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DICE 2010: Zynga's Reynolds On 'Social' First And Foremost
DICE 2010: Zynga's Reynolds On 'Social' First And Foremost
February 18, 2010 | By Kris Graft

February 18, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

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'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.

Metric-Driven Design

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.

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Jeff Hanson
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"Social gaming means [you're playing with] your real friends,"

The 'add me' threads zynga's game forums have where people friend hundreds of random people to get more 'gifts' from would suggest otherwise.

Megan Swaine
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They're applying principles of online marketing to social game design- something that can be either good or bad, depending on how they do it.

Glen M
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"Without metrics, Zynga would have never known that."

Because nobody has ever had the thought that girls like pink and boys like blue. To be honest it is hard for smart people and companies to keep it simple, but a lot of times simple works.

Leo Gura
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The biggest advantage with working in the online medium is that you have such detailed metrics on your users. Split testing conversion pages is standard practice for web developers, including the big boys, like Google, who have developed tools (Website Optimizer: to do just this.

In my experience though, you can use common marketing sense to achieve similar results. I haven't been able to out-optimize my intuition yet by more than a few percent. I'm curious how much pink font actually raised conversions (not just click-through).

John Petersen
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I got a bad feeling about facebook... It might still bring in the revenue to make a profit, but something is going to happen where it's not nearly as much as anticipated. Prepare for that.

Mike Sellers
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"FarmVille took Zynga five weeks and between $100,000-$300,000 to build prior to its launch" and with "a team of 15-20 people," which is great, and no one can deny Zynga's monstrous success, or their meticulous attention to post-launch metrics. OTOH, they had the advantage here of not needing to spend any time at all in designing from a blank sheet of paper, in pre-production, early user testing, design iteration, art style testing etc., as they were doing no more than tweaking the already successful FarmTown.

So yes, very short development times and relatively low budgets are the norm in social games... but let's be honest in comparing apples to apples. A new game not based almost entirely on an existing one is not likely to have the same budget and schedule profile.