The games themselves are designed for a more casual user, who might have only five to 10 minutes to play online, rather than dedicated gamers who might play for hours at a time. Along the way, social game designers have to design little hooks in the game to persuade people to spend real money, on improving their virtual farm, for instance.
(A small percentage of users pay to enhance their game play — the primary source of revenue for Zynga — while the vast majority play for free, according to the company.)
Another difference with traditional games, Reynolds said, is that game shops like Zynga East don't just build an online social game and move on to another new one. If the game is successful, Zynga has to maintain a growing staff, as well as technological and design infrastructure to support the millions of online users.
The challenge for Zynga and others is to design a game that becomes a viral hit with online users. Zynga faces competition from other big social gaming companies, such as Playfish and Playdom, and there is speculation that Google might launch an online gaming network.
"There are a ton of these games out there, yet our study showed that there are only a handful that are attracting a meaningful audience," said NPD's Frazier. "So it's hard to break through the clutter of games to attract players' attention."
Over the years, Zynga has introduced more than 40 online games, and has discontinued about a third of them.
FrontierVille, for now, is successful. At the moment, Zynga East has about 30 employees — programmers, designers, producers and analysts — who work exclusively on supporting that game. Another 30 employees work to support the game out of the San Francisco office. Zynga employs a total of more than 1,100 people.
Reynolds said he wants to see the Baltimore area's game development industry get more heavily into online social gaming.
That's already starting to happen at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley. Sid Meier, creative director for Firaxis and one of the co-founders of MicroProse, said his company will soon be coming out with Civilization Network, a Facebook game for its popular Civilization series, which have sold in the millions.
"For some of us, for Brian and myself, it's almost like a return to the good old days, where we did a game in three to six months rather than two years," Meier said. "It's fun to make games for a new platform. It adds new opportunities. It's a really positive development."
Top Zynga games on Facebook
FarmVille: 61.8 million users (launched June 2009)
FrontierVille: 34.9 million users (launched June 2010)
Zynga Poker: 34 million users (launched July 2007)
Mafia Wars: 22.4 million users (launched early 2009)
Source: Zynga Game Network Inc.