Seismic Games: 'We're really going after the Zynga community' [Interview]

Greg Borrud
Greg Borrud

Whenever a new social game creator burst onto the scene with promises of "shaking up the status quo," it's tough not respond with a bit of skepticism. Perhaps it's cynicism. Maybe it's even the creeping feeling of blasé toward the promise of anything new amidst the overwhelming sensation of déjà vu in the world of social games. Of course, Seismic Games hopes to change that.

But you might be surprised by the way in which this studio born of veterans from Pandemic Studios, which sold to EA for a cool $775 million in 2007, looks to make that happen. Since the Star Wars: Battlefront series creator unfortunately closed its doors in 2009, Seismic Games co-founder and CEO Greg Borrud decided he was tired of "making video games for guys, 20 years old, sitting in their dorm room." We connected with Borrud recently to get a better sense of just how his new studio plans to attack the social games world in a new way and what the horizon looks like to him.

What's your take on the current state of popular social games?

They've created something incredibly new, something that a lot of people haven't been able to do. They tapped into a whole new audience of gamers. There's not many people who have stopped playing Call of Duty so they can start playing FarmVille. What it has done is really expand the audience, and that's incredibly exciting as a game developer. Them along with what's happening in mobile has effectively made games ubiquitous.

The vast majority of people--whether it's Words With Friends or FarmVille or Call of Duty--[have] a touch point with games. The other thing that they've done is something that traditional games have struggled with quite a bit is the price point. We saw this at EA quite a bit, which is thinking, "Wow, we're having to spend tons of money to get people to go to a store to spend $60 on a game, in the middle of a recession." And then there's rampant piracy.

There are just all of these issues around the traditional gaming model, and what social games did is break down all of the barriers and effectively did what iTunes did for music. They found a way to monetize gamers in a way that gamers like.

I do feel that, given the cost it takes to develop one of these products, I'm still puzzled by the lack of innovation that's happening. There are definitely people pushing boundaries here and there, but certainly the whole group of social games has come under this "me too" thing right now. Everybody is kind of rehashing the same game over and over again. And it's really interesting that that's happened, given the risks that you can take. So I think that's what we're hoping, is to be a part of that conversation around this kind of next-gen of social gaming.

Is it possible that what we're seeing now with the "me too" games is the social games industry already becoming risk averse to innovation?

I think it can happen. Especially as certain companies go public, there become new obligations that you have to respect and you have to deal with. But, the bottom line is, you can make a Facebook game for a couple hundred thousand dollars in a dorm room. It can be done, new products can get out there relatively inexpensively. And then it's a matter of finding their audience.

You can't do that in the traditional games space. It's just impossible. I mean, I know there's the rising indie game community, but the barrier of entry for traditional games versus social games is completely different. The big players have certainly cornered the market on the audience, but then it also comes down to the audience. Do they really want something new? I think that's probably the bigger question.

The people playing CastleVille or CityVille: Do they actually want something new, or are they just happy with the same old same old? I dunno, and I think that's the question that's going to be answered this year as you get a lot of new stuff that's very high quality. That'll be the interesting question: Are the gamers just kind of content with something that's familiar and comfortable, or do they want to experience new types of products. We'll see.

Seismic Games
Seismic Games

How does Seismic Games plan to sway popular opinions--in terms of numbers--of social games that they're just Skinner Boxes and things like that?

The first thing is to try and come up with something that's a really engaging, compelling product that's an expression of who you are. That's one way where we think we can hopefully break through, that the product is a truly social product. And that the game is more a reflection of who you are.

I do think there are certain hooks that you can put in the game that preach something that's not only fun and compelling to play and very interesting, but something that can be shared with other people in a really interesting way. I think by doing that you start to break down some of the traditional barriers with the games, and you make something that's much more of a social experience.

That's where we're trying to push, that's where we're trying to do some new stuff. We'll see if that brings the audience with it. We honestly believe it will. We think that's something that's new and compelling, and that doesn't mean people are going to move away from what they're playing right now. But the bottom line is that there's a lot more time in people's days to play these types of games, and we hope that they'll give ours a try.

We're seeing a great number of start-up studios, primarily coming from the traditional games world, that to spin the social games industry on its head. Aside from the increasingly risk-averse world of traditional games, why do you think that is?

The primary one, in my opinion, is ultimately we're game designers. We love to create stuff, we create new things, we love to experiment, we like to try to engage with our audience in new ways. And, when you're working on the third or fourth or fifth iteration of the exact same game, you start to lose that passion.

Here's a way to continue to do what I love in a completely compelling and engaging way. People want to be game designers, and it's hard to do that in the traditional games space right now. With so many eyes on it, so many obligations in terms of the financial return and the risk averse nature of it a lot of game designers' hands are tied. This is the brave new world. This is where you really can innovate. This is where you really can do new stuff. So, I think that's why you see a lot of folks coming over.

Now, we're told that Seismic Games isn't necessarily a "hardcore" social games studio. Could you explain that? What is the distinction there?

The main thing is your audience, who you're going after. I think there are a number of studios now starting to crop up, you know our friends over at Rumble, that are really going for that traditional gamer market. We're not targeting that audience, that traditional gamer audience. We hope that we can bring some of those guys in.

But we're going more directly after the people that are currently playing social games. [We're] more directly going towards women, we're going for a wide spectrum of people. But we're really going after the Zynga community. We want to offer something else. Now, what's funny is they are, by definition, very hardcore gamers [laughs].

That's very true.

They play games potentially more than most people do, but they don't associate themselves as hardcore gamers. When the term "hardcore gamer" is used, we usually associate it with people who are playing a traditional PC game or console games. We're just talking about a demographic that is the heart of who social gamers are today.

It's funny. This comes back to a gal we hired here, actually. She's our community manager, and we were talking to her about some of the games she used to play. And she was talking about playing YoVille back in the day.

And she was saying, "Well, I'm not a hardcore gamer. I like YoVille, I play it. You know, and I've kind of worked out this way to optimize it. What I do is I have my laptop by my bed, and I set my alarm for 4 a.m., because I know that's when the things reset. Then I wake up and I roll over, I do what I need to do in the game and I go back to sleep." But you know, "No, I'm not a hardcore gamer."

Like, I wouldn't do that, and you're looking at one of the most hardcore gamers you've ever heard of [laughs]. So, it's a really interesting thing. And that's just because the term "gamer" comes with a little bit of baggage.

What's the number one thing that excites you most about the potential future of social games?

The breadth of the audience. I mean, you're talking about hundreds of millions of people playing social games out there that you could potentially reach. And, as a game designer, what you want more than anything else is people playing your game and having a really fun and compelling experience.

And that ability to continue to grow that audience, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, is really exciting to us. And coupled with all of the new innovations in game designs--and we can talk technologies. Technology is absolutely going to evolve, just like it evolved in the traditional games space, and that's exciting to us.

What's most exciting to us are the innovations in game design, the new types of genres that are going to evolve and the new audiences that you're going to bring in. And the way that you connect all of those audiences together. And then how you connect those audiences between the social and mobile spaces.

That level of interconnectedness, that level of creativity as you reach this audience is something that's--I think we're just at the beginning of potentially what we can do. And hopefully we can begin to deliver that as we reach into 2012 with our first game.

What do you think of Seismic Games now, based on our talk with Borrud? Have social games already become risk averse, judging from what's out there (and what didn't take off)? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.

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