With rewards, Zynga hopes to get you (more) hooked

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NEW YORK (AP) - Beware, if you’re among the hordes who wonder where the time went after becoming absorbed in online games such as “FarmVille” and “CityVille.” Zynga, the hot Internet startup that created those ever-engrossing pastimes, is introducing another reason to goof off.

The lure this time is “RewardVille,” a show of appreciation aimed at getting players even more absorbed in their online farms, cities, crime rings and poker games. The program unveiled a week ago doles out game points and credits that can be used to buy more virtual goodies on Zynga’s existing games.

It’s the latest attempt to deepen people’s attachment to Zynga’s strangely addictive world at a time attention spans are becoming more fickle. Several entertainment options now bombard people on an array of digital devices.

Zynga’s success in capturing people’s free time so far has been remarkable _ and profitable, according to the privately held company’s executives.

Its games are simple, but getting ahead requires time and dedication. In “CityVille,” for example, players start with a simple plot of land, roads and buildings. They can add businesses, farms and landmarks through lots of faithful dragging and clicking of the mouse. They can invite friends to play and send them virtual gifts.

All games are free to play, but players can pay real money _ a few coins or dollars at a time _ to buy special items or reach a higher level of play more quickly.

Since CEO Mark Pincus launched the San Francisco startup in 2007, Zynga has attracted about 250 million game players _ most of whom connect on Facebook’s even larger Web hangout. Zynga’s audience is somewhere between the population of the U.S. and Indonesia, the world’s third and fourth most populous countries.

Zynga has grown so fast that it already has 1,500 employees and is moving into larger headquarters, which can accommodate several hundred more workers.

Zynga started a tradition in 2009 _ ages ago in Internet time _ where employees would wear red shirts for every day that “FarmVille” added another million users. There were some weeks where people would run out of red shirts, said Cadir Lee, Zynga’s chief technology officer. More recently, “CityVille” demonstrated Zynga’s drawing power by attracting 100 million players in the first seven weeks after its December introduction.

“That’s the fastest-growing media property in the history of the planet,” said social media analyst Lou Kerner of Wedbush Morgan.

Prospective investors are clamoring for a piece of Zynga in an initial public offering of stock that could come within the next year.

Marc Andreessen, who helped trigger an Internet boom in the mid-1990s after co-founding Web browser pioneer Netscape Communications, already bought a stake for his venture capital firm. He said he foresees Zynga becoming “one of the primary Internet franchises of the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

Zynga makes most of its money through the sale of virtual items in its games, with the rest from advertising and partnerships with companies such as Netflix or Vistaprint on special offers.

In an example of how quickly the company can drum up money, Zynga recently raised $1 million in 36 hours for Save The Children’s Japan charity. The donations for earthquake victims came through special virtual items that Zynga created for the cause. That number has since grown to $1.5 million.

Kerner estimates Zynga’s revenue will approach $850 million this year, up from $529 million last year. As for recent investments that have valued the company as high as $10 billion, Kerner believes Zynga will be worth a lot more than that if it maintains its torrid growth pace. Zynga recently closed on $500 million of financing on that valuation.

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