Zynga’s off-Facebook games platform is still in its early days, but the growth is there and the games are running. Here’s how Zynga.com has evolved since entering open beta in March.
Like most social games, the only place for traffic to go in the first six to eight weeks is up. Growth kicked in one week after the beta launch, starting from around 1.7 million MAU and 130,000 DAU likely left over from an internal beta test. In seven days, MAU grew 11 percent to 1.9 million while DAU went up 38 percent to 180,000. By the end of the month, Zynga.com was at 2.2 million MAU and 230,000. Now, at the beginning of April, it’s up to 2.8 million MAU and 420,000 DAU.
Here’s what’s interesting: Zynga’s DAU as a percentage of MAU (which is a measure of retention) also consistently rose during the first two months.
Normally, when a social game launches, we see MAU and DAU rise while the retention rate falls. During Zynga’s Q1 2012 earnings call, COO John Schappert explained that Zynga deliberately hasn’t driven users to Zynga.com via advertising or cross-promotion. This makes the platform’s growth seem even more significant, as it’s all organic, presumably from brand recognition or invites sent to Facebook friends.
Zynga tells us that advertising for Zynga.com will be turned on later in the quarter.
Game Features – Sidebar
The sidebar module appears on the right side of the screen everywhere on Zynga.com except when a game is in fullscreen mode. At the top of the module, players can click on their name to access their profile, list of recently played games (each of which display the number of pending game requests), their RewardVille point balance or the settings menu. They can also logout or toggle chat availability on or off. Also at the top of the module are two buttons that produce a chat window or a list of friends (called zFriends).
The rest of the module changes depending on where the user is on Zynga.com. On the homepage or profile page, users see a list of zFriends sorted into those currently online and those that have played Zynga games recently. This part of the module can be toggled to show a list of suggested zFriends — some of which are not on friends with the user on Facebook. In games, the user might see a horizontal list of users that have recently helped them in-game (with links to those users’ profiles) or a live feed of activity from other players of that game. The live feed can be sorted by everyone playing that game at the time or only zFriends that have played the game.
The sidebar is also a place where we’ve seen Zynga serve ads via Google AdSense, but this has only occurred when viewing the sidebar in a game that doesn’t make use of the live feed.
Games Features – Live Feed
Zynga’s live feed (sometimes called “social stream” or “zFeed”) is a feature that currently appears in the sidebar when playing CastleVille, CityVille and Hidden Chronicles. It posts in-game requests made by both zFriends and strangers, allowing players to click on any story to send and receive rewards. The live feed is important to the platform because the main value of playing a game on Zynga.com versus Facebook is that players progress faster if their game requests are answered synchronously instead of asynchronously. It’s also a means of meeting new friends that are more likely to help you in games so that users don’t have to spam their Facebook friends list, hoping some of them play the same games.
This is where Zynga.com has seen the most change in the last two months. At first, when there were fewer users on the platform, the live feed functioned much like the real time Ticker updates on Facebook. Users would click on a game story and receive the rewards attached to that story while also sending the poster the item they’d requested. As has always been the case with Zynga games, each story generated from a request only has a certain number of rewards attached to it — and once they’ve all been distributed, a player can no longer click on that story to receive or send items.
As it turns out, supply exceeded demand — more often than not, people were clicking on live feed stories and receiving a message that all the rewards had already been claimed. Manuel Bronstein and Reed Shaffner, Zynga.com’s general manager and lead product manager, tell us that the average user clicks on stories in the live feed 200 times per session (they declined to give session lengths — but assuming Zynga.com sessions are comparable to Facebook’s five to 20 minute range, that’s a lot).
The trick, Bronstein says, was not to change the supply side (which could unbalance the game), but to adjust demand using several different methods. The most obvious one was improving sharding of different user segments so that an optimal number of players populated a feed. Next, the developer tweaked refresh rates for different feeds, slowing down the rate at which stories appeared in the feed so that people weren’t just racing to click whatever was at the top. Lastly, the platform team introduced something called the Jolts system, which lasted barely a week as it was unpopular with users.
Here’s how Jolts worked for the brief time we had them: Players received a fixed number of Jolts in a given time period to spend on clicking live feed stories. Like an energy meter, it limited the number of times a player could interact with the live feed during a session. It also allowed players to “curate” stories from the feed, looking only for the rewards they actually wanted to have (e.g. currency instead of energy refills). When players ran out of Jolts, they could to wait for the Jolt meter to refill or could earn bonus Jolts by playing other Zynga.com games.
The last option that Bronstein and Shaffner are exploring is how best to communicate to the user that all the rewards have been claimed. Beyond that, they’re looking for a way to highlight the rewards that players do earn. Even if someone clicked 200 times and only got rewards half of the time — that’s still 100 free items. Platform terminology is something we expect to continuously evolve as Zynga looks for ways to explain platform features and systems to users.
There is also the question of how best to use live feed in games where it doesn’t apparently have a use. Currently, Zynga Poker and Words With Friends use the live feed space as an area to recommend new zFriends and possibly serve ads (see below). Bronstein and Shaffner say there is likely more that can be done for these games and others where request fulfillment doesn’t drive gameplay.
Game Features – Fast Load
The fast load feature is a button that appears on the site whenever a user exits a game. Clicking this button takes the user back into the game exactly where they left off without ever showing the user a loading screen. This is a very convenient feature that will likely gain more value as Zynga adds more features to the site that could potentially draw someone out of one game and into another or into a community event (e.g. a tournament or some other group activity). This is one Zynga.com-created feature that we could see Facebook adopting in the future if enough demand for quick-loading canvas apps emerges.
The Zynga.com user profile focuses on the way a person engages with games, displaying most-played games, recent games activity, zFriends on the platform and the number of friends the user has helped and the number of times they’ve helped friends in games for the week. In the past two months, the profile itself hasn’t gotten much of an update, although the sidebar on the profile page and the homepage now shows users which of their friends have played Zynga games recently.
Interestingly, the profile pictures displayed in this module indicate whether a friend is playing games on Zynga.com or on Facebook as all games on Zynga.com are synchronous with Facebook canvas. Facebook friends have a Facebook icon on the bottom of their profile picture while Zynga.com friends do not. Both players will receive an icon in the upper part of their profile picture indicating which platform game they’ve played most recently (no game icon seems to mean that user hasn’t played a Zynga game). Nowhere else on the site does Zynga.com differentiate between platform and Facebook players.
Lastly, the profile page is another venue where Zynga has explored serving display ads. So far, we’ve only encountered banner ads for furniture boutique One King’s Lane (which incidentally was co-founded by Alison Pincus, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus’s wife) on our profile page. These appear farther down the page beside the recent games activity feed, often requiring a user to scroll in order to see the entire ad.
While Zynga declined to share session times or specific retention numbers, it seems as though engagement for Zynga.com games has the potential to be higher than what those games currently see on Facebook. Bronstein and Shaffner did share an emerging user behavior where players would log into Zynga.com to play a game — and then play the game again on Facebook later, picking up where they’d left off. Bronstein says Zynga owes this new behavior to the early decision the platform team made on keeping the game experience consistent and synchronous with Facebook canvas, right down to Credits as the sole payment method. Bronstein reports that monetization on the platform is “good,” but declined to elaborate.
The other thing that seems to be working is the synchronous nature of the platform. The counter that appears below Zynga’s logo on the lefthand side of the screen counts the number of users active on the platform concurrently — and refreshes every 60 seconds. That number has gone as high as 1.8 million during our own sessions; Zynga declined to give a specific number. The high demand for items out of the live feed also serves as proof of concept, even if there are some complications in managing demand.
At present, there are no features on the platform that prevent a user from playing games on Zynga.com as intended. The short-lived Jolts system, however, reveals that any sort of limitation on player activity will likely not work for Zynga.com. Synchronicity will also be an ongoing challenge for Zynga to manage on its platform, as it comes from an asynchronous background on Facebook and may not be prepared to manage demand across a broad range of systems.
There may be some issues in getting Facebook users to convert to Zynga.com players, on account of users having to approve a new set of permissions in order to use Zynga.com. The way the dialogue appears (see below) may also make less-informed users wary, as they may be confused by giving a company access to their data, versus a specific game.
What could really hinder Zynga.com’s growth down the line is discoverability. Facebook itself and many other games networks have struggled with the best way to help users find games, and no one solution has proved perfect. Bronstein says the platform team will consider everything from friend-recommended games and other types of social discovery to ratings systems or other means of sorting. Currently, with just five games on Zynga.com, it’s not a problem the developer has had much time to experiment with solving.
You can track Zynga.com’s progress with our AppData traffic monitoring service.