Oh pioneer! FrontierVille's Brian Reynolds takes on the Wild West of social gaming [Interview]

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frontierville's brian reynoldsIt's almost ironic that while social gaming is still in its Wild West phase, FarmVille creator Zynga seems to be giving us a knowing wink and nod by releasing a new Facebook game set in the Wild West -- FrontierVille.

The new game, which debuted on June 9, has all of the trappings of a typical social game -- neighbors, in-game currency, virtual goods, and even a little farming. The pioneering game also attempts to innovate by expanding those features and adding elements that we've seen in more traditional video games, such as a reputation meter which you fill by helping friends.

Zynga's Head Game Designer Brian Reynolds calls FrontierVille "a living, breathing world" that encroaches on your plot of virtual land. "If you go away for a while, the weeds grown up, and you'll have to clear them out. The little trees grow into bigger trees, grow into really big trees and the really big trees drop seeds that might start new trees. And that can be good or maybe you don't want it so you have to decide if you want more trees to grow or not. It's not exactly the same way you left it when you come back -- there's a sense that the wildness is alive."

This is something that we've seen in video games for ages, but adding it to a social/Facebook game somehow makes the concept novel again.

Then there's the Western theme, which we haven't seen explored fully in a Facebook game (though touched upon in Meteor Games' Ranch Town). Reynolds describes the game as "Oregon Trail meets 'Little House on the Prairie' meets FarmVille" He says the game's concurrent release with Rockstar's epic western Red Dead Redemption was purely coincidental. "Everyone has their Western thing going on," he says with a laugh.

We also talked to Reynolds, who is also a seasoned video game vet who worked on several popular PC strategy games (Civilization II, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri) about how FrontierVille will fill a gap in the social gaming space, how the game will keep people coming back for more and plans for the game on iPhone. Read the rest of our interview after the jump.

frontierville on facebook -- yee-hawWhat void do you think FrontierVille will fill in Facebook gaming?

I come from the entertainment industry, and in the entertainment industry you always wanna be doing new stuff. So I feel like there's always room for something that's good, for something that's original, for something with good craftsmanship. And this is definitely a big investment for Zynga in doing an originally themed game. We thought about what kind of game we'd like to do and decided this was something that would appeal to a whole lot of people, and that's why we did it. At the same time, we're not just making a game about a theme, we also want to innovate in play and talk about the idea of the living world and new social features, basically give gamers gameplay that haven't seen before. That's what we think of as important to move the state of social entertainment forward.

Who is going to play FrontierVille? What's the target audience?

I'd say it's for everyone. When were picking out theme, one of the things we found with a frontier game, was that it appealed pretty strongly to both men and women. The men would think about their most recent Western adventure movie and pioneer life out West, and women would identify with raising family out on the pioneer. They would say, "Oh that reminds me of Little House on the Prairie." So it was a topic with a broad appeal. That's what we're always aiming for in a social game because you want your friends to be interested in playing it -- all your different kinds of friends -- so you have a good social experience.

What are the expectations for FrontierVille when you launch? Zynga is very statistics driven, so what are the expectations?

We think it's going to do well. [Reynolds declined to share number goals]. Our most recent game was Treasure Isle and it took off really well -- we're really happy with that. If we can get going as well as Treasure Isle, that is a good start for us. Treasure was the fastest growing social game ever [5 million players in one week].

What's been the most challenging aspect of designing a social game, even with all of your video game experience behind you?
I had to get a feel for what's the right level of simplicity that you can put in a game for a mass market audience. I've done a little bit of casual game work before, but certainly not a totally mass market social game. That came pretty naturally, because the way I learn how to design games was to make simple parts and making them interact in subtle ways. So there's nothing in FrontierVille that's very complicated, but then there's a lot of interesting things to click on, and it's a very open game board where you can choose your own adventure.

I had to put a lot of thought of making a game more social -- how to improve the social experience. Some of these things we talked about with reputation, visiting and seeing neighbors little person there and family as you start to accumulate family members in your make-believe frontier family. Those all seemed to resonate with people we were testing with.

Can you give us a hint at what else is to come in FrontierVille in the next few months?
I can give you a little hint because when you start the game, and you're out there in the wilderness and gotten there in your covered wagon, and you're unpacking and getting going -- off toward the edge of the map you can see some signs leading to some potential different places that are coming soon. There's a sign pointing toward gold rush and toward Rattlesnake Canyon, and there's a couple more in there hidden in the forest. We're going to have... We won't neglect any area we've traditionally serviced in support of games, but in terms of hinting at some interesting broad strokes that we've got going -- that's what we're kind of dangling out there.

We've seen FarmVille number drop quite a bit over the past few weeks/months? Do you think people are just tired of the game? Are they tired of social gaming Does that mean social games have a short shelf life? What's your take on it?
I don't really know why FarmVille numbers have dropped. I'm a game designer more than a metritician. My job is to keep new exciting content flowing in. I know in our development of FrontierVille seeing a whole bunch of interest in people test the game, we have little secret beta testing things -- people say "Oh boy, can I keep this?... They want to keep on playing, doing more. I don't see social gaming having any particular big dip, but again, I'm a game designer.

My strategy for FrontierVille is come to the market in the first place with something that has an original theme, has a bunch of simple but new things that players haven't seen before, so it's just going to be this exciting, fun, new toy keep, and the strategy going forward is keep putting new content out, keep it interesting for players and... That's what we plan to do. It's not that we don't plan to do that in FarmVille too.

FIFA Superstars launched and while other games, like Treasure Isle, can gain 5 million players in a week, this game's just hitting the 500K mark in the same amount of time. What does this say to you about traditional video game publishers getting into the Facebook gaming space?
You have to sort out different possibilities. Just because a traditional game publisher dies it doesn't mean that's the reason it grew at one rate or another. You have to also think about -- is the topic a really mass market topic? Certainly, sports game have been really popular in the traditional game industry, but so far, no one's had a really big break-out sports game on the social side, which is also true of another number of topics -- like fantasy and robots and aliens -- that work well on the traditional side haven't really made a big splash in the social space. I would think that sports would do better than science fiction and robots. It's an unproven area, so you have to wait and see how well it's executed, and see if people on Facebook want to play that kind of game.

There's a lot of learning when you come into this space -- learning both who you're talking to with the game now (of course for me it's exciting to talk to such a big potential audience). You have to remember that if you're going to get people to play it as a social experience, they have to bring a good portion of their friends in, and so you have to make a game that appeals to different kinds of people. So my aunt can play, my mom can play and my gaming friends can also play and so forth. You have to get a game that whole bunch of different people are going to like.

Do you see a lot of potential for social gaming with all of the recent iPhone and iPhone OS announcements?
One of those things announced on the Apple stage was that FarmVille for iPhone is coming. So we've definitely got a lot of initiative going on the mobile side -- there's a lot of social potential before.

So, will we see FrontierVille and other Zynga games on iPhone, which will interact with the Facebook versions of the game?

Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense and we're likely to continue... I think FarmVille on iPhone is likely to be the first step.
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