Last night, Zynga  brought virtual reality to real life. At a press event in New York City, the social gaming giant erected highly detailed sets for its most popular games, including a pastoral landscape complete with watering cans and crates of actual FarmVille apples; a dusty old-western saloon for FrontierVille; and an upstairs speakeasy with bartenders serving 1920s-style cocktails in honor of Mafia Wars.
But for Zynga, it's not the company's ability to build life-like sets but its ability to attract millions of users to its virtual worlds that has transformed Zynga into a billion-dollar juggernaut. And on Tuesday night, Zynga flew a few of those users out--some of its top power users--the ones addicted to the service and fueling its growth. Who are these folks? Are they the ones making Zynga's reported $400 million-dollar profit possible and building a virtual goods economy?
Game of Choice: Mafia Wars
First Started: September of 2008
Commitment: "Typically around three to four hours per day, depending on what's going on in the real world."
Bio: "I have a wife and two kids. I have a job that takes me all over the world managing products. I'm a product manager for a company that's owned by thirteen airlines."
Why Zynga: "It's a stress reliever. My wife was actually playing Mafia Wars for three weeks, and I kept walking by and wondering what she was playing. I finally asked her, and then I got hooked. As the game progressed, people started to band together. Eventually we just turned into families. We just started talking to each other and making our own Facebook pages for our families. We have Murder Incorporated, which is out of Chicago--it's a Chicago mob. As families were born, rivalries came into play. We're in a war with a family called RX, which was made by former members of my family.
I became godfather of our family in July of 2009. I'm one of the longest running godfathers that there is. Our family is about the fifth oldest family. We have players all over the world. I've actually gone and had dinner in Singapore with people in my family. I had breakfast today with a guy I've talked to on Skype for eight months. You truly get outside the game concept, and we have become a family.
We have about 89 members. We used to have 125 but we dropped a lot of the dead-weight. I also have a podcast with three co-hosts. We're listened to in 132 countries around the world, we get around 1,800 to 2,200 listeners per show, which airs every Monday and Friday."
Money Spent: "I've probably spent in 3 years, $150 dollars. But I know people who have spent over $80,000 a year.
The Ol' Time Farmer
Game of Choice: FarmVille
First Started: About three years ago
Commitment: "Probably about an hour a day. There are nights where I say, you know what, I'm going to redo some stuff."
Bio: "I ran a PR agency for a number of years. My background in college was science."
Why Zynga: "I caught my wife was playing FarmVille, and I asked her about it. I got on, and it looked like fun. What motivates me is accomplishment, and initially it was like, can I get to the next level? I wouldn't say I became compulsive, but eager to get to the next level. I wouldn't do anything on the farm that wasn't potentially real. In other words, if they had a zebra cow, I didn't want it.
"I also like efficiency. I created spreadsheets showing the best crops to plant for money, and the best crops to plant for experience points, and then another one for tree-mastering. I have four spreadsheets, and I haven't started one for CityVille yet. What's the fastest way to get cash or coins? I mapped it out: raspberries and blueberries or whatever. There are people who say I'm obsessed with it. But I'm not obsessed. I'm passionate. It's a hobby. I read a lot, because I like to read. I watch my sports teams, because I like the Bulls and Cowboys. So why wouldn't I be passionate about this as well? I'm a level 113."
Money Spent: "I spend money on it. Every few months, I probably spend $100 or so. People say to me, why? Because it's a hobby. I spend money playing golf or going to the movies too."
The Poker Princess
Game of Choice: Zynga Poker
First Started: March 2009
Commitment: "Oh my God, I'm playing Zynga Poker at least from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. On the weekends, my family and I meet around 9 p.m. to play."
Bio: "I'm a mother of five, and I take care of my grandmother. I run my own business. I have a sewing company."
Why Zynga: "It's really convenient. I like that I can be at home with my children. And I'm a very competitive person, and I like that I can compete with players all across the world, my friends and family, and that I can purchase virtual items for everyone."
Money Spent: "When you first join, they start you off with 1,000 chips. Since I started, I've only purchased chips one time. So I started off with 1000, and now I have 99 million. As far as cash value, there isn't any."
The Urban Planner
Game of Choice: CityVille
Commitment: "I play 3 hours a day, maybe double that on the weekends."
Bio: "I'm a fourth-year dental student. I play in between patients."
Why Zynga: "When I was in high school, I used to enjoy architecture and planning. So, I think it's the fact that I can pretend like I'm Donald Trump. It's all based on me being the mayor: I can design it how I want it. No one can do anything to my city. I've always wanted something like this. I also use it as a stress reliever. I usually play with friends and family."
Money Spent: "I don't usually spend my own money, being a student and all."
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