One of the GDC sessions I attended this year was a charming panel discussion including, among other people, Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame. Which got me curious what he was up to these days—I don’t generally expect people from that era to still be active in the game industry—and was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’s the VP of game design at a company, Playdom, that’s located in Mountain View all of a mile and a half away from my house.

So I filed away their existence in the back of my brain (well, actually, in my GTD someday/maybe list) and mostly forgot about them. Not completely: at the time, I was thinking about possibly changing jobs. But my general conclusion was that I was in general rather happy with my current job, and that while I was starting to feel a bit antsy, I’d probably prefer to change jobs towards the end of 2009 than towards the middle. I sent out a few feelers at the time, but none of them paid off, so I was happy enough to shelve the issue.

It turned out, though, that one of the feelers wasn’t dead, it had just gotten buried for a bit. It resurrected itself in the middle of the summer, and shortly after that happened, I got cold-called by a recruiter who mentioned Playdom! So I sent in my resume, and went in to interview. And I’m very glad I did, they look like they’ll be a very nice match for what I’m looking for. In fact, going down the checklist from the aforementioned blog post, they hit on almost every front: a local game company working in small, cross-functional teams with very fast iterations and which would expose me to many domain and technological areas that I’m not very well steeped in yet. (No Erlang, but I can certainly live with that. It’s also not clear to me how many of the agile technical practices they use, but that’s an area where I should be able to contribute if doing so turns out to be useful; anyways, right now I’m a lot more curious to see what a fast-moving team looks like on the business side than the technical side.)

They focus on social games. Which might seem like a bad fit for me, because my taste in games is fairly traditional. Actually, though, it’s something that I’m rather excited about, for two reasons. (Or perhaps one reason with two sides?) One reason is an aesthetic one, or a cultural one: a new art medium is a gift that we should cherish, so the last thing that I want is to see it have its practitioners bore into a tiny area of the design space, ignoring vast reaches of what is possible. That is, unfortunately, exactly what several major players in the game industry have been doing over the last decade, so I’m very glad to see companies like Playdom consciously setting their sights elsewhere.

The other is perhaps the business side of the same argument: one excellent book that I’ve read recently is The Innovator’s Dilemma. (Ironically, I read it because my current boss made it sound so interesting.) The thesis of that book is that highly successful companies, exactly by doing such a good job of paying attention to their best customers, end up refining their current technologies to make them more and more appealing to the core of their customer base. As part of this, they discount customers that are on the fringes (low-margin customers, frequently with somewhat different interests); new companies can then take slightly modified (and less technologically advanced) versions of those same technologies and use them to build up a following in a new customer base. (And, more importantly, using a new value network: their suppliers, their income sources, their distributors are all different from those of established companies.) What starts as a small market soon grows to a quite respectable size: also, the companies in the new market can typically improve the quality of their technology at a faster pace than companies in the original market, so after a few years, the new companies end up making products that are technically quite adequate for the majority of customers in the original market (but with lower prices and otherwise more appealing!), which quickly spells doom for those original companies. And, as far as I can tell, Playdom looks like a textbook example of a company at the early stages of such market innovation; if they follow the course outlined in that book, the sky’s the limit.

Of course, future promise is one thing, but the question remains of how interesting their current games are. Some of their early games seemed to me more like experiments than compelling packages (though they’re experiments that many people were happy to play); within the last month, though, they launched Mobsters 2, which I’m really quite enjoying. It took me a few days to figure out how the mechanisms in the game worked, what they meant and how they interacted together; that was enough time to get me sufficiently hooked that, even though I’m in general not uncovering too much more in the mechanics, I still happily log into the game a couple of times a day to do some leveling up. (And, as I said before, they iterate quickly, so for all I know they’ll introduce interesting new mechanics next week, next month!) So if that’s what their second wave of games looks like, I have high hopes for what they’ll be producing a year or two from now.

Ironically, the one part of the game that I haven’t explored is its social aspects: I’m currently not much of a Facebook user (follow me on Twitter instead if you want to know my hour-to-hour activities), so I don’t have a big pool of friends to draw from to expand my mob. I would like to change that: if you’re a blog reader, feel free to add me as a friend; if you do so, please give the game a try and ask me to join your mob! (Do Facebook friend requests include a note? If not, and if you’re not sure I know you, just e-mail me or leave a comment or something—I’m happy to add any blog reader as a friend.)

I’ve very much enjoyed my current job: it’s been a wonderful place to spend the last few years, I’ll miss my coworkers very much, and it looks like the product is going through an exciting phase in its development right now that I wish I could see the other side of. Having said that, I’m very excited to be joining Playdom at the end of the month, and I can’t wait to see where that journey will lead me.

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