More Than a Game: 'FarmVille' creator Mark Skaggs shows middle school gamers how he makes a living as a lifelong gamer
Danny Gallagher/McKinney Courier-Gazette - Skaggs talks with students interested in learning more about video game development after a recent talk at Cockrill Middle School.
Video games might not sound like the most educational topic for a computer class. For most adults who grew up in the dawn of the video game industry, it was a good way to get kicked out of the computer lab if the teacher caught you playing one, either on the school computer or on a tiny Nintendo Game Boy.
Some adults still have that problem today in the office, except it's their boss looking over their shoulders to see if they are really working or just checking Facebook to finish their latest challenge mission on "Mafia Wars" or harvest a fresh batch of virtual crops on "FarmVille."
Mark Skaggs, vice president of product development for Zynga, has the same habit, only his boss doesn't mind because he helped build and create these popular games.
"Yeah, I did 'FarmVille,'" Skaggs said before an impressed group of seventh- and eighth-grade business information management students at Cockrill Middle School on Friday. They welcomed him with an unprompted round of applause.
Skaggs, a Lucas resident who flies back and forth between his home and Zynga's San Francisco headquarters every two weeks or so, often speaks to students about his work and rise to glory in the video game industry. Creating video games requires a lot of in-depth educational skills that delve much deeper than just knowing how to make Ryu throw a fireball in "Street Fighter II" or remembering the location of the Chaos Emeralds in the first three "Sonic the Hedgehog" adventures.
"One of the interesting and unexpected side effects was, as I explained the math we use, the teachers go, 'you know, I never thought about math that way' and 'I can use your examples inside the class,'" Skaggs said. "In this case, it's just about letting people know what goes [on] when you're making the games and how it's a real business and a viable career, and if the kids love it and can make a living at it, then go for it."
Skaggs took technology teacher Anita Chandonia's students through his career as a game programmer and developer. He started his company, but eventually moved to places such as Westwood Studios and EA Games. He joined up with Zynga, the game company that recently acquired McKinney-based game development company and "Words with Friends" creator Newtoy, and took the lead on the global hit "FarmVille" that led to its successful spinoff, "CityVille."
He even included some of his less-successful titles in his discussion, like "Gridders," a game he developed for the defunct Panasonic 3DO system in the 1990s, and "Treasure Isle," a precursor to "FarmVille" and "CityVille" that let Facebook players explore islands and dig for treasure. The game never really took off because the game play became too repetitive.
"Don't be afraid to fail at something or for it not to come out the way you expect," Skaggs told the students. "That's just the first step."
"FarmVille" started under the same auspicious beginnings. He didn't think the game would really reach the level that it did, since it was developed mainly for moms to play either at home or the office. The developers started to notice that more and more college students had taken to the concept of running a virtual farm and in about a year, more than 200 million people became regular players, he said.
Skaggs told the students that if they wanted to learn how to make video games, they should "play as many games as you can," which naturally excited a lot of the students who probably hear complaints from their parents about spending too much time in front of their Xbox or PlayStation. Now they can just call it research.
However, the most basic elements of game design still require a great deal of knowledge in many subjects including math, science, engineering, technology and even English.
"You also have to know how to write good stories and communicate it well," he said. "If you have the best idea in your head but you can't get it out, nobody can make it."
The students even got to see some of the tools and programs that designers use to map and create games such as "FarmVille" and the recently released "CityVille." Josh Crim, a seventh-grader in Mrs. Chandonia's class, said he hopes to work in the games industry some day and Skaggs' advice and knowledge of game development has given him a few ideas to start his own project.
"He made me want to do it a lot more," Crim said. "I'm probably going to make [a game] today."