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An In-depth Look: Playfish

This is part of a series of posts that will take an in-depth look at various games and applications in an effort to examine what has led to their success or, in some cases, failure.

Playfish is a company that has consistently developed successful Facebook applications. While other successful companies such as Zynga and SGN have had both wins and losses, so far all of Playfish’s games have been successful. Combined, Playfish has over 15 million active users every month! They’ve also recently secured $17 million in funding to continue their successful venture into the social gaming scene on Facebook.

How has Playfish consistently developed successful Facebook applications? Let’s take an in-depth look at the games this company has produced in an attempt to figure out just how they’ve done it.

Looking at the Numbers

As of this writing, 5 out of 6 of Playfish’s titles are in the top 30 Facebook applications for the most Monthly Active Users (MAU):

Rank Application Monthly Active Users
22 Pet Society 3,409,366
23 Who Has The Biggest Brain? 3,257,457
27 Word Challenge 3,094,550
28 Bowling Buddies 3,048,313
30 Geo Challenge 2,799,507

Their 6th title, Minigolf Party, was just recently released and therefore hasn’t yet built up a large active user base (currently it only has 5,082 MAU), but be sure to keep your eye on this application to see if it will enjoy the same success as the rest of the Playfish titles.

Attaining Success

Playfish launched their first game, Who Has The Biggest Brain?, in January 2008, which became one of the top-10 applications on Facebook in less than 100 days. Perhaps even more impressively, according to Playfish, Who Has The Biggest Brain? generated “…more than 1 million games played per day, with active users playing for around 25-30 minutes per day.”

Their first three titles, Who Has The Biggest Brain?, Word Challenge and Bowling Buddies all attained success on their own, however, their next titles, Pet Society and Geo Challenge, may have benefited from a cross-promotion campaign that Playfish launched in August 2008 (they haven’t started cross-promoting Minigolf Party yet, but it will be interesting to see if it benefits from cross-promotion once they do it).

How did these applications become so successful? There isn’t any magic behind their success, but there is certainly a formula that Playfish seems to follow with all of their games:

Fun, Engaging and Real-time, Interactive Gameplay

This is probably one of the primary reasons Playfish has enjoyed so much success with their games–they’re fun to play! Playfish’s games are also Flash-based which allows the user to interact with them in real-time as they would a traditional video game. This differs from some of the other successful games out there such as Mob Wars, which is a text-based game that requires the browser to refresh the page for interaction to take place. Fun and engaging gameplay is a necessary requirement for success, but it certainly isn’t the only factor that determines a games popularity.

High Production Value

Bret on Social Games has argued that high production value isn’t necessary for success, however, there is no denying that Playfish has some of the best looking games on Facebook. While it may not have contributed heavily to their success, high production value certainly didn’t hurt it.

Social Gameplay

This truly is a key ingredient in creating a successful game on Facebook–a platform that is completely social in nature. Building social game play into your games allows them to spread quickly and become viral. A game that is fun and engaging and built around a viral model is an incredibly powerful combination that can lead to a great deal of success in a short amount of time.

One way that Playfish helps spread the word about their games is to make the invitation process as accessible as possible. In nearly all of their games there are at least 3 links to invite your friends to start playing:

Playfish doesn’t just allow you to invite your friends to play their games, they allow you to challenge and taunt your friends to come and try and beat your high scores. For example, when you set the highest score during a week amongst your friends in Who Has the Biggest Brain? you can send a taunt to your friend:

Social Status

Bret on Social Games discussed how social status and leaderboards can help lead to a successful Facebook game and Playfish is certainly utilizing both of these techniques with their applications. In Bowling Buddies, for example, you’re challenged to attain certain achievements such as scoring more than 100 points in a game, getting 5 strikes in one game, keeping your average speed above 40 km/hr, etc. When you attain one of these achievements, you’re rewarded with “Bowling Bucks”–the virtual currency used in Bowling Buddies–as well as a trophy:

Achievements like this also result in a story about your success being published to your friends’ news feeds:

Playfish also incorporates leaderboards into all of their games. By default you see how you compare to your friends, but you can also choose to see what the standings are for all users of that game. Take a look at the friend leaderboard for Who Has the Biggest Brain?:

You may have noticed that there is an image of an animal associated with each of the players shown on the leaderboard–this is another way that Playfish uses the psychological affect of social status in their games. The animal associated with you is supposed to be a representation of the size of your brain. Do you want your friends to know that you have the mental capacity of a goat?

You may have also noticed that Playfish has built invites into their leaderboards, making it easy to invite your friends and challenge them to see, for example, who really has the biggest brain.

Effective Notifications & Feed Stories

Notifications and feed stories are essential for keeping existing users engaged and for acquiring new users. Playfish’s games generate very well thought out notifications that include clear calls to action:

Feed stories are important because they have the potential to introduce your application to new audiences. Playfish’s games, again, generate appropriate feed stories that serve to intrigue new users:

It’s interesting to note that the first Geo Challenge story includes a call to action–“Try now!”–that the other feed stories seem to lack.


While cross-promotion isn’t a necessary requirement for success, if you’ve already built a successsful game, there isn’t any harm in trying to leverage the success of that application to build an audience for your other applications. This seems to be working for Playfish, but not everyone is as successful with cross-promotion as they are.

Sweating the Details

There are few small touches that Playfish adds to their applications that show they are paying attention to the details. One of these touches are splash pages–when you click on a cross-promotion link for one of Playfish’s other games, you’re taken to a well-designed and inviting splash page with a large call to action. Here are two examples from Geo Challenge and Word Challenge:

While this has been discussed in a previous post, it is worth pointing out how Playfish presents their tips for bookmarking their applications and how they highlight how to get started with their applications on the application information page:

Playfish presents a similar tip to bookmark their applications on the loading screen of all their applications.

Playfish uses an arrow like this to point out how to start using their applications.


While Playfish still has yet to turn a profit with their games, they’re spending a good deal of time and effort monetizing them. They’re currently doing this in the following ways:

Google AdSense

In all of their games, when you complete the game you’re presented with an advertisement from Google AdSense. They do a great job of integrating the ads into their games in a way that is obvious, yet unobtrusive. In fact, Playfish has added a nice touch to their ads in their new Minigolf game: when your player walks in front of the advertisement, they pause and say “Cool!”:

Virtual Goods

In some of their games, namely Bowling Buddies, Pet Society and Minigolf Party, you can customize your character with new clothing, hair styles, etc. You can earn the points necessary to purchase these goods through gameplay, however, they tend to accumulate very slowly. As an alternative you can buy points using PayPal or TrialPay–a service that allows you to earn points by completing advertising offers.

Subscription Based Services

The other way that Playfish is monetizing their games is through subscription based “Pro” accounts that offer more services, levels, puzzles, etc.

Playfish introduced these types of services for the first time in Who Has the Biggest Brain?, but they have since incorporated it into Word Challenge and Geo Challenge.

Playfish is an accomplished Facebook game developer that has created and followed a formula for success. Perhaps you can use some of the elements of the Playfish formula in your applications. You can learn more about Playfish’s games by looking at some of their application flows in Product Planner that can be used to build your own flows.

  1. Really good in-depth article. Tks.

  2. I have heard about Playfish in the past. Now it was very interesting to learn more about their social games business.

  3. Kinnor Visual Apr 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Where are the photos? good post, interesting


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