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Have you played the newest highly addictive Facebook game yet?

Zynga, the social games company behind Facebook games FarmVille and Mafia Wars, has accomplished a staggering feat with their latest offering, CityVille: While the game only launched on December 2nd, it’s managed to amass 70 million active users over the course of this past month, according to AppData’s independent analytics, 14 million of whom play it in any given day. FarmVille players frequently compare the game to crack, and CityVille appears to be taking a similarly addictive approach…

How does Zynga produce Facebook hit after hit when game companies established on consoles and PCs like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts have failed to achieve the same outsized results? In an excellent, thorough post on GamasutraTadhg Kelly breaks down how CityVille and other Zynga games get huge userbases and keep those addicted players coming back day after day.

Kelly’s post is worth reading in its entirety. However, to summarize a few key points and make a few more:

An effective, devilishly structured rewards system.

Zynga is expert at setting up multifarious rewards structures in its games, which in a sense socially engineer players to interact with the game the way Zynga wants them to. Kelly refers to one such system as “dual timers”: Some in-game tasks can be completed in minutes, whereas others, like growing corn in FarmVille, have timers as long as a day; this encourages players to keep visiting. Moreover, players get incremental rewards “just for showing up”: Players can get daily rewards just for logging in. In their benevolence, many social games companies like Zynga have given players one easy way to speed up the process: By paying them money for in-game content.

Then, at the micro-scale, there’s the ever-addictive click:

The core game dynamic of CityVille is click-to-do. Click to build, click to collect, click to plant, click to harvest, click to deliver supplies. It’s reminiscent of the PC game Black and White in that although you are ostensibly the manager of the city, you actually do a lot of manual labour.

So much clicking is oddly compelling. The player doesn’t actually have to click to do everything (collected items will self-collect if left on the ground for example) but there’s a nice feeling that comes from such activity. It’s interactive, and that in turn makes the game mildly immersive by making the player feel like they are doing something, even if that something is essentially just sweeping up.

Going viral

Every one of those joky lists you see online of ‘annoying people you’ll meet on Facebook’ includes a social games player, more often than not modeled on a Zynga game player, who spams everyone else in their feed with messages about how they planted this crop or ran that errand. But not only have Facebook users learned how to tune out the annoyances, Facebook itself has restricted auto-wall postings by apps. And so companies like Zynga have gotten savvier: Now, rather than annoying a large number of people who don’t play a given game in the hopes that a small number will tune in, they’ve introduced updates that make people who already play the game want to click them, with those same nefarious in-game rewards. This might not grow the base, but it keeps sucking people who’ve played it a few times and gotten bored back in.

Cross-promotion

FarmVille has in-game ads for CityVille and Mafia Wars, which encourage players to play the other games not just because it says they’ll be fun, but because if they do, they’ll get more of those ever-important rewards. Kelly explains what this leads to: “Each user that does this becomes a more invested customer, more likely not only to play your next game, but to still keep playing and maintaining their existing game. So you not only have their attention, you’re keeping it, and the user is unlikely to venture outside your application’s sphere to try something from a competitor instead.”

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It’s worth pointing out that many console and PC gamers hate Zynga’s vision of gaming. Games like Civilization IVMinecraft, and even Harvest Moon are addictive too, but arguably in a deeper, more meaningful way: These games require strategy and foresight, and require the player to make sometimes difficult decisions with far-reaching consequences. Field an army, or build the Pyramids? Use those diamonds to make a sword, or a shovel?

But that’s not how Zynga rolls. Kelly, who has played his share of CityVillesays that “Unlike many classic sim-strategy games … optimal layout doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to maintain equitable balances of components in certain areas, efficient road networks or anything like that.” Instead, rewards from clicking, grinding, and (so Zynga hopes) paying some real-world money to get ahead. This doesn’t sound like a game or a system of games that I personally would be interested in playing, but there are well over 70 million people who would disagree; more power to them.

(via Gamasutra and Geekosystem)

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