What Do Facebook’s Developer Traffic Targets Really Mean for Zynga (and Everyone Else)?

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By Eric Eldon Comment

Many social game developers were surprised this month when Zynga published terms of its agreements with Facebook as part of its S-1 filing to go public, because it seemed to show that Facebook was promising traffic for Zynga’s games on web and mobile platforms.

By agreeing to make Facebook Zynga’s exclusive social platform, the document said, Facebook would in turn make sure that Zynga achieved certain web and mobile traffic goals or else the exclusivity would no longer apply.

Complicating matters, the target numbers and key terms around them were redacted from the published document, so Zynga’s competitors — and the investors who are considering buying Zynga’s public stock — have been left guessing about what the numbers really mean. Facebook could be promising .01% growth or 100% growth. Or, more fundamentally, it could be promising something vague, like the platform growing by a certain number of users overall, and the developer simply seeing growth as part of that. Without more information, other developers we’ve spoken with have tended to assume that the impact was significant, and unfair.

Facebook Responds

But now Facebook is trying to explain what’s really going on, although it’s still not discussing the specific agreements with Zynga and other developers. The traffic targets aren’t as meaningful as they might seem, says Dan Rose, Facebook’s vice president of partnerships and platform marketing. “We aren’t doing anything — we’ve never done anything — that was designed to grow any one developer at the expense of others. Everything we’ve done has been for the platform, and developers with great games benefit from those products.”

Facebook, he explains, is not specifically promising any developer that their games are going to reach certain traffic numbers because they signed on to this agreement. Without going into much detail, he says that the targets are more about Facebook outlining how it hopes to grow the platform, and how the particular developer will benefit from that growth. In fact, from Facebook’s perspective, it’d be great if the company could get every developer signed on to this type of agreement.

“There are no special advantages around growth targets or anything else. Period,” he emphasizes.

So Is There Evidence of Any Special Benefits?

Overall, Zynga’s main traffic growth occurred over 2009, when it launched a range of iterative simulation titles, and grew them through aggressive viral tactics, Facebook ad spending, and cross-promotion from existing titles. Since then, its traffic has had overall declines except for when it launched new games, with total its DAU count (not the target “monthly unique user” metric in the addendum) never passing its 2009 peaks.

Other developers have in the meantime been watching for any oddities around Zynga traffic that might show some sort of special benefit.

Example 1: When CityVille launched late November of 2010, a number of factors went Zynga’s way, as this anonymous Quora user notes. At launch time, Facebook began testing out a new viral channel: requests as notifications. While some other developers were, from our understanding, getting access to this feature around the same time, the then-new feature could have helped CityVille get an all-important wave of early traffic. So did a 3-day bug that exposed CityVille traffic to non-gaming users — something Facebook had otherwise stopped doing months earlier. It also seemed as if Zynga was beating certain spam limits on email, as we and others observed at the time.

But do these instances add up to a special deal? The addendum was only signed at the end of December, weeks after the launch, so the CityVille launch wouldn’t have been covered by it. And each of the examples above can sort of be explained. The news feed issue could have been an accident — we doubt Facebook would ever intentionally introduce a bug. And as far as the email spam goes, Zynga may have just been committing some platform violations. If it was, it would have (or at least should have) been hit with Facebook’s long-standing methods of terms enforcement, such as algorithmically reduced invite allocations based on user feedback.

Rose says that Facebook does test new features with some developers before turning them on to the user base.

Example 2: Some developers are now pointing out that Zynga’s latest Facebook game, Empires & Allies, has nearly flat traffic by monthly active users at slightly under 45 million, according to our¬†AppData¬†tracking service. The speculation is that Facebook is somehow propping up these numbers instead of letting them fall naturally.

But that’s a logical leap, as Zynga could be taking any number of steps, from running ads, to pushing cross-promotions and other normal efforts to keep numbers at that level (although that precise of a flattening is not easy to create).

Conclusion

Facebook seems to be achieving its larger goal in any case. Zynga began pulling its games off of other social networks last year, including from Tagged and MySpace. Up through the launch of Zynga City on Tencent in mainland China later this month (where Facebook is banned), all of its social platform launches have occurred on Facebook, at least that we know of. And web-based Zynga games like FarmVille.com and the relevant mobile apps have also shown the Facebook integration spelled out in the addendum, rather than relying on other social platform providers.

So, overall, we still don’t know all the details of the agreement. But at least Facebook is now explaining itself. And up to this point, there hasn’t been convincing evidence showing otherwise.

We’re interested to hear back from other developers who have signed similar agreements, or are considering doing so. Please email eric (at) insidenetwork (dot) com if you’d like to discuss on or off the record.

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