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Can Zynga change? FarmVille 2 launches on mobile today

Zynga needs FarmVille 2, which launches today, to become its crown jewel on mobile -- but is that possible? Gamasutra's Christian Nutt speaks to the developers to find out.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

April 17, 2014

5 Min Read

Today, Zynga launches FarmVille 2: Country Escape on iOS and on Google Play, with hopes that it'll be the company's showpiece mobile game -- the one that will help it shrug off an image of being tethered to desktop users in a segment that has shifted away from that platform. Much has changed for the company in recent times. It got a new CEO, Don Mattrick, with a new way of doing things; Mattrick brought in a new COO, Clive Downie, with a mobile background and a new attitude toward its games and its players. Zynga needs FarmVille 2 to become its crown jewel on mobile: Not just successful (the original iOS FarmVille was, too) but so clearly mobile-native that it will enable the company finally shrug off its image of being tied to Facebook. In the era of Clash of Clans, that looks... quaint. To find out how it hopes to do that, Gamasutra spoke to Jonathan Knight, Zynga's vice president of games, and Rob Terrell, studio CTO, about the project.

How to take FarmVille mobile

In making a mobile game, says Terrell, the most important thing was "to get close to the consumer and make sure we were designing for their lifestyle, and what they want." You hear this kind of thing a lot, but over the course of the conversation with the two, the impetus to make a truly mobile FarmVille 2 came up again and again: The game can be played offline, and can transfer between different devices. But notably, it doesn't transfer to the PC version of the game, because it's been designed with different game systems created -- at least in part -- to cater to what Zynga's core fan base wants to see from a mobile FarmVille game. "The most important thing for us is to begin to understand what is important to our players," Terrell says. "Quality is absolutely critical in a free-to-play model, where players are trying a lot of apps all the time." "The audience on mobile is used to games that play differently than audiences on the web. Game designs really need to change to look out for that," Knight says. "We had to make sure that we made something that made sense for this platform." Knight, a 10-year EA veteran, compares it to how The Sims franchise, which he also worked on, changed drastically in its console iterations to play to those platforms' strengths. "That's always a developer's first instinct: What does that machine do that makes it unique, and what is it about this machine that consumers find fascinating? How do I extract the kind of core principles and values of the IP or the franchise, and be true to those things?" The "wonderful, delightful" touchscreen of mobile devices was a big focus; their connectivity -- what has made smartphones and tablets "so successful," says Knight -- is another. Most important, he says, is making sure FarmVille 2 is fast and reliable: "the game loads in fast, and I know my progress is going to be saved."

Making FarmVille last forever

In his first Zynga investor call, COO Clive Downie highlighted a shift in the company's thinking: Its IPs were now to be its strength, and its shopworn strategy of churning audiences onto new games as old ones fade would not continue. By contrast, Knight called FarmVille a "forever franchise." Mattrick and Downie "really wanted us to focus on sustaining our existing franchises, and then growing them," says Knight. "That really gets back to understanding the audience that's really playing these games." That has lead to an increased community focus, he says, including embedding community managers on the game teams, who deliver daily community reports to the developers: "they're constantly bringing us really valuable information about what people play, how they're playing it, when, where," says Knight. An example: The game's offline mode. The team did research on "what devices people have, what data plans, what carriers," says Knight. "It became clear that if we had an offline mode, players would engage more with the game throughout the day, so we made a commitment early on to that."

Can Zynga change?

The idea that the players dominating how FarmVille is developed being crucial to the success of the game came through loud and clear throughout the conversation. "If we give players choice and control over how they play -- when, whether with friends or not -- we feel like we're casting a wider net, and getting more players to try the game, and that's what it's really all about. Everybody plays FarmVille in a slightly different way," Knight says. Zynga is also still clearly shaking off its image of aggressively spamming players' friends. Without even being prompted, Knight addressed his company's new policies: "Social control is just really important to building trust with consumers, and giving them that level of control and feedback -- 'Hey, if you login with Facebook, here's exactly what is going to happen. Here's the benefit of what you are doing. There is nothing in the game that blocks your progress or forces you to spam requests to friends.'" The most important test of whether or not FarmVille 2 marks a change for Zynga will not be its public reception, but whether the game's developers have shifted their thinking, and gotten in line with the times. It's impossible to say, after half an hour on the phone and a brief demo, if that's so -- but if you take this conversation at face value, it's impossible to say that that they're not trying.

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