Inside Social Apps 2010: Mark Pincus Keynote on Growing the Social Gaming Industry

Our keynote speaker at the Inside Social Apps conference today was Mark Pincus, chief executive and co-founder of Zynga. Pincus wanted to talk about how to grow the industry — his theme throughout the talk centered on cooperation between developers, with the aim of quickly creating a much larger market for social games.

Pincus’s talk was both different from and complementary to the presentation given earlier in the day by Sebastien de Halleux, who co-founded Playfish. Where Halleux seemed skeptical that independent developers will be able to survive in social gaming, Pincus is more optimistic, and much of his advice seemed to relate to newer developers.

Note: You can check out tweets from this and other conference sessions via the #isa2010 hashtag on Twitter.

There were three key requirements for a future “app economy” that makes more money for developers identified by Pincus:

  • Persistent navigation: a consumer experience that includes an app bar accessible anywhere on the web. Games could be the primary driver and beneficiary of navigation.
  • User communication channels: developers need to help establish new channels like chat, and perhaps even create their own, although the latter may not benefit the user.
  • Universal social feeds: streamed information that services and users edit for their own needs — meaning you can remove FarmVille from your feed.

To an extent, all three of those factors are outside of the control of individual developers. Facebook itself should be working on each of these ideas — which it has, to an extent, with its various user feed updates and its new Like button, which Pincus called “the most innovative social mechanic created in the last couple of years.” But there’s much more work for Facebook to do.

Pincus also picked up on a theme that we heard earlier in the day from Vish Makhijani, his company’s chief operating officer. Makhijani said that users have stuck around games like FarmVille for significant periods of time, despite Zynga not yet nailing the perfect social formula. According to Pincus, there’s a positive correlation between retention and the number of friends a user has on a game. In short, it’s not the game that people are interested in after a while — it’s their friends.

The goal, for Pincus, is building a game that, unlike a traditional console game or an MMO like World of Warcraft, the players never leave. “I don’t know if we’ll get there,” he said, “or if that’s a single game or a network of games. We’re all going to have to figure that out.”

From there, Pincus dove into his advice to other developers. He had five ideas for building a strong franchise:

  • A hit game is one that friends will share with each other and use to express one another.
  • Bold beats make games endure: figure out a way to introduce a feature that excites and ignites your users, that you can do in less than a month. Two examples from Zynga: the Moscow city pack in Mafia Wars, which let them test new ideas; and in FarmVille, functional buildings with mini-games around them.
  • Metrics leading to new feedback loops: “A successful bold beat will permanently change your engagement and retention. An unsuccessful one will do it temporarily. We don’t want to be on a treadmill where we’re not adding a new dimension,” Pincus said. And a game can never be static: “It’s equally important that we kill features.”
  • Don’t lose the sense of delight: In other words, keep the artistic, creative side in games — an idea Pincus has emphasized more in his speeches following criticism of Zynga’s focus on analytics and feedback loops.
  • Innovate on social ROI: Pincus thinks social virtual goods are something people should “copy more.” Sweet Seeds for Haiti brought 400,000 new buyers and raised $3 million.

To reach a new level of growth, the industry must work together to create the apps economy and a social gaming experience — one with enough consistency between products that developers can put their focus into working on games. Cooperation is important to make players feel like their efforts are useful — Pincus suggested that a FarmVille player should be able to turn their grapes into wine that’s served on Restaurant City, an EA title.

Pincus ended with a piece of advice to an independent developer who asked about Facebook clamping down on user policies: “All of us start as small app developers, and it’s always a tough competitive environment,” he said. “I don’t believe when people say oh, it was easy a month or three months away — when we started, we saw Slide and RockYou, the wall and drink apps, and we scratched our heads and said, oh my god, how are we going to get games to spread virally? They just aren’t viral. Now people say, oh, it’s easy because games are viral, but how do you spread a travel app? If you’re starting from zero today, you have a terrific opportunity and channels to drive great engagement where there’s a fundamental reason why your game is that much more fun with people’s actual friends there. If you build the next Settlers of Catan, I don’t think it matters if you have easy channels or not.