Zynga today reveals its very own social game platform, Zynga.com, which was previously called Z-Live and Zynga Direct. The service launches today with five of Zynga’s best-performing games: CastleVille, CityVille, Words with Friends, Hidden Chronicles and Zynga Poker.
Here’s what Zynga.com is: a platform on which social games can run synchronously and relatively seamlessly between it and Facebook. A CityVille player logging into Zynga.com today will find their city exactly as it appears on the Facebook canvas, with the same amount of virtual goods in their inventory and same amount of virtual currency in their e-wallet. Thanks to a deeper-than-anything-we’ve-seen integration with Facebook Connect, all in-game activity that takes place on one platform happens on the other. That CityVille player can buy a new park decoration on Zynga.com and it will appear in Facebook if they player were to jump back to the social network and play CityVille there. A Facebook player can used Credits to buy 20 Crowns in CastleVille and those 20 Crowns will be in the virtual bank if the player jumps to Zynga.com.
Here’s what Zynga.com is not: an alternative to Facebook. The service is focused on the games experience to the exclusion of almost all other social networking tools. Players can’t post pictures, can’t create events and can only group themselves by Facebook friends and players that play the same games. The only social network features Zynga.com cribbed from Facebook are the chat function, social discovery of new friend connections and a live app ticker for games activity (which is something Facebook recently disabled on canvas apps).
So why play games on Zynga.com and not Facebook? The hook is in the promise of faster progression. Zynga games rely almost completely on social interactions — a friend gifts you a virtual good you need to finish constructing something in CityVille, a friend needs to join your poker table to get the game started, a friend plays “Qi” in Words With Friends for a cheap shot triple-letter score, etc. On the asynchronous Facebook platform, it’s a gamble just how long a player has to wait before a friend gets back to their own game to send a gift, respond to a request or play their next move. With Zynga.com, the developer creates an environment where players can easily access their own friends — and an entire network of other players willing to help them out at any time.
Zynga calls this network the “Active Social Network” — the group of friends (or sometimes strangers) that can be counted on to participate in games. To these players, Requests are not “spam” and unfulfilled Requests represent someone that’s not a very good friend. By tapping into a player’s ASN and comparing it to others’, Zynga.com is able to create social discovery of new friends — which in turn broadens the reach of the individual ASN and quickly ramps up players new to the platform.
Let’s walk through a CastleVille example. Say we’re trying to get together six crystal shards to craft an exploration crystal. If playing on Facebook, we send out Requests to all the players listed in our friends list and wait maybe four hours to hear back from half of them. Within roughly three play sessions over 24 hours, we might have all six shards and can craft the exploration crystal. We can also exit the game to go read our friends’ Timelines to see if they have any CastleVille activity posts from which we could collect shards for clicking on the post. If playing CastleVille on Zynga.com, however, we can send the Request to the live app feed where it can be viewed and responded to by our friends, or by any other CastleVille player also playing the game at the same time. Because the activity is live — and because responding to Requests nets both players virtual goods — we’re more likely to get all six of our shards within minutes as opposed to hours, and within the same play session. We can also use the chat feature on our Zynga.com friends to alert them to our request, if they’re not already in CastleVille (“Hey, when you’re done in Zynga Poker, can you send me some crystal shards in CastleVille?”). We can also send and receive energy directly from the chat window. All of this activity can be completed on Zynga.com without ever leaving the game to fulfill requests, accept gifts or troll friends’ profiles for posts that generate rewards.
By speeding up the gameplay experience, Zynga.com introduces a new type of social graph tailored specifically to games players — something Facebook has avoided creating. You can read the difference in approach just from how a user profile appears on the sites. On Facebook, you see a person’s profile picture, their Timeline, their friends and and stuff they Liked. On Zynga.com (pictured), you see a profile picture, a list of games they play and how many times they’ve helped someone in a particular game. Friends on Facebook are suggested based on how many friends you have in common; friends on Zynga.com are suggested based on how many games you have in common, how often you help people in games and on friends in common. On Facebook, there is almost no way to interact with strangers intimately without first sending a Friend Request. On Zynga.com, any stranger can respond to any request at any time without first being your friend — and if you decide to make them your friend on Zynga.com, they do not become your Facebook friend. On Facebook, there is no concept of rank; on Zynga.com, friends are positioned as competing for who is more helpful in more games because their profiles are more likely to be surfaced to power players that will help them progress through games faster.
The core concept of the Zynga.com platform is strong — a destination gaming site that marries the best of the social graph to the actual goal of gameplay. The platform, however, is infancy and there are some features that raise questions about which direction Zynga.com will take as it grows. Here are some examples: the platform currently conducts payments only in Facebook Credits; there are no game balancing measures in place to keep the playing field equal between Facebook CityVille players and Zynga.com CityVille players; cross-platform play for mobile devices in theory will work for Words With Friends — but we’re not sure if Zynga.com can or will support a mobile version for Zynga’s mobile games; Zynga.com player profiles use real names instead of aliases; there are no display ads on the site, but there is plenty of room for them if Zynga wants to run ads. Zynga.com is also offering its platform in 16 languages — including Chinese — but unless a player has access to Facebook, they cannot access games on Zynga.com (which means mainland China, where Facebook is still banned and yet CityVille is available on Tencent).
Some future features are clear, however. Though only launching with its own games, Zynga.com plans to publish third party games on its platform in the very near future — announcing developers MobScience (inFamous Anarchy), Row Sham Bow (Woodland Heroes) and Sava Transmedia as early platform partners. Details on partner publishing are scarce — Zynga declined to discuss the revenue share model — but we do know that Zynga is planning to open its APIs to all developers later this year.
As for what Zynga.com does for Zynga and Facebook’s publicly traded stock, that will depend on investors understanding of the social games business model. Many people previously viewed Zynga’s games platform as a split from Facebook — something that could jeopardize the stability of both companies. Others believed that without Facebook, Zynga couldn’t possibly support its own games ecosystem with so many other competing open web games portals already out there. As we see it, however, Zynga.com is a value add for both Zynga and Facebook. Zynga gets the freedom to try games features that Facebook forbids or doesn’t have an interesting in supporting; Facebook gets to hold Zynga up to investors as a shining example of the business opportunities to be had on the platform. The deep Facebook Connect integration on Zynga.com still creates the dynamic interdependence that makes investors wary, but Zynga now has its own platform to call home.
Zynga.com is due to go live this month. COO John Schappert will talk more about the platform in his Game Developers Conference keynote speech, “Why ‘Free’ and Cross-Platform Is The Future of Gaming” next week at Moscone Center in San Francisco.