GDC 2011: Zynga's Skaggs On How The Company Achieved The Impossible

Zynga's Mark Skaggs explains how the company did the "impossible", from FarmVille to CityVille -- by starting with a "minimum viable product" and focusing on getting to market quickly, among other strategies.
How did Zynga conquer the Facebook space? By believing in the impossible, says product development VP Mark Skaggs. Many times over the course of the company's growth it's been faced with what looked like unattainable goals -- what's the secret? Skaggs was at the 2011 Game Developer's Conference to illustrate the company's growth process from the launch of its transformative FarmVille to its current peak with CityVille, the most popular game on Facebook. Like many who work in the social space, Skaggs came from the core RTS space, working in the traditional games industry since 1993 with games like Red Alert 2, Command and Conquer: Generals and "what I still think is the most luscious, gorgeous RTS game" Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth. It was in those spheres he said he gained experience in "doing the impossible" -- he says the Red Alert 2 team was largely inexperienced developers, many on their first project ever, given nine months to ship a game. But they did -- and sold a million copies in the first 45 days and over 3 million copies to date. The C&C Generals team was even less experienced, Skaggs said, and yet sold 7 million copies in its lifetime. FarmVille's origins were similarly humble and desperate. At the time it was conceived, Zynga was relatively small, with only a couple hundred employees. Mafia Wars, Zynga's most popular title back then, had a million daily active unique users -- "and that was big," Skaggs points out. The company also had YoVille and Zynga Poker then. Since Skaggs had his background in the RTS world, the initial goal was to make a medieval-themed RTS. But they struggled for ideas, challenged by the Flash environment on Facebook: "We were in a design limbo," he says. That's when veteran Bing Gordon, who long served as an Electronic Arts exec, threw out an idea: "He said, 'hey, why don't you just make a farm game?'" Skaggs recalled. And it didn't seem like that much of a stretch -- farming involved resource collection and management just like any RTS, so Zynga decided to give it a shot. "We all had something to prove -- so we just did it," Skaggs says. The team employed a philosophy of developing the game as minimally as possible, with no excess of resources and only enough content and work to make FarmVille shippable. Skaggs calls it "fast, light and right... we tried to only do the minimum viable product, the right things to get that product out the door as fast as possible." Part of the key to moving quickly was the fact the team had a single, strong voice in Skaggs, he says. "We had a super-passionate team and we were on a mission to create a great farm game, and later to create the number-one Facebook game." "We didn't design anything that the player didn't see on screen or didn't interact with with the game," he says. The aim was to come to market as quickly as possible, the better to learn the Facebook space. In a rush, they borrowed resources and personnel from other departments in the company -- that's why FarmVille's avatars are the same as YoVille's. The "critical" decision was to put the game "in the cloud." Zynga had been running all its own servers for Mafia Wars and was taxed of space and power. So about a month ahead of launch, realizing that there was little capacity, the team decided to use some prototypical cloud technology: "Thank heavens we did," he says. "FarmVille wouldn't have grown as fast as it did." Within the company, there was a "friendly bet". The goal was to deliver 400,000 daily uniques to the company between June 19 and June 30. "Everybody thought that was impossible, because at the time Mafia had been out for a year and it was only at a couple million." "If you can make a million by the end of the month I'll take you to Paris," joked the CFO. FarmVille would go on to hit a million DAUs in 5 days. Everyone ate out at the French Laundry. "We didn't go to Paris, but that's okay, because FarmVille did great. That milestone accomplished, the next "impossible" goal was to sustain growth. FarmVille would go on to reach 32.5 million DAU. Line those people up holding hands three feet apart and you'd go back and forth from New York to San Francisco 6.36 times. The company was glad of the cloud decision then, to be certain. But wouldn't it be impossible to top that? Zynga thought so, but decided to go for it with CityVille. He said there was a "radical" difference in terms of the team's focus on quality; the minimalist get-it-out principles were set aside, and the game's development enjoyed full support at every stage from numerous groups within the company. They took the time to establish a feature roadmap, prepare the team for live service, and extensively test and check the entire game, steps to an extent not taken with FarmVille. CityVille would go on to beat FarmVille -- and every other Facebook game ever, surpassing 100 million daily unique users in its first six weeks on the market. But Skaggs stops short of crediting the boom in users to the further quality investment in CityVille. "Should we have done MVP ['minimum viable product' strategy]? We don't know," he muses. Lessons from Zynga's success? Learn the space and its key features and mimic them, Skaggs says. Speed counts: Get to market first. Make sure the game is fun, rather than trying to compensate for weak mechanics with a large volume of content. "Don't try to change the world of social games," he advises. "Focus more on the established reality... copy what works."

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