CastleVille Enters Critical Growth Period Before the Holidays

Zynga’s CastleVille launched on Facebook a little over a month ago and continues to grow. The game is now entering a critical period, however, where traffic may already begin to decline as several of Zynga’s more recent games have done.

Early Growth Slowing Down

Though CastleVille took off like a shot in the first 10 days of launch, we observed at the time that several of Zynga’s more recent launches have “burnt out” after only a short period of growth on the platform. In some cases, we’re beginning to see signs of recovery — such as a recent resurgence in monthly active users for Adventure World — but most of the games launched from Empires & Allies onward have experienced loss of users after about a month. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these titles have “failed,” as we know that games tend to see higher average revenue per users after early (non-paying) adopters drop out. A consistent decline in traffic across multiple new games, however, could indicate that Zynga is struggling to attract new users while longtime users continue to lapse.

According to our AppData traffic tracking service, CastleVille’s growth is slowing down. In its first 10 days, the game reached nearly 10 million monthly active users and almost 6 million daily active users. For the next 10, it grew 120% in MAU to around 22 million MAU and a more modest 26% in DAU to 7.6 million. For the 10 days after that period, growth slowed to 50% in MAU and just under 12% in DAU. In the last eight days, CastleVille has grown 15% in MAU and has lost 1% of DAU.

Gameplay Gives Players Lots to Do Early On

At launch, CastleVille provided players with a larger landscape that any other Zynga game (save perhaps for Adventure World) with familiar gameplay mechanics to get them started on opening up new areas of the playable map. There are 81 sections of land on a 9×9 grid that the player can only unlock by first having a minimum “castle level” (determined by what structures the player has built in their town), then by having a certain number of Exploration Crystals (which are crafted by gifted materials after the player has built a workshop), and lastly by spending a fixed amount of coins. Some sections of land contain bonus items like free structures or animals, a few have new non-playable characters that provide players with new quests, while others contain only new resources to be harvested.

Cast in the role of a medieval settler, players begin the game by meeting two non-playable characters that provide them with their first quests that involve clearing land and building structures. As players complete these quests and unlock new areas of the map, a main storyline guides them toward a search for the source of “Beastie” enemies that periodically show up as the player is completing everyday game tasks (e.g. harvesting crops or collecting money from structures). Certain “coming soon” structures discovered on the map (see below) imply that the player will be able to leave their map to explore some other terrain — much like the new gameplay mode Pioneer Trail expansion introduced to FrontierVille.

Where CastleVille differs from other social games is primarily in presentation and the amount of virtual items available at launch. The game has a rich art style and very high graphics quality and a soundtrack provided by a full orchestra. Aside from those features, most of the game’s core elements — farming, building, visiting friends, crafting, character and building customization — had previously been implemented in other Zynga Facebook games. CastleVille notably ditches the Collections system introduced first in FrontierVille, instead incorporating the collection element into the crafting system.

Scaling the Walls with New Features and Cross-Promotion

In the 40 days since launch, the developer has added decoration content packs and some minor tools to make the game more manageable (e.g. adjusting the crafting menu to display the last page the player viewed rather than starting at the very top of the list). It’s also now possible to sell most items in a player’s inventory, although the game still hasn’t introduced the item trading feature highlighted during CastleVille previews. Special holiday-themed quests and content have also appeared in the game within the last two weeks as we move closer to December 25th.

In general, we do not see decoration content packs kickstarting growth rates among games — particularly those that are still in their first three months on Facebook. Holiday content also doesn’t generate much growth as most players take a break from social games for at least a few days of the holiday season, which can bring down overall growth. More complex content updates that add new modes, however, may show traffic increases — and Zynga has been able to spike growth for some of its titles using cross-promotion between games.

The issue here is that the strongest cross-promotion comes from similar games and CastleVille could be missing out on that. For example, a CityVille cross-promotion in Mafia Wars did trigger a sharp climb in MAU and DAU for the latter — but nearly all the new DAU in Mafia Wars disappeared within the week likely because CityVille players found the text-based crime sim to be too different from city-building. In contrast, promoting Empires & Allies within CityVille in the first month of the former’s launch helped drive in early users as the games feature identical city-building mechanics. CastleVille is enough like FrontierVille to where one game could support the other with cross-promotion, but FrontierVille has suffered a serious decline after the launch of its Pioneer Trail expansion failed to migrate all FrontierVille users to the new app.

Storming the Castle in 2012

Based on the behavior we’ve seen from social game players on Facebook in the 2010 holiday season, we expect to see slowed growth or decline in traffic across most games in the last week of December continuing possibly into the first week of January 2012. A notable exception to this behavior is CityVille, which beat out the holiday slump in 2010 to become the largest Facebook app of all time in early January 2011. At this point, with growth slowing as it is, we do not expect CastleVille avoid this sluggish period. The game could, however, bounce back in early 2012 depending on Zynga’s cross-promotion strategy and on any major content updates the developer might make to CastleVille. New game releases — such as the upcoming Hidden Chronicles — could also trigger growth if those games are successful in attracting users new to Zynga games.

As for whether or not CastleVille will pass CityVille on our AppData traffic tracking leaderboards, we can only say it is possible — as the latter game continues to decline — but not likely to occur for another month or so.