Can ‘FarmVille 2’ help revive Zynga’s crop of social games?

Zynga wants to harvest a bumper crop of new players and revive its withering profit with its latest social game, “FarmVille 2,” set to debut on Facebook Wednesday.

Dubbed as a prime example of a “next-generation” social game, “FarmVille 2" represents Zynga’s answer to its critics who say the company failed to innovate fast enough to keep up with the growing expectations of social gamers on Facebook, the Web and other connected platforms.

Aside from its name, “FarmVille 2" has little in common with the original “FarmVille” that vaulted Zynga into mainstream consciousness after it launched in 2009.

While the harvesting theme remains, there are no coins that come bursting out of every click in “FarmVille 2.” The original game’s two-dimensional artwork yields to three-dimensional graphics in the second version. Quests in the new game are less about rescuing lonely livestock and more about building an empire out of the wreckage of a neglected family farm.

“This is a complete re-imagining of the franchise,” said Wright Bagwell, vice president of design for the San Francisco social gaming giant.


The differences are partly by design -- if the two titles were too similar, Zynga would risk cannibalizing its own games. Though “FarmVille” has just 3.2 million players a day, one-tenth of its audience peak, many of those players are devoted, long-term fans who tend to spend more money on virtual items for the game than the average Zynga customer. As a result, keeping those handful of players happy by maintaining the old version remains important for Zynga.

The new game “was not intended to replace ‘FarmVille.’ Our goal was to create a game that was completely different than what’s already out there,” said Tim LeTourneau, Zynga’s vice president of games. “But ‘FarmVille’ is still a thriving game, and we’ll continue to support it for as long as people want to play it.”

The debut of “FarmVille 2" comes at a difficult time for Zynga. Once a magnet for investors and talent, the company has hemorraghed top executives in the last six months -- losing its chief creative officer, chief operating officer, along with a number of studio vice presidents and general managers.

Investors are also unhappy with the company, pushing down Zynga’s stock price from its $10 a share debut on the Nasdaq in December to a low of $2.70 on Aug. 2. It gained 3 cents to close at $2.83 on Tuesday.

In addition, the company is beset by a number of lawsuits, including one filed by its chief rival, Electronic Arts, alleging that Zynga’s “The Ville” ripped off EA’s “The Sims Social.” Zynga also faces a lawsuit from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., claiming that Zynga’s “FrontierVille” was blatantly similar to Houghton’s “Oregon Trail” game franchise.

Some analysts are skeptical that “FarmVille 2" will be groundbreaking enough to restore Zynga’s luster and lift its bottom line. Part of the criticism is that players have tired of its games.

“The problem with Zynga is they seem to have quickly hit the saturation danger point, when too many essentially similar titles in essentially similar genres generate decreasing returns,” David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a market research firm focused on the games industry, wrote in a recent analysis of Zynga’s business model. “A ‘FarmVille’ begets a ‘CityVille’ begets a ‘FrontierVille,’ but the attachment consumers form with each succeeding and similar game is weaker and shorter in duration.”

Cole remains unconvinced by “FarmVille 2.”

“I am having a hard time seeing exactly what is next-generation about it,” Cole said. “There are dozens of farming and cooking games with very similar features.”


Zynga shares fall 41% on earnings miss

Zynga’s chief operating officer plays it safe

Zynga games tap into the dynamics of human relationships

Follow Alex Pham on Twitter.