Preview: Zynga’s CityVille for Facebook is an Ambitious and Promising Sim

By Chris Morrison Comment

These days, new Zynga releases have become a rare thing. For that reason alone, the upcoming launch of CityVille, its latest Facebook game, will get the attention of the industry. But the title’s production quality and ambitions are going to as well.

Zynga has been giving press previews of CityVille in anticipation of its release, which will likely happen before the end of the month. Even the short demo we received said volumes about what Zynga has been thinking about during its six-month lapse between games, including internationalization, social mechanics and mobile gameplay.

CityVille, as the name suggests, is a city building game. You start out with a city named “Ville”, which is mostly an empty green patch surrounded by forest on one side and water on the other. The game map is simply huge, and all of it will eventually be open to building on. During play, that will likely take a while; where most virtual space games let players buy an expansion that pushes their territory out in all directions from the center, CityVille’s expansions will come in small blocks in a direction of your choosing.

The art is worth extra attention up front. While it’s obviously high-quality, given the budget Zynga has for new projects, the really interesting detail is the 3D game engine. This should make it easier for Zynga to release a successful mobile version, possibly with the help of its recent acquisition, Dextrose AG.

In the gameplay itself, Zynga has followed its FrontierVille model of cherry-picking the best mechanics of its own and others’ games. CityVille may have even more unique aspects than Zynga’s previous hit, though.

CityVille’s focus in the beginning is simply on constructing your town, from a startlingly wide array of building categories: houses, businesses, roads, decorations, farm plots, shipping, community buildings and wonders all make an appearance. Three of those seem most important: homes, business and shipping.

Businesses are where you make your money, but they also include the game’s other important resource, “goods”. While most city games have players restock their businesses using virtual currency, CityVille introduces goods as a second resource to balance against cash.

Goods can be produced by specialized buildings, but they can also be delivered by shipping structures, which include trains and ships. This is where the game starts to get really interesting. As the game progresses, you can start sending trains and ships to your friends to either sell or acquire goods. The train mechanic is likely inspired in part by Lucky Train, a smaller title that has been fairly successful.

You can thus choose, from a fairly early point, to focus on either making money or making goods, which the aim of creating a trade economy with friends.

There’s more to trade than just buying and selling goods. You can also create franchise businesses in a friend’s city. For each type of business you place in others’ cities — a bakery, for example — you get a corporate headquarters that can be placed in your own town.

Having businesses abroad creates a good reason to regularly visit friends, as the businesses are more beneficial to both parties if they’re maintained by the franchise owner. As the game goes on, older players should be kept engaged by a feeling of responsibility to other players.

Decorations play an important part in the game as well. As in Millionaire City, which has become Facebook’s most successful city-builder, decorations improve surrounding buildings within a certain radius; for example, a flower bush could improve earnings at a business by 10 percent.

The last part of CityVille that’s core to the game is quests. It has become quite common for social games to use quests to guide players through a tutorial, but in CityVille they’ll be creating an ongoing story that even experienced players can take part in, according to the CityVille general manager Sean Kelly.

CityVille thus offers an array of play styles. You can focus on building up your own city and decorating, or you can become a trade and franchising baron; or, if you want a plotline, you can work on getting through the quests.

Wonders, cars and a few other features are visible, but currently unavailable; they’ll be added to the game over time.

Without having spent much time with the game, we can say that it looks highly engaging, and will probably be a significant success. Zynga has put extra effort into making sure it can find enough players for CityVille by translating the game into Spanish, French, Italian and German — users that together account for around 150 million Facebook users.

The one risk to the game is the use of a real economy — over time, Zynga hopes that trade between players will help set the price for goods. It’s not a full-fledged economy, but it could present some balancing problems. On the other hand, trade makes for a stronger step toward social play than we’ve seen from most games to date, and should help evolve the social game landscape as a whole.