It’s been almost exactly one year since social gaming powerhouse Zynga unleashed what was destined to become an online phenomenon: FarmVille. The game has 70 million monthly active users, many of whom are total addicts. But some gamers are doubtless ready for a new fix, and today, they’re getting just that — Zynga has launched FrontierVille, a Wild West themed game that shares many similarities with FarmVille, but with some new twists designed to instill a greater sense of adventure. We discovered the game back in April when it was still in early testing stages, but it hasn’t been available to the masses until now. To get a better understanding of what FrontierVille brings to the table, I stopped by Zynga headquarters yesterday for a full rundown of the new game, including a thorough demo.
If you’ve played FarmVille, you’ll be right at home in FrontierVille. Many of the same game mechanics are here: you can purchase and harvest crops, and in order to maximize your harvest and in-game bonuses you’ll have to check in at regular intervals throughout the day. But it also has some key differences. For one, the game obviously has a different theme (and it’s one that hasn’t already been pioneered by another popular game, which appears to be a first for Zynga). Perhaps more important, from a gameplay perspective FrontierVille has a number of new features designed to help add a feeling of spontaneity and a better social connection with your in-game friends. In order to better understand how this differs from FarmVille, I asked FrontierVille GM Brian Reynolds to run through the main differences:
- One of the biggest changes in FrontierVille involves your neighbors (basically, the friends you’ve connected with in the game, who are always shown in a panel at the bottom of your screen). In FarmVille when you visit a friend’s virtual farm, your potential actions are quite limited — you can’t do much to engage with your friend’s plot of land. In FrontierVille that dynamic has changed. You can now swing by a friend’s plot of land and tend to some of their chores, like harvesting their crops. Doing so gives you a reward, and also helps them save time. There’s one caveat to this though: your friend will have to approve your actions before they take effect (some players prefer to trudge through these tasks on their own).
- Another social gameplay element is the notion of “hiring” your friends, which entails paying some in-game money to have a buddy harvest your plants or do other tasks. In reality your friends aren’t actually sitting at their computers doing this “work” themselves (which would be pretty boring). Instead, you’re merely controlling their in-game avatar. The social element of this stems from the game’s stat system: over time you can accumulate multiple kinds of experience points, based on how much you’ve engaged with your friends and what you’ve accomplished in the game. The more points you have, the more ‘work’ you do for your friends when they hire you, which in turn makes it more likely that your friends will be looking to hire your avatar.
- FrontierVille is also putting a much bigger emphasis on its storyline. Soon after you start the game, you’ll encounter a letter from your betrothed who is stuck “out east” — it’s your job to build up your home and garden so that they can come out and join you. Once that happens you can start having children, who you design to look exactly as you want them to. Family members can be used to help decorate your land (which sounds a little weird, I know), and can also help speed up the rate at which you collect resources like wood. In addition to these story elements, there are also new missions that are designed to help mix up gameplay. For example, the game may instruct you to harvest flowers (something that you may not normally do) for the purpose of making a bouquet to woo your spouse.
- Finally, there’s a new set of features that Reynolds refers to as the “living world effect”. In short, these are events that are beyond your control, which help the virtual world feel more alive. Log off for a few days, and you’ll find that you may have some weeds growing in the yard. Trees will grow larger over time, and eventually they’ll start to drop seeds where seedlings will start growing. And an array of creatures like snakes and bears will sometimes encroach on your territory. They won’t ever actually harm your property, but they drain energy when you’re close to them.
One other addition is a robust item collection mechanic that’s borrowed from Mafia Wars. Gamers can collect a wide array of special items as they play; collecting a “set” of related items usually gives the gamer a stat boost. It’s also worth pointing out that the game will integrate Facebook Credits, obviously a result of the recent agreement that Facebook and Zynga reached after sparring over the payments system.
So will FrontierVille be a success? Probably — Zynga has these gameplay mechanics down to an art, and I don’t doubt that they’ll be able to attract plenty of FarmVille fans to this new game. What’s more, when you start playing FrontierVille you’ll notice that Zynga has integrated a special invite system that lets you immediately invite all of your FarmVille-playing friends to join you (the logic being that folks who like FarmVille will probably like FrontierVille).
That said, despite the new additions, in many senses this is more of the same. The game still relies heavily on repetitive tasks that are restricted by time, and your social interactions with friends are asynchronous (in other words, you aren’t going to be playing alongside your friends at the same time). There are obviously still a huge number of people that enjoy this kind of game. But these game mechanics are going to get old, and I’ll be surprised if Zynga sees another industry-shaking hit of the same magnitude as FarmVille until they start to mix things up more.