Zynga announced its third-party publishing branch of Zynga.com today with inaugural partners MobScience and Row Sham Bow. Each studio explains to us how they overcame the bad press surrounding Zynga’s developer relations practices.
We’ve heard the stories and seen the clones — any third-party developer always takes a risk in showing a larger developer-publisher its unreleased game (non-disclosure agreements notwithstanding). If the bigger studio can do it better and/or faster, why would they waste resources on publishing or even mergers-and-acquisitions instead of building the game themselves? Just because it’s good business sense, however, doesn’t mean it’s popular. Earlier this year, Zynga caught a lot of flak for launching mobile game Dream Heights, a fast-follow of NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, which Zynga allegedly declined to acquire in previous discussions with the developer. Two and three years ago, Zynga was also criticized for Cafe World (which followed Playfish’s Restaurant City), PetVille (which followed Playfish’s Pet Society) and Mafia Wars (which followed Psycho Monkey’s Mob Wars and even caused a lawsuit).
Publishing can be a lucrative business for video game developers, however. It also goes a long way toward establishing a stable business model that investors already understand from seeing it done in traditional video games. With all that ugly history behind it, however, Zynga potentially created an environment where developers wouldn’t trust it enough to go the publishing route.
But at the same time, the Facebook landscape changed. It was no longer possible for a developer to leverage open viral channels to grow a new game to more than 4 million monthly active users in a matter of months. The quality bar shot up in graphics and technology, and with no virality to offset the cost of user acquisition, the landscape of competitive game development shifted — to the point where finding a publishing partner is worth the risk of being cloned.
This is the reality MobScience and Row Sham Bow faced when Zynga began hunting for third-party partners on its platform. And it’s largely what motivated them to take the plunge.
“To make a sustainable business out of a game, you need to have a very large marketing budget and become really good at traffic arbitrage,” MobScience CEO Michael Witz tells us. “That’s not an easy skill and contrary to marketing claims by ad companies, is not something that can just be outsourced. We want to focus our energy on building great games, not on creating a marketing arbitrage company.”
Row Sham Bow CEO Philip Holt agrees: “We’re a small company that has been in business for less than a year. For me, this is a natural progression for a company like Zynga. [Our game,] Woodland Heroes gets access to an unbelievably large audience that we could never create on our own and Zynga gets to add a unique and charming game to its portfolio of games.”
An image shift for Zynga also helped convince the developers of the company’s good intentions. Back in December 2011, Sony Computer Entertainment America’s then-SVP of Publisher Relations Rob Dyer left the company to head up partner publishing relations at Zynga. Turns out, Holt knew him — and several other Zynga contacts that reassured him of the company’s ability to forge lasting relationships with third-party developers.
“When Zynga brought on Rob Dyer and Nathan Bosia to head up their third-party group, that really spoke volumes to me,” Holt says. “Not only have I known those guys for a decade, but coming from a world class third party publishing organization like SCEA, they really understand the challenges of setting up and running a successful third party business inside a first party organization. The fact that Zynga brought them in tells me they understand the sensitivities and want to do this right.”
Beyond that, there’s also the sincere hope that Zynga’s platform will bring back some of the virality social games lost on Facebook. Witz calls it the “vision of owning the skyscraper on the Internet for ‘play’.”
“I may be naive, but I actually think Zynga’s vision […] is a real possibility and at the very least a damn great vision to pursue,” he says. “It’s in Zynga’s economic interest to build a thriving, vibrant platform where third parties can grow and become successful. With 250 million monthly users, Zynga is not just the largest social gaming company, they are social gaming. So the opportunity for massive distribution is obviously a highly compelling attraction.”
Zynga’s platform, Zynga.com, will launch with five of its own games starting this month. We haven’t been told when to expect partner games on the platform. Read our in-depth walkthrough of the platform here.