Zynga opens studio in Austin to help with its Star Wars mobile game

Zynga said it has opened a new game studio in Austin to focus on developing its Star Wars mobile game.

The Austin studio will partner with NaturalMotion, a Zynga studio in the United Kingdom, which has been working for the past couple of years to develop Zynga’s mobile game set in the Star Wars universe.

Led by game industry veterans Jeff Hickman and Matthew Hemby, the new studio is looking to hire 25 new employees across every role, with a focus on recruiting studio-level leadership.

“These are mobile games that are very console-like and PC-like — in the graphics, in the game play, in the type of audience that loves them,” said Hickman, senior vice president for games, said in an interview with GamesBeat. “[Zynga CEO] Frank Gibeau and I talked and asked ourselves why we weren’t tapping into the awesome talent in Austin, including those who used to work for us at EA. We have all of these connections to super-talented people.”

Hickman, a longtime Austin resident, said he believes the city has among the best talent in creating triple-A console games. That kind of talent is now relevant for mobile games, as mobile devices become more capable as computing machines.

The Star Wars game is a departure from the more casual fare that Zynga created in its early days, such as FarmVille and Words With Friends. But with the $527 million acquisition of NaturalMotion, the company picked up the CSR racing game, and it has added more diversity and quality to its lineup with the acquisitions of Small Giant Games, Gram Games, Peak Games, and Rollic Games.

Among the list of new hire targets will be positions such as lead engineer, design director, and lead level designer. The new studio will collaborate closely with BossAlien, a division of NaturalMotion based out of Brighton, England which has been leading development on the upcoming Star Wars game.

For a full list of current job openings in the studio, follow this link.

Hickman’s history

Above: Zynga’s biggest games are its “forever franchises.”

Hickman previously worked at Electronic Arts’ EA Mythic division as an executive producer, and also at the company’s BioWare division in Austin. He left in 2017 to join Zynga’s NaturalMotion studio in London, where he was running the studio and working on titles such as CSR and Dawn of Titans.

The focus was on midcore games, or those that are hardcore in nature but could be played in short play sessions.

“We returned to Austin and how this is my home office,” Hickman said.

While Austin is the center of the new studio, Hickman said the studio is open to recruiting anyone around the world, given the pandemic. And for the time being, the employees will work remotely.

“One of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that working virtually in the future means being flexible about how we work,” Hickman said.

Zynga has had an office in Austin for years, but it didn’t have a formal status as a studio, and the developers worked on titles in social casino and card games.

“We’re basically spinning up a studio within that office, if you will, now that everything’s virtual,” Hickman said. “We will focus on and partner with our BossAlien team in Brighton working on Star Wars games.”

Zynga isn’t saying what the game is about yet, or the genre. It signed the deal to license the property with Disney about two years ago.

“The team is killing it, and the game is looking great,” Hickman said. “One of the reasons I came over to NaturalMotion and to Zynga was because of the kind of games that we were working on. Mobile is a platform just like console is a platform for games. When you pick up one of these games, you should see graphics and gameplay that makes you go, ‘Wow.’”

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