The Bay Area was the epicenter for a product revolution that not only changed the future of gaming but helped drive the region's most recent tech boom. With social games like FarmVille, Bay Area companies began to widen the market outside the traditional audience, bringing games to the masses, off the consoles and on to Facebook and mobile. Some of the biggest names in the social/casual game sphere are locals. Zynga, EA, Playdom, Gree, Kabam, Crowdstar, and Playfirst all have studios here.
Social games are online games played on social networks like Facebook, which often use metrics, or data gathered from player behaviors, to devise techniques that keep people coming back. Over time the casual game market exploded, and though the lines between mobile, social and casual games tend toward nebulous, the mobile game market alone has grown to a several billion dollar a year industry. Gamasutra, a game industry news site, was already reporting the signs of a boom back in 2009.
But while the overall gaming market boomed, social games began to lag behind in innovation -- and financial problems began to creep in. Then, already limping from the social game decline, the local industry felt another major shift this year when the next generation of consoles was announced. With the new Xbox One and PS4 slated to launch at the end of 2013, many companies began tightening belts now to save money to develop titles for the new platforms. EA, for example, laid off workers in preparation for the 'console transition,' as stated in a recent post to the company's blog.
EA started the landslide of layoffs and studio closures back in March, but was soon followed by Disney's closure of LucasArts' game development arm. Zynga was up next, eliminating 18 percent of its total workforce, according to a recent post on the Tech news site Dice.
The result: thousands of recently laid-off engineers, designers, and artists flooding the local job market. Too many candidates and too few jobs equals fierce competition for the few positions left, with many people being forced into underemployment, doing work they are years over-qualified for, leaving the industry, or the Bay Area entirely.
It's times likes these then, that the Bay Area stops feeling like a lively tech-centered playground full of companies with great perks out to recruit bright hardworking minds, and instead feels like just another company town. Yes the industry may be spread over many companies, but when the winds change, affecting those individual entities in similar ways, we are still left with massive layoffs coming in from all directions. So, just like in a mill or steel town, employees bear the brunt of economic and cultural shifts that make their jobs unnecessary to the company. Steel mills shutting down? Too bad. Find a new profession or a new place to live.
There will always be changing times, but workers are being let go not just because of the whims of the market, but because big companies, yet again, refused to take creative risks. As the casual and mobile gaming markets grow, the number of smaller innovative companies making games increases around the world. But with high rents and start-up costs in the Bay Area preventing many smaller studios from working here, the local market is given over to the largest competitors. With competition high, many companies turned to metrics to give them a boost, and numbers began to dictate every decision about gameplay and design at the cost of innovation and creativity.
Techcrunch named it the "San Francisco Revolution," when they called the time of death in a post last October. The article covers the wide range of reasons for the decline of social games, but dependency on those numbers and failure to think outside the metrics features prominently. "The San Francisco Revolution is most closely aligned with behaviourism." Here, "behaviourism" refers to a class of games that use "psychological and metric-based methods." Techcrunch continues, "[Behaviorism]'s light side is TED talks on the subjects of rewards, learning, helping players experience positive emotional outcomes, improved health and so on. But its dark side is about manipulation of attention, playing the odds, monetisation funnels and so on." Sound familiar?
The FarmVille schtick was stale years ago. Most of the game industry's recent belly flop was caused by a lack of creativity that led to a glut of derivative carrot-and-stick games we are bored of playing. The industry needs to stop focusing entirely on metrics, which narrowed the types and styles of gameplay studios deem acceptable to use, resulting in glorified boredom mechanics simply siphoning off people's time with no value added.
Consoles and PCs have proven amazing platforms for games as crafted works of art. Mobile and casual game makers need to take their lead and stop endangering the homes and families of the engineers who work for them because they are too lazy or too scared to make the next big thing.