How Sequels & Expansions to Popular Facebook Games Compare to Their Predecessors

This year, as many of the most popular Facebook games reached a mature stage in their development cycle, the social network saw the launch of more sequels and expansions than any other year in the platform’s history. This report will consider the challenges inherent in doing this successfully, and then analyze the performance of three recent sequels/expansions: Pioneer Trail (an expansion to FrontierVille), Mafia Wars 2, and Zoo World 2.

Challenges of Launching a Facebook Game Sequel/Expansion: Audience Appeal, Transition Friction, App ID Considerations

In theory, creating a sequel or expansion to a Facebook game with strong engagement rates is an obvious revenue opportunity. The developer can transition existing players to the spinoff game by adding information, links, and installation incentives in the original game, while also creating a new audience drawn to the promise of new and enhanced features.

However, a number of concerns still loom. A key consideration is whether the sequel/expansion will run on the same app ID as the original. If that’s the case, difficulties with transitioning users to a new app can be alleviated, but this strategy comes with its own challenges: According to Facebook’s app policies, a developer may not make updates to an app which significantly changes its original gamplay experience. So while a game’s sequel may exist in the same app ID, Facebook’s policy precludes the kinds of enhancements (such as new gameplay and expanded content) that typically increase new user growth and engagement.

Another point of risk is that the potential audience for a sequel may not be as large as the original, and the existing audience may resist installing and staying engaged with a second app. Fans of the original may consider the follow-up’s gameplay to be too different, for instance, or a distraction from their progress in the original. In a worst case scenario, the transition may cannibalize players away from the first game, who then engage even less with the sequel.

A cannibalization effect seems to have occured, by example, in Playdom’s role-playing game franchise Mobsters. As recorded by our AppData traffic tracking service, the original game enjoyed over 1 million monthly active users and just over 120,000 daily active users going into August 2009. In that same month, Playdom launched Mobsters 2: Vendetta, which added a deeper story-line and themed missions set in numerous locations, among other enhancements to the original. At first, the sequel showed growth rates, exceeding 5 million MAU toward the end of 2009 with about 400,000 DAU. While the sequel grew, Mobsters saw a rapid drop in MAU, presumably as players of that game transitioned to the sequel, falling below 100,000 as it went into 2010. Four months after launch, however, Mobsters 2 also experienced sharp user drop, falling close to 1 million MAU by June of 2010. At the moment, the original Mobsters game has just 6,000 MAU and 200 DAU, and the sequel, just 190,000 MAU and 30,000 DAU.

With these considerations in mind, here’s a brief review of three prominent sequels/expansions released in 2011:

From FrontierVille to Pioneer Trail – Zynga

Launched in June 2010, Zynga’s FrontierVille combined farm sim gameplay with RPG and adventure game elements. By the beginning of 2011, the game had upwards of 30 million MAU and 6 million DAU. After this apex, user activity began a slow decline, and by August of this year, when Pioneer Trail launched, had declined to about 12 million MAU. The sequel continued FrontierVille’s general theme of wildness homesteading, with gameplay reminiscent of the classic adventure title Oregon Trail. (Indeed, the original game included an “Oregon Trail” sign, creating user expectation that the sequel finally fulfilled.) In contrast to FrontierVille, Pioneer Trail’s gameplay was focused more on exploration and adventure, where the player commands a party of four characters with a unique role, who must complete a series of story-driven quests to progress.

To transition FrontierVille players into this expansion, Zynga added a link to Pioneer Trail in the original game, and encouraged players to install the new app, explaining in the user forums that Pioneer Trail represented “two games in one.” When FrontierVille players installed the Pioneer Trail app, their progress in the first game (FrontierVille homestead, completed quests, inventory, etc.) was migrated over to the new app. If the player clicked the game’s “Return to Homestead” option, they were sent not to their original homestead in the FrontierVille app, but to a copy of it housed in the Pioneer Trail app. Shortly after launch, Zynga made the redirection from FrontierVille to Pioneer Trail mandatory, so that users attempting to search or access FrontierVille would instead be taken directly to Pioneer Trail.

In the months after Pioneer Trail’s September launch, the game attracted about 22 million MAU before it began losing users. At the moment, it has just 5.5 million MAU and 1.7 million DAU, albeit with very strong engagement rates: Over the last 30 days, DAU as a percent of MAU has fluctuated between 30-35%. (As supported by data from Inside Virtual Goods, games with a DAU/MAU of 20% or higher have strong user retention and monetization rates.) Meanwhile, FrontierVille continues to shed users; the app currently enjoys 1.4 million MAU and 260,000 DAU, for a 19% DAU/MAU ratio. While Pioneer Trail approached FrontierVille’s high of 30 million MAU at launch, it is now under a fifth of that number. While the user transition rate from FrontierVille to Pioneer Trail was not one-to-one, it’s still fair to say that most FrontierVille users who tried Pioneer Trail did not continue playing it — and that most did not continue playing FrontierVille, either. From that perspective, the move from FrontierVille to Pioneer Trail has been at best a very limited success for Zynga.

From Zoo World to Zoo World 2 – RockYou!

RockYou’s animal raising sim Zoo World 2 was launched this June within the original Zoo World app ID. While most of the gameplay remained the same (as required by Facebook to maintain the same ID), the developers added zoo customization and building elements, which were integrated into the animal care aspect of the game. For example, adding decorations influences the well-being of the zoo animals, which is the Zoo World franchise’s core gameplay element.

Since Zoo World 2 runs in the original Zoo World’s app ID, it is difficult to form an early picture of the app’s growth. In addition, the company at first gave the game a “toggle” option, so longtime players could switch from the sequel to the original game. We can see clearly, though, that in the six months leading up to Zoo World 2’s launch, usage had trended downward from about 9 million MAU and 700,000 DAU to about 2 million MAU and 200,000 DAU. With the launch of Zoo World 2, user growth returned, reaching 8-9 million MAU for the months of August and September. However, during this same period, DAU/MAU remained low, trending downward between 15% and 5%. This user activity pattern is suggestive of one-time installs or plays (presumably as new and returning users checked out the game’s updates).

The company attributes this waning usage in part to difficulties with a new ad platform that were addressed in September, and reports that despite the declining user numbers, has more than doubled the game’s average revenue per user in October. To further complicate analysis of Zoo World 2, RockYou laid off half its staff in November, which may have impeded updates and maintenance to the game. The game now has a MAU of 1,7 million and a DAU/MAU that’s fluctuated between 12 to 16% over the last 30 days. While the sequel helped drive user growth for about three months, it could not regain the numbers it enjoyed at peak in Spring 2010 (about 20 million MAU, 275,000 DAU). However, by retaining a relatively large audience while earning a reported profit, the sequel might be described as a modest success.

From Mafia Wars to Mafia Wars 2 – Zynga

The most recent sequel in this report, Mafia Wars 2, is the successor to one of Zynga’s very oldest social games, dating back to 2008 on Facebook. The original is a turn-based role-playing game, and as of today, the game still maintains a relatively large and engaged user base, with 3.1 million MAU and 640,000 DAU, for a 21% DAU/MAU ratio.

While the first game has very simple gameplay (outcomes to player moves are generally resolved by a single click and depicted in terms of static illustrations and player stat updates), Mafia Wars 2 is a vastly re-imagined version of the franchise, with 2.5D graphics in an expansive gameplay world, sim-type “empire” construction and maintenance similar to Zynga’s CityVille, and combat visually depicted in animated sequences. Zynga launched Mafia Wars 2 in mid-October with a large press and publicity campaign, along with heavy cross-promotion to its existing users.

However, Zynga still faced a challenge of transitioning players of the original game to this sequel that features very different gameplay. Throughout October and November, the MAU of the original Mafia Wars fluctuated between 3.25 million and 3.5 million MAU, while the sequel, which reached a peak of almost 17 million MAU in late October, began losing users through November, and now has just 10 million MAU. More concerning, DAU/MAU also dropped below 10% by mid November, and currently stands at 8%. This activity pattern is consistent with a low monetized game with light engagement rates. It appears that players of the original Mafia Wars, which still maintains much higher engagement rates, did not take to the sequel, at least with the same degree of interest as they do the first game.

It may be too early to write off Mafia Wars 2 as an ineffective sequel, however. While Zynga has devoted far more promotional energies to its new game CastleVille in recent weeks, it’s possible the company many soon try to boost user and engagement rates of Mafia Wars 2 with new content, offers, and promotions, especially in the run-up to its IPO. At the moment, however, it’s also fair to conclude that the game offers a cautionary example of the difficulty in launching a successful Facebook game sequel.

Despite the ambivalent results of sequels and expansions like these in 2011, it’s likely that the new year will see additions to The Sims Social, It Girl, and CityVille, among many other popular titles. Whatever games do get the sequel treatment in 2012, one hopes that developers will better avoid the shortcomings they often faced in 2011.