An outsider’s perspective of ‘Social Games’ (eg. Zynga’s Mafia Wars, FarmVille, etc.)

Social Games are ‘computer games’ played on the internet, usually via a social networking site (eg, Facebook, mySpace, etc.), which involve interaction with chosen other people (usually nominated friends). In a sense they are a classic example of “Web 2.0”, being the development of the world-wide web to involve greater interaction between online participants.  They have piqued my interest, because a number of my friends are playing them on Facebook, and I really had no idea what they were about.

Companies like Zynga (the maker of some of the largest social games, and who I comment on further below) appear to be quietly growing into powerful market participants, despite mostly being hidden from the public eye (at least so far, most of the social games developers are venture capital funded).

Zynga has an excellent overview, presented by its founders and employees, in this YouTube video:

In order to give some insights into the games, as far as I can tell as an outsider, I have included quotes below in respect of two games which are currently very popular: Mafia Wars, and FarmVille.

According to Wikipedia (October 8, 2009):

Mafia Wars is set in New York City and Little Italy, with the option for players to travel between New York and Cuba once they reach level 35 and Moscow once they reach level 70. The game revolves around doing jobs in order to earn cash, and eventually establishing and advancing one’s criminal empire. Players create mafias by recruiting players. Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster allow players to recruit from within their friends network to build their mafia and fight against other players. Players can also improve their stats by visiting the Godfather or making a micropayment.

Gameplay revolves around timers: players have limited energy (for doing Jobs), health and stamina meters (both for fighting other players), but these can be slowly recharged over time. By using other mafia members whom that they have recruited, players can eventually fight other mafias, which usually results in the theft of cash. The game operates on a level up basis. The player earns experience points by completing jobs. As they level up, more jobs become available, and extra features become available, such as robbing other mafias and visiting Cuba to expand their criminal empire.

and Zynga’s own press releases of FarmVille:

FarmVille allows players to build and customize their farm from the very beginnings, plowing the land, and choosing what they want to grow from a large variety of crops such as strawberries, eggplant, wheat and soybeans. The farm is then theirs to cultivate how they choose. Players will also have options to purchase farm animals such as pigs and cows, and compliment your crops with other farm assets such as barns, windmills and greenhouses.

Nurturing the farm is the key to success for players and their network of fellow farmer friends: those who tend their crops diligently will see their farms flourish and their bank accounts swell. Players’ friends are a key element of success in FarmVille.

I understand that these games could be fun, but personally I’m not interested in Multi-User Games (interactive games played over an internet connection, and perhaps the pre-curser to Social Games), or Social Games – aside from the fact that I can see that they could absorb time that I don’t have, the games themselves actually don’t interest me (and I even struggle to see the point, but having wasted a few hours in my university days playing Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization’, I can see how they could become addictive, as you try to ‘grow’ your empire/farm/mafia family/etc.).

Currently approximately 5% of my Facebook friends are playing some of these games.  This is more than I would have thought.

Having read the quotes above, I have three important observations:

  1. in some ways it sounds like a pyramid scheme, whereby your gaming success is driven by recruiting new friends
  2. as you become more involved in the game, you are encouraged to spend real cash for virtual ‘credits’, which can be used to further ‘grow’ your role in the game
  3. the games can become very time intensive, as they seem to have no effective ‘finish’ date / completion mechanism

This all sounds potentially very dangerous, especially for people who are on limited budgets, or children, who could get addicted to social gaming and play (and spend) beyond their available resources. I’d love to hear any challenging views on this from people who play the games.

Thinking more positively, these games could potentially teach society about economics, negotiations, social interaction, the internet, and competition strategies, all while being fun, and all that for a relatively small investment.  I’d personally be interested to see if a business school, or large professional organization could develop a ‘social business game’, and use the game to identify high caliber candidates.

My interest in social games is principally driven by my interest in following how the web is changing, and what new developers are doing, and their business models.  According to Zynga’s website:

Zynga is the largest social gaming company with more than 9.5 million daily users and 45 million monthly users. Zynga’s games are available on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Tagged, Yahoo!, the iPhone and iPod Touch, and include Texas Hold’Em Poker, Mafia Wars, YoVille, Vampires, Street Racing, Scramble and Word Twist. The company is funded by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, IVP, Union Square Ventures, Foundry Group, Avalon Ventures, Pilot Group, Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel. Zynga is headquartered at the Chip Factory in San Francisco.

Zynga itself only began life in mid-2007, so this is clearly a new sector that is growing, and Zynga has clearly (but quite subtly) taken a strong lead – what do companies like Electronic Arts think of that?!  Come to think of it, would do larger media companies (BBC, NBC, Disney, etc.) think of losing audience to such start-ups?!

In September 2009 Facebook announced on its blog that it had over 300 million members. According to a Zynga (March 2009) it had over 72 million registered users (assuming that this has grown since March, it might be close to one third of Facebook users, which seems pretty high to me, albeit one has to bear in mind that Zynga games can be accessed from other social media platforms too).

These numbers are pretty mind-boggling (for a business that started in July 2007).  It’s like the whole population of a large European country is playing a computer game …

And while they are only game-players, what power could these tens of millions of people wield, were they to align themselves somehow through their common interest and work together to achieve some sort of change?!

Do you play social games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille?  What are your thoughts on them?

6 Responses

  1. Hi Matt,

    Like your post and actually have had very similar observations.. wondering how come so many people are DAILY playing these games… my FB profile has been flooded with posting about games… almost all of them by Zynga which tells me that social gaming really has taken off. The questions that came to my mind were:

    – How come Zynga has such a massive market share (is it really that difficult to copy)?
    – What makes these games so addictive?
    – How can Zynga capitalize on it? WHat is the business opportunity…

    In my hunt for answers I decided to invest a bit and chose the one which most of my friends were playing… mafia wars.

    Having used it for some 14 days or so my conclusion on the game is that it is very similar to online games (PC, playstation etc) except that it is linked to your facebook profile. i.e. the benefit is that you already have your friends linked.

    I do not think the game itself is so addictive… I think it is more a question of people shifting time from watching TV or reading a book, to sitting at the PC… and after a while people have read all articles and emails and then start “surfing” for something interesting…

    And this is where the facebook apps come in… be that “todays favorite friend”, “what animal would you be”, or games such as mafia wars.

    I am really astonished about how many amazing and usually fairly stupid apps that exist for facebook… but people seem to love them… and manage to find the time to use them.

    Have still not found the solution to the monetizing question… but I am still curiously trying to learn…

  2. Interesting FT article, by Adam L Penenberg related to this topic, “Book Extract: Viral Loop”, here:

    The article mostly talks about the potential marketing benefit from ‘viral videos’ online, but at the end there is a separate section, “Adam L Penenberg on what’s next for the virtual economy”, which covers online social games, including those developed by Zynga.

  3. Just made a new blog post connected to this topic: “Online business games – undiscovered, ‘behind the curve’, or of limited value?”, here:

    In particular, I expand on the paragraph above,

    “… these games could potentially teach society about economics, negotiations, social interaction, the internet, and competition strategies, all while being fun, and all that for a relatively small investment. I’d personally be interested to see if a business school, or large professional organization could develop a ’social business game’, and use the game to identify high caliber candidates …”

    using two good examples: a business game, Energyville (by Chevron/The Economist), and Dafur is Dying, a game which is intended to broaden public awareness of the plight of refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan.

  4. […] 7, 2009 by matthewdbenson I recently wrote a post about Zynga, an online social games developer (here).  Zynga is growing quickly, wth games that they develop having tens of milions of […]

  5. An interesting article, ‘The Economics Of Facebook Games’, by Nick O’Neill:

  6. Interesting developments at Zynga and Facebook, as reported by ‘The Next Web’:

    “Farmville publisher Zynga could be about to gamble its entire future on the devotion of its users.

    It appears something of a bust-up is brewing between Facebook and Zynga; one which could see the company leave Facebook for good.”

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