Zynga's new platform may be first step toward Facebook divorce

Social gaming giant Zynga formally unveiled its Zynga Platform on Thursday, freeing itself from the constraints of Facebook's locked down social least, partially.
Social gaming giant Zynga formally unveiled its Zynga Platform on Thursday, freeing itself from the constraints of least, partially. The web-based platform, launching later this month on, will separate the company's games from many of its Facebook constraints, placing users in an environment where nothing will distract them from the company's bottom line: no friend requests, event invites, YouTube links, or pet photos will be seen here. It is as if Facebook was stripped away of everything that isn't a Zynga game. The move, says the company, is the result of its years-in-the-making attempt to not only increase the retention of existing social game players, but to draw in those who aren't already playing. Zynga's mantra -- repeated to Gamasutra by no less than three employees in two separate phone calls -- is to see 1 billion people playing its games together. And with a current monthly active user count north of 240 million, the company says that number is more than feasible. But is cutting out all of the other social networking distractions enough to do that? And furthermore, is Zynga making its first step toward eventually divorcing itself from Facebook? Friend...or zFriend? Zynga's internal research suggests that players of its games (or indeed, any games) stick around longer if they have more people to play with. And on Zynga's new platform, the company hopes, finding new playmates should be a snap. "They want a place where they can find dedicated social games, where the feed is just about gaming," Zynga's John Schappert tells Gamasutra. Schappert is the well-known COO the company poached from EA last year.'s "Social Stream" connects players who aren't necessarily friends.
In this new Zynga Platform environment, users will be able to expand their pool of game-playing allies without necessarily tapping into their Facebook friends feed. Zynga is calling these new proto-friends "zFriends." zFriends can be discovered and connected with in a way new for the company: typically when playing a social game on Facebook, players are limited to their personal friends feed in order to tap into the social aspects of its games, such as item requests. On the Zynga Platform, the company is introducing what it's calling the Social Stream, which allows players to send out requests to thousands of other people playing the game, friends or otherwise. Players can then connect with each other as zFriends, and continue playing together without necessarily accessing each others' personal information. The feature, says the company, should keep players engaged longer: rather than sitting back to wait for their traditional friends to help, players should receive near-instant gratification from an enormous pool of candidates. Leaving Facebook Behind? would appear to most observers as Zynga's first step toward an eventual divorce from its co-dependent relationship with Facebook, the social network that claims some 30 percent of its microtransaction revenues. Industry watchers may remember some tension between the two companies back in 2010, when Zynga CEO Mark Pincus publicly called out the social network for its closed network, amongst rumors that Zynga would cut itself off from the network after Facebook made its Facebook Credits currency system mandatory. The two companies eventually reached an agreement that sees Zynga continuing to monetize its games using Facebook Credits until sometime in 2015. And, indeed, will continue to use Facebook Credits, as well as Facebook Connect, but is Zynga setting itself up for complete independence once that agreement has expired? Repeated questions to COO John Schappert on the subject did not reveal much in the way of its future plans ("We have a great relationship with them," he said more than once), though it is hard to imagine the company -- which was responsible for 12 percent of Facebook's revenues in 2011 -- isn't itching to cut out the middle-man on its microtransactions.
Will they go? The question remains: will Zynga's rabid playerbase bother going to another website to play its games, leaving the comfort of Facebook behind? "I think we're going to find that out as we launch and make progress," Schappert tells us. "We're trying to make the friction as low as possible. You log in on Facebook Connect, you pay with Facebook Credits. We didn't want to break that user experience, we want to make it as seamless as possible." To get an audience of 240 million players to emigrate would be quite a task. Getting that number up to 1 billion, as the company claims it can do, will be even harder. But Schappert seems bullishly optimistic that it will happen. "It will happen organically," he says. "People will choose where they want to play." The Zynga Platform will launch on later this month.

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