EA’s Risk: Factions annexes Facebook with updates to original Xbox Live game

EA’s follow-up to runaway Facebook hit The Sims Social, Risk: Factions, launches today on the social network. The game faces a two-front battle in trying capture a dedicated niche audience while also keeping up EA’s momentum in the social games space.

Despite being named after a board game like EA’s Monopoly Millionaires, Risk: Factions actually has more in common with The Sims Social as it’s based on an existing video game franchise. The original Risk: Factions is a downloadable title for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network where players choose one of several “factions” and play against other players or computer-controlled opponents in the classic turn-based strategy game of Risk, which has players attempting to take over an entire world map.

In making the jump to social, EA has adapted the title for speedier play and more engaging multiplayer. Aside from the usual social game “hooks,” such as harvesting resources or matching games for bonus items, the developer has also added features and factions to create what amounts to an entirely new game experience under the same franchise. EA Producer and Risk: Factions designer Spencer Brooks walks us through what’s different and how the game’s older social siblings influenced development.

Inside Social Games: Fill us in on the background of the original Risk: Factions on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Was the game a success on those platforms?

Spencer Brooks: It was definitely a success in every measure. It riffed off of some of the changes Hasbro made in the 2008 rules and we used that as a springboard and added a bunch of our features to that. Brand expectations, gameplay, just everything — that game raised the bar for [Risk].

So in 2008, [Hasbro] re-released the game and it wasn’t just world conquest, it was objective-based rules. You could take over the map and you win, but if you played with objectives, it’s better because you start with eight or six [players] and the first one who gets three [objectives] wins the game. It did two things — it sped up the game enormously and it allowed everybody to stay in the game even at the end. You could all be playing the game and then there would be a winner. It codified the need for the game [to go faster and keep people playing].

[The social game] is more or less a hybrid of the XBLA version. We made the factions play differently while in the XBLA and PSN version, the factions were basically a skin. For the social game, we’ve got the concept of special weapon, [where] each faction has its own sort of power up that you can put on the map and they give each faction a different play style. We have multiple maps like we did in the original — we’re launching with nine maps and we’ll release more every so often. We haven’t added all the features [of the original], but we’ve created new ones.

ISG: Like the Headquarters area? It seems a lot like the farm or the homestead setting in other social games where you go to collect resources…

Brooks: The headquarters is meant to do a few things. Yes, I think there’s an appointment mechanic going on in the headquarters right now because you need to check back and harvest your troops and collect your special weapons. But headquarters is almost meant to show a persistence and progression of you leveling up, then unlocking new factions and leveling each of those up. It’s your main resource generator and a progression indicator.

ISG: We notice that in the closed beta version of the game, you also implemented an energy meter that limited the number of games we could play per day. Now that the game is live, it looks like you’ve subtracted that feature. Energy meters are pretty standard for most social games — what made you decide to leave it out?

Brooks: This gets into a religious debate among designers and producers and product managers. My personal preference is that I like to play and play and play. There’s a monetization component to all these games, but I wanted to see — just over the holidays — what the feedback was of the players if we just took off the energy cap. Both from a data standpoint and a qualitative player feedback point-of-view, did that make the game better? It’s something we’re still evaluating.

What I really like about this game and what I tried to deliver on is that I wanted a game that had a [player versus player] element with a winner and a loser. There are no big strategy games out there that have a winner and a loser. It’s risky because it’s instance-based PvP, but there’s something about Risk that is very competitive; if you can’t rub your friend’s nose in a humiliating defeat, then we didn’t do the game justice. You get surprisingly addicted to it — you want your player rating to go up and every win is much more emotional because if you fail, it’s really you. It’s not like you’re playing an abstraction of a person, you’re playing a person. I don’t think social games do enough of that. We’re all hoping that that’s received well, especially by more core gamers used to more competitive experiences.

ISG: It sounds like rankings will be an important social hook, then. What sort of tools will you use to sort player rankings and organize matches? Is it just going to be a big free-for-all, or can we only challenge our Facebook friends?

Brooks: We’re using a modified true skill system. Everybody has a numeric rating between 0 and 10000. We factor in the delta between players to determine rank change and there are diminishing returns [for attacking low-level players]. That’s a gross exaggeration of the math, but you get the basics.

Initially, for the first few weeks, everyone can play each other because we have to feed the [leaderboards]. Once we have enough spread among players, we’re going to do it a little more intelligently than that. One is level of engagement — players who play a lot, very active players will play very active players. Initially by engagement and frequency. After that, you’re put in other buckets — like how close are you [in player level]. We will do some intelligent matchmaking [between similar level and similar engagement].

ISG: Speaking of competition, how much pressure do you feel having to follow on the heels of The Sims Social? Yes, it’s like comparing apples to oranges in terms of game type and intended audience, but even so, it’s a tough act to follow.

Brooks: I want to steer away from comparing Risk: Factions to The Sims Social because they’re very different games that will attract very different players. For the audience we are attracting — which is more male and more competitive and they like strategy — it’s going to do very well.

ISG: Now that the game is live, what are you plans for future content expansions?

Brooks: There will be many more factions following after launch. We’ll have new gameplay modes as well; we’ve already designed several modes that make the game go faster than it does. We wanted to keep classic world conquest because there’s the expectation of that — but the game will be evolving and we’ve got two other factions that we’re finished with and some new mechanics as well as more maps and more modes that are pretty slick. We wanted to get the initial one out and gauge user feedback and make sure we have everything prioritized correctly.