Back at GDC earlier this year, I was invited to what I was told was a very limited meeting with Zynga. The company, which of course made its name with social Facebook games and recently has been trying to pivot to mobile platforms like the iPhone and the iPad. Most of Zynga's games tend towards the casual (simply because Farmville is the company's biggest hit, and that's where their success lies).
But at GDC, they wanted to show me something different. It was a "midcore" game, they said -- a game that had the complexity of a hardcore title, but was accessible enough for iOS' large audience to enjoy and rally around. The game was being put together by a developer named A Bit Lucky, which had already built out a few social titles already, and it was going to be a "multiplayer online battle arena" title -- a MOBA game, very similar to the extremely popular League of Legends. The game they showed me was Solstice Arena, which has just been officially announced by Zynga.
Now, the MOBA genre is a tough one to pull off on mobile -- it's traditionally a very PC-centric genre, originally based on real-time strategy, with lots of mouse-specific controls and keys to press. But the MOBA genre has been attempted on iOS before, so it's definitely not impossible to pull off. Zynga's real innovation on Solstice Arena is going to be the game's format: Instead of the traditional five players vs. five players, the team has boiled the game down into 3v3, all fighting on what's essentially one lane. There are still towers to take down and various heroes to fight with, but having just three people on a side means the game is more concentrated, and individual players can make more of a difference.
The other big change from traditional MOBA is that Solstice Arena's main mode is timed, so matches are less about the long, dragged out battles than they are about quicker skirmishes. This fits the mobile platform as well: quicker matches are more doable on portable platforms, obviously.
While it is a much more complicated game than a lot of Zynga's other offerings, Solstice Arena still makes use of social and freemium elements for sure. In addition to online matchmaking (for both skill and team setup, promises A Bit Lucky), there will be social hooks in the game, and the title will have a metagame in the form of items that can be leveled up outside of matches. There will be an in-app currency, and it'll be used to purchase heroes, buy boosts, and other outside of game elements. Obviously, the developers don't want the game to simply be pay-to-win, but this is Zynga we're talking about. While not everything is figured out just yet, it's not a stretch to predict there will definitely be no shortage of places in the app to spend real money if that's what you choose to do.
Still, even in this early stage, Solstice Arena looks like fun. Lots of the abilities are fairly simple -- they're designed to work on a touchscreen, so many of them target an area or a direction rather than a specific target. But there is a nice mix of hero classes, from casters to support, fighters, and assassins. And there are some fun mechanics being developed as well -- acing the other team by killing all of your opponents at the same time is called a "Power Play" and gives your team a temporary boost in power. There are also plenty of items to pick up around the game's field, which confer various individual or team bonuses as they go.
Solstice Arena is due out for mobile platforms soon -- Zynga will run a beta first, probably in a market like Canada or New Zealand, and then bring the game out to more App Stores worldwide after that. A Bit Lucky also tells us that soon after that they're hoping to have the game running on both Mac and PC as well, depending of course on the game's reception and what kind of audience the title eventually finds. Solstice Arena is a fairly gutsy move for Zynga -- it's definitely more complicated than what most people expect from the company, and given the success of League of Legends and Dota, Zynga's going after a very specific audience that might not have played their titles before. We'll keep an eye on Solstice Arena as development moves along, and let you know when it's finally available to try for yourself.