2 months in the theme park: A CoasterVille deep dive

coastervillefeatureCoasterVille launched in early December and started to seriously climb the charts towards the end of the month. Two months later, the game has taken over the No. 1 spot among Facebook games by MAU and can be played both on Facebook and Zynga’s own platform.

We’ve been playing CoasterVille since it launched, logging into the game a couple of times on a near daily basis. As is the case with our deep dives, we’ve made a point of playing CoasterVille without actually monetizing so we can provide an informed analysis about what the experience is like for free players.

Just how far can you get without paying?

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So how far can users advance in CoasterVille before starting to feel pressure to monetize? For us, it was around level 25 that progress notably slowed down. In the three weeks since that point it’s become much more difficult to complete quests in the game without buying and spending the game’s hard currency, Park Cash. Since then, our progress has slowed and we’ve only moved up to level 28. As you can see in the above screenshot, there are a number of open missions we haven’t completed because we’ve been trying to play through the game without spending any money. We currently have four buildings requiring speciality items, at least one of these has been stuck at this stage for three weeks.

The game’s friend system is a huge boon for early player progress. While any Facebook Friends are added to the list of “neighbors”, the game continues to add other users in the game to this group, too. Players are encouraged to visit their neighbor’s parks to assist with tasks in exchange for the Inspiration resources, which are necessary for construction and expansion. During early stages of a park’s existence, these neighbors make it much easier to advance through the game without being forced to buy Park Cash.

As opposed to other social games, CoasterVille’s been rather stingy when it comes to handing out hard currency, even when players level up. Likewise, more and more of the buildings one needs to build in order to achieve milestones require special items that can’t be earned by searching/boosting existing structures or crafted. Players instead have the option to ask their friends for these items as in-game gifts, but these requests don’t go out as in-game messages to users’ neighbors (as opposed to requests for less crucial items). Instead, they’re posted to one’s Timeline, where the request isn’t likely to be spotted. While it’s certainly possible to ask for the help and then follow up/nag your friends, the faster and less frustrating option is just to buy some Park Cash and acquire the items you need.

Looking at our list of in-game friends —which includes but isn’t limited to our Facebook friends playing the game— it seems players looking to experience CoasterVille for free seem to be stuck around the same level point we are. A quick tour of their parks reveals similar problems completing structures that require premium items. Some of our neighbors are continuing to advance at a steady rate, and their parks are substantially larger and full of hard-to-construct buildings (pictured below). Unfortunately, we couldn’t message any of these people since they’re outside our Facebook network, but it looks like they’ve been spending money on a somewhat regular basis in order to acquire new territory and premium building items.

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If we’re correct and free players are hitting this progress wall, then they may be leaving the game around this point. Assuming that’s the case, it would would certainly explain the game’s loss in DAU traffic we recently noted.

The game’s performance so far, plus what’s coming

According Zynga’s General Manager Hans Yang, custom coasters have proven to be the best-monetizing items in the game. Aside from sometimes requiring premium items to add expansions, players can also change the coaster track features by placing unique features like banks, loops and covered sections. Although some of these custom sections can be added via in-game gold, the showier customizations require Park Cash in order to be placed.

Yang also tells us the game is currently monetizing as expected, with themed content (attractions tied to seasons and holidays) performing especially well over December and January. “We ended up leaving [the winter content] on longer than expected because, even well into January, players were still interested in winter stuff,” he says. Yang also notes Zynga was very pleased with the winter content because it was rolled out during the game’s soft-launch period. At the time we chatted, Zynga was about to launch its Valentine’s Day-themed content, which is running for another 19 days.

Zynga’s also gearing up to start rolling out the game’s post-launch content. Yang says there are three themes coming, but the development team isn’t rolling them out all at once; instead, the release times will be balanced so as not to overwhelm player demand. He explains the point of the updates is to “fill out a theme park with everything a player would expect to see there.” These updates will include things like mascots (who will wander around parks), tour busses, and railroads with custom train types to wind around one’s park.

Zynga’s also planning to add more depth to to the game’s guest theme simulator. This controls guest behavior, driving them to seek out things like food, restrooms and first aid facilities. “We want to build on that more and more. We know a lot of players look at this as their ant farm, they view those guests as people they want to please. When they see guests are unhappy, they work to make them happy. We want to keep expanding on that and adding depth so the ‘ants’ will keep getting smarter and smarter , which means you’ll get smarter and smarter as a park manager as well.

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Brand placement is likely to continue being a noticeable presence in CoasterVille. Late in January, Progressive Insurance partnered up with Zynga to customize the centerpiece carousel that appears in players’ parks; Yang tells us this kind of in-game branding will likely continue, but doesn’t go into specifics.”A theme park game is pretty fitting for those custom ad products because you expect to see them there. If you go into Disneyland, you see Kodak photo spots and Coca-Cola vending stations.

One thing that won’t change, Yang tells us, is how the game stays accessible to free players. “In the short run, you could say ‘oh, well, I should chase the money and pinch our players right off the bat and not give them enough of the things so they have to pay for them,'” he explains. “But that wasn’t our philosophy for this game. We want players to invest time in their parks and love them. We realize not every player wants to spend money on these games and we want to make it a delightful experience for everyone.”