What were you doing the other day, when Zynga’s share-price took a tumble? Through sheer coincidence, I was playing a Zynga game: Ruby Blast, a new Facebook spin on Match Three in which you click on groups of gems to dig downwards through dense layers of rock.
After the FarmVilles and the Mafia Wars, Ruby Blast feels like a pure arcade game. The pure arcade game in question, in fact, is Diamond Mine, which PopCap released as part of Bejeweled 3. Match Three’s no stranger to freaky variants, of course, and Zynga’s pretty open about its willingness to outsource inspiration; at least Ruby Blast ties everything together quite nicely.
It’s surprisingly engaging, actually. The click of your falling gems is pleasant to the ear and blends wonderfully with the chug of collapsing earth, the colours are rich, and the ascending notes you hear when you’re chaining matches do their job as well as ascending notes ever have.
And for all its familiarity, Ruby Blast is an interesting piece of work. Its meta-game overlay may be the same muddle of perks and energy meters that so many Facebook titles employ, but there are plenty of sneaky touches that are, at the very least, fun to spot – or perhaps think that you’ve spotted. I love the way the gems sometimes shift colours on the playing field when you aren’t doing anything – I’m guessing so as to massage the flow of the action and keep each round as exhilarating as possible. I’m also intrigued by the slightly amateur voice work. Is this to make the whole enterprise feel more endearing and personable, or is the fact I’ve wondered just another example of the suspicions the gaming press so often brings to a new Zynga product?
Mostly, though, I’m in awe of how needy Ruby Blast is, finishing off every single round with a bold lunge at my friends list, and offering players the chance to buy in-game currencies in handy bundles that top out at the $115 mark. Almost all Facebook games do this sort of thing, admittedly, but Ruby Blast is the only one I can remember that has also sent me emails after my first play session. It wants to meet the gang and it’s dropping me a line; in a few weeks, it will probably be asking why I haven’t given it any grandchildren.
Anecdotally, I haven’t heard of Ruby Blast making the same kind of in-roads as Farmville or Zynga’s other blockbusters, and perhaps that isn’t too surprising. In a bid to cut in on Popcap’s territory, this, like Bubble Safari, requires twitch skills as much as patience and strategy, which might alienate a lot of the management crowd, and the rewards for sticking with it tend to be of the score-based, bragging-rights variety rather than offering the immediate, visual pleasures of having an isometric allotment to show off to your peers. There’s also a sense that Zynga’s so used to meddling with a game’s difficulty curve – boosting the matches in the early moments, shutting them down when you’ve played for too long without paying – that it’s unprepared to indulge in the pure randomness that brings any true arcade game to life.
It’s tactically interesting, then, and the psychology at work is as absorbing as ever, but when it comes to being a master of this particular arcade, Zynga may have to dig a little deeper.