Zynga hasn't had the best time lately, with an exodus of executives and an underperforming IPO. But its latest offering for mobiles and tablets, FarmVille 2: Country Escape, show good signs — for both gamers, and Zynga.
You might remember that, before King, Zynga was the villain of the games industry. Its use of exploitative game design turned our own family members against us, inundating our social media feeds with requests and invites. But mostly, it was its primary goal of using psychological tricks to make its cash. There's nothing wrong with addictive fun, as long as there's fun. That way, there's an exchange. But FarmVille was heavy on the addiction, and light on the fun, and by using the same techniques in all its games, Zynga became known as a predator.
Fast forward to mid 2013, when Don Mattrick leaves Microsoft to become the CEO of Zynga. Mattrick wasted no time in saying Zynga needed to be radically re-thought, and he wasn't wrong. Zynga's entire business model was built in a flash-in-the-pan period of social media.
During Zynga's rise, many were still discovering Facebook. There were viral posts, but no viral sites. Not like what we have today, anyway. The social media software itself hadn't built up a resistance to the abuse of its sharing functionality, let alone people building up a psychological resistance. It was a formative period for social media, and that's the only reason Zynga's games spread like they did.
Now, not only is Zynga's old practices considered bad form, much of what they used to do is outright disabled in Facebook's code. So Mattrick wants to focus on mobile instead — but, reading between the lines, I think he's aware the proof is in the pudding. It's not just about a new platform, it's about new game design. And we can see evidence of this in FarmVille 2: Country Escape. It's more of a real game.
Having read Mike Fahey's review, I wanted to see just how much the philosophy of FarmVille had changed. I wanted to see if I could use that as a crystal ball for Zynga. As it happens, I disagree with him on several points, and anyone who knows me will know that no matter what, I'd hate this game with every fibre of my being. But it's definitely a step forward.
It's very addictive, which is par for the course in a treadmill game. It has excellent production values and polish. And most importantly, it really has toned down the social bothering. All the stuff that made us consider FarmVille an antisocial game. It still asks to connect to the net, and to other players, and wants you to share. It offers you rewards for doing so, and there are little notifications that won't go away until you do it.
But so far, I haven't seen anything punitive for going it solo, and that's a big point. Of course, one would have to get further in the game to see for sure, but from what I can gather, it looks like what you get, you keep. Things become harder to get later, but you don't lose things for not playing. The worst that can happen is no progress is made, because you're not there to keep tapping. Tappety-tap-tap.
It's almost as if Country Escape is trying to stand on its own two legs, without using social manipulation as a crutch. Screw crutch, more of a wheelchair. It's a direction closer to Viva Pinata, with a hierarchical pyramid of farm elements supporting rarer, more valuable farm elements.
Of course, the game comes nowhere near Viva Pinata in quality, and it's barely even a game. But it's the direction that matters. If one were to use FarmVille 2: Country Escape as a crystal ball, and extrapolate possibly way too much into the overall direction of Zynga, then the picture is that of one of gaming's biggest villains putting aside its cynicism to make a real product. It's not perfect yet. But the direction is laudable.