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Zynga and the rise of social
gaming on the web

by Eric Oldrin

Despite the recession, the social gaming industry is taking off — and Zynga is at the forefront. Founded in 2007 by Mark Pincus and named after his American Bulldog, Zynga has become one of the largest social gaming companies on the web. Many of its products, including the incredibly popular Texas Hold'Em, are developed using Adobe Flash Platform technologies.

Zynga's games are mainly developed for social networking sites, most notably Facebook. Social games are relatively simple by design: they're mostly asynchronous, turn-based games that are often more about interacting with friends than winning.

We sat down with Product Lead Justin Waldron and VP of Marketing Brandon Barber to discuss social gaming, Zynga's success, and how the Flash Platform comes into play for them.

Social capital

Zynga's first game, Texas Hold'Em, helped the company work through many challenges in developing social games and apply the lessons learned to all its products (see Figure 1). "Poker is hundreds and hundreds of years old. And there are so many Texas Hold'Em products out there," says Barber. "What Zynga did was really figure out how to tune that experience for social gaming, and a lot of the learning from Texas Hold'Em has turned into a playbook for our other products."

Texas Hold'Em screen

Figure 1. Zynga's Texas Hold'Em takes the classic game and adds innovative social features, including a friend finder, chip gifting, and player rankings.

Zynga has expanded that playbook to produce other popular games such as YoVille (see Figure 2), following basic principles the company has developed over time. "Within our games, there is a theory that we spend a lot of time thinking about social capital," Barber explains. "Actions have a frequency and a value both in the real world and on social networks — from waving at someone at the end of the hall or loaning them $500 to poking someone on Facebook or writing a recommendation on LinkedIn."

YoVille screen shot

Figure 2. In YoVille, you can hang out with your friends and help build the coolest virtual world on Facebook and MySpace.

"It's a natural extension of the real world," Waldron says. "And we've been able to create social actions that are more relevant in a game than in a social network. The context of the game makes those actions more valuable."

Zynga looks for ways to help users increase social capital, from commenting on a player's performance to gifting chips. Barber continues, "We're constantly looking at that dynamic and asking how we can increase that social capital. As we increase that capital, people will get more enjoyment from our game because they feel like they're getting value back for what they're doing."

That value might be simple interaction, social status, or lasting relationships. "There's a bonding aspect as well," Barber says. "These actions bring people closer to you and allow you to know them better."

Barber continues, "Games have been social since the dawn of games. But when we say social, we're talking about something that enables you to have an unhindered experience only limited by the number of people you bring into it. You're able to scale to a massive social graph inside the game." This scalability can result in rapid expansion of audience and a particularly long time-on-site. According to a recent Business Week article, the number of people playing social games is expected to surge from 50 million in 2008 to 250 million in 2009.

Currently the top application maker on Facebook, Zynga applications focus on building features that encourage these social dynamics. Texas Hold'Em, which sees 1.8 million players a day, prominently displays social status through chip count, encourages invitations by awarding more chips, enables users to chat with one another at the table, and encourages gifting to new players. The YoVille virtual world is a social application in and of itself and attracts 775,000 people a day. Players earn points simply by interacting with one another and using those points to purchase virtual goods, essentially raising their social status.

As it turns out, these social dynamics are also ideal touchpoints to monetize. According to Business Week, Zynga has annual sales of about $100 million. The site gets some revenue from selling ads but most comes from the 2–10% of users who pay $1 per hour to play premium games or buy virtual goods.

The Adobe Flash Platform

The Flash Platform has long been one of the most popular technologies for building applications on Facebook. "We can count on all users having Flash Player software installed," says Waldron. "And it enables us to deliver large-scale live experiences like Poker and YoVille. We often have more than 250,000 concurrent users on Poker, and the Flash Platform enables that."

According to Barber, Zynga relies on the Flash Platform because it is a common, stable, and simple solution, and it enables Zynga to duplicate that real-world Poker experience and deliver an immersive, high-quality experience. Social gaming is in many ways less about gaming and more about socializing, which means the environment, the objects, the interactions — the social capital — become much more important.

"When social status is built around chip count, it's absolutely vital to have a bulletproof platform like Flash," says Barber. "Flash enables us to duplicate that real-world Poker experience. There's a fundamental level of quality we're able to build into the game."

This immersive Flash experience has become synonymous with social capital. According to a recent article on Facebook Review, "[YoVille] is extremely well developed with a highly responsive virtual environment that makes the virtual world of YoVille easy to navigate and play…. Overall the application is very advanced in terms of visual interface compared to other games on Facebook."

Zynga's games are available on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Tagged, Yahoo!, and the iPhone and iPod Touch, and include Texas Hold'Em Poker, Mafia Wars, YoVille, Vampires, Street Racing, Scramble, and Word Twist. Zynga is headquartered at the Chip Factory in San Francisco, California. For more information, visit zynga.com or twitter.com/zynga.

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Eric Oldrin is Executive Producer / General Manager at Digital Kitchen.