This is it – Zynga, the next generation. At the second annual Zynga Unleashed event, held on Tuesday within its ultra-hip San Francisco office, the company unveiled Zynga With Friends, a social gaming network designed to connect fellow Zynga gamers, whether they’re playing on Facebook, smartphone or via web.
Users will be able to chat with each other, organise multiplayer gaming sessions and use a Twitter-like service called Social Stream, which constantly updates participants on what others in the wider community are playing, unlocking and scoring within Zynga’s range of titles.
Several of the network’s key features have already been rolled out via the company’s Zynga.com website, but this is the first time they will be unified into a single social service and available across all the major platforms.
“We’ve acknowledged that our players are on different devices,” said Zynga general manager Manuel Bronstein. “But no matter where you’re playing, you want to play with other people. So we’re trying to make sure we can connect all of those experiences.
“Some days you play on Facebook, others on smartphone, but we want to ensure that all your friends, your scores, your achievements follow you wherever you are. You are one player across the entire network.”
The company has also developed a unified backend infrastructure, which all its current and forthcoming titles will be able to tap into.
It is making the tools to access this system – Zynga API – available to third-party developers, allowing other studios to quickly and easily put their titles on the Zynga.com website. Major names like Konami have signed up as well as a raft of smaller studios such as 50 Cubes and Portalarium.
In a similar vein, the company’s mobile division also announced a new partners programme. This offers smartphone developers a chance to work with Zynga, providing their games via its With Friends network and directly to its 22 million daily active mobile players.
Revenues will be shared between the studio and Zynga, with the latter providing its advertising and analytics infrastructures. Several small studios have already signed up to provide their games via the partners programme, including two British outfits: Crashlab and Fat Pebble.
The idea behind the Partners concept is simple. Zynga is keen to move into new genres and wants to create a larger ecosystem around its key gaming outlets. It is hoping to attract mobile developers who have expertise in areas the company’s in-house studios haven’t explored.
“We’re excited about genres we’re not currently active in,” said Rob Dyer, head of the partners programme, who previously worked for on publisher relations at Sony Computer Entertainment America.
“That means sports, first-person shooters, hardcore strategy games, role-playing games … that’s what really gets us excited.”
To underline this, one of the partner titles announced during the Zynga Unleashed event was Horn, a 3D action role-playing game from Phosphor Games Studios.
Dyer was candid in his response to questions about Zynga’s less than favourable reputation within the development community. The company has been accused of effectively cloning concepts and failing to acknowledge ideas “inspired” by smaller developers.
“We’re seen as big bad Zynga,” he said. “People look at us and worry their ideas will be ripped off. But Zynga has gone out and hired people like me – I ran third party at Sony.
“I understand that if we do anything like that, we’ll go out of business. I reside in a different building from the rest of Zynga in order to keep that separation. We take that very seriously.”
A big part of the new service is a move toward more “hardcore” elements that veteran gamers are used to through services such as PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
Alongside the Friends feature of Zynga.com, which allows players to find and challenge other gamers who like similar titles and are of comparable skill level, the company has introduced real-time multiplayer to its portfolio, starting with its Puzzle Bubble-alike title, Bubble Safarai.
This will be rolled out to most of the titles available on the Zynga website over the coming months.
The whole idea of supporting smaller independent studios with a global gaming network is also something we’ve previously seen from the console manufacturers. It’s just that Zynga, of course, has a network of almost 300 million players.
The company also announced a large selection of new titles at its Tuesday event. Matching With Friends is a “match three” puzzle game available via iOS, which includes in-game chat and turn-based multiplayer.
Arriving on Wednesday on Facebook, and overseen by key Zynga designer Mark Skaggs, The Ville is essentially Zynga’s answer to The Sims, a home-building soap opera simulation, allowing participants to design dream homes and then invite their friends around.
Avatars are able to meet up in each other’s houses, engaging in social activities such as dancing and watching movies. As players build the relationships between their avatars, they unlock more advanced interactions, eventually able to jam together on virtual instruments and even start sexual relationships.
“Social is built into the core loop of the game,” said Skaggs. “The relationships you build determine your progress in the game.”
The company also announced ChefVille, a social cooking game which allows players to build their own themed restaurants, as well as design menus.
Participants have to gather resources and then use their ovens as Minecraft-style crafting areas to combine ingredients – friends are able to share foodstuffs and invite each other around to their virtual eateries to sample the wares.
Cleverly, players who master recipes in the game are sent real-life recipes via email. It’s due “soon” on Zynga.com and Facebook.
A couple of follow-up titles were also revealed, suggesting that Zynga is not adverse to the concept of extending franchises beyond updates and add-ons. Zynga Elite Slots is a new version of its slot machine simulator, featuring enhanced social and multiplayer features, allowing friends to complete on the variously themed machines each other, sharing the virtual earnings.
More significant though, was a brief teaser for Farmville 2, which appears to offer a more advanced farming mechanic, with deeper crafting and animal rearing elements.
Jam-packed with announcements and well attended by upper level Zynga managers, the Unleashed event was clearly a public relations offensive designed to reverse the recent plunge in share value, and the apparent levelling out of its Facebook game business.
Investors have worried about a seeming inability to make headway in the mobile sector, but with its partner programme and the integration of smartphone, Facebook and tablet gaming via Zynga With Friends, the company is clearly hoping to boost its presence.
Zynga Arcade title Ruby Blast, for example, is set to offer real-time multiplayer gaming and will be available on phones and tablets soon.
Chief executive Mark Pincus, meanwhile, reiterated his desire to forge a Zynga community of a billion gamers.
“We founded the company on one simple premise: that we could put play back into our lives,” he said.
It’s what investors want to hear, it’s what pundits have been doubting and its what the company’s detractors have been dreading.
But a platform agnostic social network encompassing the whole range of Zynga titles into one seamless multiplayer experience is only likely to move them closer to that goal.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010