Zynga and EA: Dog chasing tail

This week, we saw EA launch a citybuilder game that evokes memories of 2010’s CityVille from Zynga. Less than 24 hours later, Zynga announces a life simulation that looks an awful lot like EA’s 2011 hit The Sims Social. Has the copycat phase of Facebook games finally jumped the shark?

As we’ve detailed in our coverage, The Ville is a life sim where players build a dream house and interact with other players’ avatars — going so far as to have sex with them where possible. SimCity Social is a citybuilder where players construct a metropolis by placing buildings and increasing a population while also meeting its citizens’ needs (or ignoring them to cause pain and suffering).

In EA’s defense, SimCity Social was in development for nearly two years as a collaboration between EA Playfish and EA Beijing. Citybuilding games on social and mobile platforms are a much older concept in China compared to Facebook, so many of the gameplay mechanics were established as best practices long before CityVille popularized them in North America. Plus, the game draws most of its concept from the original SimCity games that first hit personal computers in 1989 — and many developers since then have used the game as a template for console, PC download, mobile and social games in the same genre.

In Zynga’s defense, The Ville is an example of what the company does best: taking a game concept proven by another company, adding a layer of polish and social features, and then feeding it to a massive network of dedicated users on Facebook and mobile that trust the Zynga brand. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zynga is doing to Sims Social exactly what it’s done for the past two years. The developer has a proven business model that it sticks to, both to produce high-trafficking games on a tight development schedule and to please anxious stockholders that don’t necessarily understand the social games market.

Even so, both companies could be taking a misstep in recycling game concepts that may be past their prime on the Facebook platform. According to metrics recorded by our AppData traffic tracking service, CityVille peaked on Facebook three months after its December 2010 launch with over 101 million monthly active users and above 21 million daily active users. Though still one of Zynga’s top-earning games and the No. 4 top grossing game on Facebook’s App Center, no other citybuilding game on Facebook has ever found comparable traction or monetization that we’ve known of since CityVille. Likewise, The Sims Social peaked two months after its August 2011 launch at over 66 million MAU and above 11 million DAU. It’s now Facebook’s No. 12 top grossing game in App Center, but no other life sim has been able to follow it.

That doesn’t mean The Ville and SimCity Social won’t see early rises in users. Zynga has a proven track record of capturing lapsed fans of older non-Zynga games with fresh new ones (e.g. Hidden Chronicles winning over lapsed Gardens of Time players while Playdom’s Gardens of Time sequels can’t come near the traffic of the original). EA, meanwhile, can tap into the hardcore gamer market using the SimCity brand to build trust among the demographic, which may not otherwise deign to play a Facebook game (and may have missed out on CityVille). We expect to see both games spike in growth quickly — with Zynga’s dropping off coming rather quickly after six to eight weeks, while EA pushes out SimCity Social’s growth curve to three or four months. We do not expect SimCity Social to surpass CityVille’s peak traffic because the Facebook platform is a lot less amenable to rapid games growth as it used to be in 2010 and 2011. We do, however, think  it stands as much of a chance to unseat CityVille’s current position in AppData rankings as Sims Social once did. The Ville could pass Sims Social’s peak traffic in the short term because Zynga’s cross-platform network is incredibly powerful and fast-acting, but the game probably won’t enjoy as much long term support with no core franchise to support it.

A very big question mark comes from EA’s ability to connect its games to the rest of its franchises. This is the one thing Zynga simply cannot copy — and EA has the right idea in ramping up cross-platform compatibility between mobile and social titles titles. It also seems to be taking steps to integrate its Origin platform across all games regardless of platform — increasing the size of its user acquisition funnel and supporting online games with a solid infrastructure. But EA has also lost some momentum as the company undergoes corporate restructuring and struggles to transition its packaged goods-based business model to a digital one. If Zynga can grow its Zynga.com platform into a healthy self-sustaining ecosystem before EA finds its footing and accomplishes similar goals with its Origin platform, Zynga may come out ahead. But for now, with The Ville and SimCity Social being the big Facebook game releases of the summer, it looks more like the dog is chasing its tail.