One of the big differences between games-as-a-service and games-as-retail is that one is persistent while the other is instanced. In retail the franchise is powered by sequels, from Halo 4 to Mario Galaxy, because each represents a pulse of new interaction and fun to be had in a familiar world. However a service game like EVE Online or World of Warcraft is more like a Twitter or a Facebook.
Nobody needs or wants a Twitter 2 or a Facebook 2 because of the taxes involved in moving from one to the other. The same is especially true in service games, but this is a mistake that Zynga is on the verge of making for the second time in announcing FarmVille 2 at Zynga Unleashed.
When you're making anything obtaining a new audience is always difficult and so (especially in services) it is important to retain them. That audience builds loyalty and investment over time, develops a community and some of its members acquire social status within that community. It gets to the point where the cost of switchover to another game feels like a waste of time, and the very best you can do is keep the existing service alive and improve it.
That's why there is no World of Warcraft 2, no EVE Online 2 and no eRepublik 2. Appending '2' to the latest release of any of those games would probably imply fresh starts and reboots to the marketing division that thought it up. However to many of the audience who have given their loyalty to the first version it sounds like abandonment. The thing is: Zynga has made this mistake before, with Mafia Wars.
Mafia Wars used to sit on top of the Facebook charts and functioned both as a testing ground for many of Zynga's new ideas for virality, but also was the posterboy for minimum viable products in games. While the game was always being pushed very hard through the Zynga marketing channels, that strategy did seem to pay off. It had grown virally from the early days (remember when your Facebook notifications were slathered in Mafia Wars reminders?) but held on in there.
My guess is that Zynga got spooked by Crime City, a game from rival studio Funzio which had much the same sort of fetch-kill-level-up structure as Mafia Wars, but with graphics. Where Mafia Wars was essentially a set of sheets and tables and low-quality gifs, Crime City had animation, sound effects and so on. It looked moderately fun to play and seemed lively. So it was no great suprise when Zynga turned around and created a Mafia Wars 2 to compete. It too had graphics and sounds and animations, just as Crime City had. It was more fun. It also failed.
I'm guessing that the logic behind MW2 was probably that Zynga would transition the existing Mafia Wars audience, reset everyone's accounts so that they could level up all over again (and buy virtual goods too) and also see off Crime City. The actual result was that Mafia Wars dropped almost all of its users (from 20m-ish MAU down to 1.3m) while Mafia Wars 2 failed to take off (670k). In soccer this is called scoring an own-goal.
So FarmVille 2? History repeating itself.
In its announcement, Zynga showed that the new FarmVille will be in 3D. It will be rich in content and has probably been expensive to build. Users will start all over again and build their farms anew. Investors are hopeful that it will take off and be a big success. I think it will do exactly the opposite. Just like Mafia Wars 2 did, it will tank the existing FarmVille audience and effectively kill the franchise.
FarmVille was a massive stroke of luck and timing. It came about during the period before Facebook got shirty with their viral channels, and at a time when the very idea of having a virtual farm for free in a game was very new to most people. It was perhaps a bit evil, but whomever at Zynga that realised that cloning FarmTown and putting into the growth engine that they had built could lead to spectacular success got it very right.
Those are not the conditions that FarmVille 2 is facing, however. For one thing the FarmVille audience now exists, all 21m MAU of them, and that audience has already invested considerable time into their game. The very last thing that they want to hear is that Zynga has abandoned them and wants them to start all over.
Secondly: those viral levers are long gone and that's why most of Zynga's new releases are relative duds. CastleVille, Bubble Safari and Slingo are all doing respectable business, but it seems to me that they are recycling existing users more than finding new ones. Even despite moves like the Draw Something purchase, Appdata shows that Zynga has been pretty flat for a very long time, all while Facebook's users continue to grow.
Third, the novelty has just worn off. All those wide-eyed amazing stories that used to appear in the mainstream news about planting virtual crops and getting up at 4am to harvest virtual carrots are now old hat. Everyone's tried them, either through Zynga or someone else, and the audiences around the genre have matured. So a FarmVille 2 is simply not going to be as remarkable, especially for a market that doesn't really care about graphics and 3D.
Fourth, 3D web games generally suck because of technical issues. If done through Flash then likely many of the existing FarmVille audience just won't have the PC specs needed to really enjoy the game. It will be glitchy, low in framerate and so on. If done through Unity then the issue becomes one of install base (and still some performance issues too).
The smarter thing to be doing, frankly, is working on the existing FarmVille franchise and serving the audience that is already there. Just like EVE, eRepublik, World of Warcraft, Habbo Hotel and so on do. FarmVille is mature and stable. Its fresh-faced days are over and a sequel is not going reignite it all over again.
Becoming "The Bank"
Zynga as the platform that helps many other developers succeed through partnership programmes and APIs is forward-looking. Arguably the company should have been doing this a year ago, but better late than never. Building technology that facilitates communication is also probably useful (although I'm not really sold on that, nor the Zynga branding attached to it), but mainly it's about access to the marketing engine.
That marketing engine is by far and away Zynga's best asset, not its intellectual property or its technology. And this kind of thinking is analogous to Stringer Bell (of The Wire) making moves to try and become 'the bank' and get away from the day-to-day fray of corners and territory. If done right then many more games (and much more innovation) will appear on the Zynga platform than they can ever hope to produce by themselves.
However trying to push a lot of own-branded content (The Ville? Really?) in response to competitors, and trying to reawaken the lucky halcyon days with sequels? That's old school publisher thinking. That's retail, that's expensive, that's low-margin/high-cost development. That's not going to work, and all it looks likely to do is saddle Zynga with more cost centres that it doesn't need, more content that it won't want to support and less overall users. Just how long can Mark Pincus and his ex-console industry executives continue to make these content plays before they realise that the game isn't just about corners any more?