Casual game maker Zynga will launch its first blockchain-based NFT game in 2022.
Take-Two Interactive announced last month that it will acquire Zynga for $12.7 billion.
Zynga blasted to enormous success and notoriety with 2009’s FarmVille, a Facebook game that quickly amassed 10 million daily users despite the objections of hardcore gamers. Over the years, the firm continued attracting casual players with hits like CityVille and Words With Friends, becoming a major mobile developer in the process.
But now, Zynga is building in a space that elicits the same kind of powerful (and often negative) reaction from many gamers that casual and mobile titles have in the past: NFTs.
An NFT is a type of token that can be used to represent ownserhip over digital items, such as images, videos, or in-game assets. At the moment, the Ethereum-based game Axie Infinity is the biggest NFT project of all time with nearly $4 billion in trading volume to date, while the rising overall NFT market—which hit $25 billion in trading volume last year—has prompted legacy game publishers like Ubisoft, Square Enix, and Konami to begin exploring the space.
It’s a potentially ripe opportunity for Zynga, and the casual game publisher began making moves in the space last fall, hiring Matt Wolf as its vice president of blockchain gaming in November.
Wolf has advised various gaming and crypto firms, ranging from Riot Games to Fan Controlled Football, and previously served as a senior VP of entertainment, strategic partnerships, and ventures at Coca-Coca.
Asked what prompted Zynga to begin exploring the NFT and crypto space, Wolf pointed to “future-proofing” the company’s business and enhancing its capabilities, rather than replacing its current output and fully shifting into Web3. “We’ve got a really prolific board of directors in the C-suite, and they see crypto, blockchain, NFTs, and Web3 as potentially huge,” he told Decrypt.
Zynga’s games are typically not particularly robust or complex, but the most successful of them generate a compelling feedback loop that keeps players hooked. In Wolf’s view, blockchain networks add the possibility of asset ownership to that equation, giving players even further reason to feel invested in a game and stay plugged in.
“[Ownership] is probably one of the biggest things,” Wolf explained, “and the empowerment that comes with that, and the relationship that comes with that, and the trust, love, and loyalty that comes with that over time.”
Wolf kept coming back to the idea of players having “trust” in Zynga as they explore this new space—an interesting premise since blockchains are built to enable trustless interactions without an intermediary. In his view, however, newcomers to the space will want guidance and assistance as they get used to the paradigm of asset ownership.
“We’re gonna really work to make sure that when people are in our ecosystems, they’re feeling safe and covered,” said Wolf, “and we’re there for them to answer questions, or deal with the complexity that they’re moving through in terms of crypto or wallets.”
What and when
Zynga’s stable of IP includes the aforementioned games and other successes like CSR Racing and Zynga Poker, plus the company has built licensed games based on Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones.
For its first blockchain-based game—which has yet to be officially revealed—Wolf said that Zynga plans to take inspiration from an existing homegrown IP while building a crypto-centric experience.
“We’re going to be pulling inspiration off probably one game in particular as we go to market here,” he explained. “But I want to say in the same breath that we’re creating ground-up experiences for this community. We’re not taking a bolt-on approach. Right now, we’re creating.”
Zynga aims to launch its first blockchain game sometime this year, with first details likely due sometime in Q2 as the company begins cultivating a community of prospective players around the project. At this point, Zynga is still building out its blockchain team, with plans to have as many as 100 people working on such games.
The publisher announced a strategic alliance with blockchain gaming infrastructure firm Forte in December, soon after Forte’s most recent $725 million Series B fundraise. Wolf said that “several more announcements” will come regarding partnerships and plans as Zynga works with external partners—and potentially acquires companies along the way.
By the time Zynga’s first blockchain game officially launches later this year, the company could be under the umbrella of major game publisher Take-Two Interactive—the firm behind Grand Theft Auto and NBA 2K—which announced plans last month to acquire Zynga for $12.7 billion. The deal is set to close by June 30.
Wolf said he couldn’t discuss the potential impact of the planned acquisition, but pointed to previous comments from the CEOs of both companies.
When the deal was announced, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zenick said that there are “Web3 opportunities” that the two firms can better tackle together, while Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau added that “the idea that players will play-to-earn or play-to-own is a very compelling idea that we think will have legs as the industry develops.”
This week, Zelnick reportedly told investors that he is “highly convinced there’s an opportunity for NFTs to fit with Take-Two’s offerings in the future.” However, he added, “We want to make sure that consumers always have a good experience every time they engage with our properties and losing money on a speculation is not a good experience.”
Many of today’s NFT-driven, play-to-earn games look like even simpler, scaled-back versions of the types of games that Zynga specializes in—and yes, there are play-to-earn farming games.
That may be one reason why many traditional video game players are so averse to the idea of NFT games, which offer prospective benefits such as true asset ownership, value accrual, token rewards through play-to-earn game models, and potential interoperability for NFT assets between multiple games or metaverse worlds.
Other frequent criticisms that NFT games face are that such digital assets are a scam or a grift, and that NFTs are killing the environment—although the environmental impact of blockchain networks can vary widely. For its part, Zynga has claimed that it will develop eco-friendly NFT games.
To try and overcome pushback to NFT games, Wolf said that Zynga will focus on delivering a quality experience and setting reliable expectations. From there, it will be a matter of learning from each blockchain game launch and evolving their approach, with “several” blockchain games planned as the company explores this new market.
“If we can deliver high-quality products and a roadmap that we’re continuing to support,” he said, “and surprise and delight our player-verse, then I think we’ll have done a good job.”