FrontierVille Sequel Pioneer Trail Gets Zynga a Little Closer to Making Hardcore Games, Limits Friends

Pioneer Trail is the brand-new, massive sequel to FrontierVille, one of the most popular games on Facebook. It's got a few twists that are going to throw any FrontierVille fan for a loop.

But it also has hints of where the people who made it at Zynga might be going... directions that any hardcore gamer should pay attention to.

For FrontierVille fans: Pioneer Trail, formerly called Oregon Trail before a name change due to a competing game with that name, is an extension of FrontierVille that can be played as a standalone game. It's supposed to launch some time today, August 12.

Series veterans will be able to import your coins, horseshoes, spouse and kids to Pioneer Trail, enjoying whatever benefits you have accrued in the original game. But you will be leaving that family behind in the new game to embark on a story-driven adventure: you set out on a trail to rescue a kidnapped boy. You can magically transport to your family's homestead to check in on them, but the meat of the game is on the trail as you strive to rescue the kid. Your adventure will span a handful of zones, from the forest-filled Beaver Valley through to the snowy Avalanche Pass, each a place where you can gather resources, do jobs and find story notes that push the plot forward. The whole adventure is supposed to take 2-4 weeks to complete.

FrontierVille Sequel Pioneer Trail Gets Zynga a Little Closer to Making Hardcore Games, Limits FriendsS

And here's the twist: You can only bring three friends with you for the ride. That's right. Forget about most of your so-called Facebook "friends." You will be bring just three Facebook folks into your game, one to be the hunter, one the doctor and one the carpenter. Each will be able to provide you with a resource—meat, medicine, parts—and each will be able to go on specific jobs. A Zynga rep told me that they limited the number of friends you can connect to in order to ensure that interactions with friends feel like the most powerful interactions possible in the game. Friends need to matter. And they'll need to be reliable, hopefully, as Pioneer Trail will let friends visit each other's games three times a day, helping their pals amass the resources and energy to proceed in this traditional Zynga-style resource management type of game.

For Facebook-game-shunning skeptics (aka many hardcore gamers who prefer the kind of stuff you can play on an Xbox 360 or through Steam): Pay attention to what Zynga is doing. They're not just making more and more resource-management click-a-thons. Their recently-released Empires & Allies added a light layer of strategic combat to their usual formulas. FrontierVille is set to add a lot more elements that might sound familiar:

  • Multiplayer Matchmaking: If Pioneer Trail players can't or don't want to play the game with their Facebook friends, they'll be able to make the game find them a person of similar rank to play with.
  • Branching Narratives: The storyline in Pioneer Trail partially unfolds as the player completes tasks and finds story notes. There are more in the game than can be found in one playthrough, Zynga tells me. But more interesting than that is that sometimes there will be choices that affect what we learn next in the story. Having not been able to play the game myself yet, the impression I got from Zynga is that player choices won't be that deep—you're choosing whether to chase a butterfly or not, for example—but that they will affect how the narrative unfolds. I'm sensing very vague shades of the branched narratives popular in role-playing games from the likes of BioWare.
  • High Scores: Playing for points might be a bit retro these days, at least among players of most blockbuster console games, but it's still a hallmark of a type of game that Zynga skeptics respect. Pioneer Trail, unusual for Zynga, can be played for points. Players will be scored on how they play through each of the game's major areas and will get an overall score for a playthrough of the game.

None of these Pioneer Trail features will be implemented with the depth a hardcore gamer might expect, but the do move Zynga closer to making games that function in the way that a lot of long-term gamers will recognize. It doesn't seem like Zynga's about to announce a competitive first-person shooter or role-playing game or anything, but one can easily imagine how such features could nudge them towards some of the rhythms of solo and multiplayer gaming that their prior work has avoided.

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What to make of Pioneer Trail? It's uncommon for Zynga to make a spin-off to one of its games. It's uncommon for them to ask us to play video games with so few people. And it's uncommon to borrow these many traits from the kind of games they don't usually make in one go.

Pioneer Trail launches today (presumably via Frontierville's main Facebook page). Let's see what Zynga's millions of gamers think of it and what the outside crowd does too.