All allies

Published on June 3rd, 2011 | by Greg


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.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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