By Guest Author Cindy Weng
Zynga is the king of online social gaming. You may not know the company by its name but rather its games: Texas Hold’em, FarmVille, Mafia Wars, YoVille!, Scramble, and more. Its newest game, Roller Coaster Kingdom, was released only one month ago and already has almost four million users. FarmVille just hit 11 million daily and 30 million monthly users, making it the top online game in North America. No other company can boast such fast results and massive audiences. How exactly does Zynga stay at the top in this fast-paced, cutthroat gaming world? Playfish and Playdom are hot on his heels, but Zynga CEO Mark Pincus has managed to stay ahead. In this interview, he lets us in on a few of his strategies and secrets.
Pincus started one of the first existing social networks,called Tribe.net, and was also an investor in Friendster and Facebook. “I saw the beginning of this whole social networking movement, and lived through it both as a user and as someone working on creating the product experience. I also felt the pain that users had. If you remember, Friendster was going to be huge, and then it fizzled out. A social network that all your friends come to is like a great cocktail party. If it doesn’t have music or any interesting ambiance or entertainment, it will become boring and fizzle out. You get tired of the same people and not having enough to interact with them around. When Facebook said that they were opening their platform to APIs, I was very excited to bring games to their users. All along, I thought games were the killer opportunity to connect users. What Facebook was doing was so innovative in giving you ways to share more information with people; they called it a social utility. It didn’t give you ways to connect with people. People were just hanging out with their friends online, leaving their browsers open, but without the gaming piece, there wasn’t really a way to connect with them.”
Zynga first released the Texas Hold’em application to give users an entertaining, live environment in which they could play with their friends. Pincus thought that it would be the best way to introduce users to this new concept of gaming within social networks because it was fun and allowed you to play with your real-life friends in a set community. Zynga still almost completely relies on existing social networks such as Facebook and MySpace as hosts for their games. A user cannot play any games on the company website, Zynga.com, but instead can only access games through applications on social networks. The idea behind this is that Zynga is bringing games to the user, not making the user come to them. These games transcend the boundaries of different networks in the sense that a player on Facebook can play with a player from MySpace or any other network that Zynga supports. This strategy allows friends to interact even if they have different social network preferences, and this certainly helps make Zynga’s games universally attractive. At the same time, by crossing the borders of individual social networks, virality takes on a completely different meaning. News and advertisements about these games spread not only within Facebook but expands to all over the Internet. Because Zynga games are so accessible, it comes as no surprise that every game continues to see growth in user numbers, seemingly unstoppable until every corner of every Internet community has been penetrated. A wide variety of game options also helps attract the large user base that Zynga has. Different games have different demographics but there are enough choices to satisfy everyone, even international players.
Attracting users is one thing, but keeping them interested is another. Pincus reveals how Zynga creates what he says are the best products available on the market: “There are three components that make up a great social game. One is that you’re playing with your real friends. Two is that you have an opportunity to invest in the game over time. Unlike most casual games, you can build up more experience points and you can own more items, and have a deeper, more meaningful experience the longer you play like in an MMO. The third is that you can express yourself in the game. There’s room for creativity—the way you can deck out your house in YoVille or the jobs and weapons that you have in Mafia Wars. Every game should give you a chance to express yourself so that your friends can get to know you better through playing the game. We also run our games as services, something new in the casual game world. Eighty to ninety percent of the development of a game happens after it is launched. We bring out new features and content every week and every game, and our users expect that. Our users see our games as a service and a work in progress. They know that we’re constantly testing new features and looking for things that they want, and I think that’s why they keep coming back.”
Pincus elaborates on one game that has a newer game model than the others do: FarmVille. “It’s a more mass-market social game. It’s simpler to get into and has fewer moving parts to it. It has a basic concept that most users get, but it still has those three elements in it. FarmVille was able to get to a significantly broader audience because of its simplicity.”The game essentially allows you to run a farm—plant seeds, harvest crops, and raise animals. However, the system runs in real time. If you fail to plant your seeds during a certain season, they won’t grow. If you fail to harvest at a certain time, your crops will spoil. The structured schedule is what keeps many users addicted. There are predetermined goals that they must meet and this is what makes FarmVille interesting. What makes FarmVille viral is when someone says to his friend, “Oh, I’m going to be late to dinner. I need to harvest my corn on FarmVille.” The friend is automatically curious because FarmVille is obviously important enough to keep his buddy from making it to dinner on time. Certainly, the notifications that pop up on your newsfeed when you play Zynga games help make them viral, but virality truly sets in when users talk about the games in real life. Pincus explains, “We work very hard at figuring out how to make games easy and interesting for the user so that they advertise themselves. The best way for a game to be viral is to make it fun so that you want your friends to play with you.”
When asked how Facebook and MySpace have helped in advertising games, Pincus says, “They open up communication channels via API that really enable their users to communicate with their friends through the game and around the game. The more they open up those channels, the more the games can spread and become a relevant social means between you and your friends. They do a great job of maintaining as the host of the cocktail party. They keep growing and attracting these very large-scale audiences that we can market within. We have a very large user and traffic base now, so when we release a new game, we are able to make it available to current players of all our other games.” However, Zynga did rely heavily on peer-to-peer marketing during the start of their conquest. Zynga only launches its games on social networks that allow users to spread. Pincus sees traditional advertising as fueling a fire, “If you’re trying to spread that fire, advertising is like lighting multiple matches. It lets you immediately jump to international markets or user markets.”
He sees Facebook Connect as the next chapter in the open API story. “We think it’s going to enable social gaming and social services to spread to the whole web and not just the inside-born website. Social games should be available to you everywhere you go. Your friends and the ability to communicate and interact with your friends should be available everywhere you go on the Internet. Facebook Connect is brilliant and we haven’t begun to see the valuable potential of it. We are experimenting with it already. We used it to make our iPhone games social. We are slowly letting our games move outside Facebook. For example, you can play YoVille! on yoville.com now, and that is possible because of Facebook Connect.” Even though Zynga is looking to expand on the Internet, it isn’t looking to become its own social network. Social services are already enabled on other websites and Zynga is working hard to bring their services to these networks. “We don’t want to ask you to have to recreate your profile and social connections when you can just bring them with you from Facebook or MySpace.”
Pincus also has an interesting view on competitors such as Playfish and Playdom: “We pioneered social gaming and I think we continue to make the biggest developments in social gaming. Playfish was really the second company to come into the market. We have a lot of respect for Playfish and the games that they make, and think that they have added a lot to the ecosystem. Generally, we think that all competitors expand social gaming. Gaming is not a zero-sum industry. FarmVille might bring you into gaming, but once it has shown you the value of social gaming, the most likely thing is that you’re going to try two or three more games. What’s hard for people to grasp is that this is a blue-ocean opportunity. It’s more about how we grow the market than how we compete to take the market. We hope to see more companies do innovative stuff because it will be good for everybody.” Pincus attributes Zynga’s success to its focus on leading and not following, and also overall market growth. “We’ve made much greater investments in infrastructure than anyone else in our market. We put a lot of value into running games as a service.”
With these new and innovative perceptions of the gaming industry, it is clear that Zynga has different objectives from most traditional companies. It is evident that their strategy has worked and benefited not only themselves, but also a mass variety of social networks, users, and other gaming companies. Zynga’s future looks bright and increasingly social. The company is working hard to bring social features to all corners of the Internet through gaming, and you can expect them to succeed. Even though Zynga’s name might not be tattooed explicitly on all of its games, its presence in the gaming market continues to grow. Mark Pincus definitely has the right ideals to lead the company into a new era of social and viral gaming, and we have only just begun to see what Zynga has to offer.