Zynga broke a lot of hearts when it announced it would be shutting down YoVille, a virtual world online game that’s been running since 2008. The game’s players have been building their simulated communities for many years now, but they only have until March to say goodbye. Unless, that is, YoVille’s original creator and his new game studio have their way.
Big Viking Games, which is headquartered in Toronto and counts Albert Lai as its other co-founder, is looking to acquire the YoVille property from Zynga to help it avoid an early grave. That’s something the community definitely seems to support. Right after the announcement, a petition popped up from YoVillians threatening to boycott all Zynga titles if the closure went through (the Facebook group currently has over 15,000 members) and there have been some surprisingly emotional responses to the decision posted not only on Facebook, but to YouTube as well.
There’s a good reason why Zynga was looking to shut down the property, however: It has only around 500,000 active users per month at this point, which is off tremendously from its roughly 20 million actives during its peak popularity. Zynga said that it made the decision based on a need to redirect time and energy to new games, rather than to maintaining some of its older ones.
Still, Big Viking sees a lot of value left in the property. Lai explained to me in an interview that the company is in advanced talks with Zynga to take over the game.
“YoVille’s a massive virtual world not unlike Second Life (but not “adult” in any way) that at its peak was one of Zynga’s top-3 money-makers, and far, far bigger than Second Life ever was in user base,” he said. “Mark Pincus is involved in getting it back to us at Big Viking.”
Pincus of course is a Zynga co-founder, and was the company’s CEO from its inception until July 2013, when Microsoft exec Don Mattrick took over the role. Pincus remains at Zynga as Chairman of its Board of Directors, however, and as Chief Product Officer of the gaming company. His support isn’t the only sign that Zynga prefers this outcome: Lai says the company has been “amazingly good” throughout the purchase discussion process.
“We’re in dialog with them right now and ironing out technical and legal issues,” he said about the state of negotiations. “We are hoping it will happen soon, but it’s hard to put a number on it. The game serves a huge community of players that rely on it daily, from elderly players that are homebound and find it an outlet to socialize and ‘walk around,’ kids finding an outlet and support group. Also Zynga is at a scale that makes it hard for them to give it the level of focus and TLC I think we are able to.”
Lai says that Big Viking thinks its telling that there were once tens of millions of users on YoVille. That reflects the fact that it fills a need, he said, one specifically aimed at “casual social community” rather than “hack and slash” or other types of game mechanics currently in vogue. He won’t talk about what kind of price might be in discussion, but notes that Big Viking has been “quietly building a small war chest over the past two years” for exactly this type of scenario.
For its part, Zynga isn’t commenting on any potential YoVille deal at this time, but if it does go through it’ll mark the first time the casual gaming giant has sold back one of its acquisitions. That could benefit all parties, too, since while the game’s audience has shrunk, it remains numerous and dedicated.