Online games company Zynga is planning to raise $1 billion by selling a small portion of its shares in an IPO that is expected to occur before the end of the year. That could make Zynga one of the world’s most valuable video-game companies, just four years after its founding. How did CEO Mark Pincus do it? Somewhat counterintuitively, Zynga mastered the art of making games you don’t mind turning off after just five or 10 minutes.
Because a game like Zynga’s smash hit FarmVille, which lets players grow crops and construct buildings on a virtual farm, is fun to play just a few minutes at a time, users are more likely to come back—again and again and again. “I don’t like it when I find out that people are averaging long session times in any of our games,” Pincus told Technology Review in 2010—before Zynga filed for its IPO and went into the “quiet period” that limits what it can say publicly. “All of the newer games that we bring out are trying to reduce those session times. Because one of the biggest reasons people don’t play games is they say that they don’t have the time.”
The previously unpublished interview, along with an analysis of Zynga’s regulatory filings, helps explain the insight at the core of Zynga’s success. As widely noted, Zynga has gotten big by letting people play FarmVille and other simple games on Facebook for free and then charging for “virtual goods” that help them to advance through a game, such as high-yield seeds for their farm. Many game companies have adopted this so-called freemium business model, but what makes Zynga stand out is its success in mining an aspect of behavioral psychology: playing in shorter bursts can be more addictive in the long run.
Unlike companies that spend years crafting elaborate, $60 video games whose stories rival or even exceed movies in their complexity, and which are designed to be played for hours on end, a Zynga game generally asks players to perform quick activities: click here to plow a field in FarmVille; click here to fight a rival in Mafia Wars. The games are also meant to be conversation starters: you are encouraged to invite your Facebook friends to play with you and team up on various tasks, though you don’t all have to be online at the same time for it to work. At nearly any given time, if you stop playing, it’s easy to pick up where you left off. In fact, Zynga’s games sometimes give you cues that it’s fine to stop—for example, by telling you that some plot of farmland won’t be ready to harvest for a few more hours.
By making it easy for its games to be consumed in sociable, nugget-sized increments, Zynga hopes to get you so accustomed to popping them into your days that eventually, you’ll have no problem spending real money to enhance the experience. For example, to speed your passage through Pioneer Trail, a Western exploration game, Zynga will sell you 75 horseshoes for $6. “I buy lots of horseshoes,” says Becky Volz, a third-grade teacher in Virginia, who plays several Zynga games with friends on Facebook.
Volz is in many ways the ideal Zynga customer. She’ll often check in for a bit in the morning to make a few clicks that advance her through a game. Then she puts it aside for the day (Facebook is blocked at her school) and resumes in the late afternoon by checking for any messages from fellow players. She’ll do it again before bed. Add up these sessions, and she estimates that she spends three to four hours a day clicking her way through the games. “It is very habit-forming,” she says with a big laugh.