Zynga launches FrontierVille in bid to turn traffic around

Game maker Zynga hopes to halt a decline in its traffic on Facebook with the launch today of its newest social game, FrontierVille. It’s one of Zynga’s most elaborate titles to date, but it’s aimed at the same mass market Facebook audience that has flocked to the company’s games by the hundreds of millions.

As we noted earlier this week, Zynga has had a remarkable rise to the top as the largest social app publisher on Facebook with more than 216 million monthly active users. But that number is down from 252 million on April 20, according to AppData. Zynga is trying to reach new audiences by expanding in Japan, publishing on the iPhone, and spreading its games to portals such as Yahoo and MSN. But the core of its effort is to make better games.

Much like the company’s flagship title FarmVille, this game is a light casual game that you play with your friends. It has a frontier theme where you go out to create a homestead in the wilderness and grow it into a bustling frontier town. Since it’s a family game targeted at everyone, it’s a lot more about tending crops and livestock than it is about shooting guns off and scalping your neighbors.

The game is the debut title for Zynga East, the company’s new game studio in Baltimore. Its design was headed by chief game designer Brian Reynolds, a veteran from the traditional game industry who created big titles such as Civilization, Alpha Centauri and Rise of Nations before joining Zynga last year.

Reynolds is as hardcore as they come. He used to delight in setting off nuclear bombs in his game demos. But now Reynolds is going to be essential to Zynga’s mission in raising the bar and attracting new audiences. Zynga has been criticized for copying its way to the top and creating games that — while they are very social — lack deep game play.

“My job is to see what good game design techniques I can bring to bear on social games and to do new innovative stuff,” Reynolds said in an interview.

The depth of FrontierVille is in its social game play. In FarmVille, your friends could help you tend your crops and you might never pay them much attention. But helping others is key to the game play of FrontierVille. You can help your friend tend crops, feed animals, chop trees and revive withered crops. You raise your family, tend crops, chase varmints off your land, add neighbors and raise your reputation by helping others.

“In this game, you can see who is helping you more easily,” Reynolds said. “What I was taught was to take a lot of simple pieces and have them interact in deep ways. The goal is to improve the quality of the social experience. “

Like the other “ville” games created by Zynga, it’s a simulation of your own little world. But this one is more like a living world, where things change over time. Weeds can grow on your farm and you have to clean them off. Little trees grow into big trees. You have to chase bears away. These are things that are relatively new in social games, where interactivity has been pretty limited.

Reynolds acknowledged that this game is fresh territory and that Zynga isn’t copying anyone here. He describes it as “Oregon Trail meets Little House on the Prairie meets FarmVille.” (In video games, if you copy two or more things, it becomes an original idea).

Doing original work and helping to get traffic growing again is part of Reynolds’ charter. FrontierVille is the first major game since Zynga launched Treasure Isle, which saw rapid growth and now has 24 million monthly active users.

Reynolds said the studio in Baltimore has 16 employees and the team worked on the game for a number of months. That’s a bigger investment than Zynga used to make in games a couple of years ago, and Reynolds said he expects the investments to grow over time as the quality bar goes up.

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