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CityVille Explained, Part 2
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CityVille Explained, Part 2

December 29, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Concluding his much-linked article series on the success of Zynga's 70 million user CityVille, following Part 1, design veteran Tadhg Kelly draws further from his What Games Are blog to examine the social features, channels and takeaways from the game's success.]

Now let’s move on to the social features. I already touched on publishing as an example of how social features increase visibility, and how they are used for unlocking gates. But they also play a key part in building retention in the game.

There are three kinds of social activity in CityVille: prompts, suggestions and visitations.


CityVille asks you to invite friends, share your latest accomplishment, or ask your friends to send help so that you can complete a task. In one ten minute session of CityVille that I played yesterday evening, the game prompted me with a question three times, and that is not unusual.

CityVille is constructed to routinely prompt users to take an action. The actions are in the form of a response to a question. Although there may appear to be many variations, there are actually only four types of question that it asks:

  1. Would you like to tell your friends what you have done? (as in the image above)
  2. Would you like to ask your friends for help?
  3. Would you like to send a friend a gift?
  4. Would you like to grant a friend’s request for help?

The game asks these questions mostly in relation to specific events. However because of the way that the game’s activities, timers and open loops work, those events happen very frequently. Here are some examples:

  • When you attain a level
  • When you run out of energy
  • When you build a building that needs employees
  • When you leave the game open in a browser window for five minutes
  • When a particular task needs friends to complete

There are also prompts that it asks only at certain points during the game. The following image is from FrontierVille because I missed the chance to screen-grab the one that CityVille asked, but the same function is in CityVille:

This is a cross-promotion prompt. At the start of the game it asks a lot of these sorts of questions, but they tend to trail off into the more routine questions by the time you’ve reached level 5 or so. Other kinds of prompt include gameplay tutorials, guides, reminders and game crashes.

The purpose of a prompt is to get the player to either broadcast to all of their friends, or send a request directly to another friend. There are fairly stringent rules over prompts and how they can be used: They have to clearly ask the player to share or invite friends, for example. The reason is to prevent developer abuses. (See Channels below for more).


Suggestions are buttons, links and tabs in the game that remind the player that they can interact with other players or Facebook friends if they choose. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the friend bar at the bottom of the game:

This bar allows you to travel to your friends’ cities, and also to send them gifts. If you click on any of their images, you will see a Gift button.

Suggestions centre around giving gifts. Most of them are free to the giver (you can give someone energy without it costing any of yours), and they generate publishable stories that the player can share, to let the receiver know that they have received a gift.

The result is an attempt at generating reciprocity. The goal of the gift economy in CityVille is to make players realise that they can actually progress much faster in the game, at no cost, if they give as many gifts to each other as possible. An economy-of-favours emerges, and everyone wins.


One of the most interesting social dynamics in the game is the ability to set up businesses in other players’ cities. It requires their approval of course, but the general idea is that you can apply to set up a franchise of one of your businesses, and this generates pellets for both of you:

Your friend can treat it as a rental opportunity and simply collect coins and experience points from it, like any other building. And you can visit it to do likewise.

Another kind of visit is the performing of game activity in another friend’s city. When you visit, you can harvest or collect on behalf of a friend, and they in turn can choose to accept your help:

This is an example of accepting help. If I choose to say yes, both of these friends’ images will move around my city, harvesting crops and generating resources. Helping friends out in this fashion costs the helper energy, but it also generates coins, XP and, most importantly, reputation points.

Reputation points are like a social form of level (represented by the heart icon on the right of this image). Reputation acts as a secondary requirement on some game activities, just like levelling does, but its primary purpose is to do with XP and coin generation. The more reputation you have, the more XP that someone who hires you will get, and the more you will get also.

In a similar vein, players can send requests to each other to become neighbors. Neighbors can more easily find and send gifts to each other. Also, some city buildings and tasks require that a player has a specific number of neighbors. Neighbors thus become another kind of gating mechanism.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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