If CityVille were an actual city, it would now be the world’s second largest. Zynga’s newest game edged over 22 million monthly active users this morning, just eleven days after launching.
It’s often said that the days of jet-fueled app growth on Facebook are over, a common wisdom that is invalidated only by Zynga, which also saw FrontierVille rapidly grow to over 20 million players earlier this year. CityVille is far faster than FrontierVille; in June, when the latter was only 12 days old, we clocked it at 7.4 million MAU.
In fact, Zynga’s claim just a few days after launching CityVille that the game is its fastest-growing ever have proven to be quite correct.
Even when Facebook’s viral channels were vulnerable to any use developers could dream up, Zynga’s top growers like FarmVille, PetVille and FishVille only grew about half as fast as CityVille. The quickness with which Zynga was willing to crown CityVille its best-ever suggests that it had a good idea of how CityVille’s growth might unfold.
The broad strokes are pretty visible. We can see four major reasons for CityVille’s growth:
Although all game developers now engage in some form of cross-promotion, Zynga took promotion for CityVille far beyond the usual top-bar ad network. Although its efforts did start there: in Zynga’s huge, 200 million plus network, CityVille is the only Zynga game (other than the one that you’re currently playing) with an oversized button displaying its full name.
More additive to growth, there has been heavy promotion between FarmVille and CityVille. When you’re playing CityVille, it asks you to email FarmVille friends and encourage them to play; when you’re playing FarmVille, your top neighbor is now Sam, a character that pops up a link for CityVille.
Localization and international growth
During its preview of CityVille, Zynga pointed out that CityVille is the first game it has really put effort into localizing for an international audience (with the exception of the Chinese-language version of Texas Hold’em). The languages it translated to are strictly European: Spanish, French, Italian and German, which have somewhere between 100 and 200 million native speakers on Facebook.
But the international audience that Zynga is tapping goes far beyond Facebook. Although it’s too early for us to break out CityVille’s demographics with any accuracy, a look at the game’s various boards and reviews shows large numbers of Pacific Rim users in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as eastern European users whose native languages weren’t included.
International users could well be the biggest reason that CityVille has grown faster and larger than past Zynga titles, especially in the Asian region, where Facebook users are more likely to be active gamers. Facebook’s growth took off this year, leaving American users at around a quarter of the total population now, a trend we’ve been closely tracking with our Inside Facebook Gold subscription service.
Given recent signs, it’s easy to imagine a new normal of international users driving growth. Zynga probably will break out its specific numbers, but for a view into another popular game, check out the LOLapps slides for Ravenwood Fair that we posted earlier in December, which show over two-thirds of all traffic coming from points abroad.
More professional appearance and operation
Facebook games have clearly progressed both technically and artistically since FarmVille showed the huge potential of the genre, but this progress has been uneven. Many developers are better in one or the other field, and new games show much larger differences in appearance and performance than would titles released concurrently in the traditional games space.
Both matter. Starting with the technical side of games, it’s accepted practice to release buggy games and address issues over time. The downside is that major glitches suck the wind out of early growth. CityVille had a few early problems that we saw, but they were quickly fixed; in general the game loads faster, and performs better, than most competitors. Besides taking months before release to iron the problems out of CityVille, Zynga has likely made other sacrifices in this area — think of the all day and night crunches common in the traditional game industry when titles are about to be launched. Anecdotally, we’ve heard large numbers of employees have been staying late at Zynga.
In terms of visual production values, CityVille again sets a higher bar than most games. This can mean a great deal in getting a player hooked in and sending out invites to friends, as we covered in more depth in a recent guest post.
Working the system
The hardest quantity to measure is how much Zynga has pushed Facebook’s viral channels. Some examples of this are in evidence very early in the game. Consider the chocolate quest that comes up in the mid tutorial. Facebook policies clearly prohibit developers from incentivizing use of communication channels, but CityVille makes no effort to hide what it’s doing. This quest has stayed in my queue since launch:
Zynga is hardly alone in continuing to push to use viral channels despite Facebook’s efforts at control. The question is how many viral points Zynga is reaching out through — with the game being regularly modified post-launch, it’s difficult to establish a reliable count.
It’s also somewhat unclear how much such efforts can contribute to growth, since for most people these posts will appear through sidebar notifications rather in their feed. Many developers now say gifting and direct invites are major sources of growth, but not necessarily posts like the chocolate quest.
What we do know is that Zynga is a master of viral growth, having honed its technique through a succession of Facebook’s biggest games.
Later we’ll see if someone of Zynga’s other efforts are working, like the daily email blast it sends out asking players to come back for their bonus. At CityVille’s scale, email campaigns are expensive, so if Zynga keeps up the effort we’ll probably know that it’s having success. This, too, can be additive to growth, but not as clearly as the above reasons.
The last point to note here is that CityVille’s current growth puts it on a trajectory to exceed 30 million MAU this week, something that no game has done since Cafe World last December. After that, the next ceiling to break through is FarmVille’s current 54 million MAU — but whether that is possible, we’ll leave it to the coming weeks to show.