ADOTAS – The virtual city came to the real one last night — and it brought along the virtual farm, the virtual frontier and the virtual mafia. Social gaming kingpin Zynga held a colorful cocktail party in SoHo celebrating the success of its cadre of social games — including the immensely popular FarmVille and CityVille as well as Mafia Wars — and introducing newer offerings such as loyalty program RewardVille.
Different corners of the space were mocked up as Zynga games — opposite a game of horseshoes outside a cardboard Zynga saloon from FrontierVille was a hanging vegetable garden a la FarmVille that boasted shelves holding iPads, giving attendees the chance to plant some virtual crops of their own. Indeed, Apple devices loaded with Zynga games appeared to be in abundance. Also in the FarmVille corner was a “farmer’s” cheese and bread stand, and the nearby bar boasted a thematic veggie-puree shooter, which I didn’t have the stones to try out (pulpy green drinks scare me).
A walk across the streets of CityVille — complete with a real… mailbox… — brought you to a card table where Zynga offered hands of virtual poker. There is something sort of surreal about people using a poker table to play the game via hooked-up laptops. On the other side of the party, several guests ignored their drinks and hunched over iPads, completely absorbed by Scrabble-esque Words With Friends — a game Zynga picked up with the acquisition of Newtoy in December.
Up a staircase drenched with fake money sacks, mafioso types in slick suits (well, classic mafioso types — I live in a neighborhood with mob presence and they don’t dress so nice anymore) leered at partygoers wandering to the bar to order drinks from local caterer Cuffs & Buttons that were inspired by Mafia Wars. I tried a Real McCoy — a surprisingly strong and tasty cocktail with gin, vodka and bitters — felt a little giddy, and concluded that I am a lightweight; only Fake McCoys for me in the future.
Across from charming framed portraits of characters from the game, I chatted with Mafia Wars general manager Bill Mooney about brand-sponsored campaigns within Zynga games. In particular, crime films like “Public Enemies” and the recently released “Green Hornet” have had quite successful tie-ins with Mafia Wars.
For brands looking to be innovative in their marketing, sponsored social gaming campaigns can be mutually beneficial to both advertisers and gamekeepers, Mooney said, citing the FarmVille campaign with Cascadian Farms. The key to truly engaging the consumers is to make sure the campaign “stays in the fiction,” he said — that is, the brand tie-in is completely integrated into gameplay.
While the company’s success with major brands such as McDonalds have encouraged Zynga to keep looking up the brand ladder, Mooney mentioned that it had played around with sponsorship efforts from smaller brands.
Sponsored campaigns are a bit different for Mafia Wars as many brands are understandably wary of being associated with organized crime, but celebrities, on the other hand, are really into it. Take Snoop Dogg, who is kind of a huge brand in himself — 2 million users streamed the Doggfather blowing up a four-ton armored truck in the desert to mark Mafia Wars: Las Vegas reaching 10 million players.
“Half the fun of these games is playing other people,” he said, using the example of challenging friends to video games at an arcade. “Knowing the people that you’re playing makes it much more engaging.”
Finally, I stopped at RewardVille, Zynga’s loyalty program it launched last week at the South by Southwest digital conference. Users can earn Zynga points and coins across Zynga’s network of games that can be traded in for exclusive virtual goods for all its games. Players are also able to give these as gifts to other Zynga users. In addition, users can unlock secret levels and other easter eggs.
The representatives were quick to note that they are nothing like Facebook Credits and players will not be able to buy them. For one night only, RewardVille was actually giving out real gifts — I brought home some FarmVille-inspired orange marmalade.
Though its games are primarily played through Facebook, Zynga’s own social ecosystem seems to be thriving, and a loyalty program RewardVille will no doubt fuel its growth. Still a private company, Zynga’s valuation on the secondary markets goes as high as $10 billion — an IPO is rumored for 2012. Certainly last night’s soiree showed why Zynga is at the forefront of the social gaming sector — and also why brands should consider social gaming as a digital channel.
Oh yeah — you guys want some pics, right? Sorry about the quality — I only had my iPhone on me last night.