Empires and Allies is a horrible thing. But I can't stop playing it.
Zynga, the company behind Farmville and multiple other wildly successful ‘social’ games has offered themselves up to investors in a billion dollar IPO. Their filings show that they're wildly profitable, and making money hand over fist. Their latest game is Empires and Allies, an empire building strategy game that used Facebook to become a ferociously viral piece of entertainment. Apparently, 30 million people are playing it. I’m one of them.
I’ve had high hopes for Zynga and the social game market they’re pioneering for a while now. I’ve always believed that Facebook games could and should be amazing to play. I’m a platform agnostic, but anything that helps me play games with the people I care about should be a good thing. Sid Meier’s making a Civ game for Facebook. This is the inflection point, right? The time when these games suddenly become good, and interesting, and exciting?
No. Maybe. Yes. Oh god no.
Empires and Allies is horrendous. I think it’s the worst game of 2011. It makes me simultaneously horrified and furious that such a game can fund such lavish and extraordinary wealth generation. But I can’t stop playing it. And occasionally, I think I might be having fun. But that fun is preceded and followed by feelings of shame, betrayal and loneliness.
Here’s how it works.
Think of it as Farmville with an Advance Wars style tactical layer. You start with a small plot of land which, in the tutorial of the game, is being invaded by little cartoon men with little cartoon machine guns, accompanied by little cartoon tanks. You fight them off in a rock/paper/scissors turn-based animated battles. Fire cannons at the tanks. Fire tanks at the men. Fire men... Let the men fight the cannons.
Then, it’s time to repair, rebuild and eventually expand your empire, by placing farms, barracks, homes, airstrips, docks, lumber mills, ore mines, nodding donkeys to suck the oil from the ground and an occasional government building.
Managing your resources looks like a hard problem. Units, which you use to attack and defend in the turn based battles referenced above need to be built. They need oil, ore, lumber and gold. All resources are dished out using Farmville’s click and wait mechanics. Plant corn in your farm, and the next day you’ll have a big pot of gold.
There’s a kind-of single player campaign to go with the game where the units you create are put up against AI opponents of slowly increasing difficulty. They two separate fields of view combine to provide a very carefully escalated increase in player power that’s held in check by the health-pools and power of the computer opponents. These are all decent, smart mechanics. They’re almost conventional.
I thought this was brilliant. Look! It’s like a PC game, I can play everywhere, and my wife can join in. At one point, I had a choice between playing Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft, League of Legends or Empires and Allies. So strong was the pull of dominating my friends with tiny little men, I chose the Facebook game. It was going so well. I’d got lots of friends ticking over. We’re trading every day, we sharing resources, and watering eachother’s gardens. It’s a happy time.
There’s something else holding every player back in Empires and Allies. And it’s Zynga’s evil genius. It’s why the game has pulled in so many players so very quickly. And it’s why it’s so hateful.
If you want to get bigger, want to own a bigger island, get more stuff, own more expensive units, you need to build Government buildings. Government buildings increase your population cap, which leads to you building more houses, which leads you to getting a steadier incoming.
But you can’t just construct the government buildings and be done with them. No. They have to be staffed by friends. Each building needs three friends to function. If you want to grow, you need to become a viral marketer. You need to invite them in to your game, or you need to pay to have a bot to play with you. Once they’re in your game, there’s no mechanic, no work they have to do. They’re just there. Existing. Being something that happens while you mindlessly click.
And once you start thinking about it, that’s the same for all the mechanics in Empire and Allies. They have no weight, no choice, no impact. Want resources? Want to optimise or micromanage your Maybe you do the maths and think about what the optimum time to leave your farms for, is? Don’t bother. There’s no real optimisation. Just click and wait. Want to figure out the optimal selection set of units to take into a fight? Don’t bother. That rock-paper-scissors subtlety never gets any tougher than… rock-paper-scissors.
You can’t even complete these fights at your own pace; you’re gated by the number of ‘allies’ you can bring to the fight. If you want to complete more battles in a day, you need more allies. You need to market the game to your friends.
Here’s the business of Empires and Allies. If you want to skip the gates; want to progress a little bit further than the carefully placed social obstacles the developers at Zynga put in your path, you need to invite your friends. Empire and Allies is ferocious about spreading. The first option on near every screen is to share the game, or to invite a friend in. It posts to your facebook wall incessantly. The game even posts what other players are up to to your own wall.
But the viral spread is just a means to an end. Eventually you run out of friends. Friends who are willing to join into the Empires and Allies pyramid.
It’s at that point, that inevitable point, you need to pay. You need to pay to grow further. You need to pay to complete more missions ever day. You need to pay to keep your fleets growing, to keep your armies expanding. You always need to pay. Or you stop playing.
Empires and Allies doesn’t offer you decisions. It doesn’t offer you entertainment. It doesn’t offer you social interaction. And it doesn’t offer you fun.
But even so, at the top of the Empires and Allies landing page, there’s a counter showing how many ‘Likes’ the game has received.
It increases by nearly half a million every day.
I know all this. I understand the business, I understand how its turned me into a piece of viral marketing. I hate it for it. But I’ve barely played anything else for a week. I’m probably playing it right now as you read this. I hate Zynga for doing this.
If you have aluminium, copper or uranium please come and find me on Facebook.