Jan 29 2014, 12:47am CST | by Forbes
I get a lot of social media messages from people who are all attempting to sell me on one video game-related cause or another. It might be a new game they’re working on, a freshly debuted Kickstarter, their Dragon Age fan fiction, I see all kinds. But over the past few weeks and months I’ve gotten a lot of people messaging me in an attempt to recognize a campaign to save one of their favorite games, YoVille.
As you may have guessed from the name, YoVille is a Zynga title, or at least it was until they announced that dropping users warranted closing it down for good . Zynga bought YoVille from Tall Tree Games (now Big Viking Games) back in 2008, making it one of their most prominent early purchases. It’s often know as the first successful “Ville” Zynga game, even if it’s overshadowed by FarmVille.
It’s essentially a life simulator, where players can buy virtual items and meet virtual neighbors. It became hugely popular around the Zynga acquisition, and topped out at 19M monthly active users. But recently, the game fell to a mere few hundred thousand, and Zynga put it on the chopping block.
An enormous fan outcry began as the remaining players were the most dedicated the game had, and they didn’t want to lose everything they’d invested in their virtual lives. They threatened Zynga boycotts and made heartfelt YouTube videos pleading their case. Their response got the attention of the original creators of the game, Big Viking, and now there’s a new push to buy back the title from Zynga, rather than having it be killed outright. It’s usually Zynga buying games from others, not the other way around, so it’s a curious case.
I was interested in what Big Viking thought they could do with YoVille by reacquiring it, so I spoke with the co-founders of the company, Albert Lai and Greg Thompson. Lai is CEO of Big Viking while Thompson is YoVille’s original creator. Here’s what each had to say about the potential acquisition.
Forbes: Are there any details you can share about the potential deal with Zynga, or have those negotiations not started yet?
Albert: We initiated contact on the day that Zynga announced that it was shutting down. I reached out to Mark Pincus to see if they were open to the possibility of us buying back YoVille. We have had multiple interactions to date to understand our options.
What inspired you to try and buy YoVille back for yourselves once Zynga said they were shutting it down? What do you think Big Viking to do aid the growth of a game Zynga thought to be in decline?
Albert: On day one of the shutdown, there was a massive outpouring of support from the YoVille community asking if we could buy back the game. We got bombarded over the first 24 hours of the announcement from thousands of YoVille fans.
We’re encouraged by our early responses from the Zynga team, as it would seem that their leadership team have shown an appreciation of what this game means for its fans and the outpouring of support from the community. They seem to understand how this could potentially be a three way win for Zynga, Big Viking Games, and YoVille fans. For a large company, Mark Pincus and the management team responded surprisingly quickly and positively to our request, and I think that their leadership team appears to appreciate what the YoVille fans are hoping for and how something could potentially be setup to allow for a positive outcome for all parties. We are of course still in the early stages of our dialog, but we are as my co-founder Greg likes to put it: “cautiously optimistic” about a positive outcome.
Greg: We didn’t set out to acquire YoVille back from Zynga when we heard that YoVille was being shut down. It was through the massive reaction and support from the community to take YoVille over that lead to the decision that it’s something we were willing to do.
Our initial focus for YoVille will not be to grow it back to where it once was. The primary focus will be on re-enabling features that have been disabled over time, and get the game to a stable state where the community is happy. After we accomplish that, we will look to invest in areas that we believe will not only stop the decline, but actually start to grow the game again.
What do you make of the level of dedication of some YoVille fans? Why do you think they seem to care about the game so deeply?
Albert: The interesting thing about to be about YoVille is that its not your typical social game, and is more like a user co-created virtual world. The users have invested years and years into building their virtual world and communities, and have formed strong social relationships with each other that I think transcend a typical MMO due to the context of the game (or ironically, the relatively lack of game-like mechanics inside YoVille and its more pure virtual world bent).
The game has touched and connected people in very deep and profound ways. People have found life partners through YoVille, elderly grandparents log into Yoville to communicate with their children and grandchildren, disabled and homebound folks took to YoVille as an important daily outlet. YoVille enabled them to do things they would otherwise never be able to do in real life. Things like the ability to walk around and travel to an amazing number of virtual replicas of real world locations with real world and online friends. For many, YoVille represents an amazing creative and social outlet that is deeply important to them, every day since the game shutdown announcement we have received countless stories of how its transformed their lives for the better.
Greg: This level of dedication and caring is not unique to YoVille alone, but it is the first major case where such a large community of players that have been involved in a virtual world for more than 5 years are suddenly losing everything they have invested time and money into. Many dedicated YoVille players have spent hundreds and even thousands of dollars in a game that they thought would be around until they were ready to move on. Having this investment taken away with nothing to show would be distressing to many people.
In addition to the time and money invested in the game, there have been many friendships built, relationships formed, and even marriages that started though YoVille. It’s more than a game for most players, it’s truly a part of their life.
Would you be able to retain the “YoVille” name if the deal is done, or would you have to rebrand it as it’s no longer a Zynga “Ville” title technically?
Greg: We are not in a position to make any comment on that right now.
Can you say anything about what you would change with YoVille if you did acquire it? What about what you’d leave the same? Do you think that Zynga made changes to the game that hurt its chances to thrive, perhaps changes you’d undo?
Greg: We don’t believe we are the YoVille experts. We believe the best people to recommend the changes that should happen to YoVille are the players and dedicated fans. If a sale were to happen, we would reach out to the community and let their voice be heard.
That being said, we receive lists of recommended changes on a daily basis. Players definitely wants to see events added back into the game, but beyond that, we believe getting direct feedback is the best route to go.
Albert: If we were to be successful in acquiring YoVille, it would obviously be a larger part of our business than it was for Zynga. We’re confident that we can provide a bit more TLC than the players had previously experience as it would represent a material part of our overall business.
There’s nothing official to announce as Big Viking continues to talk to Zynga, but fans are assuredly watching like hawks in the hopes that their game might live on. More on this as it develops, and thanks to Albert and Greg for speaking with me.
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