Zynga’s Bubble Safari takes aim at Bubble Witch Saga’s success on Facebook

Zynga’s newest social game, Bubble Safari, targets the casual arcade genre recently cornered on Facebook by King.com with its hit game Bubble Witch Saga. The casual arcade shooter launches on Facebook and Zynga.com simultaneously tomorrow.

The bubble shooter genre predates Facebook by more than 25 years. The goal of these games is to match like-colored bubbles by firing a single bullet upward into a cluster of connected bubbles. A level is cleared when all rows, or a certain number of bubbles have been cleared. Like match-3 puzzle games such as Bejeweled, scoring bonuses are usually applied based on speed, matching bubbles in quick succession or by hitting special bonus items placed within the puzzle. These games have found a high degree of success on Facebook because users can learn and play the games quickly, and because they’re easy for developers to program and monetize. Like other Facebook-based arcade games, bubble shooters monetize through the sale of power-up items that increase scoring bonuses or through an energy mechanic that limits the number of sessions a user can play in a day.

King.com shot to the top three Facebook game developers by daily and monthly active users in the last six months on the strength of its bubble shooter, Bubble Witch Saga, which launched last September. That game was predated by King.com’s Bubble Saga, GameDuell’s Bubble Speed, wooga’s Bubble Island and several other variations on bubble shooters. Zynga hopes to make a splash with its bubble shooter by building on features that each of these games has introduced, adding a few of their own and introducing a new Flash engine that can run the game at 60 frames per second and produce high-gloss visual effects.

In Bubble Safari, players take the role of Bubbles, a wild monkey whose animal companions are kidnapped by poachers. Through a series of levels, Bubbles tracks the poachers and frees different animals from crates. The levels themselves are typical bubble shooters, with Bubbles himself manning the cannon at the bottom of a screen. As Bubbles matches color types in the puzzle, bubbles are cleared from the puzzle — but if bubbles are dislodged from the puzzle by clearing rows or clusters of connecting bubbles, these strays turn into fruit that fall toward the bottom of the screen and may land in one of three baskets just below Bubbles’ cannon stand, increasing the player’s score. The puzzle is completed when 10 of the bubbles in the the top-most row of the puzzle have been cleared, which converts all remaining bubbles to falling fruit. Each level requires a minimum score to progress to the next level.

As the player enters new regions on the world map, the challenges in the bubble shooter puzzles become increasingly difficult, with hazards blocking the user from making straight shots into the puzzle. For example, shooting beehives attached to bubbles will send a swarm of bees into Bubbles, causing him to random-fire the bubble cannon several times before the bees disperse. To overcome these challenges, players earn “Boost Bubble” items that that allow the user to complete the puzzle more easily — like a fire bubble that burns up any bubbles or hazards in its path. Players also earn animal helpers as they free animals from the poachers, such as humming birds, that bounce dropped fruit from the puzzle into one of the three baskets. The animal helpers level up as the player makes more matches and leave when the player fails to complete matches.

The use of Boost Bubbles and other scoring bonuses is where Bubble Safari becomes complex. Within a level, a player can only use a Boost Bubble once they’ve filled a boost meter by making successful color matches in succession. Filling the meter allows players to spin a prize wheel and whatever Boost Bubble it lands on is the one the player gets. Players can also increase their score by successfully dropping fruit into baskets. Three successful drops causes the level to catch fire, which indicates a score multiplier. Lastly, players have access to two extra normal bubbles in the form of friends that appear on a sidebar in the level, each representing a different color. By clicking a friend’s bubble, the player swaps whatever bubble they currently have in the cannon for the friends’ bubble — say, purple for red. On the other end of that exchange, the player will appear in their friend’s game representing whatever bubble they traded with (in this example, purple). A relationship meter increases the more friends use each other’s extra bubbles. When the meter is filled completely, the friend’s extra bubble can be converted to a Boost Bubble for one level. A powerup item allows players to bring in two extra friends so that all four possible bubble colors are available.

Aside from the bubble-swapping social feature, Zynga also plans to introduce an asynchronous two player competitive mode and weekly tournaments at some point after launch. Bubble Safari monetizes through the sale of powerups, energy refills and could potentially monetize tourney entry fees, though that remains to be seen. Interestingly, Zynga offers roughly half its power-ups for soft currency that can be earned through normal gameplay, while the rest can only be bought with premium currency purchased via Facebook Credits.

The similarities between Bubble Safari and other Facebook bubble shooters are obvious, while the differences are more subtle. For those not familiar with reigning bubble shooter Bubble Witch Saga, here are some key differences between it and Bubble Safari:

  • Social features: Bubble Witch Saga enables friends to send currency, lives or “spell breaks” that allow players to progress to new areas on the map. This the extent of the social interaction between friends.
  • Visual effects: Bubble Witch Saga is light on flashy visuals, like things catching fire.
  • Adaptive gameplay: If a player repeatedly fails a level in Bubble Witch Saga, the puzzle will adjust to become easier. It does not appear that Bubble Safari’s puzzles will do the same — but this is something Zynga could introduce post-launch if players ask for it.*
  • Monetization: Powerups (called “charms”) and life refill items in Bubble Witch Saga can only be bought with Facebook Credits. Special bubble types can be bought with soft currency. Zynga makes some powerups available for soft currency and allows players to earn Boost Bubble items through gameplay without spending soft currency.

It will be interesting to see if Bubble Safari picks up high-level Bubble Witch Saga players who have run out of things to do in King.com’s game. We’re also curious to see if Zynga’s simultaneous release on Zynga.com and Facebook reveals any value add to playing Bubble Safari on one platform instead of another.

Bubble Safari was developed by Zynga’s San Diego studio with some help on the Flash engine from a team in San Francisco. Senior Creative Director Mark Turmell — famous for his work on arcade games and franchises going all the way back to the Apple II and the Atari 2600 — oversaw the project, his first for Zynga and Zynga’s first arcade game.

“The industry has come full circle,” Turmell tells Inside Social Games. “The bubble genre’s been around for years — there’s something magical about match-3. The magic of that is maintained [in Bubble Safari], but with fire, the strategy, the map and presentation… this game innovates. And nobody’s going to out-Zynga Zynga at the cadence of new content. Coming [here] was like coming home.”

*ETA: As of launch, the puzzles in Bubble Safari will change if a user fails a level.