Facebook and Zynga's relationship: Just how shady is it?

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Last month we talked about some of the details of an exclusive relationship between Zynga and Facebook that was revealed in their S-1 IPO filings. Some of these things were more obvious and less ominous, such as the requirement for Zynga to keep certain games on Facebook exclusively and not port them to other social networks or platforms. However, there was one little line in there that left behind a lot of uncertainty for social game developers:

The parties further acknowledge that Zynga is making a significant commitment to the Facebook Platform (i.e., using Facebook as the exclusive Social Platform on the Zynga Properties and granting FB certain title exclusivities to Zynga games on the Facebook Platform). In exchange for such commitment, the parties have committed to set certain growth targets for monthly unique users of Covered Zynga Games.
No one is exactly sure what this means, but one thing is for certain -- Zynga's Empires & Allies monthly active users graph looks particularly suspicious. In the line graph shown above, you can see the Empires and Allies peaked in traffic on July 9. From there, you can see that the game started to dramatically decline in numbers, which you will see in almost every Facebook game ever released. Social games on Facebook have an exciting climb up to their peak and then fall in numbers, spiking only with the release of new features.

However, you can see that starting on July 18, the monthly active user numbers have remained almost exactly flat. No growth, only a tiny decline that is the difference of thousands, not millions. Never before has the graph of a game looked like this. I'll go ahead and say it -- this is that Zynga/Facebook relationship at work. Facebook are doing something to help Empires & Allies remain at 45 million MAU.

It wouldn't be possible for Zynga to buy ads to keep their numbers exactly this flat. With the delayed reporting on Facebook ads, you can't buy daily ads with the intention of getting an exact number of users per day. You can't even really come all that close - especially when you're dealing with traffic numbers in the 45 million range. Especially when the daily active usage of the game looks like this:

In addition, Empires & Allies isn't retaining players well. The game is hovering between 15-17% of their monthly users coming back each day. With this kind of churn and this much fluctuation in terms of their daily playerbase, it's obvious that Facebook is pumping traffic in some fashion to the game to keep the numbers flat. They could be tweaking the ad algorithm, or doing a number of things to help Zynga maintain this number in Empires & Allies. Perhaps they are doing this until Zynga's IPO; no one can really be sure.

Other social game studios have every reason to be angry about this deal. Facebook is essentially helping the titan maintain its prowess over all the other studios, giving smaller developers little chance to make up ground. Sure, a lot of Zynga's success is compounded on their previous success -- no one is denying that Zynga are the leaders in the space. However, Facebook's special treatment feels malicious to me. It's hard enough to compete with the Zyngas and EAs of the space without having to deal with Facebook siding with a developer.

[Chart images via AppData.com]

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