When Zynga LA began work on Empires & Allies, they were looking to bring a hardcore game to a social platform. Nearly everyone at the studio had a pedigree in console games, and most of them worked primarily on real-time strategy (RTS) games in the past. But bringing that experience to the casual market proved to be a tough balancing act, and Executive Producer Amer Ajami and Director of Product Hans Yang hosted a panel on the subject.

Conceptually, it may sound akin to trying to fit a square block into a circular hole. But the team’s decision to make a hardcore social game was birthed from what they felt was an increased interest in deeper mechanics on behalf of the audience. Of course, a sensed demand for intricacies didn’t sing “release an RTS game with all the bells and whistles” to them. Instead, it inspired them to look around, make a list of elements they enjoyed from other games, and do their best to create a social game with unprecedented depth.

To start, they let the territorial expansion mechanics and stylish appearance of Advance Wars influence the look and feel of Empires & Allies. And thanks to games like Street Fighter 2, they knew they were going to want a cast of colorful characters. Lastly – or at least the last example they shared with the audience – their love of games like Gradius and Castlevania inspired them to bring boss battles into the fold.

They also made the decision to kick things off with an opening cinematic. It was something a Zynga game had never done and, according to Ajami, not something most social games had done, either. As far as I’ve seen, it’s still not something you see much in Facebook games. And while it may seem like nothing more than a cosmetic addition, it brought the game ever-closer to standing alongside its console and PC counterparts.

But going social meant they had to establish a more playful, inviting tone than that of their past work. After all, Empires & Allies is a war game. Nuclear bombs are set off. People die.  

“We constantly had to remind ourselves we were making a game about war,” said Ajami. “It was very hard developing a war game that was both approachable and fun.”

Partly in response to this problem, they gave the game’s characters a “friendly and approachable” feel. They wanted everyone in the game – villains included – to evoke a sense of empathy in the player. They tackled the game’s units in a similar way, making them colorful and toy-like.

The talk moved forward to mechanics, ever the crucial element in social (or really any) games. And being that the team was looking to make a layered experience that still managed to cater to the casual, they found themselves having to walk a very fine line. Accessibility and intricacy are, after all, in a fundamental war with one another.

Whereas many RTS games present players with a sprawling, multi-directional path to go down, the team decided to make Empires & Allies a strictly linear experience. The decision was influenced by the nature of social, and the demand many players have to constantly feel as though they’re progressing. If they hit a roadblock, there’s a distinct possibility they’ll “shelf” the game, said Yang.

Beyond that, they toned down the complexities of RTS gameplay by stripping out the importance of arranging your units. It makes no tactical difference in the game where units are placed on the field. And the classes of said units are indicated by icons, enabling players to quickly see whether or not they’re making the right decision when pitting one against the other. If the game feels you’re making the wrong decision, it will ask if you’re sure about it

Empires & Allies was born from a question: Are there casual gamers out there with an interest in hardcore gaming? In Yang and Ajami’s eyes, the answer is yes. Sacrifices were made, and the final product was a far cry from the kinds of RTS games you see on consoles and PCs, but it’s a step forward and, in my eye, further validation that the “casual” audience is ready to welcome games that journey off the beaten path.