FarmVille took Zynga five weeks and between $100,000-$300,000 to build prior to its launch – a far cry from the two to four years and $10-$40 million it takes to create a "triple-A" boxed product.
But with that relatively small investment of time and money, Zynga created one of the most popular Facebook social games around. FarmVille now has 31 million daily active users, according to Daily Analytics.
If it's so fast and inexpensive to create a game that generates an average of one penny per user per day, why are there only about three companies dominating the top 20 Facebook games list? At the DICE Summit in Las Vegas this week, Zynga chief designer Brian Reynolds said some companies might be missing the point.
"We make the link between virtual goods and real world social relationships, and if you don't understand that, you're not going to succeed in social games," Reynolds said. Making that connection between users' social lives and social games doesn't only improve virtual item sales for Zynga games such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars, but it also increases overall user engagement, which does translate into revenue.
Social Aspects Before Gameplay
The low initial investment in a social game, however, is somewhat deceptive, Reynolds said. "We built FarmVille in five weeks with 15-20 people – the catch is you have to keep it alive...you've got to keep people interested," he said. That involves weekly game updates and mechanics that keep people engaged – investment doesn't end at launch. "People want the new stuff, and they want it now, and it better be there."
The size of Zynga's total user base appears to show that the studio is honing its user-engagement skills. Operating under the mantra "Reach, Retention, and Revenue," Zynga's total monthly active user base has grown from 35 million monthly active users in May 2009 to 235 million today. To Zynga, growing its business is about increasing its audience, retaining those users, and monetizing them.
Turning casual onlookers into active, paying customers is about focusing first and foremost on the social aspect of social games, even before "fun" gameplay, Reynolds said. "You have to get it 'social' [in order] to get it anything else. Improve your social mechanics, then add your fun into the bucket." The fun, he said, will come after you find the "social magic."
Before social networks, people might get in contact via email. Old friends connect over the course of a correspondence that could last some days or weeks. But the engagement is lost relatively soon. Social networks like Facebook changed that for its 350 million users.
And social game developers are poised to cash in on that user base, if they understand how to make a social game that caters to peoples' desire to be social. "A [social] game gives me an excuse to kind of ping [a Facebook friend] to say, 'I'm still here, I like you! Here's something for your mafia!'"
Successful social games also serve as a way to communicate status among a user's friends. "Although players want to have fun, the most important thing is they want to generate 'social capital.' ... Social gaming means [you're playing with] your real friends," Reynolds said.
Zynga doesn't rely on gut instinct to zero in on what users really want. Reynolds said Zynga follows an array of real-time metrics in order to find out what players like, and what they don't.
One example was of a screen from FarmVille that promoted another one of Zynga's games, PetVille. The font used in the promotion was originally red. By experimenting with other colors, the studio found that pink fonts, strangely, generated an exponentially higher click-through count than colors including purple, green, and red. Without metrics, Zynga would have never known that.
"Using the data mining, the metrics, you are able to learn the things that are counter-intuitive," said Reynolds.