[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Brice Morrison, editor of game industry design site The Game Prodigy.]
When Zynga’s FarmVille hit 80 million players on year ago in February 2010, it was a breathtaking event for the entire games industry. The title had brought millions of new players into the market, many of whom had never played games of any sort before. And it encouraged a new generation of Facebook games, fueled by capital from excited investors and developers who would try to emulate its breakout success.
For Zynga, the success of FarmVille was exciting for sure. But it was also a ticking time-bomb. Suddenly, FarmVille had amassed millions of players who were farming their crops, building their buildings, and slowly leveling up through the game very quickly.
But for how long?
Many of these were players who had never been so involved in a game before. What were they going to be doing a few months from now? A year from now?
There were a few possible answers to this question. First, the 80 million could quit playing social games entirely. After all, they hadn’t been avid gamers before. After enjoying more than their fair share of wheat and pumpkins, they might just go back to where they came from: television, film, books, and other forms of entertainment.
A second possibility was that they could migrate to competitor’s titles. After having the door of online social gaming opened for them and other social game companies like Playdom and Playfish starting to pick up steam, it would be an easy transition.
Both of these options would mean a disastrous and mighty fall for Zynga, which at the time was still a young company. But it was easy to imagine — growing from 0 to 80 million users in a little over six months, a reversal in the next six months could happen just as fast.
But Zynga wasn’t going to let this happen, and through quick thinking and brilliant execution, it was able to defuse their 80 million strong time-bomb and keep their flagship franchise going.
Step One: Evolve the Current Game With Existing Players
When players play a game repeatedly and with a dedicated passion, they eventually evolve into experts. While simple raspberries were more than enough to keep early players entertained, later players require more complex gameplay and goals in order to keep them having fun.
Zynga knew this, and unless FarmVille was able to develop along with their player base, they would soon find millions of farms abandoned. No one was going to hang out at level 70, doing the same thing over and over, for very long.
Thus, Zynga began to ramp up, systematically providing new features and gameplay targeted for the expert players who wanted something more. In June of 2010, the FarmVille team unlocked levels 70 through 90, giving expert players more crops, content, animals, and buildings to create. Zynga also continued hosting new events and limited edition items, including the “7 Days of Summer” where old items were released for a limited time. In July of 2010, the FarmVille team released Crafting Buildings, including a Spa, Winery, and Bakery. These massive new features allowed advanced players to create their own goods to give to friends, something that delighted advanced players.
The updates didn’t stop. Slowly but surely, the game continued to grow along with its players, more advanced and more complex. They continued through the summer, fall, and winter, adding snowmen and snowball social features. The new gameplay, made specifically for players who had mastered the basics of FarmVille, was a huge success in retaining players, not just by adding new content, but by adding new features, gameplay, and even mini-games for their millions of newly minted experts.
Step Two: Offloading Players to New Games
But the FarmVille updates would only hold but for so long. Zynga also knew that many of its players were going to grow tired of the title, no matter what kinds of new gameplay was added. Thus, part two of Zynga’s survival plan was to help players migrate to new games, games that were designed with the former-FarmVille player in mind.
With the launch of FrontierVille, Zynga had created what was essentially a sequel to its farm-based hit. The game used many of the same gameplay mechanics that FarmVille players would recognize immediately, such as growing crops, collecting ingredients, and constructing buildings. But more importantly, it had even more features and advanced gameplay for FarmVille experts to enjoy, such as raising a family, a storyline, and reputation.
Yet Zynga wasn’t done with their migration yet. With the late 2010 launch of CityVille, previous FarmVille players were greeted again with a title that conformed to the same gameplay patterns and habits they had learned on the farm, this time with incredible production values and the polished experience that the Zynga studio had learned from previous titles. Slotting in friends to fill buildings, visiting others’ cities, all very similar, but more advanced. The game also built on gameplay that players had learned from FrontierVille, such as energy and reputation.
After each of the games launched, Zynga helped FarmVille players find their new homes not only with their Zynga Game Bar pointing to the new titles, but also strong in-game tie-ins. Billboards advertising CityVille and pop-ups calling farmers to go explore the Frontier were plentiful, helping to move millions of players over so that they could continue playing within Zynga’s network.
The Story Continues
In February 2011, FarmVille hasn’t deflated to one-tenth of its glory days as many predicted. Instead, it has only been reduced by a half, a success story on its own. Meanwhile Zynga has also been able to strategically migrate many of its users to FrontierVille and CityVille, games built for the FarmVille expert as well as the FarmVille dropout.
Today, FarmVille has 50 million monthly players and still one of the highest DAU/MAU in the business at roughly 30%, a full year after many critics said it was on the way down, according to AppData. Additionally, FrontierVille has 19 million players while CityVille holds a staggering 93 million players, many of these former FarmVille players. The blessing of a massively successful social game presented an oncoming challenge, but by growing the game along with the players as well as authoring their migration to more advanced titles, Zynga was able to keep their players playing on their terms.
A game designer who has worked at EA and CrowdStar, Brice Morrison is the editor of industry game design website The Game Prodigy and has been with teams for major titles like The Sims 3, Happy Aquarium, and It Girl.