GDC: An Insider’s View of CityVille, From Idea to Launch

One of the early panels at the Game Developer Conference’s Social and Online Game Summit today was “Click Zen: Zynga’s Evolution from FarmVille to CityVille”. Mark Skaggs, Zynga’s VP of product development, talked the audience through the company’s evolution to its latest and most successful game.

The difference between FarmVille and CItyVille was stark, according to Skaggs. Launching FarmVille was all about getting a minimum viable product out the door. By the time CityVille was on the drawing board, Zynga had tripled in size.

Facebook had changed, too, leading some developers to think they could no longer produce hits. ““I actually had a spreadsheet that told me City could not grow to more than 5 million daily unique players,” said Skaggs. Initially, Zynga thought about sending the CityVille project to Challenge Games, its acquisition in in Austin, Texas.

Ultimately Zynga decided to produce the game at its San Francisco headquarters. But as the company went into preproduction, CityVille suffered from a lack of vision, said Skaggs. The team wasn’t sure whether it wanted to make the game a lighter or heavier experience; it wasn’t settled on a look or feel, or whether to launch another minimum viable product, as it had with FarmVille.

“We had to get off paper. What we found, when you’re on a whiteboard sketching it out, someone comes in and says hey, there’s an edge case and it gets modified,” said Skaggs. Before long, all the ideas were leading to confusion. So the company set to building playable prototypes that could help guide the vision.

Even with the prototypes, though, it wasn’t clear that CityVille would be a very good game. “People were coming to me privately during late summer early fall and saying, Mark, this isn’t going to be fun. It’s going to be another FarmVille,” said Skaggs. So in August, the team started to whittle down its ideas. “We kept focusing, narrowing down the scope, trying to get to the core gameplay,” said Skaggs.

Eventually, Skaggs started tracking what he called “Mile Markers”. In August and September, for instance, he started noticing that the team was gelling, with members spending time with each other and not just working alone. As September wore on, he saw the first hints of fun in the game, and by October and November the team was playing it of their own accord.

When it came to November, when the game was due to launch, the team decided to hold. Zynga had finally decided to move completely away from the minimum viable product model. This turned out to be important, said Skaggs, since it’s much easier to fix problems before launch.

CityVille wasn’t a perfect game at launch; Skaggs pointed out some areas that could have been better, including major elements like the trains, franchise interface and game space expansions. But it beat a minimum viable product, and went on to draw more than 100 million monthly active users at its peak.

Skaggs finished off with some “meta lessons” for other social game developers:

  • It’s entertainment – People want a light, fun experience that loads as fast as a web page
  • You’re building a product and a 24/7 business – It’s not like traditional game development, you’re got to keep working on it every day
  • The battle Is won before the launch – It’s all about planning and preparation; fix problems before launch.
  • Learn the space and the recipes for success – Go look at Zynga games and find common threads; if successful games keep using features, maybe you should too.
  • Speed wins – Get to market and have the performance
  • Deliver fun – Don’t forget that you’re making games
  • You can’t make up for boring with volume – Content won’t make up for lack of fun, you need a good core game loop

For more on the prelude to CityVille, check out our guest post by Brice Morrison from earlier today: How Zynga Defused Its FarmVille Time-Bomb.

[Editor’s note: Chris Morrison is a game designer and analyst at Concept Art House. He previously led coverage on Inside Social Games and continues to contribute.]