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Zynga gears up for debut of 'Adventure World,' first game developed by Cambridge studio

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 1, 2011 02:00 PM

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zyngascreen-sm.jpgThe San Francisco game company Zynga, best known for its "Farmville" and "Mafia Wars" games played on Facebook, is about to release the first game developed by its Cambridge outpost. "Adventure World" goes live this month, and it sports some of the most sophisticated animation, brain-bruising puzzle-solving, and expansive environments of any Zynga game thus far. There's some fightin', too, as you battle deadly snakes and feisty rams. The game is an homage to earlier videogames like "Tomb Raider" and "Legend of Zelda," as well as archaeology-oriented movies like the "Indiana Jones" series and "Romancing the Stone."

Zynga acquired two Boston-area start-ups in 2010 and 2011: Conduit Labs and Floodgate Entertainment. The result was a 35-person studio that Zynga dubbed Zynga Boston, even though it is located in Cambridge's Central Square. (They'll soon move to Harvard Square, where their new offices will have room for another 40 or so employees.)

The team at Conduit pitched the concept for "Adventure World" to their new overlords at Zynga about a year ago, immediately after the acquisition. "We had a couple ideas, and they liked several of them," says Nabeel Hyatt, the Conduit founder who now serves as general manager of Zynga Boston. "It was a question of, 'Which one do you really believe in?'"

zynganabeel.jpgHyatt, pictured at left, says "Adventure World" is a game, like "Zelda" before it, that is about "exploration, discovery, and problem-solving." Your goal as a player is to find the lost city of El Dorado — and its treasures. You are sent off on quests by Professor Allen, a member of the Adventurer's Society, which take you to volcanoes, temples, jungles, and caverns. As with most Zynga games, you can earn (or just buy, using real money) currency, tools, and gadgets that can help you progress. Some of the tools can help you circumvent an especially tough puzzle.

Like most Zynga games, you can invite friends to play "Adventure World." But you can also join friends on each others' game boards. Perhaps you need some brush-clearing help from a friend who owns a machete, or want to offer to dispatch some difficult rams on behalf of a friend. The game has more than 200 separate quests across 30 different maps or environments, and the team at Zynga Boston believes it will take most players a few months to finish it (that's before they expand the game with new content). "Adventure World" is so elaborately-designed that it is infested by four distinct kinds of spiders. Zynga is launching the game in eight different languages.

zyngademo.jpgAll of the characters in "Adventure World" are animated in three dimensions — similar to a Pixar or DreamWorks movie — which enables them to move more realistically. "It gets us away from the 'paper doll' look you see in most social games, where the characters look a little flat," says Hyatt. Zynga Boston also developed its own rendering engine, the software that paints the picture you see on screen, to enable you to move fluidly through such a vast game universe. They dubbed it the BRO Engine, which stands for Boston Rendering Optimization, and work on it began well before Conduit was acquired by Zynga. Zynga Boston also built many of their own custom development tools that enabled them "to create lots of content in a short amount of time, without reinventing the wheel," according to Paul Neurath, Zynga Boston's creative director, and formerly the CEO of Floodgate. (Pictured at right are Jesse Kurlancheek, principal game designer, and Seth Sivak, lead game designer.)

Hyatt says the Boston studio will spend most of its energy over the next year or so expanding "Adventure World," and that they haven't yet begun developing a second game. "The goal initially is to create a franchise with 'Adventure World' that will last a long time," he says.

As for the timing of releasing a new Zynga game just as the company preps for its IPO, Hyatt admits, "It's a lot of responsibility."

Some screenshots from "Adventure World" below...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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