Zynga’s FrontierVille Explores New Territory by Limiting the Need for Friends

Zynga is launching a major update later today for its FrontierVille game, which came out a little more than a year ago.

The original version of the game challenges players to build a homestead on the frontier, and to complete such tasks as building a cabin, getting married and having children.

In this new game play, called Pioneer Trail, users must hit the road in a covered wagon to find a boy who has been kidnapped. Players travel along a route, collecting clues to solve the kidnapping, completing quests and entering different environments, such as Beaver Valley, the High Plains and the snowy Avalanche Pass.

Major content rereleases like this one are a way for game developers to make older titles more engaging for existing players, while drawing in people who have never played the game.

Over the past year, FrontierVille has fallen to about 3.5 million daily active users from its all-time high of nearly nine million. FrontierVille is the 23rd most popular application on Facebook today, according to AppData.com.

But fewer active users doesn’t necessarily mean the game monetizes poorly. In fact, some of the oldest games in the industry — which itself is only about three years old — perform better than some new games, because dedicated players tend to spend more. What is a little unpredictable in social gaming is the life cycle: How long will these games last and be supported with major content releases?

In March, Zynga rolled out a similar update to FarmVille called English Countryside, where players got to start over with a fresh slate and have access to different kinds of crops and decorations.

Today’s addition to FrontierVille is a little different, because it offers users a minigame to play in addition to tending to their normal homestead. Likewise, Zynga is experimenting with a few new techniques that stray from the trademark elements found in its games to date.

One of the main things that’s changed is how players interact with their friends on Facebook.

Instead of trying to get as many friends to play with you as possible, players only need three very engaged friends to help them along the trail. And players can now choose to be matched with strangers, just in case they don’t have a friend who is willing to play as intensely as they do. Other games on Facebook have been experimenting with this for some time.

Not requiring players to enlist the help from their friends is a big deal — they are “social” games, after all. This limits the ability of the game to be shared through friends, which is one of the major viral channels on Facebook.

John Osvald, GM of FrontierVille, said Pioneer Trail breaks a lot of new ground for Zynga. He said that it turns out that players “don’t like trying to get a hundred neighbors. They do it, but they don’t love it, so we wanted to make the interactions really important … We wanted to set this up so that visiting your friends is the most important thing, and make it so powerful that it can’t be hundreds of people. We made it just three people.”

Zynga did keep some viral components in tack. For instance, at some points on the trail, wildfires will break out, and players can either slowly contain them with the help of their three friends, or ask all their friends on Facebook for help.

One element that is also different is the size of the game.

The Pioneer Trail game board is about five times the size of past Zynga games. Osvald estimates that the trail will take at least a couple weeks for some of the more hardcore players to complete. Plus, since there are so many quests and hidden missions, players may want to repeat it and play the trail more than once. They should get a slightly different outcome each time.

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