Look at this crazy mohawked narwhal.
Go on, look at it.
What does does this improbable character have to do with Zynga, the troubled game maker that’s attempting a gigantic turnaround?
We recently met with Josh Gause and Nathan Ratcliffe, the design directors on a forthcoming game, Zynga Elite Slots.
It’s a pretty crazy game. Think of playing Vegas slots on a Hunter S. Thompson acid trip, with a touch of FarmVille for good measure.
Besides the standard slots play, there are animal avatars that collect gems. There are themed mini-games—for example, during a vampire-themed level, you stake the undead. And occasionally you fight villainous creatures, or “bosses.”
In a crucial difference from other Zynga games, you don’t do this alone. It’s a real-time or “synchronous” game, where you can see other people playing alongside you—their wins flash on your screen, and you collaboratively build up jackpots.
The obvious take on Zynga rolling out a slots game is that it’s revving up for real-money gaming. Obvious because we know that Zynga is introducing real betting in the UK next year, and it’s applied for a Vegas gambling licence.
Here’s the not-so-obvious take: This game, and others Zynga is rolling out, show a creative renaissance that could well save the firm.
There’s nothing wrong with social games, if you listen to Facebook, which has reported other social game makers doing well while Zynga’s share of the market declines. The problem has been at Zynga: It’s been slow to roll out games, and the games it’s introduced, well, sucked.
As I talked to Gause and Ratcliffe about the design of Zynga Elite Slots, I tried to get a sense of what excited them as designers about it. It wasn’t the social features, which seem like table stakes for gaming these days.
Instead, they seemed to get pumped about the game’s creative elements.
Gause, for example, talked about the soundtrack: “We have 50 to 60 minutes of original, scored music.”
And while the game themes seemed a bit standard-issue—every slots game seems to have an Egyptian motif available, for example—Gause insisted that they’d thought through every detail.
“For every one of our themes, we write a one-pager for why those characters are in there,” Gause said.
Ratcliffe put it more punchily: “I don’t want a dumb little leprechaun for no reason.”
Then Ratcliffe smiled a conspiratorial smile and started clicking through files on his laptop.
“I’ve got to show you this,” he said.
“Here’s a Norwegian death-metal narwhal,” he said. “It’s for our unicorn theme. I asked one of our designers to draw it. I don’t know if we’ll use it, but I love it.”
The odds may be against Zynga. But this narwhal?
This narwhal tells a different story.