online marketing psychology

January 25, 2011

Zynga, Creators of the Addiction Engine Formula

Zynga, the social gaming giant behind Facebook games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville, released their latest social gaming hit, CityVille, just over 40 days ago. Today the user count is already over 100 million.

Yes, 100 million users!

Their formula for maximized user growth and engagement has evolved over the years, in part through testing and tweaking of every part of their games. Let's take a close look at this.

zynga facebook games psychology analysis

Formula to success

In a very interesting post Kevin Rose analyzed the first couple of levels of CityVille. This offers a good view on the various techniques the game uses to hook users into it and make it spread like hotcakes.
  • Goals: give to user a clear goal. Example: build a road
  • Rewards: on completion of the goal the user is rewarded. Example: extra coins or a new level
  • Share: the user can then show of this reward for his friends on Facebook by posting it on his wall or their wall.
  • Cross promotion: with all the users playing other Facebook games by Zynga, they offered extra rewards in both games if you started playing this game. 
  • Encouraged collaboration: previous games already meant that the more you friends you managed to get playing with you, the faster you could advance through the game. In this game it has been brought to a new level, making bringing new friends key to advancing quickly.
For an intro into gamification, sprinkling psychological tricks onto boring things to make them fun, check out this post.

Finding your formula

You are probably no game designer, but you can learn something else from Zynga about user engagement.

Let us take a look how they found their formula.
  • They have developed 13 games with 1 million users or more
In the four years they have been around, they have plenty of experience and success with their Facebook games. The core of their success is the game, reward and share system. It has been present in most other of their Facebook games. And they paid close attention to see which parts worked best and which didn't.
  • They almost have 300 million monthly active users (if a user plays two games of them, he counts as 2)
This huge user base allows you to try some things out. I suspect massive A/B testing of all possible elements.

Getting the social gaming engine running as smooth as possible and removing all bumps. It is what game designers do. But it is also what companies intend if they want to use their website to make sales.

Optimizing landing pages so they convert best, finding copy that sells more, see how colors influence spending, what if we would put a video instead of this block of text, etc. And every single one of these techniques aims to increase user engagement.

The Part where the Money comes in Play

At Zynga all this optimizing tries to convince users to do three things: enter in affiliate programs, click on advertising or convert real money into virtual currency for their Facebook games.

Their games can becoming addictive easily. And matching psychological tricks with addiction is where business turns into a bit a gray zone.

Justin Herrick had some nice views in the comment section of the article above:
Their periodic emails to ensure you have "got your free daily reward" is a classic example of enticement and entrapment. There is a certain 'vegas slot machine' feeling to how the game behaves when you are collecting from your whole city. Things flash, everything makes funs sounds, meters are going off. It gives the sense of hitting the jackpot. 
Having played many games and designed a few, I cannot help but feel that this game was built more to be an engine of addiction than a video game. Obviously it was, it was built to bring in the most money possible and they are doing a good job at that.
So can you use these psychological tricks from social gaming to hook customers into your campaigns, or get to to engage deeper with your site?

There are a couple of guidelines that I think offer a good way to check if you are still on the right track:
Are people aware where they are being guided? 
Would they come to the same conclusion if they had the same knowledge than you on these psychological tools? 
If you use these elements, you will know if you are doing dodgy things. Changing a button color to improve conversion rates isn't one of them.

So I'm sure there are plenty of things you can improve to make your marketing more engaging!

Please post in the comments everything you have related to social gaming, psychological tricks, massive A/B testing or engines of addiction!

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  1. good topic. a year ago i started playing mafia wars on fb for some time. not because i had the need to test something, just for fun. i really was astonished by the quickness the game cought me into it(self). after a couple of days i realized the game forced me to think about unfinished task, unique weapons, next levels and so on. such an idiotically easy game system i thought. but that's the thing. it's totally simple (for absolutely everyone) and it is very well designed. and by that i don't mean only graphics but especially the guts of the game.
    i wouldnt blame anyone of creating such kind of games lets say with high addiction level. no-one forces you to play it. on the other hand i agree that these games are not primarily intended to entertain people but to increase the number of preferably addicted players which means higher sales.

  2. Thanks for commenting Jan!

    It is indeed amazing how fast you get sucked into these games.

    I agree that people are free to play or not, but I think it is an interesting point to see how far Zynga can continue this path!

  3. There are other more subtle elements to the way that they are hooking people in that I see as less benign. The social aspect of addiction is one of the main forces that make it harder for an addict to pull away and stay away.
    If I pull all of my friends into Cityville then even when I'm over it I'm lured back in by the need to reciprocate. I'm also a part of an infrastructure where I have people depending on me who have brought me in and moving along as well as those who I have brought in.
    They will continue to play long after I have tried to leave.

    I'm curious how much further they'll push the envelope and how many mental health specialists they have working behind the scenes.

  4. Hey Mani! Appreciate your comment.

    CityVille is supposed to have new ways to pull other people in. I haven't played the game so I don't know how exactly they are different from before. But making it easier and more rewarding to engage friends will no just ensure user growth but, like you say, also keep everyone committed to playing.

    I guess we can call it social pressure.

  5. Or peer pressure? I'm about ready to pull the Zynga plug.