Out on the edges of cyberspace, a virtual city is crumbling — and the digital natives are restless.
This once-booming metropolis is YoVille, pop. about 430,000. The virtual town is one of a portfolio of games owned by FarmVille maker Zynga, and it had more than 19 million digital denizens about five years ago.
Now, Zynga is planning to shut down YoVille at the end of March. The town might be built of bytes, but the anguish some players feel about the prospect of its loss is real. And those loyal YoVille residents are determined to save their community. They’ve launched protests via virtual rallies, tearful YouTube pleas and angry Facebook missives.
Among the devastated “YoVillians” is Alisha Tilson, a 20-year-old college student who is studying photography in L’Anse, Mich. –- a real town of only about 2,000 people. Tilson posted an 11-minute YouTube video pleading for YoVille’s safety. Toward the end of the clip she dissolves into tears and cries, “It’s like Zynga saying, ‘We’re going to go kill your whole family.’”
Tilson, whose video has garnered almost 13,000 views, admits to NBC News that she realizes how “crazy” that statement might sound to outsiders, but “the point I was trying to make is that these are real relationships you form with people all over the world: young, old, disabled, overseas.”
YoVille's mass appeal is difficult to describe to non-gamers, players say. Users don’t plant corn, fight to the death or battle for gold coins, as in other games. Instead, YoVille’s page invites users simply to “Hang out with friends in YoVille.” And that’s pretty much what happens: Users create avatars who make friends, have fights, drink coffee, get married, throw parties, work for a living, go on camping trips and spend YoCash (which players buy with real money).
“It really is like any other community, with a firehouse and a church and a town center –- and the support of a community that cares about you,” Tilson says. “We are the ones who create the reality in the game.”
Now, they’re the ones trying to create a future for YoVille. “At least 10,000 people” have reached out to Big Viking -- the Canadian startup that created YoVille and sold it to Zynga in 2008 — via Facebook, email and other messages, company co-founder Albert Lai told NBC News.
Fans have sent cupcakes, cards and flowers to Big Viking's offices in Toronto and London, Ontario, begging the founders to save YoVille. Lai says: “the massive outpouring of grief absolutely blows my mind.”
The pleas came from all over the globe: from soldiers who play in Iraq, grandmothers who reconnected with family through the game and struggling teenagers who said the game literally saved their lives.
Inspired by that passion, Big Viking Games is in talks to buy its creation back. (Zynga confirmed last week that the two companies are in “ongoing discussions.”) If the deal goes through, it would be the first time that Zynga sold a property back to its creator.
Why so much grief over a game? Lai and several YoVille players repeated the same sentiment to NBC News: “YoVille isn’t a game.”
That’s the view of Cheryl Stark Struder, a YoVillian who runs a busy bakery, sells her art to locals and keeps company with dozens of friends, including one who stops by for a cup of tea each morning — all over the Internet, of course. The avatars may be digital, but 55-year-old Struder says “the relationships are 100 percent real.”
When Struder joined YoVille four years ago this month, it was the darkest time in her life: She was homebound and jobless after a back injury, and her separation from her husband left her estranged from her daughter too, she says.
Life in YoVille reconnected Struder to a community. But now, she says, “someone wants to come in and wipe my town clean off the map.”
Zynga said in an emailed statement to NBC News: “We don’t take the decision to sunset a game lightly, and want our passionate community of players to know that we are listening to them closely as we continue [to] explore potential options for YoVille."
Struder is hopeful that Big Viking will succeed in buying and rebuilding YoVille. She stresses that the virtual nature of the game doesn’t take away from the emotion behind it, or from the sense of potential loss.
“It might be one avatar giving another avatar a hug, but the feeling behind it is absolutely real,” says Struder, who estimates she spends about 90 percent of her time on YoVille. “There is nothing virtual about that.”