Before the Wii, Facebook games, or the iPhone App store, there was Area/Code, a digital game-design firm cofounded in 2003 by NYU game-design professors Frank Lantz and Kevin Slavin of the Tisch School's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Using technologies ahead of their time, Area/Code innovated a new style of computer game: One that spilled over and beyond the screen and into the real world.
No surprise, then, that in January 2011, Area/Code was acquired by Zynga, the world’s biggest developer in the social-gaming marketplace. Today, according to Zynga, 215 million Facebook users a month play its creations, which include “Farmville” and “Mafia Wars.”
Area/Code was nourished by the decades its founders spent designing games in New York, as well as the years they’ve been teaching the art and craft of game design at NYU. Both in classes and while working on Area/Code projects, Lantz became known for departing from old-style computer gaming conventions--fictional characters inhabiting simulated spaces. Instead, his games happened simultaneously in digital, broadcast and public spaces, and connected real people.
Area/Code’s pioneering interactive games also used many now-familiar technologies before their time: optic semacodes scanned by phone cameras, location-aware mobile transmission, GPS, and networked players. Its “Shark Runners” game, a Discovery Channel commission, for example, turned players into marine biologists tracking sharks—real ones, swimming in the ocean, using GPS. Its “Conqwest,” commissioned by phone carrier Qwest, set teams of teenagers loose in a 10-city treasure hunt using phones and browsers to move giant, inflatable game pieces around the streets.
At ITP, Lantz inspired a generation of NYU protégés to push the frontiers of networked play. Most notably was FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley, who went on to build a wildly successful company. As Area/Code did, Lantz’s students addressed real gaming problems, he says: “If you have proximity information and real-time location-aware technology, how do you take advantage of that to design a compelling experience?”
At the time of the Zynga acquisition, Area/Code had 20 employees, among them eight former ITP students, including Vice-President Katie London and Scott Hoffer. Area/Code also funneled instructors back to ITP, such as Kevin Slavin and Kevin Cancion.
The commercial/university cross-fertilization has always been richly productive, Lantz says: Knowing the craft and industry practicalities and how to solve problems on deadline helps in the classroom. Meanwhile, he says, the philosophical, thoughtful academic practices of theorizing ideas and concepts is “super valuable to me as a practitioner.”