Chances are you haven't heard of Zynga. However, if you're a Facebook user (and 19 million UK Internet users reportedly now are) then you may well have played one of their games and have subliminally registered their 'powered by Zynga' logo (a silhouette of the founder's bulldog). With 45 million daily active users (yes, daily!) across their portfolio of games and an estimated $150 million in revenue this year, they have rapidly become a very big fish, not just in gaming, but in the online world more generally.
This astonishing rate of growth is best exemplified by their Facebook app Farmville, a real-time farm simulation game which launched in June 2009 and now boasts over 50 million monthly active users, making it the most popular game on Facebook.
So, what's their special sauce, magic ingredient? Here's six reasons why Zynga is truly game-changing:
1.) Smart leveraging of your social graph (it's only fun with friends!)
One of the big draws for Facebook app developers is the ability to leverage users' social graphs, not only to enable social play, but to encourage the viral spread of the application. Most early apps which attempted to exploit this tended to be crude 'you're it' type games (e.g. Zombies) which achieved a lot of installs but didn't offer the user any real depth of gameplay and soon became regarded by many as tantamount to spam. What Zynga have done (although there's undoubtedly still some residual app invite fatigue for them to overcome) is to make games which offer more depth than the one-trick pony 'you're it' games and provide a more nuanced reward mechanic, with genuine ongoing incentivisation for users to expand their 'neighbourhood' of friends via gifts (cannily limited to one-per-day-per-friend), offers of help/employment, and rewards based on acts of citizenship). In fact, those interactions are so key to the game mechanic, that it's really only fun with friends, as Alice recently bemoaned.
2.) Stickiness through Tamagotchi-style plate-spinning
Part of the reason Zynga's daily reach is so high is that it's games are invariably 'high-maintenance'; in order to maintain your hard-won status and progress, you must return on at least a daily basis (and are invariably rewarded for doing so more often). This model might prove frustrating on a more traditional gaming platform, where you have to find time to fire up the console and load the game, but works perfectly on Facebook where frequent repeat visits are already the order of the day, largely driven by communication tasks (messaging, status updates etc.) There's both carrot and stick in this equation as neglecting your Zynga game will result in dead crops, spoilt food and unhappy customers just as surely as regular visits will send your revenue and status skyward.
3.) Persuading users to make micropayments
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Zynga is the amount of revenue it is now generating. Building a sizeable web audience is one thing; successfully monetising it is quite another (hello Twitter!) People's willingness to part with real-life cash for virtual goods has been well established by immersive 3D environments like Second Life and WoW, but it's testament to the engagement that Zynga's casual games engender, that once users virtual currency runs out, a sizable number of them are willing to dip into their pockets to keep progressing.
4.) Exploiting the endowment effect
Another genius element of Zynga's game design is the way in which they exploit some very basic aspects of human psychology, in particular the endowment effect. Whereas many game worlds are populated with alien objects for you to navigate or obliterate, with the main protagonist your only point of identification, Zynga's games tend to give you immediate ownership of a domain in which you very quickly start to take civil pride. You care how your room/cafe/farm/theme park is perceived because it's very definitely yours (a point reinforced by the status boasts / screengrabs you are encouraged to publish to your wall and your friends' homepages).
5.) Easily repurposable game-engine
One of the best things about Zynga's recipe for success is how repeatable it is. The basic game engine for CafeWorld is identical to the one powering FarmVille, YoVille and Roller Coaster Kingdom. The ability to apply this model to new domains, and in so doing, reach new audiences (as well as extended reach/time spent with existing audiences) is a game developers dream.
6.) Effective cross-promotion / upselling of its other games
With 17 Facebook games now in its portfolio, Zynga does an extremely good job of upselling its other titles from within the individual games. In addition to a carousel running underneath each game promoting their big ticket releases, dynamic CTAs are also inserted above the Flash app (e.g. in Farmville: "Did you milk the cow? Take a break with a milkshake in Café World!")
It's worth saying that Zynga aren't the only company pushing the envelope in online social gaming at the moment (check out Playfish), they just happen to be doing it bloody well.