Hugh de Loayza, vice president of business development for Zynga, is extremely bullish on the social gaming business -- which is shaping up to be the posterchild for industry growth in 2009. Zynga, of course, operates many of the most popular games on Facebook -- including FarmVille, Café World, and Mafia Wars -- the top three titles, as of this writing, for monthly active users.
This interview took place at last month's GDC China in Shanghai shortly after the launch of Café World. In his presentation, de Loayza revealed that the title is Zynga's fastest growing game yet -- it reached 3 million users in just six days. As of this writing, it has over 28 million monthly active users.
De Loayza's background, of course, is not in social gaming, but in casual games -- with stints at EA's Pogo and Sony Online Entertainment -- so he understands the industry's transition.
Here, he speaks about not just what makes these games successful, but why developers like Brian Reynolds, who left Big Huge Games for Zynga, are attracted to the social games space -- besides the potential profits.
What do you ascribe Café World's success to?
Hugh de Loayza: It's a network effect where we're driving traffic across multiple extremely large games. It's a little bit of good fortune that we have.
Do you track the percentage of people that come in via, say, FarmVille?
HD: We are an incredibly analytical organization, so we track just about everything. It's the secret sauce behind all that stuff. There's a lot of mathemagics that go into it.
Obviously, "virality" has been a huge buzzword. You guys capitalize on that with a lot of status updates and news feed stuff in Facebook. Where do you see where that is right now, as things evolve and people become used to seeing it? What is the current state of virality?
HD: It's a constantly evolving state. That's the magic behind what we do. Certain things we do will work, and others won't. You try new ones, and A, B, C, D, E, F, G testing constantly. The current state is that some of that stuff does work. We also have to pay really significant attention and care to the rulesets that are put in place by the social networks.
Do you find that as there are more games and more experiences doing more virality, that there's a saturation effect that the audience is reaching?
HD: I'm sure that the audience reaches some degree of saturation. We all do, if we're spending a lot of time on there. The trick for us is understanding new mechanisms that will inspire them to do that. It's also about good gameplay, right? That is a part of the gameplay, but it's also about building experiences that they want to share with others through the communication channels.
It's no secret that Playfish has been really critical of the auto-inviting systems that a lot of games have, and have talked more about creating experiences that users organically wish to bring their friends into. You guys have to look at it both ways, right?
HD: I guess we do look at it both ways, but the truth of the matter is that the response speaks for itself. If 18 million people are playing FarmVille, it's a game that they want to share with their friends, and it's an experience that they want to provide. There are other opportunities for farm games, including [Playfish's] Country Story. It's a good experience.
If you look at the evolution of the farm genre, in light of the Chinese markets, there was a high degree of game cloning. There was Harvest Moon, then Happy Farm, which was launched in Asia, and that begat the Western farm games. How do you see that issue? How do you see the overall saturation of game ideas that are cloned? The source is not original, and once something becomes big, it becomes pervasively copied?
HD: Our games are pretty distinctively different from the traditional Asian farm games. A shooter is a shooter, so a harvest mechanic is a harvest mechanic. But the story you wrap around it is different. The other thing to pay attention to is that you've got a service that you're running.
The value is in that service, for the users. If it's something that's constantly changing, you're in the same sandbox, but at the same time, it's a widely different experience all the time. It's the difference between Half-Life, which is basically a shooter, to Combat Arms, or whatever. It's the same shooting mechanism, it's just different services around it.