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Zynga unleashes Empire & Allies game ahead of impending IPO

Empires & Allies Zynga, the San Francisco-based social gaming juggernaut, on Tuesday released its latest title, Empires & Allies, a combat strategy version of toy soldiers adapted for the Facebook generation. 

The title, developed by Zynga's 1-year-old game studio near Marina del Rey, goes live as the San Francisco company is reportedly preparing to announce its plans for an initial public offering of its stock.

Empires & Allies represents the company's latest vision for how it sees the burgeoning market of simplistic social games evolving into a legitimate gaming genre that's more complex and nuanced. Our story in the Business section of The Times goes into more detail on the company's overall strategy for the game. 

Social games in general have come under heavy criticism among traditional game developers, who see the pithy titles as shallow attempts to hook unsuspecting Facebook users into an addicting cycle of empty quests.

A panel at February's Game Developer Conference entitled "Are Social Games Legitimate?" was jokingly renamed "Are Social Games Evil?" by one of the panelists after they were compared to high-fructose corn syrup of games by another panelist, Ian Bogost, a game theorist who teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Empires & Allies in some ways is Zynga's rebuttal to critics of social games. Designed by developers who worked on the much-revered military strategy game Command & Conquer, Empires & Allies features more nuanced game play and more meaningful interaction with "allies," who can not only harvest their neighbor's crops as in FarmVille but also ride to their rescue and repel invaders.

As for whether Empires & Allies, as with many of Zynga's games, is optimized for addiction, Bing Gordon, a partner in the Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has invested in Zynga, responded, "Passion is just another way of having an addiction on a schedule." 

Gordon, who logs into his Zynga games multiple times a day, said, "By any measure that I have about evil, I don’t think games qualify. Are they pernicious? Social games are behavior modification systems with entertainment value. So are diet systems." 

-- Alex Pham 

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