Through its deal with Hasbro, Electronic Arts has been bringing many classic board games to the video game space in recent years. The close of 2010 saw a whimsical version of strategy giant RISK adapted for Xbox Live Arcade, and today, the company's launching a version specifically for Facebook -- with some unique design lessons to be had from the adaptation.
Whereas original RISK uses little yellow playing pieces to represent people, "video games offer an opportunity to turn those playing pieces into characters," says producer and designer Spencer Brooks, talking to Gamasutra about his work on RISK: Factions for Facebook.
"At the same time, I didn't think the space needed something ultra-realistic, like a Medal of Honor or a Halo," he reflects on RISK's real world logic-heavy background. "I tend to like quirky, funny little things, so I went in that direction."
The RISK: Factions offshoot on XBLA and Facebook features cats, zombies and Yetis as divisions players can use, for example. "Besides more maps and a fiction behind the little armies, I thought, 'let's make the maps change as you play the game... that's where I wanted to innovate."
In 2008, Hasbro changed the rules of the core game "for the better," Brooks explains. "They made it objectives-based, rather than [based on] world conquest... you can still play world conquest, but objective-based gameplay sped up the game a lot. It's great; at the beginning of the game there are eight objectives and the first person to get three of them wins."
Brooks thought it was best to adopt that more accessible, time-efficent type of RISK gameplay for the XBLA game, and add some fiction. "It plays faster; more people stay in the game longer, for shorter play sessions."
Hasbro likes the liberties EA has taken with the brand, although Brooks says it took some convincing. "It was one of those things where we had a conference call, and were like, 'are you sitting down?' It took a little song and dance of me convincing various parties, but at the end of the day it all worked and everyone was really happy with it."
The response to RISK: Factions on XBLA was so positive that EA felt it could go further with the brand. During a time when the company was evaluating which of its properties would be a good fit for Facebook, Brooks pushed for RISK: Factions, with the caveat that some alterations would be needed to make the game appropriate for Facebook.
For example, in the XBLA version, the differences among the factions were mainly stylistic and visual, Brooks said. For the Facebook version, the team decided to add some special weapons to better differentiate the factions and build them around an intended play style. It's interesting to think about the Facebook version of a given property as an opportunity to build detail that didn't make it into a console or PC edition.
One thing Brooks is passionate about is giving players on Facebook the feeling that they're genuinely interacting with their colleagues, versus games where one feels more like they're "playing the statistics of another player,' in Brooks' words. "In a game like RISK, it's all about rubbing your opponent's nose in defeat, and I really wanted to make sure that wasn't lost in the game."
Doing turn-based play on Facebook definitely has its own set of challenges; given time differences and variations in the ways individuals use Facebook, it's impossible to pace play or to assume the other player will take his or her turn immediately. "We've added some features in the game that will speed things up," says Brooks. For example, you can exit a game with someone who has taken an inordinately long time to make their move, and they'll be replaced with an AI you can still benefit from playing against.
Brooks firmly believes there's a vast field of untapped opportunity in the Facebook space; emulation of Zynga-led design forms isn't all the opportunity there is. RISK: Factions differentiates itself by having a distinct winner and loser, a single-player story, and, in Brooks' view, an absence of the traditional "click-reward" system.
"It really is a strategy game; if you make bad decisions, the game will win," he emphasizes. "It's not this 'everybody wins all the time.' I think it's really going to resonate with the strategy gamer pretty well."
One bold decision the RISK: Factions team made was to do away with the "energy" system, commonly used in Facebook games to constrain player actions in hopes of affecting their resource management -- and ultimately their real-money spend. Brooks said the team's also very excited about its scalable leaderboard, that accords more movement up the ranks to a player who defeats one much better than him or herself, and less so for defeating an equal or weaker player.
"When core gamers say 'there are no real games on Facebook,' I think what they're striving for is, 'I want a game with a win condition; when I play somebody I want to play that person, I don't want to play an abstraction of the person, or the statistics of the person."
"Let's just make a RISK game on Facebook where you actually play other people," he adds. "If that scares you, you can play bots and that's fine, but I thought -- let's make the game that people are expecting."