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Interview: Zynga Goes 'Massively Multiplayer' With CastleVille

Gamasutra speaks with CastleVille creative director Bill Jackson to dive into the driving forces behind Zynga's newest title, offering insight into the company's plans to evolve its social games.

Tom Curtis, Blogger

October 12, 2011

6 Min Read

Just yesterday Zynga debuted CastleVille, the fourth title in its popular Ville series and a project that hopes to bring "massively multiplayer games to the masses." CastleVille is the first game to come from Zynga Dallas, a studio picked up by the social gaming giant about a year ago. The company was originally known as Bonfire Studios, and was founded by veterans from Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios. Now that the team is working with social games, it hopes to use its expertise in the strategy genre to bring some new elements to Zynga's social formula. In particular, Zynga Dallas says it wants to make to make CastleVille a more exploration-driven, "massively multiplayer" game than other Zynga titles. To coincide with the game's debut, Gamasutra spoke with Bill Jackson, creative director of Zynga Dallas, to learn about the team's goals for this new title, delving into the driving forces behind CastleVille's design, and offering some insight into Zynga's larger plans to evolve its social games. To start, please tell me a bit about CastleVille. How does the title fit in among Zynga's other social games? Well, CastleVille is the fourth installment in the Ville franchise. For me, there are some tenets that have been built by each of the games, and we're incorporating all of those tenets and then adding our own. So, look at FarmVille. FarmVille is about self-expression, building the farm of your dreams and sharing it. In CastleVille, I'm building the kingdom of my dreams, which is awesome. Then you look at something like FrontierVille, which is about strong narrative storytelling, and it brought that to the franchise. We have strong narrative storytelling, and we also allow you to unlock that story in new ways that allow you to have more control over how the story unfolds. When you look at CityVille, it really brought a level of simulation, and certainly upped the amount of social interaction with franchises, and crewing, and these types of mechanics. Now, with CastleVille, we incorporate all of those things, but ours is more personal. It's about the characters. For instance, is this character happy? Can you make them happier? How do you progress in your relationship with this character, and with your friends. And then we look at CastleVille itself, and this game is about exploration. The world is not just space that you're going to expand out to – it has mysteries in it. There are things to uncover, and when you uncover them, that helps inform everything else I just talked about: how you can be social, what the story will be, and ultimately, how you can express yourself. It's really exciting to see what's around the corner, and that's the new element. Can you elaborate on how that works? Do you start on a map surrounded by fog of war or something like that? Ah, fog of war! There's a traditional gaming term! Nice! We have something similar, I wouldn't say it's exactly like fog of war, because it's not -- having worked on a lot of games with fog of war, I want to make that clear. (laughs) We have this concept called the gloom. The gloom is not just the areas you haven't explored, but these areas are not as happy. But you do start in a small area and work your way out -- how you work your way out is up to you. There are requirements for unlocking these areas, and these requirements differ. How you progress through the game somewhat affects what you can do. It gives you choices, and you make those choices. It's up to you. You mentioned that you brought in a lot of elements from previous Ville titles. How did your team's legacy as Bonfire Studios affect the game's design? Are there any elements in the game that came directly from your previous experience as a strategy game studio? Sure, that's a fair question. So we joined Zynga about a year ago, and we were making some pretty high production value stuff on mobile platforms -- that was the main thing we were doing. So a big part of it is just the production values on the title. That's the kind of stuff we really know how to execute on. And again, I'd say that part of it is the exploration element that I keep going back to. That's part of our legacy. We worked on a lot of real time strategy and isometric games, and a huge part of those games is asking, "What's around the corner?" So we really wanted to add that. I was curious about something you said at Zynga's recent press demonstration. You said that CastleVille is a "massively multiplayer role playing game for the masses." Can you explain what you mean by that? Yeah. I've played a lot of massively multiplayer games, and I love them. But there's a couple things about any massively multiplayer game. One is that when you play it, it's not a game that you tend to play on your time, because it requires you to schedule with others to really be cooperative in the game. At Zynga, we're all about deciding when you want to play the game. That's our first change to make a massively multiplayer game for the masses. For the second point, let me back up and explain why it's similar. What do you do in massively multiplayer games? You become greater and you progress – and all of that has been present in Ville games for a while. But one thing that's very important in a massively multiplayer game is exploration. What's around the corner? What's in this area? What if my friends and I get deeper into this dungeon, what will we find? And as I mentioned, CastleVille brings a strong element of exploration to the franchise. Now that that's true, the game has these tenets of an MMO, and how can you possible bring an MMO to the masses? One, make it playable on your time. The other is to let people cooperate asynchronously on their own time, so they can work together collaboratively when they each have time to do it. I think another part of it is creating a theme that appeals to a broad base of players. We talk a lot about getting people to play this. Not just you, but your friends, your family, and you'll all be able to play together. Another thing that's worth pointing out is that you guys are really emphasizing the characters you've designed for the game. Why did you guys decide to emphasize these characters as much as you have? The first thing is that we think the game and its theme are closely linked. And when you have a world like this, you want people to be immersed in the world. And when you think about ways to immerse people in the world, one way is to create gorgeous graphics. Another way is to create strong characters that people care about, and you have to take these characters far enough to make sure that's true. It's interesting that you guys showed off some very elaborate 3D animations for the game's characters, while the game itself follows the traditional isometric style that you see in other Zynga games. Will these animations relate to the game for anything other than promotional purposes? We can't talk too much about it today, but they're certainly set in the game world. With these videos, it's all about adding more and more ways to learn about the game, and I'd look for more ways in the future.

About the Author(s)

Tom Curtis


Tom Curtis is Associate Content Manager for Gamasutra and the UBM TechWeb Game Network. Prior to joining Gamasutra full-time, he served as the site's editorial intern while earning a degree in Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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