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On a Friday morning in November, the busiest room at the San Francisco headquarters of Zynga, the online game company, is a high-ceilinged loft space behind a door marked CONFIDENTIAL. Bleary-eyed engineers, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, amble about desks cluttered with Red Bull empties, mindful of a countdown scrawled on a whiteboard: 5 DAYS TO LAUNCH. Zynga's latest title, CityVille, is scheduled to begin its rollout at 6 p.m. Pacific on Nov. 17.
Or, rather, was scheduled. The deadline came and went and was pushed back to later in the month to incorporate feedback from early tests. They need to get this one right. Privately held Zynga helped define online social games, the programs played by hundreds of millions of users with their friends on Facebook and other social networks. The game maker's 2009 smash hit FarmVille, in which users plant digital crops and use real money to buy farm implements, has held the No. 1 spot among Facebook applications for the past year, with over 50 million users in October. Founded in 2007 by serial entrepreneur Mark Pincus, Zynga is worth $5.4 billion, according to SharesPost, an exchange for shares of privately held companies. Still, the game industry is "a very hit-driven business," says Edward Woo, research analyst at Wedbush Securities. With social games on track to become a $2.2 billion industry by 2012, according to ThinkEquity analyst Atul Bagga, and contenders like Walt Disney (DIS) and Electronic Arts (ERTS) buying their way into the business through acquisitions over the past year, the pressure is on to make CityVille the new addiction for online gamers. No wonder Zynga delayed.
CityVille borrows heavily from SimCity, the classic urban simulation game. Users pave roads and lay railroad tracks to create virtual towns; residents are little computer-controlled characters that walk and drive to and fro. They flourish or languish, depending on how good the player is at urban planning. The game is played within your Facebook page, and once users get a town going they can buy burger joints, coffee shops, and luxury condos, and establish franchise locations in cities built by their Facebook friends. The goal is to increase the population of your town by building more and more sophisticated industries: Small shops become retail empires, villages become metropolises.
With five days left till CityVille's scheduled opening, hundreds of game-building details remain. In the CityVille studio, one staffer works the phones, trying to secure rights to a song for the game's soundtrack. Programmers scan lines of code to figure out why the game still won't load properly on Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer 8 browser. "We just have to keep nimble," Matt Levine, the game's art director, tells his team during a midmorning huddle. One by one, the designers tick off their to-dos: "3-D batting cages." "Little Italy." "Carousel." "Lighthouse."
Crafting these things can be time-consuming. Yick Kai Chan, a onetime real-world architect who designed banks and stores, spent an entire day perfecting a digital replica of Rome's Colosseum, and another on the Eiffel Tower. The game also needs to be cute. In fact, Zynga's doe-eyed characters and bulbous objects are optimized for adorability, says Chris Han, a CityVille product manager. "Aesthetics is the huge driver for demand for virtual items," says Han. "I had to run a linear regression on the cuteness of cows and demand." (For example, more people buy pink cows than white ones, even if the white ones produce more virtual milk.) CityVille is a warm and fuzzy place: a chubby chef happily ladling soup, a policewoman smiling warmly while dangling a pair of handcuffs. "It's harder than you think to make everyone come across as friendly," says Sean Kelly, CityVille's general manager.
Shortly before noon, Kelly meets with Zynga managers in a conference room papered in Post-it Notes. Good news from the programmers: CityVille's load time—the period between users clicking to open the game and seeing their mini cities on screen—is down by half, to under 10 seconds. (A week later, the time was shaved to 5 seconds.) "Load time, especially first loads, equals players," explains Mark Skaggs, vice-president for product development. "The longer the wait, the more people drop off."
Player retention is paramount for Zynga's games, says Pincus. Frequent visitors to CityVille will be most likely to pay for virtual items like gazebos and tennis courts. In the past, only about 1 percent to 3 percent of a social game's users paid for such goods, estimates ThinkEquity's Bagga. Improving that ratio will require careful targeting, so that players are enticed to spend money with just the right suggestions at just the right times. "With FarmVille it was, 'Get our marketplace up and working, and get content in it,' " says Skaggs. "Now I think of it like a store, a curated experience." Players building suburbs may be able to buy ranch houses, while players working on their downtowns will find virtual museums.
It's these virtual stores that are fueling very real growth. Zynga more than tripled its workforce to 1,300 this year, from 400 at the end of 2009. In September it signed a lease for a new 270,000-square-foot office in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood—the city's biggest commercial lease in nearly five years. The company adds as many as 1,000 servers per week, and Pincus says technology and infrastructure have become a bigger cost than people.
After the noon conference has broken up, Pincus pulls Kelly aside to rattle off a few more tasks. "Amp up population," he says, meaning the game should focus more on the number of residents in each city. "The best would be if I could visit a city and 'Like' it," referring to a popular button on Facebook. He takes a sip of tea. "What about the ability to fish?"
The bottom line: Zynga is under pressure to extend its string of hit online social games. Its next title, due later this month: CityVille.