Okay, so this is no secret: Zynga is really, really coming after mobile. Pundits have been attacking the company for relying too heavily on its Facebook titles (because they only have 300 million players on this platform, the losers) and not mastering the more fickle and complex world of smartphone apps.
It’s not like Zynga hasn’t tried. It has ported over a big bunch of its titles to iOS and Android, and now has 22 million daily users across its ‘portfolio’. It has a new ‘match three’ puzzler named Matching With Friends out while a mobile version of its other match three title Ruby Blast is also on the way, featuring cross-platform multiplayer. It is also adding to Draw Something, with some major new features expected late in the summer. Apparently, the game is on the cusp of reaching its ten billionth drawing.
But realising it needs extra help to grow in a way that’s sexy to investors (oh god, that sounded wrong), the San Fran super giant has announced Zynga Partners For Mobile. This is, of course, a partner programme in which Zynga will host games by third-party developers across its mobile infrastructure. The company will give studios access to its advertising system and amazing analytics in return for a share of revenues. At the moment, it is hand-picking a bunch of developers to test the whole idea out. Among them are two British studios, Crash Lab and Fat Pebble, as well as, Chicago-based Phosphor Games, which is making a fantasy action adventure named Horn.
This could be the key trendsetter for Zynga. Horn is very much a ‘hardcore’ console-like game, something Zynga is highly unlikely to build in one of its own studios. It seems the company is using its partners programme, not just to expand its presence in the mobile sector, but also to broaden its reach into new genres.
So what’s Zynga like to work with? At the company’s Unleashed event this week we managed to grab Alain Tascan, CEO of Sava Transmedia, the developer behind early Partners title, Rubber Tacos. He started by explaining how the deal came about. “For an independent developer starting out now, it’s very difficult to get the reach that more established developers have,” he explained. “So we made a prototype and I went to see everyone who was publishing games on Facebook and mobile. I took it to EA, Activision, Zynga, everyone, and got lots of positive feedback. What we wanted to know was, what could they do for us? The publishing team at Zynga really demonstrated a real expertise – their games are played by hundreds of millions of people. they also showed an incredible will to push our game forward. And the business deals are very fair. For a developer for us, to learn from Zynga and use their teams, it will improve the game, and as owner of the IP that’s what we want.”
I had to ask the obvious question – was there any trepidation about partnering with a company that has not always had the best reputation, especially among smaller indie-minded studios. “You know, I’ve worked for EA and Ubisoft,” said Tascan. “When you’re number one you’re seen as a monster, as aggressive. But the reality is, when you talk to them, you find people who are listening, who are very driven – when you’re on their side… it’s been a real pleasure.”
Oh, okay then! We’ll be talking to the Brits too, of course, but that’s quite a positive response from Tascan. He also went on to talk about Zynga’s valuable play testing; the company has been exploring what it call the ‘first time user experience’ – those first few minutes a potential consumer spends with a new game. This is a major area of interest for Zynga. Later in the day, they explained to journalists that their analytics tech is so capable, it can tell within minutes of a new title’s launch whether consumers like the game or not, based on their activities and drop-out points.
The other key thing is that the mobile partners will get access to Zynga With Friends, the company’s social gaming platform which will allow cross-platform multiplayer, chat and social networking, plugging a bunch of small studios into this massive infrastructure populated by hundreds of millions of casual gamers.
That’s the plan anyway. So far, there are only a handful of studios on the programme, although Zynga says it has had hundreds of requests and is planning to open up the partnership idea to a wider set of developers soon.
Instinctively, there’s a sort of knee jerk cynicism about all this, just as there was when EA launched its own partners programming, overseeing the likes of Orange Box and Secret World, as well as indie hits Shank and Death Spank. It will be interesting to see how the development community reacts to this hulking behemoth, with its interesting approach to originality and concept discovery coming in and cherry-picking the brightest new talents. It’ll probably be a while yet before the company shakes its evil image, but this may be a gentle shuffle in the right direction. Or at least a new direction – which is all the investors care about.