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I know what many of you are thinking: How does Zynga keep doing this?
At the Getting Social event at BAFTA (In London) a few days ago, this was the question that everyone was asking. While TV companies in the UK have dipped their toes into social games, such as Corrie Nation, they have had pretty miserable success rates. And yet here comes CityVille, another Zynga game that looks quite a lot like other developers' games, they waltz in, do their thing, and boom! 12 million users in a week.
It's not just Zynga. Although clearly the most successful, the other top developers also manage to up-end the natural order of things as most media people understand it (which is to say, brands). At the same time that Ubisoft have managed to scrape together 1.2 million users for their CSI: Crime City title, another game more generically named Crime City (no relation) has acquired 6.4m users, with no brand at all.
I decided to write an article about how games like CityVille manage to be successful. This article, which will come in four parts, goes into the specific features and explains what they do, why they work, and what I think they could be doing better. Hopefully it will give you some idea not just of what social games are doing right, but also why players might play games of this type.
What is CityVille?
CityVille is the latest in a series of city-building games on Facebook, and was released about two weeks ago. It is the latest in Zynga's range of light sim-style games (FrontierVille, Café World and of course FarmVille being the main examples), and very much in the same vein as other titles like Social City, Millionaire City, City of Wonder, or My Empire. It has taken Zynga quite a while to get in on the city-building game theme, but they have taken the time to build out their own game with their own mechanics rather than the more direct copying that they and many developers practised in the very early days.
Starting with a couple of streets and buildings, the game guides you through various tasks that you can perform (sowing crops, building bakeries, laying road, etc.) in bite-sized chunks. Rather than throw all of this detail at you at once, the game intersperses it with challenges, things to pick up, collect, friends to visit and so on.
It is click-heavy, meaning that to build a building you don't just place it and let it be built. Each click builds a phase of the building, and there may be three or four stages before a building is actually finished. As buildings generate revenue, need supplies, or crops are grown, the game does not automate those actions. Instead you manually collect coins, deliver boxes, pick up prizes, click to plant crops, click to harvest crops, and other actions.
This activity all proceeds a-pace until you run into timers. You can only collect coins from a building every X minutes, for example, which encourages you to check into the game one or more times a day. And, globally, the game monitors all your actions with an energy statistic that either regenerates over time, or you can buy more of with the game's cash.
As you do these activities more and more, you earn experience points (or XP), which increase your level. Levels unlock more buildings and rewards, which in turn let you make more stuff, increasing your maximum energy. And for a bonus effect, your energy recharges every time that you gain a new level.
You can also visit other player's cities. This has the effect of immediately giving you energy awards and boosts, as well as offering activities that you can do. You can harvest other players' crops for them, which generates mutual awards, such as XP, reputation points and game cash. You can apply to other players to let you set up franchises of your businesses in their cities. You can also send them gifts which cost you nothing (such as free energy).
The game continues to guide you with tasks. A task is usually quite simple, involving three or four steps. Steps might be include visit three friends, build a bakery, collect ten strawberries or that kind of thing. You may have several tasks on the go at the same time, as the game monitors whether you're completing steps or not, but not all tasks are immediately available. Instead, the game chains them along, with completion of some tasks opening up other ones.
Task completion generates congratulation windows, rewards, and also the opportunity to share your achievement on Facebook.
Lastly, you are largely free to lay out your city as you choose. Unlike many classic sim-strategy games (or Restaurant City, arguably the grand-daddy of these types of games), optimal layout doesn't really matter. You don't need to maintain equitable balances of components in certain areas, efficient road networks or anything like that. All of the people wandering around, as well as the plants and trees are purely decorative. This means players are free to create whatever layout they desire, and many do.
And that's the basic game design. Most successful social games are much the same, but with variations of theme. So why does this work so well for Zynga, if many of the games are the same?
A lot of the talk around Facebook enthuses wildly about the social graph and virality as being great drivers of engagement, but I believe these effects are being wildly over-estimated. They exist, and are a factor, but actually only a small factor in how games spread. How Facebook really works is visibility.
The Facebook interface induces a high degree of user blindness. It does not do a great job of exposing new games and applications, and lacks a directory or a 'Featured in the App Store' style of editorial (as Apple does for the iPhone), which means that for most developers there are huge problems in getting their games in front of users' eyeballs.
With all of the free advertising channels on the platform now constrained or dead, this has meant that the Facebook economy has been acquiring an increasingly Darwinian shape. Where it used to be an egalitarian environment in which any developer could strike it big, over the last year it has become top-heavy with larger developers accruing exponential success, and cutting off oxygen to smaller companies by default.
And to the winner very much go the spoils. The Facebook economy, like the television economy, is all about dominating and converting attention rather than meritocratic-ally acquiring it, and all of the big developers on the platform have realised this. There are four basic ways that they do this.
App Banners: App banners are immensely important to have on Facebook because they solve the user blindness problem. An app banner presents the player with images that they notice amid Facebook’s white, text-heavy interface, but at the same time do not overload them with thousands of available choices. App banners are the core of cross-promotion, so each game from a developer becomes a marketing channel for every other game by that developer as well.
A recent trend in app banners has come in the form of Applifier, and some others, which offer a way for smaller developers to band together and cross-promote to each other. While useful, and in some cases very much so, third party app banners probably only have a limited shelf life before there are too many of them, or developers start making their own, such that Metcalfe's Law will start to work against rather than for them.
Decanting: The above image is captured from FarmVille, and it shows a form of cross-promotion that I call decanting. Decanting literally means pouring your users from one container into another, like wine. The idea is simple, but extremely powerful. If you are sitting on an ageing 53m monthly active users in FarmVille, as Zynga are, why not show them something else that they can play? Why not offer them rewards or challenges from one game to the next?
Each user that does this becomes a more invested customer, more likely not only to play your next game, but to still keep playing and maintaining their existing game. So you not only have their attention, you're keeping it, and the user is unlikely to venture outside your application's sphere to try something from a competitor instead.
Advertising: Often forgotten in the rush to praise social gaming as a new kind of business model is that most of the big players got funded very early, and used that money to develop and advertise their games.
Zynga was very much at the forefront of this. When SGN and Playfish were their early competitors, and later Playdom and Crowdstar came along, all of them trusted in the then-viral aspects of their games. Advertising was seen in some quarters as muddy, and Playfish in particular would boast that they had never had to tap much into their investment funds to acquire their users, but instead did it with great gameplay.
Zynga took the other view: They advertised like crazy, on Facebook itself, and in other games. The example picture above is take from Soccer Stars Football, and shows that Zynga still advertise in other games to this day.
Advertising works for the same reason that app banners work: They show images against the otherwise bare Facebook interface. They are also eminently target-able along many lines, and very easy to experiment with to increase yield. Facebook’s advertising solution allows you to target players by age, nationality, likes, dislikes and lots of other factors, and Zynga use this functionality expertly to promote their games, spending a rumoured $50m or more a year on advertising and probably being Facebook’s single largest advertiser.
Publishing: Social games ask users to publish their game activity a lot. The basic form of publishing is the High Scores publish action, where the player brags that they scored more points, attained a new level or acquired an achievement in a game. These kinds of publish action were very effective when they first came out 18 months ago, and some casual games like Chain RXN exploded in users overnight because of them, but they've become pretty ineffective these days. Users instantly recognise them and ignore them, and recently Facebook has constrained the reach of game-published stories, limiting them only to players who have already installed a game.
Games like CityVille have started using publishing as a way to offer gifts and incentives. As you can see in the image above, my published story is bragging about my achievement, but also offering free experience points to other users who click through. A variety of such incentives encourage users to come back into the game to collect their prize, and the hope on the part of the publishing player (me in this case) is that those players will in turn show me reciprocity.
This strategy only really works if you have a critical mass of players though. It doesn't acquire fresh users, but rather re-interrupts the attention of cross-promoted, decanted and advertised customers. It also re-acquires lapsed customers. All of which is dependent, like most kinds of marketing, on repeated exposure. The more friends you have playing and publishing, the more you will notice that game, and the more likely you are to re-enter it.
Most advertising works on that sort of constant-exposure basis, and social game publishing really is no exception.
Visibility is Geometric
All four parts of the promotion equation feed into each other and produce geometric results. As we know from Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network corresponds to the square of the individual members, and so the more users you have, the exponentially further reach you have.
In the early days of Facebook many developers practised seedy, spam-laden tactics to acquire users, and Zynga certainly was one of those. But what they've done with that attention along the way is figured out how to move it around, shift it from game to game, and keep using those opportunities to expand their reach further and further.
The result, as with all successful companies on the web, is that they're now tapping into Metcalfe-style effects. Zynga are able to add a tonne of users very quickly into a game because they have built the channels to do so. Success follows more success, allows exponential expansion if you manipulate it in the right way, and that's why they're now the company adding 12m users in a week to their new game. Zynga are where they are today because they've realised that social gaming is actually about building a virtual network of applications inside Facebook through cross promotion, and they raced faster than anyone else to do so.
The next question is: What are they doing with those customers when they show up?
(That concludes the first part of CityVille Explained. Click here for part two.) (If you are finding value in these articles, show your appreciation with a retweet!)