Zynga's FarmVille and CityVille Developer Spills the Beans on What Makes Games Great

Zynga dominants the social gaming charts with three of the top four games on Facebook.

So, it must be doing something right, right?

Hundreds of game developers yesterday showed up to listen to Mark Skaggs, Zynga’s VP of product, who provided pieces of the formula for building FarmVille and CityVille, two of its most popular games.

Skaggs was very informal, down to his slouchy black blazer, and handed out plenty of free advice about the learning process of accumulating one million players on FarmVille and 14 million on CityVille in the first 30 days.

He also mentioned a few little known facts about the games:

  • The idea for developing FarmVille came from one of Zynga’s investors, Bing Gordon, a partner at Kleiner Perkins. One day, he put his feet up on the desk and asked, “Why don’t make you a farm game?”
  • Farmville peaked at 32.5 million daily users. If you lined them up holding hands across the U.S., they’d cross 6.36 times from New York to San Francisco.
  • Production was so quick on FarmVille, the developers stole the avatars from their other game YoVille.
  • Zynga was going to retire the old servers that were running Mafia Wars, but it opted for Amazon’s cloud services, which easily handed the traffic explosion.
  • FarmVille was going to launch with only a dozen props, but they missed deadlines and went to market with only nine.
  • While things have now changed, moms were the killer audience for FarmVille, leading the staff to call Facebook the “matriarch network.”
  • Seemed like forever, but there were only 18 months between FarmVille and CityVille’s launches.
  • CityVille missed its launch date. Despite stories in USA Today and other publications, Zynga had to hold it for quality reasons. But after launch, it went smoothly and attracted 14 million daily users in 30 days.

And, other advice:

  • Learn from success. Play games and look for common threads. If you see someone offering a gifting interstitial, you probably should mimic it. Be cautious about trying to “change the world of social games.” You might get lucky and be really successful, but the reality is you should look at what others are doing and follow their lead.
  • It’s no longer a mom network. CityVille was operational in four countries at launch, and has since added three more. “The Germans play a lot and pay a lot.”
  • Speed wins. People are coming to you as a Web experience; make it fast.
  • Make it fun. You can’t make up for a boring game with volume. At the end of the day, ask yourself, is it fun? If it’s not, who cares that you have a million seeds for a user to pick from.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik