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In Some Virtual Worlds, the Thrill Is Gone

Zynga and other social game developers search for the next FarmVille-scale hit

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.