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Interview: Reynolds Pioneers For Zynga With New  FrontierVille

Interview: Reynolds Pioneers For Zynga With New FrontierVille Exclusive

June 9, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

When veteran strategy game designer Brian Reynolds left Big Huge Games for social gaming giant Zynga, it made waves -- the Rise of Nations and Civ II designer wanted to make Facebook games?

Now, a year later, Zynga -- which has 215 million monthly unique players over all of its Facebook titles, and is struggling with declines in some of its top titles like Farmville -- is rolling out the fruits of Reynolds' efforts later today.

The new title is FrontierVille, a Facebook-based Wild West strategy, resource management and family life sim that the company proudly trumpets as containing several "firsts".

These include more persistence in the game world, the ability for a user to create a family, and numerous game systems aimed at increasing social depth in a way more complex than simple (and recently somewhat curtailed) notifications to friends lists.

Reynolds dearly hopes that with FrontierVille, he can show other designers that it's possible to build Facebook games with depth. "I came into this out of a very different industry, out of the traditional game industry," he says.

"And the reason I came was because like all the other kinds of games I've gotten into making, this was the kind of game I was playing at the time."

The social aspect was what fascinated him most -- "but at the same time, how can we make these games more social than they are, more useful to players socially and interactively?"

"The game we came up with is FrontierVille," he says. That the game is launching at a time when Wild West fandom is at a fever pitch thanks to the novelty of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption is a sheer coincidence, says Reynolds -- "but if you wanted to build a conspiracy theory, you could note one of my designers from Big Huge Games went out to join the Red Dead Redemption team about the same time I joined Zynga," he jokes.

The frontier theme was chosen not only because it was a relatively under-explored setting in games -- a reason cited for the interest in Red Dead -- but because Zynga's player surveys found that men and women alike found it exciting. "Both men and women really responded to the frontier theme," says Reynolds. "The men would think about the adventure, and the women were interested into the aspects of raising a family on the frontier, thinking back to Little House on the Prairie."

Reynolds discusses his work with an energy and enthusiasm rarely seen from the traditional design space regarding social games, but he is pragmatic about the need to appeal to a mainstream audience: "Zynga is a mass-market company, so we need that," he states.

And appealing to a wider spectrum of different people makes a game more interesting, as the player ecosystem develops with a lot of variety. Some players will be interested in the home elements of the frontier life -- the game allows you to eventually create a virtual spouse and even have virtual children, and communicate with them when "away" on quests.

Others will enjoy the persistent universe, what Reynolds calls a "living world": "For the first time, the world doesn't just kind of sit there and wait for you to come back... weeds grow, little trees start turning into big trees which drop seeds and make new trees... it's got this sense of the wilderness kind of pushing back as you carve out your pioneer track."

One of the primary criticisms of social games is that they aren't really "social" -- gameplay focuses on flaunting achievements on a Facebook page, or by insistently notifying friends about opportunities to play together whether they're interested or not. But it was important to Reynolds to encourage genuine, improved social aspects.

He notes: "Most games let you go visit your friend, but now what we have is you can tend their homestead, un-wither their crops, feed their chickens." Doing things for friends levels up a player's reputation score, a stat new to Zynga games that aims to go beyond a simple leaderboard, and encourages a more positive social ecosystem

Reynolds is clearly targeting the development of a meaningful experience in Facebook gaming, and he hopes traditional designers will be able to see the merit in his approach -- he's not on board with the sort of comments made at investor conferences that social games don't need to be "good", and that only user numbers matter.

"I think the thing that social gaming can't be is really complicated and scary," he says. "And what you learn in a whole career in game design is that making a fun game isn't about making it really complicated and scary. It's actually about having little simple parts."

"If you're good at it, you can have the simple parts kind of subtly interact in deep ways," he continues. "There's nothing about FrontierVille that's complicated -- you click, and stuff starts happening, and it's pretty. We give you this open world and you start playing around in your fantasy frontier sandbox, and the more you do, the more you express yourself."

A choice for a player between choosing whether to build reputation and level up, accrue resources or maintain the aesthetics of a cabin, may not be particularly obviously-deep choices, Reynolds says, but balancing all of a player's different options can be very engaging.

"It's not overwhelming, it's just fun. Game developers who think there's no game in [Facebook gaming] haven't looked closely enough," concludes design veteran Reynolds. "Investors that say they don't need to be fun -- I hope I'll prove them wrong really soon."

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