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Why Zynga is getting behind Messenger games

Why Zynga is getting behind Messenger games


Words with Friends debuts on Facebook Messenger today

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Photo by Amelia Krales / The Verge

Zynga made its name by being one of the first to capitalize on Facebook as a gaming platform, and now the company is hoping to do the same for messenger apps. Today sees the launch of Words with Friends on Facebook Instant Games, one of the biggest titles so far to hit the relatively new Messenger-based gaming platform. The launch follows the release of a handful of smaller Messenger titles from Zynga, as well as GIFs Against Friends on Apple’s iMessage.

For the developer, which has largely struggled to replicate its early Facebook success on mobile, these messaging platforms provide a new opportunity. “It’s a natural platform for Words with Friends to be on,” says Vaibhav Sahgal, GM of the Words with Friends franchise at Zynga.

Words with Friends is launching alongside the global rollout of Instant Games; Facebook says that starting today Messenger games will be rolling out “over the next few weeks worldwide for both iOS and Android.” It’ll be the first turn-based game on the platform — previously titles were primarily score-driven single-player experiences, like Pac-Man — and while it’s largely the same as the mobile versions of the game, the new Words with Friends has also been adapted to better fit Messenger.

Words With Friends FB Messenger

For one thing, the game board is smaller to encourage faster matches, and it also utilizes Messenger bots to remind players when it’s time to take their turn. But aside from a few tweaks the experience on each platform is very similar. The mobile versions of Word With Friends already include a built-in chat feature; on Messenger the roles are simply reversed. “These messaging platforms kind of flip that around in a very cool way,” says Sahgal.

For Zynga as a company, Messenger and iMessage represent a potentially large new opportunity. As Facebook games have declined in popularity, so, too, have the company’s fortunes. Zynga has tried multiple strategies for breaking through on mobile: new versions of games like FarmVille, acquiring successful mobile studios like NaturalMotion, and creating titles like Empires & Allies for a more traditional gaming audience.

While some have proven successful, messaging platforms represent a chance to get in early on a nascent platform, much like the company did when it released FarmVille on Facebook in 2009. And just like back then, part of that involves figuring out just what kinds of games work on the platform. “I think the games that are going to be the best on Messenger are not necessarily going to be the best elsewhere,” says Mark Kantor, who is leading Zynga’s new foray into messaging platforms. “Word With Friends is maybe an exception to that, because it’s a turn-based and inherently social game.”

The potential audience for these games is huge — currently 1.2 billion people use Messenger. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the service will take off as a gaming platform. The audience for messenger-based games is still unproven, and as of now there is currently no way to actually monetize these games. So whether or not it will actually become a viable, self-sustaining platform remains unclear. In a statement Facebook said, “We are laying the groundwork with Words with Friends and other titles coming soon to give players a wider variety of gameplay options to further enhance their gaming experience.”

But for Zynga, the hope is that by getting on the platform early, and learning what works and what doesn’t, the studio will be in prime position if games on Messenger and iMessage — and possibly other services like Line — do eventually take off. “We’re in that learning phase right now,” says Sahgal.