[In the latest post from guest author and social gaming consultant Eric von Coelln, he compares the growth patterns of new games from big developers to try to spot where Facebook advertising has been having a significant impact.]
With the launch of Zynga’s FishVille, I’ve been watching to see if the developer could again eclipse records for user growth. The last Zynga hit, Café World launched a little over a month ago, gaining 1.1 million new users on day two and an additional 1.4 million users on day three, eventually passing rival Playfish’s Restaurant City and reaching more than 5 million daily actives in just a week after launch. In its first week, the numbers for FishVille are strong: 1.6 million daily actives after five days, whereas top rival fish game, CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium took more than two weeks to hit that level. But the growth is not quite as meteoric as Café World.
With all of Zynga’s promotional muscle and ability to cross-promote games across an even larger installed base of players than a month ago, what happened? Are users already mega-engaged with existing titles? Unlike Café World, FishVille is competing with three games and trying to tackle a much more established base: Happy Aquarium, TwoFishes Interactive’s My Fishbowl and TallTree Games’ Fish World collectively have 11.3 million daily active users and over 39.1 million monthly users. In aggregate, these games only trail Zynga’s FarmVille.
In addition, the launch was marred a bit. One of Zynga’s offer providers was running scammy offers, so Facebook took it offline for about 36 hours. With that caveat in mind, I decided to look at the launch trajectories of recent titles by Playfish and Zynga to see if we could discern any trends to benchmark the performance of FishVille:
While there are some definite rocket trajectories here, they are not happening across the board. Instead, one of the major take-aways from this graph is that it appears to identify the impact of advertising on launch velocity. To be very clear, I have no data available to identify when and how much either developer has spent advertising to grow their user base, but I believe you can look at gradual growth trends and see massive disruptions in that trend that point to advertising. Roller Coaster Kingdom (the light purple line above) is the best example of this.
- Launched August 1st, it gradually grew to just under 1 million DAUs within the first month. This is similar to Playfish’s Country Story, which launched at the same time and had a slightly higher trajectory in the first couple days, followed by gradually flattening growth.
- Zynga did a lot of work during September to improve the overall churn of the game, including a pretty major change in the game mechanic to include a more “appointment gaming” style.
- Then, on October 4th, you can see a dramatic increase in traffic from 821,000 DAUs to over 1.67 million DAUs in a single day. After this huge growth spurt, things again start to grow somewhat gradually. The huge increase really looks like an ad-fueled growth spurt. It would also suggest that while the cross-promotional toolbar is a big component for growing a new title, it pales in comparison to the impact of ads.
Now, look at the huge launch velocity of Café World. Note the initial huge spike in daily active users from 250,000 to nearly 1.4 million also began on October 4th as it did with Roller Coaster Tycoon. This suggests that Zynga pumped advertising in during the first four days (October 4th to 7th) to help it bypass rival Restaurant City during the first week.
Likewise, you can infer other instances of potentially ad-fueled spurts by looking at daily active users:
FarmVille shows dramatically vertical growth that pushed it past 10 million. Only after Café World launched do you see the trajectory drop a bit, but it’s hard to pin that solely on a shift in ad dollars to these new titles – it could also have been cannibalization of its FarmVille base as some moved on to Café World (a trend we’ve seen in the past when Restaurant City ate into the DAUs for Pet Society).
Country Story looks like it also had an ad-induced spurt in late August, growing from 676,000 DAU on August 26th to 1.23 million DAU on August 29th – after that the DAU numbers grew gradually, similar to the pace prior to the ad buy
Regarding the launch of FishVille, the temporary suspension have temporarily reduced its initial growth. But I imagine Zynga will continue to use its launch playbook of heavy advertising to help grow the game to a critical mass, much like it did for Cafe World and FarmVille. There are still questions as to whether Zynga can muscle its way through and beat out the most crowded field yet in a specific genre — if it can’t, we’ll see a less steep launch trajectory.
Big picture here, developers and investors can begin to look at launch trajectories and pinpoint when another developer is spending advertising money to push up its market share. While the blatant spending at launch is fairly apparent, what is less clear is how much ad money is being spent on a continual basis to prop up growth.
Eric von Coelln was the vice president of marketing at Oberon Media, a leading multi-platform casual games company, and most recently the vice president of Marketing at PowerSoccer.com. He is now a New York based freelance consultant to games, e-commerce and social media companies — including some of the largest social gaming companies on Facebook. While Mr. von Coelln does write about some companies for which he has done paid consulting from time to time, this post is based on publicly available information and in our view is an unbiased analysis of the industry. You can find his blog here.