Zynga, the leader in the social games market, has been having a rough year so far. Its stock has dropped to below $3 a share and it has seen a number of executives leave after second quarter earnings surprised analysts with weak results. Zynga needs to show that it still has its mojo, and the introduction of FarmVille 2 today is its bid to get back to strong performance.
The game is built entirely in 3D, a first for Zynga, but that's not the important part of the game. Zynga has added in a bevy of new features, including a complete crafting system for making food products that can be sold in a roadside stand. Players deal with raising animals, tending crops, and creating products, all while decorating their farm with a much more fluid control system. Zynga's also added significant control over the social interactions, letting players use friends much more cleverly to help them accomplish what needs to be done on the farm. Story elements and characters have also been included to give players much more of a sense of being in a world.
"In the social space to a certain extent we get to define what a sequel experience might be, and I don't think that means replacing the original"
Tim LeTourneau, Zynga
GamesIndustry International spoke with Tim LeTourneau, vice president of games at Zynga, and Wright Bagwell, director of design on FarmVille 2, about the genesis of FarmVille 2 and the strategic thinking behind the design.
"Wright and I both started at Zynga about a year and a half ago, both of us have been in the industry for a long time, both of us for a long time at Electronic Arts," LeTourneau said. "The reason we both decided to come to Zynga is ultimately that we saw our friends and our family playing games on Facebook, we were playing them ourselves, and we realized there was something unique about this space and we both wanted to learn about it. We came to Zynga and we both ended up working on FarmVille, and as we were talking about FarmVille - at that point in time it was just hitting its second birthday - coming from the traditional space, you're always thinking about what do you do next with an IP; what does the future look like?"
LeTourneau continued, "There were a lot of discussions going on about could there be another FarmVille, and if so, what would that look like? I think for us, one of the things that we hoped in coming to Zynga would be that we could bring our traditional game experience and apply it to this platform and this space, and really capitalize on the experience Zynga has in making social games. That created a natural marriage that started the conversation about what FarmVille 2 could be. From the beginning we always looked at it not as making the sequel to FarmVille, but more about re-imagining digital farming, taking advantage of today's technology and the things that have moved forward since the game originally launched, now three years ago."
LeTourneau was clear that this game is really a completely new take on what he calls 'digital farming.' "This is called FarmVille 2, but don't think of it as a sequel; think of it as another version of FarmVille that is really built with the learnings that have occurred over the last three years," LeTourneau explained. He was quick to point out that the introduction of FarmVille 2 did not mean the original game would be ended. "As a company, FarmVille is an incredibly important franchise and one that is a flagship and backbone of Zynga. We have a loyal, dedicated player base of FarmVille. We don't want people to think that we are in any way letting off the gas as it relates to FarmVille. FarmVille still has a full team of developers that continue to make content for it on a daily basis, and we will continue to expand and grow that game for those dedicated players."
Still, Zynga realizes there's a lot of potential to attract a large audience to a new title. "We also recognize that there are a lot of players that have moved on from FarmVille from its initial peak," LeTourneau said. "We firmly believe there's an opportunity to bring a lot of those people back to the franchise and we think FarmVille 2 is the game to do that." The key issue for LeTourneau and Bagwell was, in a nutshell, "How do we make the next generation of FarmVille, and in turn, how do we make a next-generation social game?"
Is Zynga hoping that people who have never played FarmVille, or people who once played FarmVille, will play FarmVille 2? "Absolutely," said LeTourneau. "From a pure business standpoint, we have a dedicated player base in FarmVille that has built a rich community, and we have millions of players that play there every day, and it's a lucrative business for Zynga. To try to just move them to a new game wouldn't seem like the best business strategy. What we wanted to do is say, 'We know there are millions of players who aren't playing FarmVille any more, but at one point in time loved the game and loved the idea of digital farming.' Our hope is that FarmVille players will play it, but really our great hope is that a bunch of players who are maybe new to Facebook, have never seen FarmVille or those people who've moved on, are going to be so engaged by this experience that they're going to become a whole new legion of Zynga players."
"We still have a dedicated team working on FarmVille, and will continue to have as long as there are players who want to continue"
Tim LeTourneau, Zynga
Part of the marketing problem Zynga faces is that calling this game 'FarmVille 2' may lead to expectations about the game that aren't exactly correct. The concept of sequel in this space is not necessarily the same as it is in the console space. LeTourneau agreed. "In the console space you have a much different situation; you don't have a live game that's continuing to live while the new one comes out. I think in the social space to a certain extent we get to define what a sequel experience might be, and I don't think that means replacing the original. I know that we learned a lot from Mafia Wars 2, Mark [Pincus, the CEO] has stated that publicly. What you're really looking at is the brand equity of FarmVille. In all of our testing, even though we tested different names for the game players, even seeing it and knowing the differences, consistently came back and said that FarmVille 2 was their favorite name because I think FarmVille for this audience, which is not the same as a hardcore gamer audience, you know, this is a broad audience that thinks more in terms of movie sequels than they do in game sequels. I think for them the brand that they know is FarmVille, and this is a farming game coming from Zynga, and so the logical name is FarmVille 2. We saw players over and over again resonate with that name more than any other. That was the reason the we decided to go with FarmVille 2."
The conundrum for existing FarmVille players may be that the new game is attractive, but they don't want to leave their old farm behind with all of the work they put into it. LeTourneau is aware of that issue. "We don't want anyone to feel like they have to leave their old farm behind," he said. "We still have a dedicated team working on FarmVille, and will continue to have as long as there are players who want to continue their original FarmVille experience. There is no intent to slow down that game or the content and support we provide to those players. In some ways they are the people we're targeting the least with FarmVille 2, because we know they're having a great experience with FarmVille as a franchise. We believe that many of them may play both games, but some of them may be the last to try FarmVille 2 because they are so committed and dedicated to their FarmVille friends and their FarmVille farms. We don't want to change anything about that."
FarmVille 2 will be the first Ville type game that launches simultaneously on both Zynga.com and Facebook. Will it meet the level of success Zynga needs? This is a key product to watch over the next few months, as Zynga tries to grow a new crop of best-selling games.