Zynga, American Express Farm Game Cash—With Real Dollars

Rewards program to eventually include offline discounts

A new plant has cropped up in FarmVille. Starting Tuesday, players of Zynga’s FarmVille game can sign up for an account with American Express’s PayPal-rival Serve (or connect with their existing Serve account) to get in-game FarmCash in exchange for taking real world actions such as adding money to their Serve card.

“When you look at Zynga, they have obviously got a portfolio of online games which have got really highly engaged users, and what this partnership creates is the opportunity to provide a link to the offline world for that high level of online engagement,” said David Messenger, evp of online and mobile at American Express.

Zynga maintains 292 million monthly active users and 65 million daily active users, with FarmVille alone notching 22.5 million monthly active users, said Jeff Karp, Zynga’s chief marketing and revenue officer.

To enroll in the rewards program—which launches with FarmVille but will eventually roll out to CastleVille and CityVille—players have to plant a Serve Money Tree that will act as the program’s hub and provide an in-game dashboard allowing players to track their rewards. Eventually, players who opt in will be able to receive Farm Cash for all purchases made with the Serve card, but at launch, transaction-based rewards will be limited to the first five purchases of $25 and up. Players can also earn FarmCash for in-game actions. For example, harvesting the Money Tree will garner a player up to seven FarmCash.

Zynga and American Express plan to build out the program over five stages. Tuesday’s launch marks stage one, with upcoming possibilities including the rewards reversing from in-game to the real world like discounts on a cup of coffee, said Karp. “So not only is the Money Tree in the game but [it’s] actually giving you the opportunities to get discounts and physical rewards as well, ultimately blurring the lines between the virtual world and the physical world,” he said.

The AmEx partnership isn’t the first time Zynga has connected online and offline. In February, the social gaming company announced a licensing deal with toymaker Hasbro to create co-branded physical toys and games. In AmEx’s case, there’s also an offline goods element. As part of the partnership, American Express is offering a pair of co-branded prepaid Serve cards that will be mailed to players who sign up for the program. Zynga and AmEx teased the program last week with the introduction of a Serve-branded FarmVille farm that received 500,000 likes in five days, said Karp.

American Express has launched a volley of initiatives over the past year-plus that connect offline purchases with online accounts—most recently the ability for Twitter users to sync their AmEx cards to receive hashtagged offers—and Messenger said the Zynga deal “is the next building block towards a broader vision of where we can go.” And it’s the latest step in a partnership between the two companies that stems back to November 2010 when AmEx began letting cardmembers buy in-game virtual goods with their Membership Rewards points.