Zynga’s declaration of independence: Project Z

Zynga may be best known for its hit online and mobile games — household names such as FarmVille and Words with Friends — but the company has its eye on a much bigger prize. On Tuesday, Zynga held “Zynga Unleashed,” its first major press event at the company’s expansive new headquarters in San Francisco to give the public a look at the size and scope of its ambitions.

“We’re not trying to be the company that makes the next hit game,” Zynga’s founder and CEO Mark Pincus said. “We’re trying to do something broader than that. We’re trying to make a platform for play… We want to inspire you to connect with more people in meaningful ways, similar to what Facebook’s doing but at a game level.”

Project Z unveiled

As part of that mission, Zynga unveiled Zynga Direct, which Pincus said is an over-arching strategy that has been in the works for two years to let Zynga establish a direct relationship with its users — as opposed to accessing them through a third-party platform like Facebook. The first move in the Zynga Direct strategy is the upcoming launch of a social games platform, which has been codenamed internally Project Z. Project Z isn’t launching now, but starting Tuesday, users can reserve “gamer identity tags” known as zTags at

Zynga Direct's zTag signup page (click to enlarge)

At the press event, Zynga COO John Schappert described Project Z as “a platform that leverages your incredible network of Facebook friends to play in an environment made just for games.” Within Project Z users will be able to play any Zynga game within the same environment on any browser. Since Project Z is enabled by Facebook Connect, it’s not completely independent of third-party platforms, but it is certainly a major autonomous step for Zynga.

Also on Tuesday, Zynga announced several new games, including CastleVille, Hidden Chronicles and Zynga Casino featuring Zynga Bingo. The company also said it will soon have three HTML5 games that run on Facebook’s new HTML5-powered mobile site.

Showing financial strength — very quietly

Since the company has filed its S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission in anticipation of the initial public offering of its stock, Zynga is currently in a “quiet period” that forbids its executives from talking about business or financial details. But while Zynga kept the conversation purely focused on its products, and not the massive amount of money they pull in, the company is clearly keen to show off the way it has been reinvesting its sizable revenues into new initiatives.

Zynga currently has 1,700 employees, half of whom are engineers, and company CTO Cadir Lee said it is investing heavily in technology development and infrastructure. “We’re one of the world’s largest users of public and private cloud computing,” Lee said, adding that Zynga “has been known to deploy 1,000 servers in a week.”

That certainly sounds like a lot, but for a company looking to raise up to $1 billion in its planned IPO, it is actually right on track. One thing is clear: There’s a lot of serious money behind all of Zynga’s fun and games.