In June, it will be five years since FarmVille’s release shook up the world of casual gaming.
Not only providing the rocket fuel for Zynga’s growth and eventual IPO, the time/resource management game also demonstrated the power of Facebook’s social graph as a gaming platform to reach millions of gamers who didn’t even consider themselves gamers.
A lot has changed for both companies in the intervening period, however.
Facebook has become a platform that’s less about playing games, and more about distributing games and connecting gamers.
While, following a difficult period, Zynga has refreshed its management team - headlined by a new CEO and COO - and refocusing its output, particularly on mobile, where it’s reinforced its capabilities with the $527 million acquisition of NaturalMotion.
Down on the farm
With lifetime figures of over 400 million players and $1 billion in revenue, FarmVille still matters though, which is why the release of FarmVille 2: Country Escape is a “big deal” for Zynga.
Launched on iOS and Google Play and supporting 16 languages at launch, it’s the first new release from the revamped Zynga in what it defines as one of its core genres.
The others are social casino (Zynga Poker), racing (CSR Racing), character simulation (Clumsy Ninja) and the With Friends brand.
“This is about growing and sustaining our audience,” explains Jonathan Knight, Zynga’s VP of Games, echoing a phrase that’s now a company mantra.
This approach is reflected in the game itself, which draws on the franchise’s fundamental gameplay of planting and harvesting crops, but also rethinks the underlying social interactions and employs cutting-edge monetisation techniques.
Better with friends
In this regard, the most significant aspect of FarmVille 2 is the way it uses Facebook.
For one thing, the game can just be played in single player Anonymous mode; something Knight says comes directly from user feedback.
“The game is better with friends, but that’s the player’s choice,” he says.
Similarly, the game is only partially connected to the Facebook version of FarmVille 2.
Because Country Escape is from the ground-up designed for mobile, you can send goods between your Facebook farm and your mobile farm - what Zynga calls is Connected Rewards system - but the two are separate entities.
FarmVille 2 is better with friends, but that’s the player’s choiceJonathan Knight
Still, Zynga is nudging people to play both versions.
“For example, water is a more abundant resource on mobile than Facebook, so we have incentivised some goods to encourage this behaviour,” Knight says.
Clash of farms
Another interesting aspect of the design is the way Zynga has taken inspiration from the clans and alliances that underpin longterm retention and monetisation in core genres such as strategy games.
In FarmVille 2, you can create clans or co-ops of up to 50 players. These enable players to lend Helping Hands characters who unlock specialist aspects of the game, such as fishing, animal taming, gardening and mining.
Co-ops also encourage players to trade resources, speed seeds - which can be sent to up to ten friends daily - to accelerate their progress, and farms hands, as well as chatting about strategies.
More generally, players can trade resources with all FarmVille 2 players via a global marketplace, where they set their own prices, while a reduced set of social features compared to Facebook is available using Game Center and Google+.
And there’s even an offline mode for when players don’t have a data connection.
But Zynga hasn’t just been smart when it comes to social interactions. It’s taken note of new monetisation techniques as well.
Of course, there’s the standard set up in terms of soft currency (gold) and hard currency (keys). Most items in the game are available via gold, although some elite items, such as the prized animals which generate higher level resources, are priced in keys.
However, there is a mechanism to earn keys too, through the conversion of ribbons and the special stamps you can earn from completing missions via the crop dusting pilot Eagled-Eyed Eddie.
Again, this sort of layered currency approach is now common in strategy games, but isn’t something that’s been used in many casual titles.
So, over the past five years, social gaming has moved on. With newfound confidence, Zynga has moved on too.
Now it’s time to see if FarmVille 2: Country Escape can make the most of the new growth opportunities available, while - of course - sustaining its existing fanbase.