Things haven’t been going well for Zynga recently. They’ve been forced to cut jobs and close entire studios. Despite this, they’ve released two new games: Farmville 2 and Cityville 2. While they’re both sequels, they’re different enough to their original counterparts to be entirely new games in their own right.
On Social Sequels
Social games are a different beast to more traditionally developed games. A game like Grand Theft Auto gets worked on for 3+ of years by a team of 100+ people. The game gets 100% designed, then 100% developed, and then the game is ‘launched’. Small updates and bug-fixes might come after that launch, but people expect it to be the same game one year after launch, and what people do in the game doesn’t really change it for others. On the other hand, Farmville 1 was created by 5-6 people in 5-6 weeks. That’s 6 man-months of work to Grand Theft Auto’s 300+ man-years. That said, Zynga has also said that Farmville 1 only launched with 5% of the finished product, so they made up a lot as they went along. In one way, this kind of development is liberating. Products can be shipped with a fraction of the content, and designers can test their ideas out without having to commit to everything up-front. However, it also means that initial decisions are made with a limited understanding of what the game is going to develop into over time. Expansions and features are built up in little steps, and after a while this makes additions harder to make. Each new development has to work together with the last, and no update is allowed to break another. I’ve heard from Zynga staff joke that a new player jumping into Farmville 1 basically needs a diploma in it to understand everything that’s going on! Because of that difficulty, sequels play an important role. They give designers the chance to look through everything that the original did – pick out what worked and throw out what didn’t, to rebuild engines from scratch and take advantage of the changes in technology since the last launch. Both Farmville 2 and Cityville 2have done that admirably – I think Cityville especially, so I’m going focus on that.
Summary of gameplay
Cityville’s in 3D now, thanks to the hardware-accelerated Stage3D and the proprietary Flare3D engine. Like the first Cityville, it’s mostly about buildings – what they do, when you can get them and what they cost. There are the standard currency / level / population cap mechanics as well as the more interesting consumable resource side. I’m quite taken by the human resources, which I ‘ll go into later.
Most buildings require components like bricks, foundations and glass. A specialist building like a burger joint may need other resources like ‘mystery meat.’ These can all be collected from certain buildings, and most (if not all) can be crafted in various manufacturing buildings. The resource dependency tree is complex and a little unpredictable – there’s no map of how it all fits together but provides help along the way when you really need something.
This is the first big difference for Cityville 2. There are three forms of human resource present in the game: Shoppers, builders and Citizens. You get shoppers by clicking on residential houses, who then stroll the sidewalks of the town until they go into stores like a coffee shop. You need Builders and citizens for putting up new buildings, and you get them by clicking on the cars and trucks on the roads. Most of the game is about the commerce, but it’s a nice link back to the the game setting – saying that in the end cities are about people.
It’s still pretty easy to see the spreadsheet of numbers that underpins most social games. It’s not a terrible thing – game designers use these things to work out how to balance the game, but it can be disappointing to know that it doesn’t matter what shape your city is. The human resources in Cityville 2 actually move around the map, though. Shoppers are created from houses but then travel at a walking pace around the city, so there are strategic advantages to having a shopping mall next to a large population center. Even better, different regions can be zoned so that they’re better for industrial, commercial or residential purposes. That means there’s an advantage to keeping those districts close but still separate. Genius!
Zynga has managed to create a style that lets them use 3D graphics without having to build in too much detail. The color schemes and art direction make a clear aesthetic that makes everything readable without sacrificing style. Basically I guess I’m saying that it works.
One problems I’ve had with social games is that skill doesn’t matter much – there’s no way for a skilled player to win more and race ahead of an unskilled one. This is because developers want to make these games work for as large an audience as possible, so it’s hard to justify using mechanics that demand skills that would some players just don’t have. Cityville 2 gets around this and layers an optional timing-based minigame on top of each action on the game: When collecting stuff – laying out a building or picking up completed goods – a small timer is shown, and a player has to click at the right time to get a bonus. Bonuses get bigger over time, and the required timing gets more exact. The game can be played without these bonuses, and it’s not totally clear how much you get from them, but it definitely makes the game more exciting. My one complaint is that you could use different minigame for different activities – hammering a nail, tapping on a cash register or pouring concrete – but this is pretty minor and I’m sure that this will get picked up somewhere down the line.
In the end, social games are designed to get players to pay money for them. A lot of social games made the purchase of in-game items a flat-out requirement (Simcity Social, I’m looking at you), but it seems like all of the items that you need in Cityville 2 can be collected for free – eventually. Every action has a small, random chance of giving the player ‘keys’, the for-pay currency. This means that players hell-bent on playing without paying can do that, but it would also be obvious to them that progress is much faster with a little cash input.
While it’s good to set a game inside a story to help progression, the plot of Cityville 2 has a lot of details that we don’t really need. There’s a criminal investigation going on that puts too much emphasis on too few characters. Zynga has dropped storylines like this into a couple of their games over the last few years, and this one works better than others like the ‘world at war’ story in Empires & Allies. It’s better to pick a story that can be told in the stop-and-start way a mission structure depends on. It’s still very specific to a couple of characters, though, and the game doesn’t sell us on why the playerhas to be in charge of the investigation.
The power of positive thinking
Cityville 2 uses incredibly encouraging language. Icons fly out of buildings in an arc, and if you can catch them before they hit the ground, you get to see encouraging phrases like “Got it!”, “What a catch!” or the more confusing “OMGEEZERS!” Each catch adds to your overall ‘approval’ level, and when that his the maximum you get to see the phrase “WE LOVE YOU!!!!” writ large across the screen while a party goes underneath. It’s an understandable thing to incorporate into a game, I can see why they’d do it, but it’s hard to say whether it makes the game more fun.
Theme and points of emphasis
As with the original Cityville, the game mechanics are based on modern western cities with service-based economies. This framing paints an oddly incomplete picture of the inter-dependent parts of a functioning city, but reflects the state of modern western economies well. It’s quite fitting for us to be left with that question whether it’s intentional or not!
This is an interesting feature, and an intriguing power grab on Zynga’s part. Over the years, Facebook has limited the number of communication channels that an app can broadcast from. In response, Zynga has started making channels of their own: in Cityville, Each city acts as a chat room. All of my friends can visit my city and then use the chat room there, so even if my friend Aaron isn’t friends with my friend Bruce, they can still talk in my city. That wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that everyonein Cityville is friends with a default neighbour, Governor Maxley. That basically makes Maxley’s city a public chat room, letting strangers connect with each other to get more out of the game.
Overall, the game is another big step in the right direction and I’m pleased about that. There are a few large and glaring things that get in the way of my enjoyment, though.
It barely runs on my machine!
I have very little idea about hardware benchmarks these days, so maybe I’m alone in this issue. I’m also a huge fan of Flash, of 3D games and of pushing graphical boundaries so it’s hard for me to complain about this. I’m going to though. Games that can benefit from a high-performance machine are great, and I’ve had a lot of fun when I buy a new computer that lets me crank up the settings on my old games. Citiville 2 doesn’t present any levels or options, though, and the inconsistency of the frame rate means that the quick-time events can sometimes be impossible. A system that either allowed different levels of complexity or automatically adjusted when things get a little ropey would totally solve this.
It’s probably still in beta, but the music is something that I’d really like to see updated soon. It uses the kind of up-beat, chirpy music you’d expect to hear in the opening of movie about a small-but-bustling midwestern town where you just know something kooky is going to happen. The problem is that this scene is constantly being set, and the only let-up is during a levelling up when Ode To Joyis played instead. Games like Transport Tycoon Deluxe did a great job of varying the music through the game by giving you a playlist of possible tracks. Granted, music was probably cheaper to produce in the era of low-fi MIDI audio, but a game that expects millions of daily players can probably afford to fill the soundtrack out a little more.
I don’t like the humor
Every click and action has a (silly) accompanying description of that action: clicking on a house to send out a shopper will tell you that they are “Opening junk mail”, or “Burning roasts.” The opening site loader is has phrases like “Missing the point” and “Pivoting unexpectedly.” At best it is bewilderingly irrelevant. I get that writing is hard, and most of the designers, artists and programmers who work on a game aren’t very good at it. Unfortunately it often falls on these people to come up with barely-relevant content to fill the gaps for the design. At worst, though , it’s downright offensive. Here are some of my least favourite bits: Dumpsters: where bodies are found (according to TV detective shows) Glass: Clear material made out of sand. Glass ceilings are used to separate the sexes in business environments.
It’s really sexist
Continuing on from the sexist undertone in the humor, the pictures that describe the core mechanics are kind of sexist too. All the icons for builders, store owners and industrial buildings are men. The icons for shopper and citizen are both women. In the narrative flow so far I’ve met a male governor and two male police officers. The female characters are an out-of touch hippie and a scientist. The scientist character wouldn’t be such a problem but she’s depicted as insane and destitute, and asks me to put up extra housing for her after she destroys her home, and raise additional taxes to fund her crazy experiments. On the bright side, it appears that she controls the weather, so there’s that.
All in all it’s an impressive extension of the original Cityville. Unlike the original Farmville or Mafia Wars, it has been launched as a fully-fledged game with fun mechanics on day one. It’s clear that Zyinga is learning from their experiences and making an effort to put out better games. It’s also clear that they’re not the evil geniuses that many people have made them out to be. If they knew how to make the perfect revenue-generating machine, they would have built it already. Let’s hope that never happens. In the meantime, though, the games are getting better, and we can all be happy about that!