Last April, Zynga told shareholders that 2013 would be a “transition year” as the company focused more of its efforts on mobile, where it had fallen behind as competitors like King and Supercell ran up the App Store charts.
Soon, we’ll start to see the fruits of that labor, the company is promising. Zynga plans to start testing and rolling out new versions of three of its biggest games: A new Words With Friends app, an updated Zynga Poker app and a phone and tablet adaptation of its long-iconic title FarmVille, making its mobile debut as FarmVille 2: Country Escape.
The three games will either soft-launch in markets outside the U.S. in the coming weeks, or — in the case of Zynga Poker — be delivered to a small percentage of players as an over-the-air update. After some testing and fine-tuning, all three “will be available worldwide to all players in the coming months,” COO Clive Downie wrote in a company blog post.
Mobile games are a slightly different territory from Zynga’s best-known stomping ground, Facebook; players are arguably less distraction-prone, but play sessions are shorter and touch controls need to feel more intimate and precise. Plus, Poker, Words With Friends and FarmVille have millions of players who the company doesn’t want to alienate by changing too much.
In other words, the new games need to be the same, but different.
“When we started designing this new Words With Friends, one of the first things we said is, ‘We’ve got to stay true to our current base,'” Zynga VP of Words With Friends Abhinav Agrawal said in an interview with Re/code. “They don’t want many changes to the core game. The game’s the game, and we want to respect that.”
The changes to the app, which will require a new, free download but will be backward compatible with players’ history and ongoing games, include the ability to search for words both before and after they’ve been played, as well as extensive stats about each game and each player that will make math nerds squeal with glee. The new Words With Friends also ditches the current app’s most popular paid power-up, Vision, makes other currently paid power-ups free and hides the ones that are paid under a new menu.
This is because, Agrawal said, Zynga wants Words With Friends to have “the largest audience possible. This game is not focused on monetization.”
On the flip side, there’s Zynga Poker, which has historically monetized much better on mobile than Words With Friends (FYI, those are App Annie links requiring free registration) by selling packs of virtual poker chips. The app’s economy won’t change when it updates, but instead Zynga focused on its look and feel, changing the angle at which players look at the table, the colors of the buttons so they can make decisions at a glance and even the animations of the poker chips to make them seem more “real.”
The team behind the new Zynga Poker also spent some time thinking about colors, creative director Nick Giovanello said.
“From a color psychology perspective, red is a really popular color because it inspires quick decision-making,” he said. “When you add gold to that, it increases the perceived value. We like to go deep on things like that.”
That stuff matters because Zynga wants users to be playing poker while they’re in line at Starbucks — a favorite scenario of NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil, whose company Zynga recently acquired — or some other place where they don’t have a lot of time. Looking down at your phone’s screen? Your brain says, red, gotta go fast. Hey, that button to raise the stakes is kinda gold …
A similar thought influenced the design of FarmVille 2: Country Escape. As the name suggests, it takes place at a seaside ranch some distance from the non-mobile games’ drier landlocked setting. The abundance of water means players can quickly grow certain crops like apple trees in all of 10 seconds, a design decision made to meet the Starbucks test.
“In just three or four minutes, you can make some progress,” VP Jonathan Knight said.
Country Escape also severs some of FarmVille’s roots (sorry) in social networking. Multiple mobile players may join co-ops to trade resources among themselves, but Knight said having friends is “not required.” The app will also allow offline play when one’s phone or tablet is placed into airplane mode.
Zynga narrowly beat Wall Street’s expectations for its Q4 earnings in January, and has moved toward mobile in other ways since Don Mattrick and Clive Downie assumed the CEO and COO posts, respectively. In addition to acquiring Clumsy Ninja maker NaturalMotion for half a billion dollars, the company has released two new social slots games since December, Hit It Rich and Riches of Olympus.