Tricia Duryee

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When Is the Next Zynga Hit Coming? These Days That’s a Big Question for the Online Gaming Phenom.

It’s been five months since Zynga released CityVille, the Facebook game that went straight to the top of the charts and is still attracting roughly 88 million players a day.

So when will Zynga release its next ‘Ville?

In an interview, Mike Verdu, Zynga’s SVP of games, said it’s a question they’ve been grappling with for a while.

“We don’t want to overwhelm players, but four to five months is too long of a gap,” he said.

The pause in new game releases hints that the company is transitioning from a start-up that quickly produced a number of wildly successful hits into a worldwide game studio that must make popular titles a repeatable and predictable occurrence.

Obviously, though, there are extremely high expectations for Zynga’s next release.

Since Zynga was founded in January 2007, Facebook players have flooded to its games, including such titles as FarmVille, FrontierVille, Mafia Wars and its original game, Poker. In the first 30 days, FarmVille gained one million users, only to be completely outdone by CityVille, which attracted 14 million players in the same time frame.

By far, the San Francisco social game maker is the industry leader, with roughly 250 million monthly active users. Electronic Arts is a distant second, with 33 million monthly users, according to AppData, which tracks industry stats.

The pressure to produce another chart topper can also be felt by the stacks of cash piling up all around it. Zynga is rumored to be generating $850 million a year in revenue, and it recently raised close to $500 million in capital, according to documents it filed with the state of California.

It also is making plans for an IPO, which will add even more financial firepower to Zynga going forward.

A flop now would raise questions as to whether Zynga can continue its impressive run. It could also open up the door to a lot of companies eager to follow in its footsteps.

One of many challenges, of course, that Zynga faces is that the social games industry is evolving.

In the past couple of years, the game play has gotten more advanced and graphics have improved. Zynga can’t just produce another farm game, where you plant crops and come back to harvest them before they wither. Because of that, producing a title takes more time and money.

Verdu said the amount of investment has increased, but it is still in line with what’s reasonable. Most important to him is not releasing a title until it’s absolutely ready.

“The Zynga brand has come to mean something,” Verdu said. “City and Frontier have some of our best customers and they have raised the expectation for what a game is.”

He estimated that going forward the company will release a game at a rate of once a month to once every three months.

Verdu said Zynga is prepared to fulfill either pace: “We have enough products in the pipeline that we can fill whatever is the right cadence.”

Mark Skaggs, Zynga’s SVP of product development, compared making social games to the movie business.

“You can’t release eight great movies in June and then nothing for the rest of the year,” he said. “The pacing could be similar to a blockbuster pace or it could be different.”

The company’s headquarters are certainly bursting at the seams, as it prepared to move into its new digs later this summer.

Each room is decorated to reflect the various properties the developers are working on. The FarmVille studio has pink sheep cut-outs, baskets of fake produce lying around and blue artificial trees with colorful ornaments.

The Poker studio has a Las Vegas casino vibe, with the pillars decorated to look like giant stacks of poker chips.

In the past few months since CityVille launched, Zynga has flexed a lot of its development muscle on creating additional game play elements in older titles, such as FarmVille.

Today, for example, Zynga launched GagaVille, a farm decked out with Lady Gaga-inspired elements, such as crystals, unicorns and sheep on motorcycles. The farm will help promote new content from the pop artist, including songs from her “Born This Way” album, which will be released May 23. In March, Zynga also gave FarmVille a major face lift, when it released the English Countryside, which added updated elements to the game.

The only thing more unclear then the pace at which Zynga will launch new games is how long the games will continue to draw interest from players.

FarmVille continues to be the second-most popular application on Facebook, although in the past three months, it’s lost about four million users, AppData reports.

But, evergreen titles such as Poker continue to attract seven million users a day after two-plus years. Mafia Wars also has about two million daily users after two years.

“We don’t know yet,” Verdu said. “FarmVille is on its second birthday and there’s still people who love that game.”