Tag Archives: Cafe World

Mafia Wars Gets Whacked: The Woes of Revamping the Infrastructure of a Hit

Service issues, partially loaded screens and just not enough servers to manage a recently reconfigured game has caused Mafia Wars to take a nose dive in daily active users, dropping it back to levels not seen since August of this year:

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One could say it’s a perfect storm of issues (there was 48 hour of Facebook platform performance issues on the 9th and 10th that didn’t help last week’s roll out), but part of it I believe is an attempt to better improve the infrastructure. Back in early November, Zynga rolled out a performance enhancement on a Friday only to be forced to roll it back by two days later due to browser settings making it difficult for everyone to play the game.

Last Tuesday, the 8th, there were already signs that a new roll out of i-frame technology and anti-hacking measures were causing unintended issues. Somehow this code change was creating a cavalcade of issues, resulting in a product manager chat with users and an emergency bulletin board note to users on Saturday (the thread since removed), summarizing the issues and how they were intending to resolve them:

  • losing mafia/stats starting today – this is because our servers are being overwhelmed. We’re trying to add machines as fast as possible. We’ve stabilized the game for now and look to add more machines this coming week. Your mafias should all be back to normal now.
  • partial page loads – this is also related to the servers being overwhelmed. In the past, the app would have white screened, now it does partial loads. This issue will also be resolved when we add the servers next week.
  • lost items/progress – This was caused when we rolled out our performance upgrade. People who had the app open while we rolled out the upgrade had their accounts screwed up. In order to fix them, we had to revert them to whatever the most recent backup point was. We gave out items to anyone that we had to rollback to make up for the lost progress.

Major platform changes where you have millions of users online engaging with your game is not easy. No matter how good your QA, it’s darn near impossible to recreate a live scenario where as soon as you roll out, millions are hitting your servers. Equally daunting is finding a good time to have your game go off-line for maintenance, especially on a platform like Facebook where there are millions around the globe hitting your game.

For all intents and purposes, the Mafia Wars platform, launched over a year ago, was probably never developed for the sheer number of users it now supports – a number that has doubled in the last six months and would never have been predicted by even the most bullish of those in the social game space at the time Mafia Wars was developed. There are similar issues with Café World, the number two game on Facebook with nearly 10 million daily active users a day that has seen its numbers drop in the last week as well:

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Users continue to complain of poor load times or the sim slowing down PC performance when left in the background. Again, this game was produced with some learnings from FarmVille, but the sim is much more animated than the typical farm.

With FarmVille, Zynga took steps to lessen the load on its servers, reducing animations and smooth effects (the introduction of chicken coops and dairy barns as well as storage is also a keen way to push more of the animated items off the screen). Now as Café World creaks under the load, there are small tweaks in place to simplify the animations (sparkling animation over finished dishes seems a bit less intense, pop-ups around dishes are less animated). It’s no wonder that they have yet to launch basic achievements in the game, fearing the impact of more users on a more robust game.

And that also puts in some interesting questions around other recent games like FishVille and PetVille – after fast growth, both games have tailed off a bit. Surely Zynga can advertise and drive more users, so are they holding off in part to ensure that the games can scale?

While Mafia Wars users may fret, you have to give props to Zynga for focusing on focusing resources explicitly to improve their infrastructure. The fallout from trying to fix Mafia Wars when it already is so hug only underscores the need to build your platform in such a way to make it easily extensible and with the option to add servers quickly on the fly when your estimates of traffic are completely blown away.

Quick Hits: Playfish Offers, Notification Spam, Fast Growth and Country-Themed Items

I’ve been busy looking at some new analytics (new post coming next week) and doing some project work, but came across these tidbits of interest:

Playfish Dips its Toe in the World of Offers: In the last two weeks, Playfish tentatively began offering users the ability to earn coins by completing Offers run by Super Rewards. From a brand perspective, you definitely worry about any negative implications from unsavory offers, and Playfish definitely is trying to protect itself based on this screen coming up before you get to the offers section:

I met with Noah Kagan of Super Rewards competitor Gambit earlier this week and he’s very up front about the challenges around offers. I highly recommend you follow their Gambit blog, as you can’t beat the straight talk regarding the pros and cons about offers – a great example is “F-ck your offers! Game-ending user complaints & 3 developer solutions” that highlights the common customer complaints.

Cross-Application Spamming in Notifications? I noticed when earlier this week that the old Happy Hour application (remember when we used to send rounds of drinks to or Super Poke our friends?) actually cross-promoted game application Enchanted Island. While I’ve noted before the proliferation of Notifications from games crowding out notices from friends, this is the first time I’ve seen one application cross-sell another application via notification. While not specifically prohibited by Facebook’s Notification Guidelines, I think this practice goes a bit beyond the user expectations (rule #2) and would hope most developers will continue to keep cross-selling in their own applications ala the Zynga toolbar.

Zynga Apps Keep Hitting Incredible Numbers: Café World is the big story, passing top restaurant sim competitor Restaurant City (Playfish’s top application in terms of Daily Active Users) in just five days, then passing Mafia Wars to capture the #2 spot in Facebook Applications (with 6.6 million DAU) in just two weeks. As I mentioned last week, the ability to market across the installed base of FarmVille and Mafia Wars via the toolbar (plus some advertising) really helped the application grow quickly.

Could Listening to Users Build Your Audience by 5%: In addition to Café Worlds big gains, FarmVille grew by 1 million DAU in a day on October 14th – growing from 22.01 million DAU to 22.08 million. Beyond meteoric rises during launch, a 5.1% increase on that base is unprecedented and pretty impressive. Hard to pinpoint the actual driver as there has been a slew of new items released: Halloween Items on the 7th, Pink Cow (joining the lost cow, black sheep and ugly duckling) on the 9th, and new country flags on the 13th. Could the three million Facebook users on India have been the driver? Zynga responded pretty quickly to the online protest of Indian players looking to get the India country flag added to the game, creating and adding country flags (which can only be purchased with hard currency) within a week and seem to have been rewarded with more engaged users and likely more sales.

As Facebook becomes more of a global platform, cashing in on country pride should be a standard expansion for Facebook game applications – when I was at PowerSoccer.com, country-themed shoes, headbands and tattoos were some of our biggest virtual item sellers.

Is Appointment Gaming Where the Money Is?

When 36% of American households have a DVR, the age of “appointment television” – being home at an appointed hour to watch a show live – is clearly waning. Yet with recent changes to Roller Coaster Kingdom and the launch of Café World in the last week, Zynga appears to be doubling down on the “Appointment Gaming” mechanism of FarmVille.

Roller Coaster Kingdom – a sim game where you run an amusement park somewhat similar to Rollercoaster Tycoon although without the fun of building the coasters yourself – came out July 31st in beta, went through a great deal of fixes, and then on September 23rd rolled out a change to the basic game mechanic. Instead of guests coming to users’ amusement parks randomly based on park popularity, they had to “book tours,” wait for the buses to arrive, and greet them at the park or, according to the post by the developers, “If you do not meet and greet your guests in a timely fashion, they will become crabby and leave.”

Similarly, with the release of Café World just last week, you have to select dishes to serve to your restaurant patrons, prepare it and wait (anywhere from five minutes to two days) for it to be cooked. If you don’t serve it in a timely fashion, the food spoils (the 5 minute to make bacon cheeseburger lasts about 5 minutes before it goes rotten; the hour-to-make Tikka Masal Kabobs last about an hour and 15 minutes).

This is not hugely different from the game mechanic of FarmVille, where crops spoil if not harvested in time. So while it’s hard to argue with the success of FarmVille, it’s also hard to ignore the response from the users of Roller Coaster Kingdom since the game was modified:

  • “I think the whole booking a tour bus is stupid.. now you want me to plan my life around a game… I gotta be here at certain times just so i can keep playing…”
  • “I get bored waiting for the tours to get to my park because I didnt schedule them correctly. Needs to be a way of getting guests while you are waiting for tours.”
  • “Its no longer fun now that you have to book things. What made it fun was getting more people to come to the best park”

This takes the game from a more casual play, to a much more involved one. On TV, users see what is on and if nothing good is on, they go to their DVRs to find something to watch; Using Facebook is somewhat similar, where users see what their friends are up to, and then might dive into a quick game. For the most part, the social games offer that release, but with these sim games, you are forced to check in within a certain time.

In addition there doesn’t appear to be anything to do in between waiting for things. While you wait for dishes to cook, customers come in and leave in Café World; in Roller Coaster Kingdom the amusement park just sits their empty, with no one riding or walking through the park. Compare this to Zynga’s other big hit, Mafia Wars, where you may have to wait a couple minutes to get more stamina to fight, or for energy to rebuild, but you can pretty much count on being able to do something if you happen to log in every 3 or 4 hours. Even in FarmTown there are often trees to harvest or animals to collect things from while you wait for crops to grow.

If appointment TV is dying, why is Zynga putting marketing muscle behind two games that require this scheduling? Both games got placed in the Zynga toolbar atop FarmVille and Mafia Wars over the weekend, driving huge increases in traffic: Roller Coaster Kingdom jumped from 860K to 1.67 million daily active users in a day while Café World (with a healthy helping of Facebook ads) jumped from 250K daily users to over 2.7 million and into the top ten applications on Facebook in just two days.

I can only guess that when Zynga compared the monetization metrics of a more free-flow Roller Coaster Kingdom experience to those of the more scheduling-based game play of FarmVille, the users who ended up really investing time in scheduling were the ones that Zynga could better monetize. While an engaged user is in most cases easier to monetize, I think it’s equally important to ensure there is some joy there whenever the user can spare 15 minutes to go check on the game – otherwise you may only end up monetizing a small niche of users and hurt your opportunity to reach the masses.