Zynga takes its first step toward a post-Facebook future

New initiatives, including a standalone gameplay site, give the social gaming company some independence from Facebook. But it's not cutting the cord just yet.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
6 min read
Zynga's new destination site will be an alternative gaming destination for Facebook users. Zynga

Zynga appears to be separating from Facebook with two major changes it's announcing today. These moves will help the company grow and give it a measure of independence from Facebook.

First, the company is rolling out its own games portal, Zynga.com, where players can jump directly in to some of the Zynga games they've been playing so far on Facebook. The portal will also have its own game-focused social network functions. It will also allow players to find and play against people who are not in their Facebook friend networks.

Second, Zynga is beginning to open up its platform. It is announcing that developers, including Row Sham Bow and MobScience, will be rolling out games on Zynga. Later, Zynga plans to open up its platform and APIs to independent developers, and will provide a version of the software development kit used, so far, only internally.

These are both revolutionary changes for a gaming company that grew up in a tight symbiotic relationship with Facebook. Zynga isn't quite leaving the nest it was hatched in, but these moves do give the company a lot more maneuverability and room for growth. And both initiatives represent threats to what has been, so far, Facebook's ultimate control of the network of Zynga's social gamers.

According to Facebook's IPO filing, Zynga accounts for 12% of the social network company's revenues.

The platform for users
The new Zynga.com will be "a platform for play," according to Zynga CTO Cadir Lee. Radically simplified (at least compared to the Facebook experience), but offering access to the same games users are already playing, Zynga.com will offer users a clean catalog of games, a stream of social updates related to the user's gaming, suggested users to connect with, and activities to do to enhance progress through games.

Zynga's new standalone social game site

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The site will be "fully Facebook-connected," Lee says. You'll need a Facebook ID to access it. It's designed to be a "complimentary," but a more game-focused experience. Zynga spokespeople are careful to reinforce this. "We're still aligned with Facebook," I was told. In addition to relying on Facebook for logins, in-game purchases will still be made using Facebook credits, and Zynga's fee to Facebook for those credits will be unchanged.

There won't be any advertising space sold on Zynga.com initially. However, in-game advertising, like sponsored buildings in CityVille, is a revenue source for Zynga and is separate from the company's relationship with Facebook.

The connections users make on Zynga can be different from those made on Facebook itself. While Zynga.com users will be able to connect with their Facebook friends around Zynga games, they'll also be able to connect with friends not in their network, for the sole purpose of gaming. Non-Facebook friends can become game friends and the user won't have to add them to their friend networks. The Zynga network will be a "superset" of the Facebook network for users, Lee says.

Zynga will encourage these new connections by making match recommendations based on demographic similarity and play styles. For example, if you're a 25-year-old grad student who tends to play CityVille between midnight and one in the morning, you might get a recommendation to connect with someone with a similar play profile. This way, you'll be more likely to be playing at the same time and you'll be able to help each other out in real-time, instead of asynchronously, as most Zynga game partners do. This synchronous play with friends could open the door for Zynga to release games that are socially similar to other massive multi-player games, like World of Warcraft.

Zynga also plans to allow users to connect using separate gamer names, or "Z Tags," but this feature will not be rolled out at launch. Facebook, by contrast, requires real names for its users.

Lee says that by playing on Zynga.com instead of on Facebook, users will be able to progress through games more quickly. That should be one of the big draws for committed Zynga players.

Another will be the focused, uninterrupted experience. On Zynga, unlike on Facebook, users will be able to chat with other players without pausing the game they are playing. It will also be much easier to see all game-related activities from friends; users will find it easier to help out friends by seeing their requests, and to take advantage of friends' offers for help.

Users will be able to continue games started on Facebook on the Zynga portal, or vice versa. The underlying games are identical and run on the same Zynga servers.

Zynga.com will launch this month. Initially, it will support five games: CastleVille, CityVille, Hidden Chronicles, Words With Friends, and Zynga Poker.

The platform for developers
In a bigger move, Zynga is expanding its game universe to include games from other developers. "We want to bring new games to users," Lee said.

Zynga CTO Cadir Lee Rafe Needleman/CNET
Developers looking to build out massive social games will initially have to work closely with Zynga to get their games on the Zynga platform. Zynga, Lee says, will work closely with these early partners to make sure that the new games can handle the scaling issues that the Zynga spotlight is likely to cause. Zynga wants to be sure these new, third-party games meet Zynga's own quality benchmarks, too.

There are also potential privacy issues, as third parties will now get some access to user data from Zynga's users. Lee is well aware of this, in light of recent privacy flaps at Path and elsewhere. "We will have really clear signaling about how data is used," he said. "Our biggest concern is trust, and taking care of users."

In addition to the obvious exposure developers will get from putting their games on the Zynga platform, in front of the claimed 240 million monthly Zynga users, they will also be able to take advantage of Zynga analytics (with the expertise to decipher them) and other resources to help them refine their games and keep them running.

Zynga will offer a la carte services to developers. For example, games don't have to run on Zynga's private cloud, but Zynga will make that resource available to developers. Zynga can also engage at different levels on distribution and promotion; there will be fees for both distribution and use of the technical services.

At some point (not at launch) Zynga may help developers make money from in-game advertising, as well.

Eventually, perhaps later this year, Zynga will open up the platform initiative further, giving independent developers a self-serve process for putting their social games up on Zynga. The company plans to make a version of its own, internal software development kit available, as well. The end state, Lee says, is "We don't know who you are. You're in a dorm room. You sign up, get an API key, publish a game, and users start responding. Then we start to surface it more and more."

Lee says that he hopes and expects that developers will be drawn to Zynga largely so they can take advantage of the company's infrastructure. "Even big companies have challenges with scale," he says, but Zynga has experience, and resources, to launch games that grow to millions of users in days.

Still to be determined: Whether Zynga will put gatekeepers in front of its game store, the way Apple does, or allow more open access, as Google does for the Android store.

Existing game distributors like Kongregate, Hi5, and Pogo are most likely to be affected by this. Facebook itself may also find its relationship with game developers challenged, as Zynga gears up its push to get developers to use its platform.

Michael Witz, CEO of MobScience, told me that his company will be launching a new game, KingWorld, on the Zynga platform in the Spring. "It's a mid-core RPG game that pushes the depth and challenge of gameplay further then a typical social game." He added, "We have become so bullish on the emergence of Zynga as a platform, that we have refocused our entire corporate mission on becoming the #1 game developer on Zynga."

"We have hundreds of people working on the platform team," Zynga's Cadir Lee says. "This is a very big shift for us. We have been a content company. This is the next step: Being a platform company."