Zynga Wants to Cut Out Social Network Middleman

Social gaming company announces new stand-alone community

At its "Zynga Unleashed" event Tuesday, social game maker Zynga hinted at plans to create a closer relationship with its players through a new initiative code-named Project Z. It's part of an effort that CEO Mark Pincus said has been in the works for two years, which he's calling Zynga Direct and billing as the first time the social gaming giant has offered "a platform for direct relationships with consumers."

Zynga didn't demonstrate the product and only offered the broad strokes of what the experience should be like. A commercial promised that Project Z would be "the world's largest play community"—a site where people can navigate among all of Zynga's games and find other people to play with.

Project Z would be a way for the company to reduce its dependence on Facebook, since players will be able to sign-up and play directly with Zynga, rather than going through the social network. However, Zynga isn't completely cutting Facebook out of the equation. Chief operating officer John Schappert said Project Z will be "inter-operable," meaning that players can start games on Facebook and then carry them over to the new site, or vice versa, and Project Z users can also connect with their friends via Facebook Connect.

"Zynga Unleashed" was the company's first press conference since it moved to new offices in San Francisco. (It was also the first since Zynga filed for its IPO.) A crowd of employees watched the talks from the floors above, and they were the source of the loudest cheers throughout the event. The company also unveiled a large slate of new games, including HTML5 versions of Zynga Poker, FarmVille, and Words With Friends that tap into Facebook's new mobile platform.

The most ambitious game discussed may have been CastleVille, which Zynga Dallas has supposedly been developing for more than a year. The Dallas team is based around Zynga's acquisition of a more traditional game developer, Bonfire Studios, and it's pitching CastleVille as a way to bring the appeal of multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft to a more casual audience. Pincus returned to this idea at the end of the conference, saying that Zynga's goal is to create something like World of Warcraft, but in a way "that you can understand and like in three clicks."