Zynga Seeks to Match Up Players for Online Games
There is an old saying that if you have two real friends, you should count yourself lucky. No doubt. But you are going to have a hard time playing FarmVille.
Zynga, the creator of FarmVille, Words With Friends, Mafia Wars and other popular social games, is going to start supplying friends for those who are lacking. The company announced a new gaming platform on Thursday that will match up players who do not know one another but who have a mutual interest in getting the crops in and spelling words with J, Q and X. The goal is to make social gaming, which was pretty easy to begin with, even easier for everyone.
The platform will be introduced in a trial version on Zynga.com later this month.
The move is likely to reduce Zynga’s reliance on Facebook, something analysts have said the company needs to do. Most Zynga games are played on that social network, which derives 12 percent of its revenue from Zynga. In the future, hard-core players will most likely go to Zynga’s own site, finding not only Zynga games but also offerings from independent developers.
In the short term, however, the interdependence will only increase. The platform could even be seen as extending Facebook’s dominance. When players want to buy something on the Zynga site, they will use Facebook credits. While Facebook has been experimenting with letting other Web sites use its currency, the Zynga platform is a big move forward in this regard.
Most of all, the platform is a critical effort by Zynga to extend the torrid growth since its founding in 2007. Zynga games have about 240 million monthly users. Now, executives talk casually of reaching a billion.
To get anywhere near that number, the platform will have to be a huge success. Its chief selling point is that, unlike on Facebook, everyone is there for the same thing.
Zynga says its players have been complaining that they want more instant gratification: if they have only five or 10 minutes to play — standing at the bus stop or taking a coffee break — they want to accomplish something. That is not always possible while playing on Facebook, where your friends might have other things to do besides instantly shipping virtual goods to you.
“If you’re playing CityVille right now, and you send out a request, ‘Please send me a cargo plane,’ it might take a couple of days for your friends to respond,” John Schappert, Zynga’s chief operating officer, said. “You’ll be in a holding pattern to get that airport built. But on the platform, you’ll immediately get more cargo planes than you’ll know what to do with.”
That is because players on the platform will be publicly ranked on their willingness to assist what Zynga is calling their “zFriends.” A profile page on the site will display players’ favorite games, their skill level at each game and a helpfulness index.
“It’s the concept of balance of trade,” Reed Shaffner, lead product manager of Zynga.com, said. “There is this feeling when you hit a profile of someone who plays every day: ‘He’s helped his friends 21 times this week, and I’ve only helped 12.’ Players will say: ‘Am I as helpful to my friends, or should I help them more? Do I need to interact with them more?’ ”
Some analysts have been skeptical of Zynga’s prospects. Morningstar concluded this week that the company’s competitive advantages were not sustainable and that the stock should have a valuation of about 75 percent of its recent price.
But investors cheered the platform announcement, sending the stock price up almost 10 percent on Thursday, to $14.48. After a low-key offering in December, Zynga shares have recently risen more than 40 percent.
Even company officials say they do not know exactly how the platform will work. Zynga makes most of its revenue from a small number of players who spend heavily on virtual goods. These whales, as they are called by everyone except Zynga itself, need to spend freely and happily if Zynga is to flourish. They also need to multiply.
A social gaming company “needs to get more people to pay and to get those people to pay more,” said Mike Vorhaus, of the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “It wants to do both of those things to the extent it doesn’t get bitten on the nose.”
Whales have already been known to complain that they sometimes feel they are being milked.
If play on Zynga.com is easier and quicker, players might have less need to buy the virtual goods to speed themselves along. Virtual goods are free if given as gifts; Zynga collects payment only if you buy them for yourself.
But a bigger audience offers possibilities. “If we can get you to love our games more, we will make more money over time,” said Manuel Bronstein, general manager of Zynga Direct, a division that focuses on building relationships with players.
Players on the platform will use their Facebook identities. The integration between the two sites is intended to be seamless; players will be able to move from Facebook to the platform with no interruption. But zFriends will remain on Zynga.com.
There has been tension between Facebook, which is awaiting its public offering, and Zynga over how to split revenue. At the moment, Facebook takes a 30 percent cut of each credit. But for this announcement, everyone was upbeat.
“They are our key partner, and we think we are one of their key partners,” Mr. Schappert said. “This is another logical evolution of our relationship.”
Sean Ryan, Facebook’s director of games partnerships, said, “We’re thrilled to see Zynga use our login and payments platform to expand the possibilities for people to play games in more places with their friends.”