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Article from SFGate.

“Just a few weeks after “Mafia Wars 2” went live on Facebook, Din Shlomi got tired of playing the game.

A self-described hard-core gamer from northern Israel, he spent years playing the original “Mafia Wars,” building a virtual criminal empire and fighting online gang wars. But Shlomi says the sequel – launched to great fanfare – has too many bugs (some missions couldn’t be completed) and he ran out of challenges at a certain point.

“Like every Zynga game, it can be very addicting,” Shlomi says, “but once you hit level 50 there was nothing to do. It was literally like hitting a ceiling.”

Two years after Zynga’s “FarmVille” enticed millions of Facebook users to plant fields of digital crops, social gaming has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar industry. The San Francisco startup is weeks away from an initial public offering in which it hopes to raise $1 billion.

While expectations for the social game market remain robust – it will generate $14.2 billion in revenue in 2015, up from $6.1 billion this year, estimates Lazard Capital Markets – the business is experiencing its first growing pains. Hundreds of developers now compete for the clicks of online gamers who are spending shorter periods of time immersed in each game.

To stand out, Zynga and others spend several million dollars developing titles and millions more marketing them, which increasingly puts a squeeze on profit margins. And hits are harder to come by.

“The economics just aren’t what they used to be,” says Josh Williams, president and chief science officer at Kontagent, a consultant on social games.

“The cost of customer acquisition is going up, and that means there is going to be pressure on margins,” says Atul Bagga, an analyst with Lazard.

Slipping profits

Although Zynga continues to enjoy high-speed growth – revenue was up 80 percent in the third quarter, to $306.8 million – profit fell 54 percent, to $12.5 million, from the same period a year earlier.

“Mafia Wars 2” had all the makings of a blockbuster. Its development team, which grew to 80 people, worked for nearly a year on the game, heralded in an October media launch at the company’s new Townsend Street headquarters. (The lobby contains a 1970s Winnebago and a tunnel lit with color-pulsing LED tubes.) The game peaked at more than 2.5 million daily active users in October. Since early November, the virtual organized crime adventure has shed more than 900,000 players, according to research firm AppData.

Sales of “Mafia Wars 2” have not met the company’s own expectations, according to people inside the company who were not authorized to speak on the record. Executives are second-guessing one another about what went wrong. Zynga declined to make Chief Executive Officer Mark Pincus or other senior executives available for comment, citing the company’s quiet period before the IPO.

“I think they are learning that the sequel doesn’t work,” says Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities.

The number of daily active users in a game is a critical metric of its profitability, according to Pachter, because daily users are more likely to spend on virtual items such as machine guns and shields. “The more frequently they come back, the more likely they are to pay.”

Less than 10 percent of “Mafia Wars 2” players are playing every day, far below Zynga’s 20 percent average for most games, Pachter says. The drop-off may stem from players becoming bored with the same old thing.

“All the old ‘Mafia Wars’ guys who finished everything you could do came over here and said, ‘This is the same game with different missions.’ They are already tired of it, so they are dropping off,” Pachter says. “I think it’s a good case study for what can go wrong.”

Keeping the numbers up means more marketing, and the expenditures don’t always pay immediate dividends. A prime example is Redwood City game developer Electronic Arts, which has pushed to become Zynga’s closest rival. EA found its first major social gaming success with “Sims Social,” a Facebook version of the company’s popular real-world simulator.

Pushing for daily users

Since the title’s release in August, it has attracted 33 million users, with 19 percent of players returning each day. “Sims Social” has become the second most popular game on Facebook after “CityVille.” Yet EA has spent so much money aggressively marketing the game to millions of Facebook users that it is not yet profitable, according to a person close to the company.

Typically, software makers get about 40 percent to 70 percent of their players through ads, and spend between 25 cents to $1.50 for each of those users, according to Kontagent’s Williams. For a game like “Sims Social,” which has reached more than 10 million daily users, EA may have spent at least $10 million on marketing, he says.

Saturating the market with ads is crucial to attracting a wide audience, says Kontagent’s Williams. The strategy, however, squeezes margins and makes it harder to profit from the game over the long term.

“I would estimate that only about 30 percent of social games whose developers are spending money on advertising are hitting a positive return on investment,” says Hussein Fazal, CEO of AdParlor, a consultant on Facebook advertising campaigns.”

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Article from GigaOm.

“In some cases, cloud computing is merely a means to avoid investing in “undifferentiated heavy lifting,” but when done right, it actually can be a source of significant competitive advantage. So says Zynga, at least, which highlighted its unique cloud infrastructure, as well as its advanced analytics efforts, as part of its core strengths in the S-1 statementit filed this morning.

According to the form, Zynga views its “scalable technology infrastructure” as a core strength, stating, “We have created a scalable cloud-based server and network infrastructure that enables us to deliver games to millions of players simultaneously with high levels of performance and reliability.” In describing its cloud infrastructure as an important aspect of its business, Zynga’s S-1 says:

Our physical network infrastructure utilizes a mixture of our own datacenters and public cloud datacenters linked with high-speed networking. We utilize commodity hardware, and our architecture is designed for high availability and fault tolerance while accommodating the demands of social game play.

We have developed our architecture to work effectively in a flexible cloud environment that has a high degree of elasticity. For example, our automatic provisioning tools have enabled us to add up to 1,000 servers in a 24-hour period in response to game demand. We operate at a scale that routinely delivers more than one petabyte of content per day. We intend to invest in and use more of our own infrastructure going forward, which we believe will provide us with an even better cost profile and position us to further drive operating leverage.

Zynga has been touting its Z Cloud infrastructure for more than a year, which reverses the conventional approach to hybrid cloud computing. Whereas many analysts initially assumed companies would use private clouds as a gateway to public clouds, Zynga uses Amazon EC2 as a staging ground before ultimately moving games onto private cloud resources. Essentially, Amazon’s cloud lets Zynga scale elastically and determine average traffic load and other metrics, so that it can optimize its internal infrastructure for each game’s specific needs.

The goal of this strategy is efficiency: Zynga doesn’t have to invest in more resources than necessary upfront, nor does it have to worry about underprovisioning resources or otherwise inadequately configuring them when it brings games onto its private cloud. In many cases, private clouds can cost less than public clouds for applications with fairly stable usage patterns, and they help companies meet various requirements around security and compliance. Zynga uses Cloud.com for its private cloud infrastructure, as well as RightScale as a management layer that makes for a uniform experience in terms of managing both public and private resources.

As is the case with every leading web company, Zynga also highlights its big data strategy as a key differentiator. Describing its “sophisticated data analytics,” the S-1 notes, “The extensive engagement of our players provides over 15 terabytes of game data per day that we use to enhance our games by designing, testing and releasing new features on an ongoing basis. We believe that combining data analytics with creative game design enables us to create a superior player experience.”

Cloud computing and advanced analytics are double-edged swords, though. As Zynga’s S-1 acknowledges, relying on publicly hosted cloud computing resources makes it vulnerable to service outages like Amazon Web Services’ infamous April 2011 outage, which temporarily downed both FarmVille and CityVille. “If a particular game is unavailable when players attempt to access it or navigation through a game is slower than they expect, players may stop playing the game and may be less likely to return to the game as often, if at all,” the form states.

Relying on advanced infrastructures and analytics also means competing with companies such as Facebook, Google and others for employees skilled enough to keep Zynga’s operations on the cutting edge. Specifically, the company acknowledges, “game designers, product managers and engineers” are in high demand, making attracting and retaining them a resource-intensive process. In some cases, this has meant offering particularly attractive employees lucrative stock options, which could come back to bite the company. As it notes in the S-1, “[W]e expect that this [IPO] will create disparities in wealth among our employees, which may harm our culture and relations among employees.”

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Article from SFGate.

“There’s been a lot of talk about San Francisco’s Zynga, the hot developer of the popular online games FarmVille and CityVille, going public.

Now comes a new report from eMarketer that predicts the social gaming market will surpass $1 billion this year, as online advertisement spending increases.

It calculates that nearly 62 million Internet users, or 27 percent of the online audience, will play at least one game on a social network monthly this year, up from 53 million last year.

Much of social gaming revenues, about 60 percent, come from virtual goods — special glow-in-the-dark cows and the like that players can buy for small change. They quickly add up — to an estimated $653 million this year.

Marketers are expected to pump more dollars into online advertisements, spending $192 million, up 60 percent over last year.”

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