This week, Zynga launched "Empires and Allies," the latest in its line of addictive, microtransaction-based building/strategy games ahead of its rumored upcoming IPO. Despite being the most successful Facebook game developer nearly since its inception a year ago, Zynga has drawn the ire of respected voices in gaming spheres, and "Empires and Allies" appears to be an attempt at addressing some of the criticisms leveled at Zynga, especially the idea that its "social" games aren't really that social at all.
Looking at its previous hits -- "Farmville," "Cityville," and "Mafia Wars" -- it's hard to argue with that assertion. They are simply not multiplayer games in the traditional sense, and the way that you utilize your social graph is to beg them for help. There's no way for one player to affect another player's experience in an unexpected way, or to truly collaborate on creating something or overcoming a joint challenge.
"Empires and Allies" -- a strategic war game, which is a departure from Zynga's standard building mechanics -- allows you not only to build an island empire and an army to defend that empire, but it also lets you engage in combat with your friends. Unlike a game like "Mafia Wars," which has an extremely shallow player-vs.-player system, the battles play out on a tactical map with you controlling your troops to defeat your enemies.
This is an important direction for social games to move toward. Currently, a lot of intellectual capital has been expended by social game companies on how to acquire new players -- mostly through convincing existing players to beg their friends' lists to play. Not a lot of effort has been expended on figuring out how to truly leverage the social connections between people to enhance gameplay experiences. Zynga, as the market leader, needs to lead in making its games better, not merely more addictive.