Zynga's secret to success: connecting casual friends

Zynga's chief game designer reveals that linking acquaintances makes the company successful

While enjoyable to play for many, the runaway success of the online games from Zynga can largely be attributed to how they bring together acquaintances who otherwise wouldn't have much to say to one another, the company's chief game designer said on Tuesday.

"The games are about keeping in touch with people you care about," said Brian Reynolds, who spoke at the Engage digital gaming conference being held this week New York, in conjunction with Toy Fair 2011.

And while close friends certainly play Zynga games with one another, the average user interacts more on FarmVille or MafiaWars with acquaintances "they wouldn't normally have conversations with," Reynolds said, in a talk promising to reveal Zynga's secrets to success.

Since it was founded in 2007, Zynga has been a runaway success, garnering over 360 million monthly users of games such as FarmVille, Mafia Wars and CityVille.

Hardcore gamers may scoff at the easy playability of Zynga's games, but Reynolds asserted that Zynga represents the future of the gaming industry, one in which games are created for a mass audience. "Games are no longer just for geeks," Reynolds said.

The idea seems have some backing: The Wall Street Journal reported that investment firms have estimated that the company could be worth as much as $9 billion. If true, this service provider of lightweight social games would be worth more than what is traditionally thought of as the largest digital gaming company, Electronic Arts, which currently enjoys a market cap of around $6.18 billion.

Zynga has focused on developing games that "everyone can play," Reynolds said, dismissing games like World of Warcraft as being targeted for "hardcore gamers." He said the trend is toward game concepts, such as running a city or a farm, that can be enjoyed by a wider, if more casual, audience.

The most powerful aspect of such games, he said, is that they provide a way for people to communicate with one another, especially those who might not otherwise have a lot to say.

Reynolds points to the composition of most people's friends list on Facebook, where a considerable number of Zynga games are played. While a few people on any person's friends list are close friends, most are more distant acquaintances, such as ex-coworkers, far-flung relatives, college or high school friends. These are people that a person presumably cares about, though not enough to engage in day-to-day conversation with.

Social games allows such casual acquaintances a way to interact, by working on a common project, Reynolds said.

Also important to Zynga's success is the asynchronous nature of the games. Role playing games such as World of Warcraft requires that a group of friends all meet on the service at the same time should they want to play together, Reynolds said.

In contrast, friends can play Zynga games at any time, while still feel like they are collaborating. Zynga games are particularly well-suited for filling up the random stretches of time in between daily activities. Users can play for a minute or two in the middle of the night, while waiting for a plane, or between tasks at work.

"While you're watching me, your employees are playing our games," Reynolds joked.

Reynolds noted that Zynga enjoyed some advantages over traditional gaming companies. Because its games are lighter, they can be developed more rapidly than the three-year cycle that is the norm of the gaming industry. Fewer designers are needed per game, and the stakes are lower for each release, should a game fail to capture the public's imagination.

In addition, because the graphics are constrained by the limitations of online bandwidth, designers must focus on the elements of gameplay rather than the look-and-feel of the game.

Another crucial element of Zynga's success is that its games allow people to express themselves, Reynolds asserted. The game should be both open ended enough and include enough creative elements so that when users complete some goal or create something, it becomes an expression of their personality.

As an example of expressiveness, Reynolds notes that some Zynga games allow their players' characters to marry fictional spouses. As a result over 646,000 of these unions are same-sex marriages. By way of comparison, he noted that there are only about 150,000 legally recognized same-sex unions in the U.S.

The games should also allow a mechanism to share their creative works. He admitted that the Zynga seeds its status messages that get shared on Facebook with coyly provocative assertions, such as "Margaret needs a few good screws," or "Scott just got the wood," in hopes that users will share these with a knowing wink-and-a-nod.

"Yeah this is what we do, make stupid jokes with one another," he said. "People want ways to start conversations with one another."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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Joab Jackson

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