Today, Zynga launched The Pioneer Trail, a Facebook title that builds upon the precedent set by studio's popular FrontierVille, yet introduces a completely new set of mechanics and social features.
As an extension of FrontierVille, The Pioneer Trail puts players in the shoes of a settler in the American West, though this time players will set off on an adventure through the wilderness in addition to managing a growing homestead.
While the title sports a number of new features, The Pioneer Trail won't exist separately from the original game -- in fact, everything players earned in FrontierVille will carry over to the new title, as Zynga says the original game "is now going to exist as part of The Pioneer Trail."
"Originally, Pioneer Trail started as a feature," says general manager John Osvald in an interview with Gamasutra, noting that the new title took shape as a result of Zynga's efforts to update FrontierVille.
"FrontierVille originally launched with these small road signs at the edges of the map, and we had always planned to do major expansions for the game, but we just kind of never got around to it. When we decided we wanted to do it, we decided to go big on it," he says.
Osvald also notes that with the The Pioneer Trail, Zynga hopes to address some common requests from FrontierVille's most dedicated players.
Making A Social Game More Social
Perhaps fittingly for the social game genre, Osvald points out that FrontierVille players often clamored for more "meaningful" social interaction within the game, as players were primarily limited to sending gifts, visiting homesteads, and other similarly brief actions.
To address these concerns, Zynga re-tooled the social systems in The Pioneer Trail to emphasize far fewer, but hopefully more significant relationships.
In The Pioneer Trail, players will travel with three specialized companions -- a hunter, doctor, and carpenter -- and human players can aid their friends by assuming the duties of one of these otherwise CPU-based partners.
According to Osvald, this system aims to make playing with friends more valuable than it was in the original FrontierVille.
"We really want you to play with your friends, those are the most meaningful in-game relationships you can have," Osvald says. "Instead of having a neighbor bar that can hold hundreds of people, you just get three people that are really important."
Zynga hopes that by limiting the number of people to interact with in the game, players will feel a stronger bond to those they interact with regularly.
To further emphasize the role of interpersonal relationships, Zynga has introduced a matchmaking system to The Pioneer Trail, allowing players with no in-game friends to find partners to play with. This system, which won't divulge any personal information to unfamiliar players, helps Zynga further push The Pioneer Trail as a social experience.
"There's sort of hierarchy of what we want with The Pioneer Trail. You playing with three of your real friends is number one for us, and at the very bottom is you playing by yourself. We think the matchmaking experience will be much better than playing alone," Osvald explained.
Bringing Stories To The Social Space
In addition to these social features, and perhaps unexpectedly for the social game market, Zynga found that FrontierVille players often desired a more story-driven, contextualized experience.
"What we learned from that in FrontierVille is that whenever we added layers of story, players would love it. So we started thinking about it like a TV series, and wrote story arcs far into the future, and then we give tidbits of that over time," explained Osvald.
It was with this mindset that Zynga set about designing The Pioneer Trail as a much more directed, progression-based experience than FrontierVille. This new game introduces simple in-game cinematics, and a multitude of quests and storylines that provide context for the player's actions as they travel towards the game's story-based conclusion.
Getting Up To Speed
To help accelerate new players toward the content in The Pioneer Trail, Zynga has also streamlined the original FrontierVille experience, allowing players to build up their homestead at an accelerated rate.
"For a new user, the very early experience will be the same as it would have been in FrontierVille, but to make a comparison with TV shows, it's like you're watching it on DVD, so it's a lot faster," says Osvald. "Whereas it might have originally taken you about a couple days to get your cabin, now it'll only take you about five minutes."
"Regarding all the content we've released in the last year, we really looked at what users liked, what they didn't, what's key to the story that they're telling, and anything we've found as extraneous, we either removed from the game or made it clearly ancillary," he continues.
Reflecting on all the changes FrontierVille has seen with this new title, Osvald notes that for now, The Pioneer Trail is an experiment of sorts, and time will tell if Zynga titles such as CityVille or FarmVille will see similar releases going forward.
"We certainly share knowledge between games and teams," he points out. "If users love The Pioneer Trail, and it goes well, I think other teams will look at it and consider it for the future of their games."