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Zynga VP: We are "the Steam of social"

Zynga's Rob Dyer on the growing Zynga Partners program and why game discovery "sucks"

Zynga recently showcased the expansion of its Zynga Partners program, launching four new games on Zynga.com from partners and announcing nine new partners on the Zynga Platform. Zynga's been struggling in recent months with slower than expected growth. One of the key opportunities for Zynga's future is to leverage its audience of over 300 million and its technology platform (the Z-cloud) by bringing in outside developers, and offering access to Zynga's audience in return for a percentage of the revenue.

The Zynga Platform, first announced earlier this year, is, in Zynga's words, "a social gaming platform and network designed to give players the most social and fun gaming experience wherever they play... while helping third-party developers of all sizes launch, promote, scale and grow their games and business."

Heading up the program to bring third-party developers and their games to Zynga is Rob Dyer, VP of partner publishing. Before Zynga, Dyer was most recently Senior Vice President of Partner Relations at Sony. Dyer's presentation at the Zynga Partners event in San Francisco highlighted several of the developers, who spoke about the great amounts of help and advice they got from Zynga.

"Zynga.com brings people a new way to connect with friends and meet new people who love to play, and it gives our players an easy way to discover new games they might enjoy," said Dyer. "We're thrilled to be working with our partners to bring the first set of third-party games to our network of players on Zynga.com and Facebook, and are excited to help our players discover new games by shining a light on some of the most talented game developers in the industry."

Zynga is now offering games from third party developers on Zynga.com, including Sava Transmedia's Rubber Tacos, RocketPlay's Sports Casino, Majesco's Mini Putt Park and 50 Cubes' Fashion Designer. Zynga now has 24 partners across web and mobile platforms; Zynga recently launched its first third party game with Horn for iOS and Android, developed by Phosphor Games. Partner games coming soon to Zynga.com include Crayon Pixel's Atlas Raider, Eruptive's Citizen Grim, Fat Pebble's Clay Jam, JamRT's JamJam, MobScience's Legends: Rise of a Hero, Portalarium's Ultimate Collector, The Method's Yard Sale: Hideen Treasures, and Row Sham Bow and Danke Games' Kinghts of the Rose (developed by Perfect World).

"Candidly, I know we could have a lot more people, we just can't handle it right now"

Rob Dyer

The games cover a broad range of genres, from the traditional social game style of Ultimate Collector to the action/strategy mix of Citizen Grim to the engaging claymation arcade style of Clay Jam. The developers are excited about the prospect of bringing their games to Zynga's huge audience

Zynga Partners is similar to EA's Partner program which was introduced in the late 1980s. EA built up a sales force to sell their games to retail stores, and later opened it up to other publishers and profited by distributing their games. This is similar to what Zynga is doing, having built up all of the servers to host games and serve them to its audience; Zynga can use that capacity to distribute games from other companies and profit from that service. Dyer agrees the comparison is apt. "I was at Crystal Dynamics. I used EAP back in the day to get my products on the shelf. That's exactly it; it's good for everybody."

The importance of Zynga's partner program to Zynga's bottom line is dependent on how fast Dyer can expand the Zynga Partners. "That's why we've been so curated," Dyer said. "Candidly, I know we could have a lot more people. We just can't handle it right now. It's very, very curated as to how many people we can bring in. You heard what we were talking about up there; we can't provide that for the masses. As our team grows, we'll be able to provide that one on one. That's what we did when I was running third-party at Sony for PlayStation. We used to publish 350 games a year. We knew every one of those games intimately. We knew what was happening throughout."

The scale that Sony operated on is not something a couple of people can handle, Dyer admits. "I was running a staff of 120; I've got 7. I kiss frogs all day; maybe I'll find a few princes."

"I kiss frogs all day; maybe I'll find a few princes"

Rob Dyer

The difference between what Zynga Partners is doing and what Apple does is the curation. Apple doesn't provide any help or curation; you just put your app in the App Store, and there are hundreds of thousands of them. "What happens then is you have a race for the bottom. Not such a good thing," notes Dyer.

Zynga's model is to look at the games and work with the developers, not just throw them in the pool to see if they swim. "We're taking a a very meticulous approach - crawl, walk, run," said Dyer. "We're going from the walk to the run stage now; we're adding more and more. If you go back to the early days, we announced three, and then six, and 'hey, where are the games?' Everybody was scratching their heads. We've been doing it for the last 10 months, and now you get to see it; it's been happening, and off we go."

Dyer noted that the process has been a lot of work and he didn't want to show the results before things were ready. "No, no, you don't want to be half-baked," Dyer remarked. "As they always say, you have one chance to make a first impression. The lineup now... Rubber Tacos, Mini-Putt Park, Sports Casino, Fashion Designer. This is not your mother's Zynga. These are different games, different genres; it's everything people have been saying that we need to be doing. Publishing's gonna do it."

Electronic Arts' publishing program not only leveraged its investment in infrastructure when it brought on partners, but it also gave EA access to different audiences and genres. Over time, EA was able to identify great acquisitions among its partners; many of the company's key acquisitions of the past couple of decades began as publishing partners. Dyer definitely sees that potential for Zynga Partners."Yes, exactly. We'll date first before we get married, or we'll take some of the milk before we buy the cow - pick your analogy. There's a method behind the madness."

The Zynga Partners program seems more scalable more swiftly in many ways than depending on Zynga's internal ability to put out new games. Of course, all the burden comes down to Dyer and how quickly he can add staff and keep the business processes under control. No pressure, right? "Oh, I don't feel any at all, it's a friggin' walk through the park (laughs). It's a double-edged sword. The good news is I'm able to have this event; the bad news is I'm having this event. Now it's like 'We need more games!'"

Zynga.com will need to change as Zynga brings on more games, he admits. There's a big difference between having three games and 30 games and 300 games for the users trying to find something to play. "I think the importance is discovery, just the same way you have discovery on Steam," Dyer said. "That's something we have to make sure we provide. Today, there are a lot of cool features in Zynga.com that will provide that, and you're going to see that being built out. We know that is imperative for our success; if we don't have great discovery, great ability to do player ratings, doing things that are really going to allow you to see - so what's Steve playing? I'm up there, I value your opinion, what are you playing? Cool, let's go check it out. Those are things that we're going to make sure are available. Where are your trophies, are you winning?"

"I look at ourselves as the Steam of social"

Rob Dyer

Dyer notes that they have experience with these issues. "Manuel [Bronstein]'s background comes from Xbox Live and he runs Zynga.com; I ran PSN [PlayStation Network] when I was at Sony. So we both (a) sit and fight about who was better, but (b) we both know what does and doesn't work in that sense. We have over 10 Zynga games. Now let's see what happens when we start getting these third-party games in there too."

One of the big drawbacks of Apple's or Android's store is the curation, and the tools for finding games you might be interested in. "It's brutal, it sucks," Dyer says bluntly. "I sit and watch my kids because they play on the iPad, and I ask my 9-year-old 'How are you picking these games?' and he says 'Dad, I don't know, it's in the top 25.' That's a shitty reason. Really? That's the best you can do?"

The process is just beginning for Zynga.com, and Dyer has no illusions about the work ahead of him. "It's going to get harder, much harder. I look at ourselves as the Steam of social. Steam's done a great job, but I was also there at the beginning when Steam first introduced this thing, and there's nothing easy about that."

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Steve Peterson

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Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.