Farmville and Cityville: More than Fun and Games

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Guest Post by: Stephanie Shaw

Social gaming has seen explosive growth in recent years, with 250 million people playing social games every month. Zynga leads the pack with its hugely successful Cityville and Farmville games on Facebook. These games alone are forecast to pull in revenues of $5 billion by 2015, five times what they were valued at in 2010 by Parks Associates.

The secret to Zynga’s success may seem clear: they create addictive games that people can play with their friends in an environment (Facebook) that they’re used to at times that are convenient for them (the games are designed to be played in short bursts). What’s less obvious is how brands beyond Zynga can take advantage of the popularity of social gaming.

We recently took a closer look at how social game players interact with Zynga’s games. What we found was an environment that creates an interesting playing field for brands – a world within a world where the rules are different, and a world which could drive Zynga out of the realm of Facebook and into a whole new world of its own.

How Users Engage with Social Games

What better way to study Facebook apps than with an app itself? We put our own Skyttle Facebook Analytics app to the test to compare CityVille, FrontierVille and FarmVille users.

Unsurprisingly, these apps have a hugely loyal user base – each game has millions of fans. However, when you look at actual user engagement, most users engage within the game itself, but not within the games’ fan pages.

Take a look at the “long tail user distribution” over the last two weeks for Cityville, Frontierville, and Farmville – this is a fancy way of looking at the most active users on each fan page. The long tail means that lots of people interact very little, with only a few users interacting a lot:

The long tail graph suggests that Frontierville has more users who are active posters, followed by Farmville then Cityville. But if we take a glance at the numbers, we see Cityville is taking the lead, with 317 fans (nearly 60%) responsible for all posts and comments. It is after all, Zynga’s newest hit:

The numbers aren’t bad, but when compared to the number of likes the actual apps have, these figures seem surprising low – 317 active fans is barely a fraction of the CityVille’s 14 million plus fan base. This suggests that loads of people are playing the actual games, but very few in comparison are talking about it on their fan sites. The conversation from core fans suggests why.

Looking at the quotes, one major theme is clear: people are frantically looking for new neighbors to meet mission requirements and proceed further in the games.

Does this count as user engagement? Nobody is really talking to Zynga; the community is talking to each other and mainly surrounding only this one topic. This is reflected in the top key terms as well, which includes phrases like “neighbors”, “daily player”, “need neighbors”, “friend request”:

So what does this conversation mean for Zynga games? Where is the value?

This is where Zynga has been clever – they’ve used within-game engagement to allow businesses to promote themselves through the games themselves. The result has meant big money for Zynga, and the brands.

In-Game Advertising

Several brands have purchased advertising through Zynga games. Farmville has been around the longest and has seen successful advertisements from the likes of Bing, McDonalds, and Megamind (the movie).

Bing was able to get 400,000 new fans in a day with their advertisement through Farmville. The campaign only lasted 24 hours, but in that short time it was able to harness Farmville’s popularity to offer something people want (Farm Cash) while enhancing Bing’s own social strategy.

McDonalds saw similar success with its Farmville campaign, where users had the opportunity to visit a McDonalds branded farm for only a day. They could plant mustard seed and tomato crops and be rewarded with McDonalds branded products to aid their own farm.

Frontierville has also had its share of in-game advertising. Here, “missions” can last for weeks at a time, offering brands a longer-term opportunity to attract attention. For example, Intuit Websites recently ran its own two-week mission, incentivising users to play by offering business boosts to progress users’ frontiers more quickly. Through the game, participants were incentivised to interact with the brand for the duration of the mission.

Frontierville’s announcement of the Intuit missions received 332 comments, most of which were typical of social gaming comments: a lot of people looking for neighbors (unrelated to the mission) and sometimes complaining of game problems. The users are obviously engaging to some extent but more importantly, they are definitely taking part in the mission.

So it seems that in the case of social gaming, while we don’t see user engagement like we might see with other promotional strategies, in-game advertising such as this does great things for brand exposure. If a Frontierville mission takes a few days to complete, that’s days of exposure for Intuit Websites. It’s not about getting on the Frontierville fan page and talking about it.  Just playing the game as the user normally does will do wonders for Intuit’s branding.

Zynga Beyond Facebook

Zynga games are interesting because they’ve create a whole new form of interpersonal interaction, a world within a world. And as long as its fun, anyone can play – this goes for brands too. The success points towards an interesting future for Zynga, whose partnership with Facebook expires in a few years. What next?

Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times did a Q&A with Zynga’s founder and broached the topic of what Zynga will do post-Facebook begging the question if the leader in social gaming will last when social media users move on from Facebook.

Q: The opening comments by you and Neil suggest Zynga is building a new foundation of services. Is that for running Zynga post-Facebook?

A: There are a couple of focuses where this talent pool will be really key for us. One is broadly in network products – consumer facing products that have value across all of our games – like Zynga message center, which is used by more than half of our players every day as a way to interact and be social with their friends. There’s a whole layer that we’re excited about, surfacing more social opportunities in any Zynga game.

While this question isn’t answered directly, he makes it clear that they are expanding their service range outside of Facebook – something that might be critical to future revenue growth.

Q: Your Facebook partnership expires in what, 2014 or 2015?

A: Gosh, we don’t even think about that. I think the way that Mark [Zuckerberg] and I think about that is both of us hope that that is a partnership that lasts decades.

Whether Facebook and Zynga remain bosom friends for the long haul is unclear. On the other hand, the future of social gaming seems crystal. This spells good news for Zynga, social gamers, and brands who want a slice of the fun – and the attention of those millions of social game players. Not only that, but Zynga’s user base offers a fountain of data for brands to take advantage of. The marketing potential is apparent. And as Intuit Websites, Bing, and McDonalds, illustrate, the key is to enhance the gamer’s online experience while getting the brand message across.

Of course, the risk is that Farmville and Cityville will go the way of the real world and become littered with billboards and adverts. Can social games, these worlds within worlds, avoid this seemingly inevitable fate? What do you think? Do you play social games? How do you feel about brands getting in on the action? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

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