This Woman Is The Invisible Design Hand At Zynga

chris trottier

Photo: LinkedIn

At Zynga, there are a number of talented people that don’t get the same sort of press coverage as CEO Mark Pincus and the rest of his executive crew.One of them is principal game designer Chris Trottier, who repeatedly comes up in conversations as one of the most important people at Zynga.

Trottier consults Pincus on new intellectual property — trying to find new “genres” of games that Zynga can use to tap into unoccupied game markets, according to sources close to her.

She’s never “owned” a game, like lead designer Mark Skaggs owning Zynga’s new game The Ville. But like the rest of Zynga’s lead designers, she weighs in heavily on games, like she did with The Ville.

Trottier is originally from Maxis, the company behind The Sims, which is considered the most popular computer franchise of all time. Starting as a gumshoe there, she worked her way up to lead designer of Spore, another computer game.

Then a chance meeting with Bing Gordon, a big Zynga investor, led to a new career. Now the future of Zynga is sitting (at least partially) on her shoulders.

So, who is Trottier?

We caught up with her in an interview this week, but before we get to that, here’s what we’ve heard from a few people close to her:

  • Zynga’s top designers count on her to provide an experienced design perspective and “grounded common sense.” She’s also there to make sure Zynga has a woman’s perspective on games targeted for women. “She’s a hidden gem within Zynga,” one executive at the company said.
  • She was close friends with game design guru Will Wright. They were “BFFs,” one industry source close to both Wright and Trottier said. Wright accompanied her because she had an “inclusive vision” of gamers and could create games that capture those outside the traditional core market.
  • She’s doing new IP consulting with Pincus to decipher new “genres” of games. She’s a little shy, so you will never see her coming out an “owning” a game, one industry source close to her said. But she’s had a heavy design hand in many, many games.

And now, here’s our Q&A with her:

BUSINESS INSIDER: You’ve been in the game industry for a while. How did you get your start?

CHRIS TROTTIER: I was at Maxis for 8 or 9 years. I was Will Wright’s design partner — I was the more structured part of our partnership. I was the one who would come in every day and say, let’s talk about this. We’d just bounce ideas off each other, I think I had a very different point of view than his. We collaborated on his most recent titles.

“When I joined The Sims I was like, it was going to be a game about toilets, OK, cool.”

When I joined The Sims I was like, it was going to be a game about toilets, OK, cool. But there were some more senior female design talent on that than me. It’s a little odd that there are a bunch of people that were bouncing around the house. At that point, I was just learning the industry. I worked on the tuning of The Sims. Will and I would talk about what he wanted it to feel like — how much time it would take to increase a relationship to get married, for example, and I’d work with the team to make that happen.

I was still kind of like a young gumshoe. I was like, OK, we’re making a game, that’s cool. I was a little bit of a Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. I’m the person who started junior, had some really good mentorship, developed her own voice and continues to bring perspective to projects.  When I got to Spore, I was the lead game designer, so I was running the design team and collaborating with Will. I think at that point, we had the Don Draper/Peggy thing going.

BI: How did you end up at Zynga?

CT: It was a personal connection. I was visiting people on the floor team, Bing Gordon was visiting Spore. He set up a lunch with Mark Pincus. I didn’t really know what Mark Pincus was doing. I was consulting in the early, early days.

BI: What’s your current role at Zynga?

CT: It’s similar to what I did with Will Wright, I do it more across the organisation at Zynga. I’m the alternative point of view when someone needs someone to talk to. I’m a foil, a sounding board, a voice of a player that a lot of people in the org kind of trust.

theville zynga sims socialTrottier worked closely with Mark Skaggs on The Ville.

Photo: Business Insider / Owen Thomas

BI: What about Zynga got you really interested?CT: At first, you had an industry of people who were playing games that they had made for each other. Then, all of the sudden there were vastly more people — it’s not a surprise that more people are interested in playing games. Everyone’s been to the thanksgiving dinner where everyone plays Parcheesi.

Zynga hit a real nerve with the kinds of games people would play around the dining room table. But you can play it from afar — that’s where mobile becomes an amazing opportunity. Movies have all these genres like comedy and horror and mass market gaming is still discovering genres. I find that very exciting — the people really into decorating, the people into the light back-and-forth experiences. A year or two ago we didn’t have Words With Friends games, then the people in McKinney stumbled upon that. That’s the exciting potential of social games.

BI: What kinds of “genres” are you looking at right now?

CT: I think one of the things that’s been perhaps counter intuitive to core gamers in the past is that they’re used to creating these fantasy worlds that are very much other than this world. What’s been surprising to people, maybe more women, is that a lot of people are much more interested in a fantasy that takes place in a world that’s similar to our own, but where the rules are a little pushed. You don’t have tons of financial constraints, space constraints, that’s why something like The Ville caps into an interest with a lot more people. Not like orcs and dungeons. 

Certainly the thing that has me most excited is this notion of finding the games that everyone wants to play. It may not be that everyone is the same, but finding games that everyone can bring play into their daily lives. I find that very motivating and very excited, and I don’t think we’ve fully explored this social games thing.

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