In a GDC Europe talk at Cologne on Tuesday, Zynga's Hugh De Loayza discussed the rise of social network games, outlining how one of the leading Facebook and MySpace game providers grew and flourished, and the growing competition in the space.
The exec explained that the San Francisco-headquartered Zynga now has 15-20 million active daily users, which compares favorably to existing websites like EA's Pogo.com, which gets a similar amount of visitors -- but every month, not every day.
De Loayza, who is a casual gaming veteran who worked at companies like Oberon Media and the aforementioned Pogo, explained to the audience that it's the "viral loop" in social gaming that really differentiates it.
Whether the gameplay or the community interaction is asynchronous (as in turn-based Zynga games like Scramble) or synchronous (in games like Texas Hold 'Em), it's the invitations and updates that hook in to the social network that make things grow fast.
But De Loayza warned of the Facebook and MySpace gaming market that, although the barrier to entry is low for making social network games, "the tricky part [is that] everybody can do it." He commented of the changes in the space over the past 12-18 months: "It used to not be as hard... now it's becoming much more difficult."
When the exec joined Zynga about 18 months ago, he said he was 'the game guy' in a company largely comprised of Web 2.0 professionals, and admitted: "For a while, there was a culture clash, truthfully." But the Mafia Wars and YoVille developer evolved into an effective force by building mechanics into games focused on social interaction.
The Zynga exec noted that simplicity is the key to success for many social games. In fact, he said: "Make it less game, more social," and it's important to "focus on traffic as much or more as gameplay." He cited a successful title like Kickmania, where the gameplay is a simple as 'kicking' a friend on a network, with leaderboards and other things layered on top. He also noted that often, the more straightforward mechanic is the better.
There are some particularly good viral-related game mechanics, says De Loayza, with gift giving being a particularly good way to alert other users and get them to join your game. He cited PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz as a notably interesting example of competition as a viral mechanic, where users can team up to compete and win prizes.
In addition, crew mechanics on more standard 'spreadsheet games' like Mafia Wars, where adding friends to the game gets you to level up, can be a major growth factor. As for notifications, which are the way social network games communicate with your users, "use them as much as possible," says De Loayza. He did acknowledge in the Q&A that what could be considered as 'spamming' does happen in the space, even as Zynga tries to keep their notifications useful.
How about the biggest mistakes you can make in the social network game space? De Loayza cited licenses, commenting: "I am not convinced that licenses necessarily work in this space... people just don't seem to be that interested in it," as well as linking to a destination site outside the social network, which "breaks the viral loop."
He also commented that, in general, converting existing games doesn't always work -- though there are some good counterexamples, such as Bejeweled Blitz. Overall, the Zynga exec urged: "don't overthink everything," since there's a lot of opportunity for experimentation and trying out things with your existing users to see if they work or not.
As for changes currently happening in the social network space, De Loayza did note that "the quality is improving" quite rapidly. About a year ago, it was quite easy to make a 'spreadsheet game' in the style of Mafia Wars and have it be reasonably successful, but this is no longer the case. In addition, the rise of more graphically lush Flash-based games is notable. Overall, "we're starting to see a lot more innovation" in the space, the Zynga exec suggests.
With the application of multiple mechanics in games, such as the hiring of friends, or the 'harvesting' of seeds in games like Zynga's FarmVille, social network games are bringing users back much more often to play. In addition, Zynga is starting to see the 'network effect' of crosspromoting games kick in, with an 8-week climb to almost 8 million daily users for FarmVille, significantly outgrowing existing competitor Farm Town.