Zynga's Wild, Wild Western FrontierVille Launches

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FarmVille creator Zynga wants to lure social gamers west to a wild frontier thronging with bears, pitchforks, wagon wheels, rattlesnakes, and--if their plans pan out--millions more active monthly Facebook users.

The game's called FrontierVille, and it rolls out today, carrying with it Zynga's hopes of reversing recent declines in its monthly active users. The company's once ridiculously popular FarmVille has in fact dropped to "slightly less ridiculously popular" status in recent months, declining from 252 million users in April to just shy of 216 million users today.

Enter FrontierVille, another casual-angled resource juggler, but one with considerably more strategic depth than FarmVille. No, it's not a shoot-em-up, and unlike Rockstar's recent spaghetti-sandbox Red Dead Redemption, you won't skin wolves, coyotes, or horses as spurts of red gore the screen.

You'll instead do more of the same kid-safe, family-friendly things you know from FarmVille, such as buying, planting, and cultivating crops. But unlike prior Zynga games, FrontierVille lets you do those things (and others) with considerably more finesse.

Take crop-tending, which was pretty limited in terms of friendly interaction in FarmVille. In FronterVille, if you're on your friend's "approved" list, you can actually swing by their slice of homestead and perform various chores, including harvesting their crops. Doing so obviously helps save you friend some time, while providing you with a reputation boost.

Now imagine that quid pro quo spirit extended to chopping lumber, feeding livestock, and shooing away nettlesome varmints. You can even "hire" friends to help, paying them in-game currency to take control of their game avatar to perform additional tasks around your virtual homestead. Add raising a family, collecting special items for stat boosts, a world that changes with or without your interaction over time--trees grow, weeds proliferate, varmints siphon valuable energy from your property--and FrontierVille starts to look more like something you might actually pay money to study and master than just another way to mix with friends or casually kill time.

Perhaps that's due to Civilization (the popular turn-based PC strategy game) architect Brian Reynolds' involvement. Perhaps that's just because Facebook thinks the best way to lock in longterm gamers means ensnaring them, World-of-Warcraft-like, with obsessively compulsive repetitive tasks.

Whatever the case, if FrontierVille sounds less than wholly original as strategy games go, it's clearly more than FarmVille 2.0. Enough so that even this Facebook-lite gamer's thinking of striking camp and heading west to see what all the fuss is about.

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