The new Zynga.com is one step closer to truly social games [Interview]

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CastleVille on Zynga.com
"We foresee a future where a billion people could play together. It's no so distant--it's not tomorrow, but it shouldn't be that far. There are two things we believe we need to make that mission of a billion people playing together happen," Manuel Bronstein, GM of the Zynga Direct initiative at the FarmVille maker, tells us. "One is we need to make sure there are more things that they can play. The second part of the equation is ... how do you get that billion people to play together?"

With the brand new Zynga.com slated to enter open beta this month, Zynga seems one step closer to not only that lofty goal, but almost shutting the detractors of social games right up. The new Zynga.com, the result of Zynga's Project Z and Zynga Direct initiatives, serves as new place to play both the developer's games and soon games from other creators.

To start, players can enjoy CityVille, CastleVille, Hidden Chronicles, Zynga Poker and Words With Friends on Zynga.com. Despite speculation that Project Z was Zynga's way out of Facebook, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Facebook is here to stay. In fact, Zynga.com requires that every user has a Facebook account.
Zynga.com Home Page

"For all of the speculation and business reasons, at the end of the day, we're focused on making Zynga.com an awesome player experience," Zynga.com lead product manager Reed Shaffner admits. "It may be hard to believe, but we've really just been laser-focused on how can we make our games better, how can we build a destination that's entirely dedicated to play and how can we give people that deep gaming community."

Since Zynga.com requires a Facebook account, players' hard-earned game boards and Facebook Credits will all be available to them. For instance, if players were to log into CityVille on Zynga.com and a moment later log into the game on Facebook, they would see at the exact same game board. However, Zynga.com more about what's happening around the games than changing the games themselves.

We were recently shown how Zynga.com essentially turns its traditionally asynchronous social games into nearly real-time experiences. To the right of the each game screen is what Zynga calls the Social Stream. It's essentially a real-time crawl of all the things that not just your friends, but every Zynga game player on the network at that time are doing. This is your Facebook News Feed, but with just the game stuff and including every Zynga player.
CityVille on Zynga.com
That's cute and all, but this Social Stream is entirely interactive. For instance, Shaffner showed us one player who offered an item in the Social Stream, which he clicked. Sadly, the item had already been claimed--following the rules of engagement set in place on Facebook. Shaffner then clicked on another, a flower box that a player posted. Immediately after clicking the message in the Social Stream, the flowers appeared at his avatar's feet in CastleVille.

This instant gratification and real-time interaction is what the new Zynga.com is all about. "We came to the realization that, every time you play one of our games, there's a lot of people playing concurrently with you. Today, when you're playing those games, you don't necessarily feel that," Bronstein admits. "There might be 300,000 people playing CityVille with you, you're not necessarily connected with that community. You're gonna see us emphasizing how can we actually make the experience more social by making it feel more real-time."

This emphasis on making Zynga's existing games as real-time as possible extends into the platform's live chat. Players can chat with their friends just above the Social Stream regardless of the game that they're playing, which is prominently displayed. Furthermore, players can throw energy their friends' way from within the chat window, across games. This feature and the Social Stream are a dangerous combination for players that only want to play for minutes a day.
Zynga.com Profile Page
There are other ways that Zynga looks to reach 1 billion players, like clever matchmaking. Zynga.com recommends new friends to players based on factors like whether they enjoy similar games, have friends in common, how often they play, how often they help others and how skilled they are. And players can add others as zFriends, an extension of the features found in FarmVille and CityVille that allow players to make friends without adding them on Facebook.

"Those people that play our games, especially our 'Ville games, they're probably familiar with 'Add Me' lists," Shaffner tell us. "FarmVille will post a community update and you'll see 650 comments that say, 'Add me, I'm a daily player.' And we wanted to give people a better way to find the right folks to play their games with."

But the new Zynga.com is about even more than that: This is Zynga's move to become a publisher of sorts. The developer also announced Zynga Platform Partners, a program through which the company will bring third party social game makers into Zynga.com, promoting their games among its own and offering several lines of support to ensure that said games are successful. The first game makers to jump on board with Zynga Platform Partners are Woodland Heroes creator Row Sham Bow, Mobscience, the developer behind inFamous Anarchy and Sava.
Hidden Chronicles on Zynga.com
"If we can give you the audience, and then we can give you the tools to scale, then it's great for a game developer to come into the network and grow with us," Bronstein says. "Those are services like infrastructure, but could go from payments and analytics to leader boards and all of our gaming features that make play better so that they can concentrate on building their games."

As much as some independent game makers would avoid such an offer, we can't imagine that too many would, given what's on the table. With that, Zynga could perhaps compete with the likes of EA or Disney as not just a top social game creator, but a top social game publisher. Regardless, it's been stressed time and again to us who Zynga.com is all about.

"One of the metaphors we use is that we want [Zynga.com] to be like a dial tone for play," Shaffner says. "We want you to be able to come onto Zynga, wherever you're playing in the future, pick up the phone and on the other end there's someone that's great for you to play with."


Are you excited by the sound of Zynga.com? What do you think this means for competing social game creators and publishers? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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