Sorry Zynga, Farmville Needs Facebook

There’s apparently some drama happening between Facebook and Zynga, maker of the wildly popular social games Farmville, Cafe World and Mafia Wars.

The beef is primarily about Facebook forcing game developers to use Facebook Credits for in-game purchases, says TechCrunch’s anonymous sources. Facebook takes a 30 percent cut of all Credits transactions, and Zynga makes a lot of money by selling items that speed people’s progress through the game. You can see why there’s tension.

In case things go from bad to worse, Zynga’s reportedly preparing its own social gaming site, and is prepared to leave Facebook completely.

I agree with CNet’s Daniel Terdiman that both sites need each other. Facebook relies on Zynga for daily traffic — as of December more than 26 million people played Farmville every day — and Zynga uses Facebook as the primary platform for all those users. Moving them would not be easy.

Still, Zynga depends more on Facebook than vice versa because of the very nature of its games. Farmville’s biggest critics note that the game is not fun, per se, but it’s addictive. In a fascinating essay on what’s wrong with this game, SUNY Buffalo professor A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz explains:

"The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in [sic] entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies."

Without Facebook, Zynga loses this crucial layer of interaction between friends, the meta-game that makes Farmville worth playing. Zynga Live could try and replicate it, but it’ll never be as tightly woven as Facebook’s existing network.

If Zynga leaves Facebook completely, as the company has reportedly threatened, it would be suicide. Farmville is not a good enough game to stand on its own. It needs the social structure of Facebook more than Facebook needs Zynga in particular. After all, there’s no shortage of imitators who would love to take Farmville’s place atop the app charts.

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