From Zynga Unleashed: A Beefed-Up Cloud and a New Game Network

Zynga is known for developing some of the most-played games of the decade.

Join us live at Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco to hear about how it intends to keep that crown.

The event, dubbed “Unleashed,” kicks off at 10:30 am PT with potential announcements regarding mobile, social and its own game platform called Zynga.com.

10:16 am: All right, my colleague Mike Issac and I are on the scene and ready for action.

Mike noticed that the man sitting a few seats down from us is the guy from “Reading Rainbow.” I wonder what LeVar Burton is doing here, but his badge lists him as a “friend” of Zynga.

Eight months ago, in October, I was here for Zynga’s first Unleashed event.

Expectations for this event will be slightly higher. The company is now public, having raised $1 billion in December.

A great showing today would do wonders for its struggling stock price — which, by the way, is up 3 percent right now, to trade at $6.25 a share.

If you haven’t seen photos of the company’s offices before, they are fairly impressive. The press event today is taking place in the atrium area of the building, where lunch is served. Four floors of balconies are looking down on us.

Just heard the first dog bark! While press were encouraged to bring their pooches, I decided to leave Fletch at home today. Less distracting for everyone!

10:28 am: T minus two minutes. We’re getting close. Employees have packed the balconies in anticipation, and Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus is off to the side of the stage — ready to go.

10:32 am: Showtime! We’re kicking off with a montage, of course. Pincus takes the stage, announcing “Zynga’s in the house!”

Today, the second-ever Unleashed event will be streamed to all of the company’s employees.

Pincus is giving props to all the employees in the building.

Pincus: We are coming up on our fifth birthday.

A few milestones: The first game was launched in July 2007, and that was Poker. On March 7, 2008, it was the first time a consumer in the Western markets purchased a virtual good. In November 2008, Zynga launched the first mobile social game. In June 2009, FarmVille was launched; and in March 2010, Angry Birds was the poster child taking mobile gaming to the masses. In 2011, Zynga passed $1 billion in revenues.

And finally, in 2012, a game like Words With Friends is a household name.

10:37 am: Even more stats for you to consider: 72 percent of Americans now play games, Pincus says, a staggering number compared to what they thought was possible.

Pincus steps back for a minute and wants to share the company’s original vision. Remember, Pincus named the company after his dog Zinga, whom he is recalling now.

He’s saying that somewhere between childhood and adulthood, gaming became too complicated. He set out to create free, social and accessible games that would bring gaming back to his family and friends.

He said their games are now snackable, and compete with email and text messaging. Something he calls “a poke with a purpose.”

“The coolest part for me is that gaming has come back to my family and friends,” he said. “For our whole generation, we’ve seen search, shop, share become the most important things we do online or offline, and we think play is one of the treasured activities.”

10:44 am: He’s promising news is coming! Just like I said yesterday, he said an update is coming on Zynga’s own game platform, and he will be announcing new mobile and Web-based games.

Here we go: First, we’ll hear about the company’s infrastructure and network.

Pincus welcomes Kostadis Roussos, chief engineer, onstage to talk about their platform and the techy stuff behind it.

Roussos says he doesn’t get to see his cousins very often because they are living in Greece, so they connect through CityVille and Hidden Chronicles.

He said it takes serious engineering and technology. Games used to ship in plastic boxes and sit on shelves. “We ship live services; our daily users [number] is roughly the equivalent of everyone in Paris playing games at the exact same time,” he said.

So how do they do it?

“In order to operate games as a live service, our entire culture needs to be about speed. Most companies provide a couple of updates every day; we release about 100 updates across all of our games each day, and upward of 1,000 features per week.”

But, he says, it’s dwarfed by the amount of content that their users make. It adds up to one million activities per second.

Because of that, he said, they had to create their own infrastructure, made up of hardware and services.

“We call it ZCloud,” and it’s the largest private-public cloud. “In one day, 2.8 million people started playing CastleVille — which holds the record for fastest-growing game — and it was scaled completely on ZCloud.”

He says that a big component of social games is analytics, to find out what players want. “After releasing a new feature, we can find out within minutes if players enjoyed it, and then our developers can release more features just like that.”

This is obviously one of the big benefits that Zynga has — it’s data-driven and not gut-driven. It’s also what gives Zynga a bad reputation in the game community — it’s somehow less creative or fun because it’s data-driven and not more spontaneous.

Roussos is now talking about how this back-end technology drives better game experiences.

Roussos is a pretty entertaining speaker — and speaks fast! That’s typically hard to do when you are talking about a bunch of servers.

He’s now announcing Zynga API. It’s a central, more efficient way for game teams to make their games more fun and social, he says.

For example, Zynga Slots on iOS is accessing the API. He says, “We’ll be opening it up to third-party developers, so they can do that, too.” No more details were immediately announced on this and what it will cost for developers to access these efficiencies.

10:58 am: Now, Manuel Bronstein, a Zynga general manager, is onstage to announce Zynga With Friends, a new social games network. The goal of the network is to allow people to play with games on a single platform, no matter what device they are playing on, and still have access to the same friends group.

Zynga.com, which was the company’s social network on the Web, is a sandbox, he explains, letting them try out new things. The new social features that are built on Zynga.com will be rolled out more broadly, including to third-party partners.

11:04 am: Now some updates on Zynga.com, the company’s Web-based social game network. Players can go there with the sole intention of playing games with their friends, rather than going to Facebook, where games are just one feature.

New features include: Social stream, chat, profiles and fast loading (so games load more quickly). The big new update is Zynga multiplayer, which will go live starting today on Bubble Safari.

Four players come onstage to demonstrate a multiplayer session of Bubble Safari. The four participants look ready to go, and as they shoot down bubbles from the top of the game, scores update on the left-hand column. If one player gets ahead, the game will pause so the players can chat and talk trash. Helen wins the game!

11:10 am: Multiplayer is an example of the kind of innovation Zynga can do now that they have Zynga.com. The feature will be available to the company’s own games and to Zynga’s partners.

In March, Zynga.com was first announced. At the time, it said it would be opening up the platform to third-party game developers. It now has about a dozen partners, including 50 Cubes, Konami, Playdemic and Sava.

Sava takes the stage to talk about the game, Rubber Tacos, which will be launching on the Zynga platform. The game looks a little like Cut the Rope on mobile.

The executive from Sava says that beyond the free food that you can eat when you visit Zynga (he’s joking), what makes the company so great is the passion it has for games.

No specifics on when Zynga.com will be opening up to third-party developers, but it will be “soon.”

11:17 am: Bronstein is back onstage to talk about Zynga With Friends, which they are talking about as a game lobby.

On Zynga.com, there is the Zynga Message Center — the inbox is clicked on three-quarters of a billion times everyday.

Zynga With Friends will be the “social lobby,” he says, whether you are on the Web or mobile. He said it will be where you can send messages and gifts to friends, and see what your friends are playing. It will also make friend and game recommendations to players.

“Today, ‘with friends’ is an incredibly powerful brand,” he said. “Consumers know they are going to play with their friends.”

“We look forward to rolling it out soon,” both on the Web and on mobile. No exact dates disclosed.

It’s a little unclear exactly how Zynga envisions the network evolving in the future, but clearly it is a multiplatform approach to social gaming, crossing both mobile and the Web.

Off the top of my head, I’d compare it to what Gree is doing in mobile. There seems to be a need for a single community that layers on top of multiple networks. Logically, that would be Facebook’s role, but this network is going to be gaming first. In this world, gaming updates can’t annoy or put off people, because that’s what they have come to do.

11:28 am: Zynga’s head of mobile, David Ko, is now onstage to announce, “We are now the largest mobile gaming company in the world.” Not sure by what measure, or if he’s just eating the company’s dog food.

He announces the new title in the very important “With Friends” franchise, “Matching With Friends.” He says that the casino genre is also doing extraordinarily well on mobile.

Another game — Draw Something — which the company recently acquired, is still off to the races. Despite dropping engagement, he said that the game is on the cusp of hitting its 10 billionth drawing in the next couple of days.

Overall, the company has 22 million daily active users on mobile.

Ko is also announcing that it is opening its doors for third-party developers.

Today’s announcements for Zynga seem to be all about how it can be a publishing platform for third-party developers. By opening up its networks, it will be able to help fuel its growth while also reducing the amount of pressure for creating all of the hits in-house, which is extremely hard to do. At the same time, third-party developers will be attracted to Zynga’s gigantic user base.

Ko exits the stage, adding that interested developers should visit developers.zynga.com.

11:35 am: Next onstage is Jesse Janosov, the VP and GM of Zynga Casino.

Casino represents a giant opportunity for Zynga, not only because the casual casino gaming experience is expected to double over the next year, but also because the laws regarding real-money gaming are slowly changing in the U.S.

Obviously, Zynga has a huge opportunity because of Zynga Poker’s huge success on Facebook. Some of the figures: It has 35 million players a month, 55 million hands are played a day, and 16 trillion chips a day change hands. What’s more, Zynga Poker has received 60 million “Likes” on Facebook, which is more than any other company, other than Facebook itself.

Janosov is now unveiling “Zynga Elite Slots,” which he is calling the most fun and social slots ever created.

Just like the coin-based game in casinos, you pull the handle to spin the reels to line up five apples in a row. The genre, while sounding very simplistic — especially since you have no chance of winning — is surprisingly successful and has generated several multimillion blockbuster game exits.

11:42 am: Next up is updates for Zynga arcade, which is one of Zynga’s three major genres of gaming. The guy chosen to provide the update is Jim Veevaert, who was recently named the GM of Zynga’s Seattle office.

One of the recent game launches is Zynga Slingo, in which players have earned 2.2 trillion coins. More big numbers about Bubble Safari: Since launching last month, players have popped 115 billion bubbles.

“Given my propensity for explosives,” Veevaert said, he wants to end with mentioning Ruby Blast. The game is the first out of the Seattle office, and was developed in conjunction with the company’s China office.

This casual genre is a lot like Tetris, but with better graphics, animation and audio.

“We had a really high fun score for Ruby Blast. They love it so much that we aren’t holding it only to the Web. It’s coming to phones and tablets later this year,” he said.

11:50 am: Introducing Mark Skaggs, SVP of product development, who is a father of many of Zynga’s ’Villes, like FarmVille. “Let’s talk about the ’Ville genre. We create mini virtual worlds to have fun with your family and friends.”

Expecting the announcement of a new ’Ville or two!

Skaggs is walking us through the evolution of the ’Villes, from YoVille to FarmVille to CityVille and CastleVille. And up next is “The Ville,” the company’s new game that looks shockingly similar to The Sims Social, developed by EA.

I got a closer look at the game under embargo here.

Nice, players in the game get to do things together like watch TV, play instruments, bake a pie or make “whoopie.”

The Ville launches tomorrow on Facebook for free.

12:00 pm: Wow, two new ’Villes! Next up is ChefVille. At what point do all of these games start cannibalizing each other?

But yup, as you might be able to guess, ChefVille is all about running a restaurant. This totally reminds me of the game made for feature phones back in the day, where you had to make customers happy by delivering their food on time.

BUT in this version, you also decorate the kitchen and restaurant. It can look like a ’50s diner, or a Tuscan or country kitchen.

In ChefVille, players will make food for their friends, and the big social feature will allow players to borrow a cup of sugar, just like in real life.

There are pretty fun animations for cooking in a wok, or baking pizza in a pizza oven.

Here’s a real-world component: More than 50 real recipes can be earned in the game that you can use to make meals in real life. And, an in-person bonus: Lunch for the press today is based on all the recipes in ChefVille.

12:06 pm: Pincus is back onstage for closing remarks. But wait, one more thing!

It’s one more game announcement, and here’s a teaser for it. So far, it looks a little bit like FarmVille, with apples and wheat growing in the field. The plants are watered with rain, little piglets are bottle-fed, and there are great animations of big farm animals like cows and goats getting picked up and placed elsewhere on the gameboard.

That’s right, folks, it’s FarmVille 2.

Okay, that concludes the formal presentations for the day.

As you’ve seen, Zynga has presented not only a strong slate of games, but is also stressing a platform approach that will allow Zynga to make the tools and infrastructure that it has created internally available to other third-party game developers.

I’ll leave you with this final image of FarmVille 2. Thanks for reading!


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