Zynga CEO Mark Pincus invited social game developers to band together to create an “app economy” at the Inside Social Apps conference on Tuesday in San Francisco. Maintaining the structure of applications built on top of platforms will be key to Zynga and its competitors’ success, he said:
You wouldn’t even think of going to Expedia.com to check your flight on an iPhone. It’s too many clicks and too much typing, so Expedia isn’t going to have a relationship with you unless you have that app. It’s not that way on the web but it could be that way.
Pincus said he thinks a proper application economy will require tools that create a consistent social gaming experience as users move between applications on the web. First, an “app bar,” would follow users around, enticing them to navigate back to their games — like the one from Meebo (which is tying up with other social web services through XAuth), the “social games bar” launched today by Heyzap, or the one expected to be launched by Facebook soon. Pincus said such efforts have the added benefit of increased engagement and revenues for publishers and networks who use the bar.
Second, apps need properly tuned user communication channels, Pincus said. These should be open enough to allow apps to grow through reaching out to their users, but closed enough to prevent obtrusive and annoying communication.
Third, an app economy would require universal social feeds that follow users around the web. This would allow users to connect feeds between destinations and activities, for instance sending activity in one game to a narrowcasted group of their friends on a certain network. When Zynga tested narrowcasting, or enabling users to share updates with a certain group of their friends, sharing increased 400 percent, Pincus said.
Because people find more value in games when their friends are playing them, Zynga finds that revenues are a leading indicator of engagement, not trailing. Social games have the capacity to be the most successful long-term gaming franchises in history, he argued, because console and PC games go out of style with their hardware, and traditional MMOs only retain a small portion of users over their life.
Pincus, whose hit game FarmVille has something like 30 million daily active users and has hosted 19 billion virtual gift transfers to date, offered advice for his fellow game developers. In order for a social game to be a hit, he said, there are three requirements: Users have to play with friends, they have to make an investment in the game, and the game should be a form of expression.
Pincus encouraged developers to take what he called “bold beats” — in other words, “giving yourself permission to take an enormous risk with your franchise.” For instance, Mafia Wars started adding new cities, and FarmVille added functional buildings. Both moves were internally thought of as challenges to the core games but were well-received by users. “We don’t want to be on a treadmill where we’re killing ourself to put out new content,” said Pincus. The ides is to test changes that are bold enough, so if they work they make a lasting difference.
So how can social game developers work together in the fiercely competitive space, full of ripoffs, copycats and borderline behavior? “Many of us have tried and failed at ways to share traffic and users,” Pincus said, pointing to past efforts of tool bars and APIs. “I think that where this ought to go is to be the open Xbox Live for the web.”
Pincus left the door open for an outside company to build the connecting tools he proposed. The obvious choice might be Facebook, which didn’t have a speaking role at the conference (they’re busy prepping for f8) but was of course ever-present in conversations about social apps. Pincus said of Facebook, which his company has a very lucrative symbiotic relationship with, “They’re going to have to decide between being the plumbing and the portal. I’m hopeful for all of us that they find the better business model around the plumbing.”
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