Inside Zynga Network And Its New "Big Learning Machine"

The new Zynga partner program puts the company's know-how to work for outside game developers--but it'll also help Zynga get smarter faster.

Zynga has taken a lot of beatings recently--a stock price that has slumped as much as 50 percent since its December IPO and skepticism about the long-term impact of its dependence on Facebook.

But at an event at the company's headquarters in San Francisco Tuesday, the game company talked about two new initiatives that could be the key to regaining outsider confidence that it does indeed have a bright future.

The first is what it calls the "Zynga Network," which will allow players to have the same experience on Zynga, no matter what device or platform they use. Until now, the user experience has been fragmented. But soon, whether players access games via Facebook, log in via the company's new Zynga.com site, or play on mobile devices, they'll see the same friends and have access to the same information. 

“It's one network, one unified experience, one social lobby that will for the first time connect all players no matter where they’re playing,” said Manual Bronstein, general manager of the Zynga Network. Executives did not specify when the rollout would be complete, only saying it would be "coming soon."

More interestingly, however, is the fact that Zynga is opening up its platform to outside game studios. Zynga has invested enormous resources in creating an infrastructure that allows its own games to get up and running rapidly. It's now making those services available to other companies.

"Third parties will be able to focus on what they do best: enjoy and create beautiful games," said Kostadis Roussos, Zynga's Chief Engineer.

The services offered will include everything from marketing, to analytics, to advertising.

While opening Zynga's platform will let outside games, like Chicago-based Phosphor action-fantasy game "Horn," attract more users more quickly, working with outside studios will also be useful for Zynga. In addition to allowing it to develop a "picks and shovels" revenue stream (though the company did not disclose specifics), it will could allow the company to innovate faster.

"You get independent feedback on how the company is doing," Bing Gordon, the former Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts and the head of Kleiner Perkins' sFund, told Fast Company after the event. 

Gordon, who's an investor in Zynga, said that when you're only building for your own people, "it's hard to get clear feedback." In contrast, Gordon said he'd seen the impact of companies's opening themselves up in the e-commerce space. "When you offer services to third parties, and you have to compete in the real world, you get clear feedback on what you should do differently," he said.

That will help Zynga learn faster what really works and what needs to be improved. "In the world of interconnected media, we're creating one big learning machine," Gordon said.

Six companies joined the Zynga partner program in March when it was first announced. Today, Zynga said three studios more have joined.

Rob Dyer, Zynga's head of partner publishing, told reporters following the main event that the company expects to add "dozens" more publishers by the end of the year, and possibly "hundreds" next year.

For now, Dyer said, the company is being selective about who they're working with, focusing on games that are "high retention and high engagement"--in other words, games that share Zynga's core philosophy about what produces success and thus, presumably, are best fit to take advantage of the services Zynga offers.

The company is also prioritizing games like "shooters," sports, and "hard-core strategy" games that are meaningfully different than the FarmVille and Words with Friends types of experiences Zynga currently offers.

Down the line, however, Zynga will likely open up the network to studios that more closely compete with the company's own titles. To that end, Zynga, which has a reputation for appropriating ideas developed elsewhere, will have to go a long way toward reassuring potential partners that they're going to play nice.

"We understand that if we did something like that, we'd be out of business," said Dyer, who noted that his own office, where he builds relationships with outside companies, is located in a different building from the main Zynga headquarters, where games are developed. "I sit across the street to make sure people's ideas are safe," he said.

Read also: Most Innovative Companies: Zynga

[Image: Flickr user carterse]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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5 Comments

  • David Phan

    Their glory days are gone ever since Facebook clamped down on their "viral channels", so it's been a mad dash to clone, regurgitate and acquire with little success (*cough* OMGPOP Draw Something *cough*). With titans like GREE and DeNA getting a foothold in North America, the Zynga house of cards is going down. I imagine they're praying to the Gaming Gods to make gambling for real money type games legal.

  • Willow

    *facepalm* Yes, it's a giant mystery why myself and a lot of my friends stopped playing their games. It's not the variety. It's not the lack of a big Grand Central Station for all their games. It's the fact that we were forced into constantly begging our friends for stuff, and recruiting them harder than frickin' Amway for teeny little crumbs of rewards... and then there were new things we had to beg them for. Rather than irritate the hell out of my friends with my constant pestering, I dumped the game and blocked all further posts and invitations from Zynga on Facebook. Nice job, guys! Now I hate you! Sheesh.

  • Winbroker

    Who will retain the rights (Copyright and others) to these new games - owners or Zynga? Will they take the Facebook and Youtube tack?