Everything Zynga is about to do is wrong

By Jim Squires | Feb 7, 2013 |

It wasn’t so long ago that Zynga was on top of the world.  But after a 2012 filled with layoffs, executive resignations and plummeting stock prices, the company’s upward momentum has turned into something of a downward spiral.  And some upcoming changes, announced on an earnings call with investors earlier this week, will only make matters worse.

In an effort to turn things around, Zynga announced four major changes that nobody could have seen coming; they’re closing CityVille 2, they’ve canceled The Friend Game, they’re bringing FarmVille 2 to mobile, and they’re adopting a mobile-first focus.  There were a few other changes (Party Place is being closed too, for example), but these four were the biggies.

Here’s why they’re all bad moves;

 

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Closing CityVille 2 is just flat-out crazy.  The game launched only 3 months ago, and has barely had a chance to stretch its legs.  Sure, it’s only at 5 million monthly active users (compared to its launch peek of around 13m MAU) but 5m is nothing to sneeze at!  And you’ve got to assume there would be some drop-off post-launch.  Maybe that’s not something Zynga is used to from their days of mega-hit after mega-hit, but ask any other social developer and they’ll tell you that 5m MAU is a number worth hanging on to. 

It’s also worth noting that CityVille 2 is handily beating its nearest competitor; the EA-helmed SimCity Social is sitting at around 1m MAU (with no talk of closure in sight).

But the biggest threat to CityVille 2 didn’t come from EA – it came from Zynga itself.  In the span of five months, they pushed out four major releases – ChefVille, FarmVille 2, CityVille 2, and CoasterVille.  In other gaming venues, pushing out multiple big titles in such a short period of time can work because you’re giving players a limited experience that they can consume and move on from.  Console games can be digested and shelved in a matter of weeks, so an avid player might pick up two or three at a time.  With games as service, that’s just not how things work.  You want to keep users playing forever – so if you give players three games to choose from in such a tiny span of time, they’ll try them all and then stick with the one they like best.  Zynga is killing their own games by making them compete with each other.

Keeping the original CityVille online was also a mistake.  By keeping it alive, Zynga gave players little reason to move on.  There was no connection between the two games – no way for classic mayors to bring their progress into the sequel – so why would its 10m players uproot from one city to move to another?  Just because keeping FarmVille and FarmVille 2 going at the same time seems to have worked doesn’t mean CityVille’s players will follow suit.  If you ask me, they’re closing the wrong CityVille.

The real problem, though, is what closing CityVille 2 after only three months means to players.  Specifically, it means that money spent on virtual goods and currency is an absolute crapshoot in Zynga games.  If you’re a whale who drops $200 on virtual goods, how likely are you to do it knowing that the game might be closed only months after launch?  In an industry dependent on in-app purchases, this is bad mojo to be sure. 

Likewise, it must be demoralizing to Zynga’s staff.  How would you feel if you’ve worked hard for months (or even years) on a title, only to see it scrapped in weeks?  As Inside Social Games’ Mike Thompson rightly pointed out, we wouldn’t at all be surprised if CityVille 2’s death played a role in Brian Reynolds exit from Zynga.

 

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Canceling The Friend Game is a move that almost makes less sense than scrapping CityVille 2.  Zynga CFO Mark Vranesh said the reasoning behind this was that it “failed to achieve the mass market appeal Zynga franchise[s] are known for.”  Maybe the reason it failed to achieve mass market appeal was because nobody knew it had even come out.  Word first broke about the game in early December, where it garnered attention not just from Facebook-friendly sites like Gamezebo, but even core-focused outlets like Polygon and Kotaku.  Then, after that, nothing.  Not a word.  Not a peep.  It was in closed beta, and that was that… except that it somehow went into a public beta without Zynga giving it an ounce of pubicity

How was this game ever supposed to succeed when it was never even given the chance to fail?

In the end, canceling The Friend Game is only going to damage Zynga’s public perception further.  People will either think A) they’re throwing money away on games so bad that they’ll never see the light of day, or B) they’re hurting in such a way that they can’t afford the time/money/support staff needed to gamble on a fresh idea.

 

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Bringing FarmVille 2 to mobile might sound like a smart move, but it’s just not one I expect to be met with much success.  While the announcement of the original FarmVille coming to iOS was a keynote-worthy moment for Apple, public interest was lukewarm at best.  In fact, it was so poorly received that they eventually pulled it from the App Store

What makes Zynga think FarmVille 2 would do any better?  It’s not exactly like the top grossing apps list is swimming with farming games.  And besides, mobile farmers already have games they’re invested in like Hay Day and Tiny Farm. Just as I questioned with CityVille/CityVille 2, why would a gamer want to split their time between the farm they’ve already invested in on mobile and FarmVille 2

And then there’s the bigger problem…

 

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Switching to a mobile-first focus might just be the worst move Zynga could make.

Zynga has been the King of Facebook Mountain since social gaming began (and yes, I remember the days when Lexulous was the top dog – but nobody’s going to write an article on that).  But the competition has been catching up.  Playdom has been releasing hit after hit, EA keeps making moves in the space, and King.com recently announced that they have the top game on Facebook in terms of daily active users.  All that said, Zynga still has 3 of the top 4 games on Facebook.  They’re still killing it on the world’s largest social network.

By contrast, their experience on mobile devices hasn’t gone terribly well.  The only real hits they’ve had, like Words With Friends, Draw Something and Horn, have come from acquisitions or the Zynga Partner Program.  Everything else, from established franchise releases like CityVille Hometown to new brands like Dream Zoo, has failed to maintain any kind of a notable position in the charts.  There’s the occasional release that gains traction (Zynga Poker, for example), but these seem to be the exception and not the rule.

tl;dr – Zynga isn’t the Zynga of mobile.

Mark Pincus, Zynga’s CEO, seemed to argue that this is because the company only had 20 people working on mobile in 2012.  While I’m not in a position to debate that number, it seems insanely low – especially considering how many mobile titles the company released in that window.  And while some were from partners and some were just ports of Facebook games, I simply can’t imagine how 20 people could have juggled as much as Zynga put out. 

Regardless, Pincus now claims that more of the Zynga team are working on mobile than they are on web.  That’s a clear shift right there, and it’s one that seems to raise a middle finger to Zynga’s established playerbase of millions on Facebook, and another middle finger to the Zynga Partners who are eagerly preparing for a release on Zynga.com.  After all, if Zynga are now openly saying that the web is taking a backseat to mobile, doesn’t that devalue the momentum that Zynga.com Partners were buying into in the first place?

 

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There’s been a lot of talk about what Zynga can do to pull out of this tailspin they’ve found themselves in, and it’s clear that Pincus & Co are trying to do just that.  But the way they’re going about it is all wrong.  All of their decisions – scrapping a triple-A release like CityVille 2, canceling a potential homerun in The Friend Game, shifting a huge chunk of their staff to mobile – it’s all built around the idea that Zynga can’t succeed on Facebook anymore. 

But the problem isn’t that they can’t succeed – it’s how they define success.  Zynga needs to realize that the days of 83 million MAU in a single game are gone, and they’re probably not coming back. 

CityVille 2 has 5 million MAU.  If you can’t figure out how to make that profitable, you’re doing something terribly wrong.  Instead of burning the game to the ground, maybe it’s time for some careful thought about how to monetize it more effectively, or how to retain players better.  You can’t just throw your hands up in the air and say “I GIVE UP!” after three months.  That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  You’ve built a great game, you have millions of players – now make it dance the way you need it to.

Running away from Facebook and towards mobile isn’t the solution they need.  My advice?  Zynga needs to re-think their approach to Facebook in a way that gives their games room to breathe, grow their Zynga Partners program on mobile without developing for mobile directly, and build a new set of parameters to define what success looks like going forward. 

Read more: Zynga, editorial

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