Published on June 3rd, 2011 | by Greg0
Empires & Allies: Zynga’s Failing Strategy
Zynga and Facebook gaming are synonymous. Launched to fame for their addictive and viral social toys like Farmville and Mafia Wars, it’s been argued that most of their “games” are not really games at all, and that they are “craft and not art”. But they’ve clearly been moving in that direction, aiming to address the cries that they are “ruining gaming” and instead make a “hardcore game”.
We’ve been testing their recently-launched new addition, Empires & Allies, and have come away a bit depressed. Like many of their games, the graphics are immediately appealing and the basic premise is sound. But unlike much of their library, this is meant to be a competitor of sorts for more serious strategy games- beating Civilization World to the punch by launching earlier. And while many Facebook users might not be familiar with the RTS (real-time strategy) genre and may never have played Command & Conquer, there is no doubt that their games have been successful- 250 million players each month can attest to that.
Anyone even passingly familiar with other strategy games will immediately recognize a few important facts. The gameplay itself is fairly shallow- mostly clicking here and there with little strategy or skill. And after maybe an hour or so, you’re left with few options- you’ll need to spam your friends to progress, or pay for the privilege. There are signals everywhere indicating that trade-offs have been made, usually increasing complexity unnecessarily, and unlocking regular but minor awards at players to encourage them to keep “playing”. It’s sort of like the junk food of gaming- if you took away almost any strategy from Advance Wars and paired it with some soft city-building mechanics. It can be fun, in a Minesweeper, optimization sort-of way, but the artificial limits imposed by various resources like “Liberty Bonds” and “energy” make it feel a bit like a drug being pushed on you by a clever dealer. Also, unlike the Apple App Store, there is a barrier to continuing here that is pretty serious- you can’t simply buy the game and play forever, but are left in a sort of “subscription” frenzy, never quite in control. The core audience, used to spending $30-$50 at a time might not mind dropping a buck or two for a fun experience. But there simply doesn’t feel like there is much gameplay for the money, regardless of the currency exchange rate.
Combat is purely rock-paper-scissors, and pretty soft. The single-player campaign moves at a confusing pace- leaving some things unexplained and moving abruptly through a tutorial of sorts that feels a bit arbitrary. For example- an unknown enemy attacks, but is easily beaten, to introduce the combat mechanics. But the overarching structure is a bit unclear at this point- Do we have to fight? Are there diplomatic options? What happens when I’m not playing? Why do I have to click three damn times to build something?
For most players, these questions might not be so niggling. But this isn’t Farmville- it’s a strategy game meant to appeal to more serious gamers. And if we’re in the core audience, and are confused, then there is a problem even beyond the business model. The badges, awards, and cute buildings are fun- but they won’t be enough to engage the younger male gamers who can easily turn on the Xbox or PS3. It’s a shame, as there are some good ideas lurking behind the GUI. It runs smoothly, looks great, and has moments of inspiration. But Empire & Allies represents a world where roads are “decorations”. Seriously, they appear to have no effect on gameplay, much like the guard towers and flagpoles, and skill has little place.