Tag Archives: Playfish

From Draw Something to $40 million TV Ad Campaigns

OMGPOP's first Facebook game was Cupcake Corner
OMGPOP’s first Facebook game was Cupcake Corner

I’ve spent the last four years on quite the ride, so pardon the long absence. I jumped into OMGPOP in 2010 as the product lead for a Facebook game; we delved into mobile apps in 2011 as the market shifted and then I was fortunate enough to be part of the crazy explosion of our game Draw Something. After getting acquired by Zynga, I jumped crosstown to FreshPlanet to grow and monetize SongPop as well as try to develop more social causal mobile hits. And here in 2015 I’m watching the market shift yet again as mobile game developers are now turning to traditional brand marketing by spending tens of millions on TV ads.

So here’s a couple things I’ve observed along the way:

#1 Overnight success takes years to perfect

Two of the biggest hits I’ve been associated with (Draw Something and SongPop) came after years of iteration.

Draw Something started off as a real-time flash game Draw My Thing on the now defunct OMGPOP.com site (but you can still play the embedded game on sites out there if you are looking for it). Drawing with your mouse sort of sucked but it was fun in real time – you had to beat the timer and draw well enough that others in the group could guess it.

Before Draw Something on mobile, there was Draw My Thing on OMGPOP - a synchronous game where you had a timer to draw and other users tried to be the first to guess the word you were drawing
Before Draw Something on mobile, there was Draw My Thing on OMGPOP – a synchronous game where you had a timer to draw and other users tried to be the first to guess the word you were drawing

We ported the game to Facebook which greatly expanded the audience, peaking at about 2.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU) – but that was a mere blip compared to what we saw when we jumped to mobile. The iterations on mobile were huge: In 2012 doing real-time mobile play wasn’t an option so we shifted into asynchronous game play; the clock and “winning” or “losing was eliminated; and typing out your guess on a mobile device was a pain, so we shifted to a sort of scramble-like listing of letters from which to make your guess.

Before SongPop, an initial iteration was The Crazy Cow Music Quiz
Before SongPop, an initial iteration was The Crazy Cow Music Quiz

SongPop too had an earlier incarnation – can you believe The Crazy Cow Music Quiz? Obviously we ditched the cow, and a bunch of pre-game power ups, opting for a simpler and more direct game play.

Neither of these game ideas were a success overnight. And that’s about the same for every indie darling that makes it big, the latest being today’s #1 hit Trivia Crack by Etermax. Trivia Crack was built on the success of its Spanish-language version predecessor Preguntados which was built on the success of it’s Scrabble-like game Adworded which was built on the company’s past experience as a third-party developer.

#2 Sometimes there CAN be too much of a good thing

People binged on Draw Something similar to the same extent people now binge on NetFlix - games now have to figure out how to not let the player get sick of the game and burn out
People binged on Draw Something similar to the same extent people now binge on NetFlix – games now have to figure out how to not let the player get sick of the game and burn out

When Draw Something first came out, it was like crack. People couldn’t get enough of it. They played non-stop, during class, over night – it was this incredible social binge event. But unlike binging on Breaking Bad episodes on NetFlix, when you were “done” on Draw Something, there were a ton of opponents waiting for you to draw back. Unlike Scopely’s Dice with Buddies where a round is literally a couple seconds, Drawing took quite an investment of time and thought. That’s cool with three or five of your close friends, but having to draw for 50 people gets a bit overwhelming.

When Zynga bought us, Draw Something was barely a month old and no one had a clue what the eventual retention curve would look like. I won’t second guess anything we did in Draw Something to become such a cultural phenomenon, but today social mobile games put a lot of effort into gating the content a bit, to get users to stay a while instead of binging and leaving.

SongPop limits the number of opponents you can have at any one time. Many games like Two Dots or Candy Crush have “life” systems – you lose lives when you fail a level and either have to ask friends, wait or pay to regenerate those lives and keep playing. Trivia Crack sort of combines the two – limiting opponents you can play by a “life” system. The balancing of these gates and when they appear are key both to monetization, but also regulating the consumption of your content.

#3 Deja vu all over again

When I was younger, I remember a movie would stay in the theaters for weeks. Today, most movies are gone in a flash — maybe two weekends at the cineplex and then gone. But hits last longer – just not as long as they used to. In 1977 Star Wars was in 40% of it’s max theater release for 29 weeks. For last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it was in 40% of it’s max theater release for only 10 weeks. The economics have changed – there are about 4x as many theaters today so more movie-goers can see them in the first couple weeks. Looking ahead it’s becoming more clear that theaters will eventually give way to direct-to-home streaming.

Hit games like Luxor would remain at the top of the charts for six months before the downloadable PC game market got saturated
Hit games like Luxor would remain at the top of the charts for six months before the downloadable PC game market got saturated

When I was marketing downloadable games in 2005, a hit game like Luxor was at the top of the sales charts for six months – a game we all called a “AAA” game back then. Within two years the top selling game was at the top of the charts for just two to four weeks. The economics changed – there were 3x as many games being made. And then this little platform called Facebook started making it easier for users to get free games instead of paying $9.99 a pop for the downloadable game.

Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Saturation makes it hard for a new game to get heard. The majority that do break through — with either a burst campaign or the lottery ticket of an Apple feature — don’t end up lasting long on the charts.

Developers in the download space tried to pivot to Facebook games, but it was the early adopters on the platform like Zynga and Playfish that were able to take advantage of looser viral channels. Few other developers were as successful than those early entrants on the Facebook platform.

Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Over half of the top grossing games (Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Big Fish Casino, Hay Day, Soltomania) were released in 2012 or earlier. In 2012 there were 500,000 apps to compete with in Apple’s App Store – today there are 3x as many. The companies that were able to establish hits in or before 2012 have been able to maintain those franchises as early adopters on the platforms.

King.com has saturated select cities with branding campaign for Candy Crush Soda Saga - including the tops of yellow cabs in New York City
King.com has saturated select cities with branding campaign for Candy Crush Soda Saga – including the tops of yellow cabs in New York City

So while we all know it’s been getting more and more expensive in the last two years to create a new app (more depth and polish required) and acquire new users (CPIs easily can climb over $3), the money accumulated by these early adopter developers have allowed them to grow and move to an entirely different level: full-fledged brand marketing (cue Kate Upton). With city take overs by King.com and apps buying commercial time during NFL football playoff games, these are the marketing tactics that a small to mid-size developer can’t even begin to compete with.

So what’s an indie developer to do?

Well the great thing is that based on #1 above, there’s always room for iteration and innovation. When you can provide a unique experience, tell a unique story, change the way you interact with a device, then you might be able to find that big hit. Just realize you might have to fail 20 times to get there.

Second, be on the look out and try different platforms. Facebook disrupted the downloadable/PC games market and created new developer power houses. Mobile disrupted the Facebook games market hierarchy and has created new developer power houses. Eventually new platforms will come, we just don’t know where. So innovation and iteration is key for the indie developer to find a new market where they can be successful. Can someone crack Instagram and Twitter to create a new mash up of game play with social? I’m betting they can.

But this is my big question going into 2015: Can the medium-size developer shop survive? Or will we continue to see consolidation with a bunch of power house developers and a lot of small 1-3 person teams trying to create something new and unique?

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 http://accounts.zynga.com) 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.

The Post-Notification Era on Facebook’s Platform: Viral Marketing Isn’t Dead Yet

As originally posted March 15, 2010 on InsideSocialGames.com

There was a lot of hand-wringing by developers prior to Facebook phasing out application-based Notifications on March 1st, especially among smaller developers who relied heavily on notifications to remind users to come back to their game or application. Making matters worse, the new features designed to replace notifications had their own issues:

  • Proxy email messaging wasn’t fixed until over a week after Notifications disappeared (see the bug) and some developers were caught off-guard that proxy emails have a restrictions on acceptable HTML and FBML tags
  • The Games Dashboard and Counters were extremely ineffective in driving traffic (one developer shared that of 150,000 referenced visits, 1202 were from the dashboard)

Illustrating the immediate impact of the changes, one developer posted this graphic of their application’s engagement metrics, highlighting the relative impact of notifications versus the games dashboard in driving engagement:


Clearly, no one argues that end of notifications was going to have a huge impact on traffic, and several developers were phasing out their reliance on notifications way before the March 1st. Francis Pelland, developer of several relatively small Avastar applications summed up the debates on the developer boards: “I phased out notifications in my apps about 3 weeks ago and my DAU is significantly higher than before through creative thinking and alternative viral features. People should sit and think rather than complain. This sort of thing happens every time when Facebook makes a change and consider it to be the end of the world, make threats to quit, and say it will be the end of Facebook.”

So how are the largest developers faring in the post-Notifications world? Clearly it’s not the doomsday scenario that some feared as developers are mostly relying on email or fan page posts to replace application-to-user notifications, while user-to-user notifications are being facilitated through creative use of Wall Posts.



In the two weeks since notifications, Zynga’s titles are a mixed bag with PetVille and FishVille down 4-6%, Mafia Wars flat and YoVille, FarmVille and Café World up 3-7%. Zynga’s use of email is fairly sporadic and limited to a few titles:

  • FarmVille and Café World have yet to send an email (based on my observations and discussions with other users). With such a large user base, the cost of email may be prohibitive compared to the effectiveness of fan page posts.
  • YoVille has slowly increased its frequency from once a month at the end of 2009 to 3-4 per month and has primarily focused on new item releases.
  • Since December, Mafia Wars has sent seven emails, primarily focused on new game features (holiday gift safe house in December, Bangkok expansion release in late January and the revamp of their store in February). Three of those emails have entitled the recipients to the Mafia Wars hard currency, reward points.
  • Finally, PetVille sent it’s first email to users as part of the process to accept emails and unlock a pet for your PetVille pet.

Instead of relying heavily on email, Zynga has focused on innovating user-to-user communication via Wall Posts, re-focusing users from sending gifts to asking for gifts and collaborative tasks that require users to plead with friends to send items so they can complete the task.

The only games that haven’t had either consistent emails (YoVille) or the collaborative task mechanism (Mafia Wars, FarmVille, Café World), are the only two games that are down over the last two weeks (FishVille and PetVille).

See the breakdown of tactics used by Playfish, Playdom and CrowdStar (complete with grapical trending) in the full post on InsideSocialGames.com