The making of Zynga’s Cafe World, the fastest growing social game in history

cafe-3When Cafe World debuted on Facebook on Sept. 30, it lit up the social network immediately. The title, a simple simulation where you make food and run a restaurant, took off faster than any other social game in history.

In its first seven days, it got more than eight million users. That’s a faster growth rate than Zynga saw for its FarmVille game, which now has more than 56 million monthly active users. Now Cafe World has topped 15 million users (source: AppData) and it has helped boost Zynga’s presence on Facebook to more than 148 million monthly active users. It’s clear that Zynga is now reaching a mass market through Facebook, and that reach is going to be very hard for its rivals to duplicate.

royThese numbers are unheard of and they raise a lot of questions. How does Zynga do it? Will it last? Is the game really that good, or is it spreading rapidly because Zynga can cross promote it to so many of its other game users?

We put those questions to Roy Sehgal (right), general manager of Club Studio, the new Zynga game design studio that built Cafe World in just five months. Sehgal didn’t reveal the secret sauce, or playbook, behind the game. But his answers are quite relevant to anyone trying to knock Zynga off its perch as the top company in social games.

Sehgal, a former casual games creator at MTV Networks, joined San Francisco-based Zynga in April. Back then, the company had less than 200 employees. Now it has more than 500, counting about 100 contractors. Sehgal led a team that conceptualized how to go after the category of food/restaurant-themed game. The team included producers, product managers, artists and programmers — all from a variety of backgrounds, not just video games. Sehgal himself considered himself to be a “web guy, not a game guy.”

Of course, the team didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Rival social game maker Playfish had pioneered the food genre on Facebook with a game called Restaurant City. From one view, it certainly looks like Zynga just cloned the Playfish game.

cafe-4But Sehgal says that the game really has a different game mechanic at its core. Sehgal describes his title as an “ultimate cooking and restaurant empire building game.” The player actively participates in cooking dishes for the restaurant and does so in a social way. You select a dish, buy the ingredients for it, and then cook it over a period of time. You return to the game when the cooking is done and serve it to the customers. It just takes minutes a day.

“A clone of Restaurant City?” said Sehgal. “Not at all. I would compare it to Diner Dash or Cooking Mama. It’s about cooking and running a restaurant, while Restaurant City is built around a trading mechanic. These games are only related on the surface as food-related games.”

The Club Studio team polished the game for five months. Normally, console games take a couple of years and $10 million to develop. But this kind of game resembles a mobile game, where the timeline is much shorter. Zynga typically spends three to six months on its games. So Cafe World had more time to cook than usual.

From the start, the team created playable prototypes so that they could constantly judge whether their ideas were working out. They focused on doing quality 3-D graphics, which is something that a lot of Facebook games are missing. And while this team as a whole had not worked on a game together before, they did have the benefit of learning from the wisdom of games such as Mafia Wars, poker, and FarmVille. In the game, players climb a ladder of achievements, always striving to get from one level to the next. The more you play, the more dishes you can unlock and then cook.

cafe-2Beyond making the game, the team designed “virality” into the game. This is another trick from the Zynga playbook (which is apparently quite a valuable document; Zynga is suing Playdom for hiring three former Zynga employees who allegedly brought a “Zynga playbook” with them to Playdom). There are ways to get your friends to tap their friends. And they designed “engagement” into the game, meaning that they figured out you had to return to the game every day so that you could tend to your cooking dish. Another part of the success, which Zynga doesn’t talk about, is how it can rapidly add server capacity to handle a sudden rush of signups for its games.

Zynga also designed a way to make money in the game. You can earn virtual currency known as coins by running a successful cafe. You can spend those coins on dishes that you buy from others. But you can also use real money to buy Cafe coins that you can use to decorate your restaurant with a French or Indian motif.

The game was released on Sept. 30 among Zynga’s employees. It went viral like a rocket ship. Now, on any given day, 6.5 million users are playing it. Zynga cross-promoted the game to its other game users. That’s an element of its advantage, but the huge growth wasn’t due only to the promotion, Seghal said. The level of promotion was no more or less than usual, he added.

Certainly, Facebook users are a sharing bunch. They love to share what they’re doing with others and they don’t mind spending money on their games. That’s the advantage that Facebook app makers have over those who focus on other platforms such as the iPhone.

To keep the game going, Zynga is releasing new features and assets for the game several times a week. Sehgal told the team that 20 percent of the effort was building the game and 80 percent is operating the game as an ongoing service. He said that Zynga’s support people stay engaged with users, who offer real-time feedback. That feedback is a source of inspiration for future feature upgrades.

cafe-5Traditional game makers have no such relationship with their users. That’s because their games are sold by retailers, who keep the customer information and don’t share anything meaningful with the game publishers. Zynga, by contrast, can tweak its games, analyze the results, and make more changes.

Is this a fad? Sehgal lived through the Internet bubble and its crash in the 1999-2001 time frame. He thinks that the over-hyped dotcom market, as well as the mobile gaming hype a few years ago, is far different from social games today. This time, it’s clear that users are engaged.

The lifespan of Zynga games — Mafia Wars, FarmVille, and poker — suggest that these games are more like massively multiplayer online games, which develop loyal fan bases who play the games for a long time as a way to socialize with their friends. Zynga’s games don’t have endings — they’re made to be played for as long as people stay interested.

Zynga isn’t saying much about the exact profile of its users. But since Facebook has more than 300 million members worldwide, it’s clear that the users are mass market gamers, not hardcore console gamers. The success with these mass market gamers is encouraging because it shows that games are becoming an essential part of mainstream life.

“It’s part of a daily habit,” Sehgal said. “We know that people are playing these games every day. And a lot of us find that we can play these games with our parents.”

Ultimately, Sehgal credits the team’s focus on quality for Cafe World’s success. To get more than 15 million users, a game really has to be fun. Now the pressure is on the other teams at Zynga to keep the hot streak going. “We’ve just reset our expectations for a successful game,” Seghal said.


YouMail for iPhone Gets Push Voicemail Transcriptions [Updates]

iPhone: YouMail, the custom voicemail service, has updated its iPhone application to offer push notifications of new messages, folder-organized voicemail saving, a handset/speaker switch, and many more improvements for the webapp that transcribes and saves your voicemail to the web.

The main visual change in YouMail 1.5 is a ribbon across the bottom of each voicemail message that offers play, pause, store, and reply actions. In keeping with iPhone apps released since, well, the beginning, you can now delete messages with a swipe and tap, and refresh your voicemail list with a shake. The big news, of course, is that YouMail will ping your iPhone home screen when a new voicemail arrives.

Intrigued by YouMail's transcription and custom voicemail offerings? Check out our transcription test-drive. YouMail is a free download for iPhones running at least 3.0 firmware; plans offering transcription range from free-but-limited to $6.99 per month.



Want To Get In On The Novafora-Transmeta Fire Sale?

Novafora, which acquired low power chip company Transmeta in late 2008, is out of business. And all that Transmeta x86 code morphing source code, build servers, documentation and prototypes are for sale. There are some complications to the deal, but this is a potential opportunity for a large chip company to get their hands on some key emulation technology.

All the details are at novafora-transmeta.com (but note you have to register on the site and agree to an NDA to get access to the information. Bids for the technology must be received by October 30, 2009.

Disclosure – Keith Teare, who has been part of TechCrunch since the beginning, is aiding Novafora in the transaction. TechCrunch has no direct financial interest in any of this. We’re just hoping the technology finds a useful home.

From the site:

Highlights
For Sale by 30 October 2009

This site is under development. Final content may not be in place until the week of the bidding. Please return and check for changes. If you intend bidding please contact us to enable your due diligence.

All assets of:

Novafora Inc
Transmeta LLC
To include:

All Novafora and Transmeta Assets.
All future revenues from Transmeta Licenses owned by Novafora Inc. Last quarter revenues of $415,000
All Transmeta file-servers, build servers, prototype hardware, source code and documentation.
Assignment of all Novafora Inc patent filings related to the “Spika” chip
All servers, source code, tools (”reggen” and “publish”) and documentation to Novafora’s “Spika” Chip
Assignment of all Novafora Inc patent filings related to the Video Genome Project
All servers, source code (unfinished) and documentation to Novafora’s Video Genome Project
In all of these cases a buyer will need to determine the extent to which they are able to use the assets described. Read this site carefully as there are clearly legal constraints covering many items. And do not rely on this site to determine usability. Take your own legal and tax advice.

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Taiwanese laptop maker invests in chip design firm Tilera

tileraTilera has raised $10 million in funding from Taiwanese contract manufacturer Quanta Computer in a round that will ultimately total $25 million.

Quanta is the world’s largest contract manufacturer of laptops. San Jose, Calif.-based Tilera makes chips that can be used to make networking equipment more powerful and efficient. The deal is among a number of investments that Quanta plans to make in cloud-computing technology.

Last September, Tilera launched two models of its new TilePro family of chips for telecom and networking infrastructure where energy-efficient performance is paramount. With dozens of processors on a single chip, TilePro is based on the custom Tile architecture that Tilera debuted in 2007.

Tilera’s goal is to establish an alternative processor platform for communications customers. If it succeeds, it will prove that the day of launching new chip architectures isn’t dead, suggesting that there is still room for innovative chip design in a decades-old industry as new computing problems and applications surface.

Tilera is targeting the chips at high-end networking equipment that would otherwise use digital signal processing chips from Texas Instruments.

Anant Agarwal founded the company in 2004 based on his new idea for interconnecting different cores on a single chip. The first chip debuted in 2007 and the new ones have smarter memory. Tilera previously raised $39 million in two rounds of funding. Investors include Bessemer Venture Partners, Columbia Capital, Venture Tech Alliance (TSMC’s venture arm), and Walden Capital Partners.


Announcing The Realtime Board And Our Next CrunchUp on November 20

One of the benefits of covering new technology and startups on a daily basis is that you can see trends as they begin to swell and repeat themselves. One shift we’ve been keeping a very close eye on is the rise of realtime streams, and how they are fundamentally altering the way we communicate and interact with one another.

We are not the only ones who think this is a big deal. Back in July, TechCrunchIT editor Steve Gillmor and I organized a Realtime Stream CrunchUp. It was the first major realtime conference (there are a bunch of them now), and the response was overwhelming. It attracted 650 people and ended up as a launchpad for about 20 new realtime products, from Seesmic’s Web client to Pubsubhubbub (PuSH) to Brizzly (read more here).

A lot has happened since then: Facebook bought FriendFeed, Twitter raised $100 million, Google Wave launched in private beta. So Steve and I thought it would be a good time for another Realtime CrunchUp. The next one will be an all-day-event on November 20 in San Francisco. I don’t want to give away too many details just yet, but mark your calendars, and we’ll start to release tickets next week.

For our first event we simply wanted to establish that the realtime phenomenon is in fact real and spreading widely beyond just Twitter. There is no question about that now. The next Realtime CrunchUp will take a deeper dive into where these streams are taking us. But here is what I’m really excited about. To help us think through these issues and guide us as we put together the themes, panels and people for our November Realtime CrunchUp, we have assembled a Realtime Board. These are all heavy-hitters making big bets on realtime. The inaugural members of the board are:

Marc Benioff, CEO and founder Salesforce
John Borthwick, founder/investor betaworks
Paul Buchheit, founder FriendFeed
Lili Cheng, GM of FUSE Labs, Microsoft
Ron Conway, angel investor
Chris Cox, VP of Product, Facebook

Borthwick and Conway are the preeminent investors in realtime startups today. Benioff is leading the charge to bring realtime social streams into the enterprise. Cox oversees all products at Facebook and is responsible for its heavy emphasis on the stream. He was also instrumental in the recent $50 million purchase of FriendFeed, which Buchheit co-founded. (Buchheit also started Gmail when he was at Google). Cheng was recently named the general manager of Microsoft’s new Future Social Experiences Lab under chief software archietct Ray Ozzie. And that’s just the Bs and Cs. We are tremendously honored to have such a distinguished group give us their time and energy to help shape the realtime debate.

If you want to launch a realtime product at the CrunchUp or have an eye-opening demo, please contact us at realtime [at] techcrunch [dot] com.

The CrunchUp also gives us a great sponsorship platform for start-ups and brands to reach both conference and networking attendees. Please contact Heather Harde to learn more about sponsorship packages and custom opportunities.

Stay tuned for more details soon!

(Photo by Marc Salsberry)

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