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Zynga launches 'Empire' within days of its IPO

Zynga debuts 'Empires & Allies' as it prepares to sell shares of itself to the public. Valued at $10 billion, Zynga could make even more with its initial public offering.

By Alex PhamLos Angeles Times/MCT / June 4, 2011

A Zynga worker puts up a job sign at Zynga headquarters in San Francisco June 2, 2011. The social gaming company is poised to sell stock to the public, raising billions of dollars as Wall Street yearns to invest in the social media phenomenon.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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LOS ANGELES – In a quiet outpost near Marina del Rey, Zynga Inc. has been building an empire.

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Its troops, a few dozen game developers and designers with a penchant for bringing their dogs to work, have been stealthily working on the San Francisco company's next big title, "Empires & Allies."

With the nearly 4-year-old firm poised to file an initial public offering of its shares within days — Zynga this week launched the game, an online version of a toy soldier set, arguably its most ambitious.

While players of "Empires & Allies" figure out how to command and conquer their virtual game boards, Zynga has already captured the flag when it comes to online social games, a rapidly growing and viciously competitive segment of the games industry.

Every month, 1 out of 10 people worldwide on the Internet fires up one of Zynga's 55 games, which include "FarmVille," ''Zynga Poker" and "Mafia Wars." About 250 million people play its games each month, a number equivalent to about four-fifths of the U.S. population, making Zynga the biggest social games developer on Facebook.

"Traditional game companies measure their audience in the millions," said John Taylor, managing director and games analyst at Arcadia Investments Corp. "Social game companies like Zynga measure theirs in the tens and hundreds of millions. It's a completely different animal."

Zynga's recent rounds of financing have valued the company at about $10 billion, and speculation on Wall Street is that the IPO will push that figure even higher.

What makes the company such a hot commodity can be, in part, distilled into a handful of game mechanics embedded in "Empires & Allies," which represents Zynga's latest techniques for amassing legions of players.

Mark Skaggs, Zynga's senior vice president of product, summed up one of the company's design mantras during a talk at the Game Developer Conference in February in San Francisco. "Fast, light and right," Skaggs told a room packed with hundreds of designers eager to learn the formula for Zynga's addictive games.

That means its games are designed in weeks or, at most, a few months with crews of a couple of dozen developers. By comparison, traditional video games require hundreds of people working two or more years.

Unlike more conventional games, however, much of the action happens after a Zynga game is released as its developers work round-the-clock to add content, test new features and constantly adjust the game based on how players are interacting with it.

In that sense, "Empires & Allies" is no different. Its developers have worked for just a handful of months on the title, which lets players expand their island nations through conquests and by recruiting allies. Individuals can only get so far playing by themselves. To really get ahead, they need friends to lend a hand, either by helping repel invaders, agreeing to become a staff member of various enterprises or trading metals required to make weapons and buildings.

"Empires & Allies," like its siblings, is designed to appeal to a mainstream audience with its happy, toy-like aesthetic, crisp, vibrant colors and approachable characters designed by Matt J. Britton, the game's art director and former general manager of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

Unlike many other Zynga games, however, "Empires & Allies" features battles in which troops can perish forever. It is a modest gamble for Zynga, whose games have been broadly appealing in large part because its players rarely lose.

"With this game, we wanted there to be consequences," said Amer Ajami, "Empires & Allies" executive producer. "We wanted people to care enough so that the losses would sting a little, but not so much that they would quit the game."

"Empires & Allies" is also an indication of how Zynga plans to further grow its business, by taking genres from the traditional video game world and introducing them to the mainstream.