A decade ago, you’d be hard pushed to find a Facebook user who wasn’t being poked (or forked) with a notification from a farmer. Back then, FarmVille was the most-used application on the most-used social network. With owner Zynga about to release the third title in the agriculture simulation series, we take a look at how the brand has evolved in that time, and how the mobile gaming space has evolved with it.
With its regular, repetitive and addictive farm management routines, FarmVille captured audiences on Facebook when it launched back in 2009, prompting users to share their achievements with, and even request aid from, their friends. It was an exercise in patience rather than skill and strategy, but it offered Facebook users a digital space to relax and make their own.
“Very few video game franchises have touched so many people,” says Bernard Kim, who is Zynga’s president of publishing, noting that the series has since notched up more than a billion installs.
Currently heading up the launch of FarmVille 3, Kim handles the “business side of the business” at Zynga, overseeing global marketing, user acquisition, ad monetization, revenue, communications, consumer insights, product management, business development and strategic partnerships – a long list of roles that weren’t always associated with the games industry. But mobile games these days have more in common with apps than with console games of old – always-on, usually free-to-play with optional costs for those who stay, ads deriving light revenue from all users and in-app purchases heavily monetizing a slim minority.
Games like Zynga’s, or like Rovio’s Angry Birds or Activision Blizzard’s Candy Crush, are what Kim calls “forever franchises” – long-lasting gaming brands with regular updates that attract and retain users. “The evolution of the business has really shifted over to mobile and now the majority of our revenue is driven off of the mobile platforms.”
FarmVille kicked off this model in many respects. The game redefined just how ‘casual’ gaming could be and opened up new means of monetizing players. At the time, it drew criticism for selling virtual items like colorful sheep and tractor fuel. While the sheep carried only aesthetic appeal, the tractor fuel reduced farming wait times – the core element of the gameplay. Anyone serious about building the best farm would likely need these competitive advantages.
“All of our games are free to play, with revenue coming from optional in-app purchases and from ad monetization. The ads are there for players who might not want to pull out their wallet and spend a little money, so the ads instead let them gain a bit of in-app currency.”
Whether Zynga was exploiting a sunk cost fallacy, the vanity and competitiveness of users, or whether it was merely stoking the passions of a community quite happy to invest in a digital farm has long been debated. As has whether or not they even count as games (when Zynga won best new social/online game at the Game Developers Conference in 2010, an embittered audience member reportedly jeered “you don’t make games”).
Now, the market is abuzz with titles which have taken inspiration from FarmVille's lead.
In the decade since, Zynga has had ups and downs. The shift from social to mobile meant a number of tough years, but it has just reported its highest-ever first quarter revenue and bookings performance, with revenues of $404m which is up 52% year-over-year.
Kim’s gaming style has also changed in that time.
Once a hardcore gamer, he has matured alongside the gaming market. “I’m in the middle stage of my life now. And I’ve moved from playing console games in a dark room with headphones on to being married with children and my gaming being on mobile whenever I can sneak in a couple of turns.”
It’s a paradigm that will be familiar to many gamers But while the quality of mobile games is often viewed negatively next to the theatrics, storytelling and complex peripheries of their PC and console kin, the habits aren’t necessarily in direct competition.
FarmVille was born in social and is being fully realized as an app. “We’re bringing the core DNA of FarmVille to mobile and it is the perfect device for driving social activity. It is always-on and players can jump in and out of gameplay at their convenience.”
Some of the negative feedback has been taken on board too. The game was designed in a way that players must regularly tend to their crops or face losing them. It was habit building and forced engagement. Now, Kim says, some of those aspects have been reduced or removed. “Your crops will not wither,” he assures. In a more competitive market, gamers may need more positive reinforcement to stick with the experience.
To keep its forever franchises fresh, each of Zynga’s apps host daily events. “If you are coming into a game every day, it has to feel alive and new,” explains Kim. “When we were growing up playing games, they could be played from start to finish in one afternoon and I remember trying to beat my friends’ times. But, after that, I was done with them.”
That isn’t the case with Zynga’s output, he claims, adding that in the FarmVille as well as in Merge Dragons, Words with Friends, CSR2 (a racer) and, most recently, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, “every single day feels fresh and there’s always something new to do”. And mobile, he says, is the best platform to do this. “Many people are attached to their devices.”
Over his career, Kim has delivered games for IP such as Star Wars, The Simpsons, Willy Wonka, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter into the mobile gaming space. “We’re really proud of all of the brands we’ve put out into the marketplace. We want to make sure we’re partnering with companies that have the same vision as us. We are creating great interactive experiences and they are bringing franchises that stand the test of time.”
Not that securing an IP is a ticket to success. Just getting spotted in the App Store is a gargantuan task and requires a thorough paid-install marketing campaign – and, to a lesser extent, word of mouth. “It’s a daunting proposition.”
The key is to soft launch titles, test and learn, see what does and doesn’t work. “It’s not like launching a big theatrical movie that will immediately make or break you. For us, it’s a slower grind. Some titles build momentum really quickly and hit really early and then you can fuel that growth. Others take longer to build those engagement metrics.”
And then there’s the changing nature of Zynga’s relationship with social apps. Where once they were its key path of distribution, now, technically, they are competing for time.
“We find new platforms to be really fun and gratifying to explore with partners.” Coming full circle, it is again investing in games on Messenger and Snapchat.