Sep. 5, 2012 at 3:23 PM ET
If you're one ofthe millions of people who enjoy growing and harvesting virtual crops on Facebook, then take note: Starting today you'll have a whole new breed of farming simulation to dig into.
On Wednesday, Facebook gaming behemoth Zynga launched "FarmVille 2," the sequel to the groundbreaking game that not only changed the face of casual gaming but put both Zynga and Facebook gaming on the map.
The original "FarmVille" launched in 2009 and, in its first six weeks, shot to 10 million daily active users. At its peak, the game boasted 83 million monthly active users and 32 million daily active users. But with time and the proliferation of Facebook games (not to mention more than a little Facebook gaming burnout), those numbers have slipped. These days "FarmVille" has a (mere?) 3.2 million daily active users.
With the launch of "FarmVille 2," Zynga hopes to woo not only a new breed of virtual farmer but, perhaps more importantly, woo back those who have left the "FarmVille" flock.
"We recognizethat, over time, there have been a lot of people that once played 'FarmVille' and don'tplay any more," Tim LeTourneau, Zynga's Vice President of Games, told me in a recent interview. "We really wanted to re-imagine 'Farmville' with theintent of capturing the imagination of those players and bringing them back to the 'Farmville' franchise."
LeTourneau and Mike McCarthy, "FarmVille 2's" creative director, gave me an early look at their new game, which they insist is not meant to be a replacement for the original. (They vow to continue to support and provide new content for current "FarmVille" players).
Instead, LeTourneau said, "'FarmVille 2' is really about asking, 'how do we re-imagine digital farming if we were to make it brand new today?' It really is a fresh, different take on what virtual farming can feel like. We not only consider it thenext generation of 'FarmVille' but the next generation of social games."
With that in mind Zynga has created "FarmVille 2" from the ground up. And from the preview I was given, it certainly looks like a significant step forward for Facebook games -- with a world that is bright and far more alive with animated characters and an expansive, fully fleshed-out bucolic environment.
"We want you tofeel that everything is rooted and you can really touch it," McCarthy explained. "Nothing falls from the sky and nothing appears magically. Everything is very physical."
Move your mouse across a field of crops and they sway with your touch as if blown by the wind. "If you planttomatoes you get tomatoes and, if I feed this chicken, I‘m goingto get an egg," McCarthy said. "If I’m going toexpand my farm, it doesn’t just magically appear. Goats appear and bite away thebrambles and bushes."
But perhaps the most interesting thing about "FarmVille 2" is the way Zynga has turned the game into a more holistic system -- one that more realistically simulates the entire real-world food cycle.
That is, when it comes to running a successful farm, players must gather water from their well (or borrow from a neighbor), and then use that water to grow crops. They then use those crops to feed their animals. The animals then produce ingredients such as milk and cheese. Players take those ingredients and craft them into food and other items that they can sell at a roadside stand to get coins to buy things in the game.
"FarmVille 2" is all about the connectedecosystem, McCarthy explained. And, in fact, this is just how complete the this ecosystem is: After you feed your animals, they give you poop ... er, fertilizer ... which you can use to start growing a whole new set of crops. Ain't nature grand!
Speaking of animals, Zynga has beefed up the animal husbandry side of things. Players nurture their animals from babies to adults. And each animal responds differently to the touch of the player’s mouse.
Meanwhile, "FarmVille 2" comes with a new control system that finds players no longer tediously clicking on individual squares to plant and harvest their crops. Instead, you use swipes of your mouse almost like a paintbrush to plant seeds, water crops and move items in broad strokes. (For a look at how "FarmVille 2" works, check out the below interview with LeTourneau.)
And, as everyone knows (and sometimes loathes),playing a game on Facebook means playing with your friends (or at least tryingto get your friends to play). And McCarthy said that, with "FarmVille2," they have beefed up the social features.
Zynga has introduced a new Farm Helper system inwhich you can invite your friends to send their virtual farmers over to your place.You can then use your friends' farmers to pretty much do your chores for you andspeed up tasks you need to get done. They've also enhanced the Neighbor Visits system.That is, you can visit your friend's farm, help them out, and then take back goodsyou need to your own farm.
And down the road, Zynga plans to launchThe Village – which will be a central online meeting place for FarmVille players.
"We want to make you feel like a part of aliving community where your friends are the most powerful thing in the game," McCarthy said.
"FarmVille 2" is available for free starting today on both Facebook and at Zynga.com. Of course, whether "FarmVille 2" will achieve the mammoth success of the original will be interesting to see. No matter how far virtual farming has come, the question remains: Do players by the millions still yearn for these kinds of bucolic pursuits?
Former Facebook farmers, what do you think? Will "FarmVille 2" woo you back to the fold?
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti, and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.