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New RTS From Lord of the Rings Vet Hits Mobile, Dev Promises No Pay-To-Win

Q&A: We talk with Zynga's Mark Skaggs about the new mobile version of Empires & Allies.


Social gaming giant Zynga on Tuesday released the mobile version of its modern military strategy game Empires & Allies. The game was previously released on Facebook. One of the biggest differences with the new mobile version is its realistic visuals, compared to the cartoony nature of the browser version.

But that's just one change Zynga has made.

Empires & Allies was developed by what Zynga calls a "seasoned team of developers," led by Mark Skaggs. He's the vice president of games for Zynga, and created the massive FarmVille property that the company is perhaps best known for. Before joining Zynga in 2008, he worked on popular RTS games for console and PC including the Command & Conquer series and Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth.

The new mobile version of Empires & Allies aims to capture the spirit of traditional RTS games and apply that formula to mobile and tablet devices. Not such a simple task. RTS games for PC are known for their long play sessions while mobile games are often played for shorter durations of time.

This is one of the issues I asked Skaggs about in a recent interview. He says PC and mobile games aren't an either/or situation. "You can sit down at your PC for a deep, extended play session in let's say StarCraft 2, and pick up Empires & Allies and play on your way to work," he explains.

You can view our full conversation (which also touches on pay-to-win concerns and more), as well as images and download links, below. But first, some more game details.

Empires & Allies for mobile sees players assembling a military force comprised of troops, tanks, helicopters, and warplanes. Players will need to build their army and then utilize their unique attributes to defend their base. Aiding in your defense are a variety of weapons, including tactical nukes, hellfire missiles, and even "orbital strikes." Zynga promises "over-the-top, Hollywood-style explosions" and more.

Another new feature for Empires & Allies on mobile is connectivity with friends, highlighting the "allies" part of the game. You can sync up with friends and utilize in-game chat to devise strategies or leverage a new feature called Strike Force. This lets you assign your allies to specific positions, which yield boost rewards.

Empires & Allies for mobile has been available through a geo-lock beta in nine countries for the past few months. But the free game launches today, May 5, in full on iOS and Android.

You can download Empires & Allies today from iTunes and Google Play.

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You come from a strong PC gaming background with Command & Conquer; so I'm sure some will be surprised to know you're working on this mobile game. PC gaming is booming at the moment, so why do you think Empires & Allies is a good fit for mobile?

For as long as there have been games, there have been platform transitions. Whether it's been new PC hardware, a new generation of consoles, the introduction of mobile and social gaming... the idea of transitioning to new platforms just feels natural and normal to me.

What makes Empires & Allies a great fit on mobile is that we're bringing all the fun, action, and excitement from modern military RTS games--something fans of the genre should remember--but we've crafted it specifically for mobile and tablet devices. The play patterns of a mobile game, compared to traditional PC games are much different, so we've made a changes ensure a great mobile experience, while still adding a lot of strategy and depth that traditional RTS gamers can enjoy. For example, we changed up the gameplay to be shorter sessions. We changed the controls to be easier to manage on your mobile device. On one hand, we eliminated a lot of the micromanagement of troops and units found in traditional RTS games, but we gave players more control in different ways through the optional command groups and units.

As an RTS game maker, it's been inspiring to see a new category and format for strategy games find a home on mobile over the last few years. What's particularly exciting is that PC and mobile games aren't an “either" / “or" proposition. You can sit down at your PC for a deep, extended play session in let's say StarCraft 2, and pick up Empires & Allies and play on your way to work.

We've heard that Empires & Allies is being designed to feel more like a PC title and appeal to core gamers--what does that mean to you and how are you going about delivering that?

We know that there are a fun set of experiences that modern military RTS games have traditionally delivered, and we've tried to pull those experiences through in a few ways. The first is the “feel" of the game. For us great military strategy games were always about the ‘BOOM' – the Hollywood style explosions, the bad guys, the feeling of playing with toys in a sandbox that you may remember from some classic games. That sense of building your army, going into battle and watching the mayhem as you attack somebody else's base, dropping super weapons, fighting with tanks and helicopters, jets, drones and all those fun toys--you'll get all of that from Empires & Allies.

"We want players to feel like they're making interesting choices over the course of every battle--and that's something that you don't often see in mobile strategy games"

The other area lies in the strategy and control that I was mentioning before. We want players to feel like they're making interesting choices over the course of every battle--and that's something that you don't often see in mobile strategy games. The trick is designing it to work well on mobile. Rather than give players the ability to micro-manage each unit, we've added command groups for players to set and deploy en masse, we've added command points which unlock over the course of each battle and let players decide which super weapon to use, we've added flares which let you control your troop directions in real time.

All of that is crafted for the player, the device and the context of which they're playing. It offers more depth and strategy for players that want it, while also offering a quick pick up and play experience for players that want to play more casually.

Generally, how do player expectations vary for RTS games from PC to mobile and how is Empires & Allies designed to reflect that?

A key difference in expectations between RTS and mobile games is time. RTS gamers most often are sitting down for extended play sessions--anywhere from 20 minutes to multiple hours--and looking for a long session experience. Headphones are on, they have their PC rig set up, they settle into a comfy chair. Mobile players are looking for a great game experience often times in shorter sessions in multiple settings--the bus, at work, or waiting in line at the store. We've tried to design Empires & Allies with these short sessions in mind--a multiplayer match lasts about three minutes in length.

For mobile play we've designed the timers to work for short sessions and so people can play multiple short sessions in a row. We don't want players to hit these hard gates and have to wait hours to come back and play. We want you to be able to get right into the fighting and the strategy and the fun.

The thing PC RTS gamers are going to like about Empires & Allies is that it delivers on that feeling of creating a strategy, creating an army, attacking a base, fighting battles on dynamic battlefields, and collecting resources. We just delivered it and packaged it in a different way that is much more fun for when you're walking around with your mobile device.

Can you talk about the differences between the original Empires & Allies game for Facebook and this new version of mobile? Outside of the visuals, what's different?

Aside from sharing the same name, Empires & Allies on mobile is totally different in terms of gameplay. The original Empires & Allies on Facebook was more of an invest and express game and perfect Facebook game for its time.

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After speaking with players, we saw that there was a demand for a more realistic, modern military game with a splash of Hollywood, so we decided to take the new Empires & Allies in that direction. We were really excited to hear players were craving that type of experience because it's one as game makers that we love to play, and have deep experience in making.

How do the play patterns vary in your eyes for RTS games on PC compared to mobile? I know when I play a mobile game I have different expectations than when I sit down for a PC title…

Similar to what I mentioned earlier, there are different expectations in terms of time commitments--PC games being more of an extended play session whereas mobile games being shorter session. One thing we've tried to change is the expectation that some RTS gamers may have that strategy games on mobile can't be rich with strategic depth and tactical control. We've tried to find ways to add that depth. For example, one of the things we put in Empires & Allies are control groups. This is very similar to what you used to do back in the old days of RTS games where you would set a group of helicopters to "Control 1" and that would set them to be your Group 1. In Empires & Allies, you'd set one of your tarmacs to be your “Charlie" group, and so while you're playing you'd hit the C button and that would select those units. Then you'd go ahead and be able to direct them around the battlefield. It's little things like that that people recognize, feel, and understand.

Another thing we learned way, way back was that there are a class of strategy game players who love the RTS experience but want to play it in solo play. We've spent a lot of time developing a rich single-player experience in Empires & Allies based on this insight. At launch we have about 250 different player-versus-environment missions on the globe. Along similar lines, we've made it so that friends are a force multiplier in game but aren't required in order to advance or get ahead in the game.

You've been at Zynga for a long time now and have worked on some marquee franchises like FarmVille and CityVille--do you think Empires & Allies can match the profile of those games?

You know, this may sound strange, but it's not something we spend too much time thinking about. To be honest, it's not something you can really plan for or control. When we made FarmVille and saw it take off, that surprised us. Then I thought there was no way a game could be as big as FarmVille, but then we made CityVille and it got pretty close. What we focus on is building a great team and work hard to try to make this the best game we can make.

Fortunately, some of the early soft launch data from our initial geo-lock beta shows that players love the game, and it's been encouraging to see the excitement and passion from players over our last few months of testing.

Empires & Allies certainly won't be the only strategy game available for mobile devices; what do you think will set your game apart from the pack?

We've tried to add new layers of control and strategy for players to make meaningful choices throughout each battle than a lot of the other games I've seen out there. Players can decide which units to deploy, whether they are multiple units or one unit at a time, or set control groups, as well as direct units where to go on the battlefield. We've also extended this to base defense where you can hide and set up different units on your base to trap and surprise your enemies.

"Our goal is to create an experience that players love so much that they want to pay, not an experience where they feel like they have to pay"

The other thing is we've got a clear vision in the style that we're following. We know that people like modern military strategy games. We know they like Hollywood-style effects. We know that people like what we call balanced high or dramatic fun experiences and we're delivering all those. In addition to the strategy game experience that some of us have, we also have a team of very experienced game makers. The team is made up of not only a few of us folks who worked on strategy games before, but also folks who worked on highly successful social games here at Zynga.

I honestly believe the product is a reflection of the team. Instantly, you put all that stuff together, and now we've got a good leg up, but we also have been working at this for now quite a while in terms of making the game, testing it with consumers, going in the soft launch and we just know that we got something special here.

The game has been in a geo-lock beta for some time now; what kind of feedback have you heard? And how is the game changing as a result?

We've heard feedback--everything from “there's bugs," “my game doesn't run right," “there's network connectivity issues," and all kinds of basics that you first learn when you launch something into the world of mobile. We also had people talking about parts of the game being too hard around the globe. We do listen to our community and read the reports every single day about what the players are saying and how they're reacting, which is essential to making the game better.

One of the things we do is we get a list of features that we're thinking about building for the game and we ask our players what they want. The last time we did that, the item that came to the top of the list was “Strike Force." That's using your friends in battle. We said, "Hey, this is really obvious. We like this feature and players want it," and that's how we got Strike Force into the game.

In-app purchases/microtransactions are a hot topic for mobile games today--what approach is Empires & Allies taking in this department?

In general--and this just comes from my experience on PC console games and now mobile games--our goal is to create an experience that players love so much that they want to pay, not an experience where they feel like they have to pay. This gets back to the point earlier about being careful to make cooldown times short and not a barrier to fun--we want players to get into the action and having fun as soon as possible

The other approach we've taken is to maintain the balance needed to make a competitive mobile game fun--which is to avoid pay-to-win scenarios. Just because you spend money, you can't get a special tank or some super power that nobody else can get. We've kept the option for making in-game purchases solely focused on speeding things up, and that helps create a more level playing field.

Anything else you want to share that people should know about Empires & Allies?

It's important to mention that this is really just the beginning for us--working on mobile games are like MMOs in that your game is a live service, and it's critical to listen to players and deliver what they want.

For so many of us on the team, Empires & Allies is a way for us to return to our roots from classic RTS games and re-craft and evolve that experience to be one that we hope both fans of the genre and new players really enjoy on their mobile and tablet devices.

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