Meet CityVille's Frank Gehry

February 28, 2011: 1:17 PM ET

Architect Yick Kai Chan once mapped out schools and banks. Now, Chan uses his skills for Zynga, to build CityVille's virtual communities one twee building at a time.

CityVille isn't just another city simulation game. As its 95 million monthly active users will attest, Zynga's latest ridiculously successful product for Facebook isn't just a hodge-podge of caricatured buildings or bobble-headed locals with emoticon bubbles -- it's an incubator for a self-sustaining virtual community you can (and must) share with Facebook friends. Its devious simplicity quickly gives way to surprising levels of complexity: planting and harvesting crops with different growth rates to supply local food merchants, hiring Facebook friends to staff community centers, and visiting neighboring cities to build your own community's reputation. To that end, CityVille offers up hundreds of items for gamers to build up their communities.

That's where Yick Kai Chan comes in. If you've so much as seen a CityVille ad, then you've seen his work. The 36-year-old China-born designer worked for 12 years at firms in Redwood City and Oakland, California drawing up blueprints for corporate campuses, city halls, garages, retail spaces, banks and restaurants in the real world before joining Zynga last April. Now, he designs exclusively for CityVille: recreations of Big Ben and the Empire State Building, farms, apartment buildings, cottages, flower shops, cafes, and community centers. Chan's position at the company is unique in that he is the only architect on Zynga's payroll, and in fact, he's had a hand in designing each and every bit of CityVille architecture.

Overkill? Not really.

"The actual building of our assets like building a building in CityVille is actually a complicated process," says Alexander Le, CityVille's Product Director. "It goes well beyond drawing a building. We're making these basically with the virtual equivalent of bricks and mortar."

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While game design means not having to deal with real-world bureaucratic red tape and building codes, Le and Chan say the initial phase of design remains challenging. Buildings need to function, behave and occupy the same amount of space in CityVille as they do in the real world to stay recognizable to the human eye.

When the design and production team sit down to brainstorm new in-game additions, they basically compile a list of the buildings they want. Once they've done that, art director Matt Levine conducts an image search of different types of architecture for reference points. Then Chan steps in, first with a rough sketch of each building from every visible angle with design cues that will make them instantly recognizable to users despite the relatively small number of pixels they'll eventually occupy onscreen. In the case of the candy shop (see above), that means penciling a chocolate roof and a strawberry-dipped top. Hardly realistic, but in CityVille, having a distinct art style is just as important as adhering to real-world space. It's about exaggerating the important real-world elements, blowing up the gestalt of the building, like a caricature artist would do when drawing people.

"Each building should have some real-world elements that are easily identifiable and appealing – functional and cute -- but this balance is the tricky part," says Chan. "Having a game available in half a dozen languages is both a blessing and a challenge because it can be difficult to illustrate a sign for a motel without spelling it out in a specific language."

Chan also has to design areas around the buildings he and the team want. He doesn't just sketch out a recreation of the Empire State Building, but also complimentary assets like smaller art decco buildings and hot dog stands. So when CityVille released a Chinese New Year theme earlier this month with a traditional 15th-century Chinese Courtyard, or "Si he yuan," home, Chan crafted visual assets with a similar aesthetic: pagodas, hanging lanterns, dragon statues, and the Lunar Gate. Once he finishes off a high-fidelity version of the design, it's passed onto the 3-D team, who builds them out with proprietary 3-D software for introduction into the game.

At a rate of one or two designs a day, Chan's lost track of how much he's done -- his computer desktop is littered with hundreds of files containing approved and unapproved ideas -- but that schedule probably won't change much moving forward. Because if Zynga's annual revenue stream is any indication -- over $1 million in sales a day, and $600 million last year alone -- CityVille's skyline isn't going anywhere soon but up.

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JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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