My Tribe Wants to Be a Complex, Engaging Facebook Game — And Mostly Succeeds

With each passing month, more casual gaming companies turn their attention to Facebook, despite previous success running their own sites or licensing out games (we listed off 10 reasons why last year). One of the latest to join the exodus is Big Fish Games, a noted developer of downloadable casual games.

Big Fish launched its casual MMO Faunasphere on Facebook in February. Last week, it added a second game: My Tribe, which is something like a cross between Settlers and Gilligan’s Island. After picking a desert island to play on, you start off with a small band of tattered refugees, huddled around a single hut. Your job from there is to build a civilization.

The island premise isn’t unusual for Facebook. But Big Fish has gone beyond the usual fare with the functionality of My Tribe, which actually offers a large number of distinct actions. There are huts and buildings to erect, and later upgrade. Villagers have ages and different skills, and wear clothing, created with dyes and gems, that modify their abilities. There are items to pick up, resources to harvest, and new technologies to research.

My Tribe’s complexity stands out from the beginning, when the game’s tutorial — slyly disguised as “quests” — guides the new player through each action in turn. An hour into playing, when you’ve finally run through all the initial quests, there’s still no shortage of things to do: collecting seashells, managing villagers, planting new crops, visiting a friend’s island. The game also drops a random special item every few minutes that you can search for.

The endless to-do list makes My Tribe noticeably different from the time management games that are currently available on Facebook. Developers using the FarmVille mechanic usually intend for players to dip in and out of the game multiple times throughout the day. Players frustrated with running out of energy or crops to harvest are welcome to play for longer, but it’s only easy if they pay.

With My Tribe, a player could certainly dip in — although it might take more than a couple minutes to tidy up the island. But Big Fish meant to go against the grain with its game. “It was a conscious decision to build a more in-depth game and bring that to Facebook,” says Will O’Brien, the company’s VP of social gaming. “It’s the richest experience on Facebook.”

O’Brien was encouraged by Facebook platform manager Gareth Davis’ call yesterday for “iconic games” that can provide a defining experience for the social network. “I think he’s issuing a challenge and a mandate to the social gaming industry to raise the bar,” O’Brien says.

So that’s what Big Fish is trying to do with My Tribe, a game that it originally released in 2008 as a downloadable. For Facebook, the company added social features, but didn’t dumb down many of the other features. A hardcore gamer might not find the game either complex or engaging; a lot of time is spent scrolling around the screen, picking up seashells and setting your islanders to the same task over and over.

But most Facebook games have all the depth of a rain puddle; My Tribe tries to offer more. What remains to be seen is how far players will want to go with the game — after playing through far enough, it’s possible to build an ark and move to another island with different possibilities. Whether they’ll want to go that far is the only question.