How Zynga's Latest Game Makes So Much Money

FrontierVille screenshots

FrontierVille, the newest game from FarmVille creator Zynga, is an instant success, gaining 5 million users in the two weeks since its launch. That’s especially impressive since it is still in beta, with somewhat buggy gameplay and much of the game’s content still on the way.

Zynga needs FrontierVille to do big things. Until a few months ago, the leading social gaming company was soaring, crushing the competition with FarmVille, raking in revenue, and raising gobs of funding at a multi-billion dollar valuation.

Then came two big blows to its bottom line. First, Facebook cracked down on how aggressively games could be in getting users’ permission to post things to their walls and send invites to their friends. These are the central viral mechanisms through which Facebook games add users. (The major non-viral mechanism, of course, is Facebook ads. Zynga spends millions of dollars a day on them when its launching a new game.) The major social game companies have been bleeding ever since.

Then Facebook announced that it wanted its Credits to become the universal payment system on its platform, and that it would take a 30% of all Credits transactions.

FrontierVille tries to turn things around in two ways:

First, it’s a somewhat richer game than previous Zynga offerings. At least for now, it’s not a huge step forward (though more is coming), but it’s a definite improvement.

Secondly, FrontierVille tries very, very hard to bring the viral magic back. Thanks to the new rules, requests to post things on your wall are easier to turn down, but FrontierVille tries to make up the difference by asking over and over again, and boosting the incentives for having friends who play.

We sat down and spent some time with FrontierVille yesterday. Here’s how it works:

The first step: deciding what your avatar should look like

Frontier Jack guides you through the early stages of the game. Your first task is to clear space on your plot of land.

Clicking on grass, rocks, and trees removes them, freeing up space for your buildings, crops, and animals

Other tasks, which all work the same way (costing energy, yielding rewards), include farming...

Fighting off bears...

The experience you gain from clearing ground (and all the other tasks in the game) lets you level up. This opens up new items and aspects of the game.

Periodically, you are assigned missions which require you to complete specific tasks.

When you complete these missions, you receive additional rewards. You are also encouraged to post about it on your wall. That little, grey 'skip' button is one of the results of Facebook's tighter policies.

Only after you click that button do you see Facebook's popup that lets you post to your wall. Developers are no longer allowed to trigger this themselves.

Every few minutes, FrontierVille reminds you of how nice it would be if more of your friends were playing with you.

You get even more reminders to add friends if you let the game sit idle

For instance, some of the items you can buy are only available once you have a certain number of neighbours. You can get around this with horseshoes -- which, remember, cost real money.

Here's the horseshoe price sheet. As you can see, Credits aren't the only way to pay, at least for now.

Money well spent!

You can do work for your neighbours, which earns you more rewards

This doesn't cost you any energy. Instead, you get a limit of 5 tasks per friend per day.

If you have lots of friends in the game, that means that you can keep visiting other places, earning rewards, including more energy, which in turn lets you put in more work at your own homestead.

Some of the materials you'll need to do that cost horseshoes, or a donation from your friends. Again: pay up, or recruit users who might.

That's about it, for now...

But updates are coming in steadily

There are also still plenty of bugs...

And we haven't seen everything yet. There could be a lot more to this game. Stay tuned!

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