Once. Twice. Three times. The folks at Zynga kept telling me the same thing, because they want me to know it. And they want you to know it:
The next big game from Zynga, the one that follows FarmVille, FrontierVille, and CityVille has been created by people who used to work at Ensemble Studios. They helped make the great PC strategy series Age of Empires. They worked on a Halo (real-time-strategy) game.
I believe we're supposed to conclude one thing from that fact: these guys know how to make complex, rich, satisfying games. Not the kind of Facebook fluff you might dismiss.
And then you see the screenshots. How can this be?
Have your expectations been raised? Zynga Dallas creative director Bill Jackson, one of those ex-Ensemble Studios guys, walked me through a demo of the game this week and explained that, despite its frilly appearances, there is some heft to CastleVille. There's stuff in there for the Age of Empires player.
Jackson describes the game, which will launch in the coming weeks on Facebook, as a combination of a "builder" and an "role-playing game". Like FarmVille, it's been designed to be something you show off to Facebook friends. Bit by bit, you will build a castle and develop its surroundings, making it look better and better so you can then impress your friends with how good it looks. You'll get the resources to improve and build by taking quests. Your quests will be accessed by talking to characters in the game world (that's the RPG aspect).
You'll also explore a vast game board that initially looks mostly like a forest shrouded in mist. The game board is bigger than that of FarmVille or CityVille, Jackson told me, and it will be full of new characters and quests to discover.
Your ability to explore in the game will be affected by your "castle" level, a numerical value that indicates how well you've built up your home base. The more you build, the more you can explore. That system is controlled by standard Zynga limitations: you can only do as many actions as you have energy points to spend on them, and you'll have to wait hours for energy to fully regenerate, once it is exhausted, or pay to get it back immediately. CastleVille will lock some options off until you achieve a set number of "reputation points," which are earned by visiting friends' regions and helping them out.
The game looks pretty and animates well, but what caught my attention—and what justified the ex-Ensemble angle to me—was Jackson's pride in the amount of simulation happening in the world. Characters in the game will react to changes in the world. Animals will change behaviors depending on what you build near them. Buildings will be affected by proximity to other objects.
To give some examples: farms will grow crops faster if they are set up near rivers; a character who wanders by a new archery stand may start shooting arrows on his own and generate coins; moving a maypole near one character will cause her to sing, which will attract birds, who will then drop coins. Some of that is more Easter Egg than simulation, but the idea is that there will be both obvious and non-obvious consequences to how CastleVille players arrange their game world, allowing them to tinker and optimize their creation.
The CastleVille crew is excited about how characters play a role in this story. The characters are active inhabitants in the game world, not just talking heads who squawk from menus. For a Zynga game, that's yet another step toward conventional game design, following the more advanced combat mechanics introduced in last month's Mafia Wars 2 and the slightly more complex narratives (for a Zynga game) produced in FrontierVille. Story may be advancing again in this game too, as will Zynga game standards for original music. The game will be set to about 15 minutes of orignal music, all recorded by a 75-piece orchestra and choir, composed by Stephen Rippy, audio director on Halo Wars.
There won't be much combat in the game. Bad guys—"beasties"— will have to be dealt with by using certain items, but there's no hack-and-slash or skirmish systems in the game. Jackson said there will be rushes of enemies, occasionally, but I'm not imagining anything like real-time-strategy game combat.
CastleVille is less of an obvious fit for the people who like the kind of console games that get press this time of year. The mission-based Adventure World and the violent, strategic Mafia Wars 2 are more suitable for the Battlefield or even Zelda crowds. But to hear Jackson promise dozens of gameplay and simulation surprises hiding in the game world makes CastleVille seem like a game that'll be worth poking around in at launch, just to see what kind of depth is hiding there. And, hey, it's free.