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Two Reasons CityVille Broke 100 Million MAUs

cityville_logoCityVille has become the first game on Facebook to surpass 100 million Monthly Active Users – meaning one in every six Facebook users has played the game to date. Its massive growth and ability to dwarf its rivals in the city genre I believe are driven by two things: 1) an innovative way to leverage it FarmVille integration and 2) an ability to have a first mover advantage in the genre, albeit in a non-traditional way.

Leveraging FarmVille

CityVille, like all Zynga games, are able to make huge leaps in users by standing on the shoulders of their massively huge success of FarmVille. Prior to CityVille, FarmVille held the top mark when it peaked at 83.76 million MAU back on March 17, 2010. FarmVille’s peak might be slightly more impressive in terms of user penetration because it was at a time when Facebook only had slightly more than 400 million users on the platform. What CityVille has NOT done to date is reach the heights of the Daily Active User benchmarks of FarmVille – FarmVille peaked at 32.48 million DAU on February 11, 2010.

Zynga has leveraged this large number of users to drive installs for other games, most notably through cross-promo bars at the top of the game, in-game cross-promotion and spending on Facebook ads. But with the revamping of their email system (see back in September of 2010, users who provide an email address permission (a now nearly standard permission request by all developers during installation) are also allowing themselves to receive emails about all other games. Thus when CityVille launched and users were prompted to invite their FarmVille friends (because nearly everyone playing games has some FarmVille friends), if a user accepted, Zynga then sent an invite request via email to all of those users.


While email is not necessarily cheap, it is likely a great deal more effective in driving viral installs than install requests and a lot cheaper than buying ads (which Zynga did as well across Facebook as well as other cross promo bars). It also helps explain how CityVille reached 20 million MAU in just nine days, compared to an average of 20-21 days for games like Café World, Treaure Isle and PetVille.

A First-Mover Advantage

CityVille by no means was the first city genre game on Facebook. Nor was it the first game by one of the top developers on Facebook (Zynga, Playfish/EA, Playdom or CrowdStar) that enjoy the resources (both in advertising dollars and cross-promotional network) to drive users to a game. Let’s take a quick look at the timeline to get a little perspective:


1989SimCity, created by Will Wright, is the first title released by Maxis and is the great grandfather for the city-building genre that finally arrives on Facebook two decades later.

November 27, 2009: My Town by Broken Bulb Studios launches – for me this is the first of these type of games but open to your comments on who else first broke ground and drove significant users. It peaked at 3.74 million MAU in late March of 2010.

January 29, 2010: My City Life jumps into the fray and grows rapidly maxing at 4.18 million MAU in mid March, beating out My Town for a short time, but with lower retention and not being able to match My Town’s DAU numbers. The game was given up in mid-June and has been used to promote other games of late.

March 6, 2010: Playdom seizes the moment with Social City, spending like gang-busters on advertising to become the first super huge hit in the genre. Social City went on to become their first game to exceed 1 million DAU and was truly their first hit on Facebook after having several misses porting over their MySpace hits to the platform. Arguably, Social City made Playdom and set up their purchase by Disney just four months later. In the graphs you can see that Social City’s rapid rise (peaking at 12.69 million MAU at the end of April, effectively had taken the wind out of both My Town and My City Life.


March 18, 2010: Zynga takes note of Playdom’s rapid ascent and begins research to define it’s own entry into the genre. These early surveys show Zynga was clearly targeting Social City users in generating a baseline understanding of competitive products. Nine months later CityVille would arrive.

May and June 2010: Success begets more followers as other large developers dive in: Playfish/EA enters with My Empire (thematically going for more of a ancient civilization theme) and CrowdStar releases Hello City. Both combine to take down Social City a notch, but neither exceeds 6 million MAU (these top-tier developers can’t attain half the MAU that Social City had attained at its peak).

Digital Chocolate also launches Millionaire City during this period – the game becomes Digital Chocolate’s biggest hit peaking at 13.11 MAU in December. In fact, Millionaire City became the city genre’s biggest hit, passing Social City’s high water mark on November 29, 2010 – a title it was to hold for only for 12 days after being crushed by CityVille. Digital Chocolate tried to re-skin Millionaire City, creating Hollywood City and Vegas City, but neither crossed 4 million MAU; Playdom did a similar thing by simply re-skinning Social City with ESPNU College Town (a missed opportunity to tweak it further for sports enthusiasts) – that game too failed to top 4 million MAU.

August 21, 2010: Playdom returns with another entry, City of Wonder, though the game is slightly focused more like Civilization than SimCity. The title grows quickly and peaks at 10.77 million MAU on September 24th. But the DAU number is less strong suggesting retention needs more work and it appears that the advertising to promote the game falls off shortly thereafter, resulting in MAU declines.

December 5, 2010: CityVille launches and reaches 20 million MAU in just nine days.

Obviously, CityVille was not the first mover in the city genre on Facebook. There are at least ten large-scale city games that were successful on Facebook prior to CityVille’s arrival. But where CityVille WAS a first mover was in localizing their game for different languages – basically the first city genre game to present itself in Spanish, French, German and Italian.


Jens Begemann, CEO of Wooga, has been touting that the size of the European market rivals the opportunity in the US (when looking at online players in Germany, Spain, France and Italy as well as other English-speaking languages). His combination of localization of not only text but support and virtual goods is focused on these same languages (with the addition of Turkish).


By focusing on these additional languages (which likely added to the long development time), I believe Zynga was able to take CityVille to these incredibly lofty heights, helping it penetrate into markets no city genre game had ever reached in the past. In the future, we’ll be talking about first mover advantage less in terms of first to market, but in terms of first to market by each language.

FarmVille Horse Stable Promo Replicated for Other Zynga Hits

How can you tell when a viral marketing program is working well? When Zynga spreads it to several of their top games. Last week we noted that the horse stable promotion helped drive FarmVille over 30 million Daily Active Users soon after it was launched because it promoted its heavy and hard core users to proactively request gifts from friends to complete the building.

Now the same concept has spread to Cafe World and Mafia Wars. In Cafe World, users must collect shelves, jars and lids to create a spice rack:


In Mafia Wars, as part of the revamping of the way properties work in the core New York chapter, users have to collect blocks, car lifts and other material to create the chop shop:


So are they providing the same daily active user punch that the horse stable did for FarmVille? So far they aren’t, but to be fair these just launched late last week and the Facebook-reported DAU numbers have been sporadic of late.

Can Users Find Their Games in the New Facebook Homepage?

So two weeks after slowly dripping out of the recent Facebook homepage redesign, one indicator that users still don’t know where to find things (like games) is the number of developers spending time educating users how to find the Game Dashboard:


In general, while the creation of the Games Dashboard at least acknowledged the importance of games in the day-to-day usage of the Facebook platform, Facebook didn’t bother publicizing the games dashboard during the rollout.

So far I haven’t been able to discern a noticeable decline across all developers, as some games were already declining from December platform changes and there were a good deal of promotions (e.g. various Valentines promos and horse stable promotion on FarmVille) that may have masked the impact of the redesign. That said, one example where it does seem to have had an effect is Playdom:


While bookmarks weren’t always leveraged by users, they were persistent and did provide a very convenient way for a user to get to their favorite application consistently. Now to get to the games dashboard, you must continually navigate back to the homepage to find the link. I firmly believe the games dashboard is a huge improvement, providing the potential to discover new games and find your existing ones. But further education cannot overcome the fundamental design flaw of not having “games” as a persistent part of the site navigation, visible from every page. There seems to be some ample space in that blue navigation bar at the top: a simple Games link there could be a benefit for the entire ecosystem.

What About the Power User?

One other side note is that I missed in assessing the homepage redesign initially is that the ability to filter the news feed has been removed: You can choose only to see the Top News or Most Recent news. In the past, there was a way to filter the news feed by leveraging categories in the left navigation, such as user-defined “Family” or network groups, but also by games (a FarmVille power user could select FarmVille and see all their friends’ posts).

One has to wonder if that feature has hurt some of the bigger games, as power users in the past could use that feature to connect with friends (and keep them reinforcing the circle of sending requests and gifts to each other). Now the only way power users can get that feature is to go to, which has that filtered news feed prominently right below the game.

Update 2/20/2010:Kudos to the product team at Cafe World to take the initiative, being one of the first apps to actually share the Cafe World-specific filter and help their power users find their neighbors’ posts: