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Zynga tries to reinvent itself with a new smartphone strategy game

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In 2008, Mark Skaggs joined Zynga in hopes of making real-time strategy games even more popular. He had spent the previous six years at Electronic Arts, working on games like Command & Conquer, but with Zynga he saw an opportunity to introduce RTS games to a whole new audience. That never happened, though. Facebook turned out to be a poor platform for the genre, and instead Skaggs spent his time working on social gaming hits like CityVille and FarmVille. But now that mobile has emerged as a suitable platform, he's finally doing what he was hired to do with the launch of Empires & Allies on iOS and Android today. "The idea was to take the classic RTS experience and bring it to mobile," he explains.

And for a struggling Zynga, Empires & Allies is an important step in its quest to reinvent itself as a mobile-first game company.

On the surface, Empires & Allies looks a lot like any of the glut of military-themed strategy games on mobile, like Boom Beach or War of Nations. (It also isn't connected to the Facebook game of the same name, which Zynga launched in 2011 and shut down two years later.) It features a base-building component, where you can collect resources used to build new defenses and add new units to your force.

"The idea was take the classic RTS experience and bring it to mobile."

It's the typical timed system: resources generate at specific intervals, and new buildings take a pre-determined amount of time to complete (unless you spend premium currency, bought with real money). It’s a system designed to keep you coming back. Other players can attack your base, and vice versa, so the trick is to build a camp that's both efficient at generating resources and one that's tough for invading forces. From there you can venture out to a map to complete various missions, which involve scouting an area and then figuring out which units to send in.

This core concept isn't at all unique, but Empires & Allies differentiates itself in a few ways. For one, it looks significantly better than its contemporaries, with a gritty 3D art style reminiscent of classic RTS games like C&C. Once your base gets relatively large, it's fun just to watch the little animations play out. "We start with the look," Skaggs says of the focus on production values. When it comes to the actual gameplay, Empires & Allies is still pretty simple — your soldiers and tanks will fight autonomously, so there's no need to micromanage — but you can do things like call in air strikes to destroy turrets or drop flashbombs to confuse soldiers. It's a far cry from the nuance of Starcraft, but it makes you feel much more involved compared to most mobile strategy games.

"The new audience is secondary."

With its stripped-down gameplay it'd be a stretch to call Empires & Allies a touchscreen RTS, but it is a surprisingly fun strategy game, and one that clearly pulls a lot of ideas from the classics. It even has a single-player focus for those who aren't into social gaming: there are 250 missions you can play through without having to worry about roping in your friends. According to Skaggs, while he's hoping to reach a new audience with the game, the first goal was to ensure fans of more traditional strategy games were satisfied. "The new audience is secondary," he explains.

Empires & Allies is a very important title for the beleaguered game developer. After becoming a household name thanks to the sudden rise of Facebook games, Zynga has struggled to adapt to the shift to mobile. Most recently, Don Mattrick, the former Xbox head who became Zynga CEO in 2013, left the company, with divisive founder Mark Pincus returning to lead. While Zynga is best known for cute and cuddly games like FarmVille, the focus now is very different. "I am returning to the company that I love in order to accelerate innovation in the most popular categories like action strategy," Pincus said when rejoining the company.

Empires & Allies

That includes not just Empires & Allies, but also the upcoming Dawn of Titans, a fantasy game centered around massive, Lord of the Rings-style battles. With mobile gaming dominated by free-to-play strategy titles like Clash of Clans and Game of War, Zynga is playing catch-up, hoping that an emphasis on production values will help it stand out. (Its only other known major release for this year is the upcoming FarmVille: Harvest Swap, a match-three game aimed at the Candy Crush crowd.)

The reinvention is a huge, but necessary gamble for a company that has seen its user base drop significantly since the glory days of FarmVille. During that time the company made a number of huge acquisitions that never really paid off, including spending $180 million on Draw Something developer OMGPOP, before ultimately shutting the studio down. Last year Zynga lost $226 million and shed a huge chunk of its workforce in an attempt to streamline its business. "We are building a high performing culture," Mattrick said in February, referring to the company’s rough 2014. It’s been a long time since the company had a major hit on any platform, and so the company is moving in a different direction in terms of the audience it’s courting. A lot rests on these next few releases.

"This is a very different game for Zynga," Skaggs says of Empires & Allies.