Small Screen, Big Games at Zynga

From harvesting crops to dueling lightsabers, the Austin-based developer has created games to get you through the pandemic

Farmville 3 (Courtesy of Zynga)

Among the city's growing list of big tech companies, few have helped more people escape massive surpluses of boredom in our post-pandemic society than game developer Zynga. Its popular games, many produced in Austin, offer life buoys of sanity while sitting idle in waiting rooms, testing lines, grocery store lines, and literally every damn Zoom meeting that could have been an email.

And yet, despite having 240 employees at its local offices, Zynga doesn't register for most people until you mention mobile titles like Words With Friends, Zynga Poker, Harry Potter Puzzles & Spells, CSR Racing, or its dozens of casino-style offerings. The company's games, played by 183 million users per month, are social at their core, focusing on things like puzzles, racing, and gamified-simulations. One recent example: Farmville 3, an updated take on the original agricultural simulator that dominated Facebook a decade ago (and even spawned its own episode of South Park). But nostalgic harvesting jokes aside, today's Zynga is a much different place, with ambitions to match.

"Although we're not curing diseases with video games, mental health and the ability to interact with people and to distract from the harsh realities of life has always been [important] for me, as I think about how I encourage my teams to think about our games," said Jeff Hickman, senior vice president of Zynga's NaturalMotion studio. "The pandemic, for me, really underlines the fact that people really, really need that distraction.

"It's been a hard two years for all of us, we've been stuck in our homes and our flats and trailers, in little rooms and apartments with five other people and three dogs. And people have really, really struggled," he added. "I'm actually very proud that, as gamemakers, we've actually provided a valuable service to people." That's arguably been proven by a large and steady increase in gameplay during that period. To be more precise, the company saw 38 million daily active users last quarter, a 21% increase compared to last year. That's a lot of digital farming, high-point words, shuffled card decks, and street races.

Switching to Star Wars

Star Wars: Hunters (Courtesy of Zynga)

More recently, Zynga's Austin team added lightsabers to the mix in the form of a hotly anticipated new Star Wars game due out early this year, Star Wars: Hunters. Developed by some of the same folks responsible for EA's The Old Republic MMORPG (also developed in Austin), it will be a free-to-play competitive arena combat game where teams of four are assembled for battle on the planet of Vespaara. It's set after the fall of the Galactic Empire, and features a new cast of characters including droids, Jedi, bounty hunters, rebellion heroes, and more.

Star Wars: Hunters also marks the beginning of a new cross-platform era for the company, according to Hickman. Not only is this Zynga's first Star Wars game but also their first time developing a game for the Nintendo Switch console in addition to mobile devices.

"Our mission is to connect the world through games, which means you need to go where the gamers are. And that means on any platform, anywhere," said Hickman, who leads the 45-person (and growing) Austin team working on the new Star Wars game. "All of the things that we're doing [at NaturalMotion's UK and Austin studios] are being considered for cross-platform play."

“The pandemic, for me, really underlines the fact that people really, really need that distraction.” – NaturalMotion Studio SVP Jeff Hickman

Having previously led EA's BioWare Studio in town and launched notable games like Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, he joined Zynga five years ago after new CEO Frank Gibeau approached him about taking on the role of "tip of the spear for cross-platform gaming" at the company. Part of the appeal, he said, was being able to take the company's highly accessible online gameplay and expand it beyond smartphones and tablets.

Zynga isn't committing to a single platform, but Hickman did disclose that more support for games on Switch is likely, although it mostly depends on where people are showing up seeking something entertaining to keep them occupied. For example, it just announced a new game for TikTok, Disco Loco 3D, a music and dance challenge game that's also the first studio-produced HTML5 game for the popular social network.

Diverse and Accessible

Making games very accessible to nearly anyone with some idle time and a desire to stay entertained is only part of the equation for producing successful, highly entertaining gameplay at Zynga though. Another significant part is in making sure the people developing the games are diverse, too, according to Alica Hendrickson, community outreach director and leader of Women at Zynga (WAZ), a long-running company initiative that offers both internal and external opportunities, coaching, and mentoring to women and nonbinary professionals, with chapters in Austin as well as every other city Zynga has a presence in.

Hendrickson said the company has been actively working to include more women since she started at Zynga about six years ago and that has also had a big impact in generating more awareness from others at the company, creating more allies and support for its goals. "The more different and diverse we are, the more that we can bring to our games – and to our fellow employees."

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