How the Next Zynga Could Reinvent Social Gaming

Having witnessed the runaway success that Zynga had in 2009, plenty of eyes will be focused on what the company will do in 2010. But the social gaming sector that Zynga learned to master over the last two years will see such a significant shift in dynamics over the next two years that a new entrant could very well surpass Zynga to become the first true master of social games.

As Tadhg Kelly pointed out in his blog, the most successful Facebook games to date – most of which are Zynga’s — haven’t really been social games as much as viral games that use Facebook for self-promotion. Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus seemed to concede the point in a recent interview, insisting that social games will have to become more social in 2010 and even comparing Zynga to Friendster, the pioneering social network that was rapidly eclipsed by its rivals and largely forgotten. “You went to a bar and talked about [Friendster], but the amount of interaction inside [the site] wasn’t that high,” Pincus said. “Social gaming is in a similar place. In the next year to two years, it needs to be more about real user interaction and communication inside of the gaming experience.”

Evolving beyond viral games to true social games is all the more imperative because changes in Facebook’s policies will make it much harder to engage in the kind of viral activities on which these games have so far relied. (For example, game-generated announcements to friends will be much more ‘opt-in’ than ‘opt-out,’ making it much harder for games to build their bases through social spam.)

To help make social games more social, publishers should design their games from inception around existing social constructs. Instead of making games about seemingly arbitrary activities like farming or crime, play should relate directly to the things that already define populous social groups. For example, how about games that revolve around high schools and colleges, the ties that bind so many relationships on Facebook? These games could be customized with the names and details of actual schools, with details supplied by an anchor user. Players could strive to become Prom Queen or to beat their old football rivals from their glory days. Sure, these games could be highly ephemeral, shedding players as their novelty wears off, but Zynga and its ilk have already demonstrated their ability to use game play to market additional games. So the truly social game could convince even reluctant gamers to take their first plunge, owing to the game’s personal relevance to them, and potentially get them hooked on social games in general.

Another idea would be to create games centered around existing fan bases – for instance, on a custom or white-label basis for corporate brands. McDonalds’ 1.5 million Facebook fans seem like fertile ground, for example. While the fast-food chain’s fan page includes links to promotional games, they’re not very social games. And McDonalds stands to gain a lot by improving them. Where Zynga uses third-party marketing offers and virtual goods as in-game currency, companies like McDonald’s could use real-world actions: Buy a coke to get to the next level, for instance. And location could obviously add a lot to fan-based social games: Users might earn points for the each McDonalds location they’ve visited, or they could challenge other players in a given restaurant to compete.

Of course, corporate brands are just one example of fertile existing fan bases. New ones sprout up all the time, such as the fan page I saw just last week: “I bet Colorado can get 1 million fans before any other state!!!” That sounds like a game in itself.

Zynga has a great head start in the social gaming world, but it also needs to make a lot of big changes in order to take the next necessary steps to achieve true social gaming. The question is whether it will be able to make that shift quickly enough or whether someone else will beat it to the punch and become the Zynga of 2010 or 2011.

Question of the week

What truly social game would you like to see?
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