Zynga gets more social, more violent

The company said 'Mafia Wars 2' is its edgiest game yet

Zynga is making its games more social, but also more edgy, so players will be able to meet people more easily, then hack them to death with a chainsaw.

Zynga introduced several new games Tuesday, including a sequel to "Mafia Wars" that takes the company to a new level of violence, and a follow-on to "FarmVille" and "CityVille," called "CastleVille," that's set in a more tranquil, medieval fantasy world of dragons and maidens.

Zynga also announced that it's building a new "social games playground," code-named Project Z, that's basically a website for playing games and meeting other gamers.

"With every game, we ask the question, how can we make this more social?" founder and CEO Mark Pincus said during a launch event at Zynga's new office in a San Francisco warehouse district, summing up one of the day's big themes.

The other big theme was that Zynga is trying to make some of its games edgier and more "grown-up," so that they might appeal to more serious gamers. Both of the themes are evident in "Mafia Wars 2," which Zynga said will be launching "soon."

"Mafia Wars 2" is "easily the most edgy social game we've ever developed," said Erik Bethke, one of Zynga's general managers.

Like the first "Mafia Wars," players compete to build a powerful crime empire, but they can now engage in one-on-one combat using bats, knives, rocket launchers and even a chainsaw.

"It's a very dangerous world," said Bethke, who played a promo reel for the game that showed people being shot and someone about to have their face burned with a cigar. That's a far cry from "Words with Friends."

The new games are also more social. Clan rivalry in "Mafia Wars 2" is "much more front and center," Pincus said, and players can gang together to rob casinos and burn them down.

"CastleVille" is much calmer, but it too emphasizes the social. Friends can help each other to build armor or mix potions, and work together to keep "beasties" outside the castle walls.

It's more personal than "FarmVille" or "CityVille," Bethke said. Players create their own path through the game, discovering "mysterious locations" and hidden characters, he said.

Zynga also launched its first "hidden objects" game, called "Hidden Chronicles," in which players have to locate items buried in cluttered scenes depicting the inside of a railroad car or a Paris café. "Hidden Chronicles" will launch "soon" on Facebook, Zynga said.

The company also announced three new mobile games built with HTML 5 for Facebook's new mobile platform, announced Monday. The games are "FarmVille Express," "ZyngaPoker Mobile Web" and "Words with Friends HTML 5."

Another new mobile game, "Dream Zoo," where players collect exotic animals, will launch "soon" in the App Store, followed by the Android Market.

Zynga didn't say when the Project Z website will launch, but it will link to Facebook via Facebook Connect, and people will be able to start a game on Facebook and complete it at the Project Z site, or vice versa, said John Schappert, Zynga's chief operating officer.

It encouraged enthusiasts to reserve their username -- or "zTag" -- for the new website now on Zynga's website.

Zynga is in the business of "big data," said CTO Cadir Lee, meaning it's constantly wading through vast quantities of information about its customers, to understand their behavior. It does this partly to match players with similar skill levels, in games like "Words with Friends," he said.

The company has been known to deploy 1,000 servers in a single week to support new, fast-growing games, he said.

Zynga, which said earlier this year it will file for a public stock offering, is still the top maker of games on Facebook. It has almost 77 million monthly active users for CityVille, although that is down from an all-time high of 111 million, according to AppData.

FarmVille has about 35 million monthly users, also down significantly from its all-time high. But "Adventure World," which went live only last month, is already the number-three game, AppWorld says, with 35.6 million monthly users.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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