Zynga’s Project Z Network No Threat to Facebook for Now

Zynga’s newly-christened “Project Z” (or “Zynga Direct,” to hear CEO Mark Pincus tell it) is a forthcoming social games platform and social network enabled through Facebook Connect. It is also, some say, Zynga’s bid for independence from Facebook — but the details of the platform don’t support the claim any more than Zynga’s own behavior in the past year.

For nearly two years, the world has been watching for signs of trouble in the relationship between one of the world’s largest social networks and its largest third-party developer. Seventeen months ago, there were spats about Facebook Credits integration, sudden platform changes that curbed viral growth for social games, and even rumored threats that Zynga would quit the platform.

Since that time, however, Zynga has gone on to launch four more social games for Facebook, as well as a series of mobile games that leverage Facebook Connect. True, the company also launched an off-Facebook player reward network and put some of its games on Google’s competing social network games platform. But in all this time, Zynga hasn’t actually done anything to cut ties with Facebook.

If anything, the ties are deepening as Zynga prepares an initial public offering based mostly on the strength of its revenues from Facebook players. According to statements made by Pincus and Zynga COO John Schappert at today’s Unleashed event in San Francisco, Project Z is enabled with Facebook Connect at a level of integration so deep that Facebook is actually a “launch partner” for the network. Zynga also supported Facebook’s launch of its mobile platform with three HTML5 games based on its most popular franchises. And with each new game release, Zynga seems to showcase more and more of Facebook’s newest social game features well before other social game developers even begin to experiment with them. It seems that the special relationship referenced in S-1 documentation filed by Zynga continues even as Zynga expands its reach to other networks.

Even if Project Z launched tomorrow and Zynga’s IPO were delayed into Q2 2012, the idea that Zynga could somehow be completely independent of Facebook by that time is ridiculous. Facebook is Zynga’s primary source of traffic and no other social network or games portal in the United States is in a position to cut Zynga any kind of deals that would yield comparable numbers. There is the idea that Facebook could abruptly change its terms of service with social game developers in a way that would hurt Zynga’s revenues — but why would Facebook do that when it has spent the last year trying to rebuild and nurture its social games ecosystem? Why wouldn’t Zynga stick by Facebook if the platform continues to grow on a global scale?

It seems as though, at this time, Project Z is only a supplement to the Zynga experience on Facebook. Yes, the service asks players to create a new virtual identity using Ztags, but it’s affiliating that with a player’s Facebook identity via Connect. This creates a divergent experience where, on Zynga’s network, you’d have your game-life with your game-friends and publicly displayed in-game achievements. Meanwhile, on Facebook, you’d have your actual social graph — which might include Zynga game activity.

The only factor that could count as a tie cut with Facebook is whether or not Project Z would introduce a platform currency that could compete with Facebook Credits. Right now, Zynga Facebook games accept only Facebook Credits as a means to purchase in-game currency in keeping with Facebook’s July 1 policy change. Currently, Facebook does not require Facebook Connect-enabled games to make Credits a payment option; but it does require games that run both on Facebook and other networks to enforce price parity between games. If Zynga offered a paid currency only for use in Project Z games, it would be a step away from the social network and toward actual financial independence.

Project Z does not have a release date at this time. Facebook users can sign up for a Ztag virtual identity in advance of its launch here.