense of consumer spending on games content overall," said Anita Frazier, an industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm in New York. "Gamers report spending 20 percent less on gaming overall since they took up social network gaming."

Online social games typically aren't as complicated or visually stunning as their computer or console counterparts, but they enable people to play for free with friends and not just with strangers online, as is often the case with other games. That's a key feature, industry experts said.

"The games industry, to grow, is finding ways to branch out in other things where they haven't been before," said Marc Olano, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and director of the computer science game development track.

"It's just a new way to reach people who maybe don't like running around blowing things up or don't like the long-term time commitment" of computer or console games, Olano added.

The idea for FrontierVille came out of a high-level executive meeting between Brian Reynolds and others at Zynga, including chief executive Mark Pincus. Reynolds, who works in Zynga's Timonium office, joined the company in May of last year with a top reputation in the field.

He had worked at MicroProse, one of the first gaming companies in the Baltimore area in the early 1980s. Later, he co-founded two other local game studios: Firaxis and Big Huge Games.

Reynolds said he became excited about Facebook two years ago, and doubly so when he learned that people were building games for the service.

He sees some big differences between online social games and the games he used to design for traditional computer players. In the newer social gaming world, companies have to use Internet technologies to build and support their games. The development window is shorter, a year or less for online social games, compared with two to five years in PC and console games.

The games themselves are designed for a more casual user, who might have only five to 10 minutes to play online, rather than dedicated gamers who might play for hours at a time. Along the way, social game designers have to design little hooks in the game to persuade people to spend real money, on improving their virtual farm, for instance.

(A small percentage of users pay to enhance their game play — the primary source of revenue for Zynga — while the vast majority play for free, according to the company.)

Another difference with traditional games, Reynolds said, is that game shops like Zynga East don't just build an online social game and move on to another new one. If the game is successful, Zynga has to maintain a growing staff, as well as technological and design infrastructure to support the millions of online users.

The challenge for Zynga and others is to design a game that becomes a viral hit with online users. Zynga faces competition from other big social gaming companies, such as Playfish and Playdom, and there is speculation that Google might launch an online gaming network.

"There are a ton of these games out there, yet our study showed that there are only a handful that are attracting a meaningful audience," said NPD's Frazier. "So it's hard to break through the clutter of games to attract players' attention."

Over the years, Zynga has introduced more than 40 online games, and has discontinued about a third of them.

FrontierVille, for now, is successful. At the moment, Zynga East has about 30 employees — programmers, designers, producers and analysts — who work exclusively on supporting that game. Another 30 employees work to support the game out of the San Francisco office. Zynga employs a total of more than 1,100 people.

Reynolds said he wants to see the Baltimore area's game development industry get more heavily into online social gaming.

That's already starting to happen at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley. Sid Meier, creative director for Firaxis and one of the co-founders of MicroProse, said his company will soon be coming out with Civilization Network, a Facebook game for its popular Civilization series, which have sold in the millions.

"For some of us, for Brian and myself, it's almost like a return to the good old days, where we did a game in three to six months rather than two years," Meier said. "It's fun to make games for a new platform. It adds new opportunities. It's a really positive development."

Top Zynga games on Facebook

FarmVille: 61.8 million users (launched June 2009)

FrontierVille: 34.9 million users (launched June 2010)

Zynga Poker: 34 million users (launched July 2007)

Mafia Wars: 22.4 million users (launched early 2009)

Source: Zynga Game Network Inc.

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