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Why Facebook is dependent on Zynga, not the other way round

By on February 22, 2010
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2009 was the year in which Facebook trounced MySpace.

Rupert Murdoch’s magical acquisition has been losing its lustre for a while. But, perhaps surprisingly, the main driver of Facebook’s success may have been games.

Two reports just released show the process graphically. But first, let’s have a look at Facebook’s phenomenal growth, up to their announcement in December 2009 that they had reached 350 million monthly users.

Facebook user growth

The first report is ComScore’s “The 2009 U.S. Digital Year in Review”, which shows how Facebook is comprehensively beating MySpace in the US.

Facebook versus MySpace in the US

There are any number of reasons why Facebook is beating MySpace. But I think that the reason is simple.


PopCap has just released a market research survey based on social games. If you are interested in games on Facebook, you *must* get this research (Full PDF here).

Really. Go get it.

But in the meantime, here are some of the key findings:

  • The average age of a social gamer is 43
  • 31% of social gamers don’t play any other games
  • 44% of social gamers have only started playing those games in the last year
  • 95% of them play games every week; 30% play every day
  • 49% of them log in to social networks specifically to play games.

That last bullet is a very big number. Half of all social gamers log in to a social network in order to play a game.

A few years ago, Facebook’s commercial challenge was to create something sufficiently compelling to make someone log in every day. Rather than trying to come up with it themselves, they opened up their platform, let developers experiment and discovered something they probably would never have thought of:

  • Middle aged social network users are avid gamers

It’s true. 62% of all social gamers are age 30-60. But it doesn’t explain Facebook’s dominance yet. Until we see where people go to game.

Facebook user growth

Oh dear, MySpace. 83% of gamers play on Facebook. MySpace is used by only one third as many people.

There’s a bunch of different possible reasons. Some of them might be:

  • MySpace skews younger, and younger gamers might be more likely to game on console, handheld or mobile
  • Facebook’s platform may just be more developer friendly than MySpace’s
  • MySpace is about self-expression; Facebook is about connecting with friends. That makes the social aspect of gaming more suited to Facebook.

But in the end, I conclude that Facebook *needs* its gaming partners like Playfish and Zynga. They have been the engine of growth, stickiness and MySpace-beating throughout 2009.

So investors, I’m not sure I would be worried about Zynga’s reliance on Facebook. I’d worry about Facebook’s dependence on Zynga.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
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  • Panos Tsapanidis

    Yes, Facebook needs game companies like Zynga BUT I don't think that users will follow Zynga if it leaves Facebook. They will just find the next available Zynga on Facebook because they are not gamers. They are people who want to access easily casual games from a social platform. I think with the fierce competition between development companies of CASUAL games and the huge share of users of social sites that Facebook has at the moment, distribution is the king in this case.

  • Wow, VERY interesting numbers! Amazing that so many people log in just to play games – that they actually only comming there to play. Amazing.

    Thanks for sharing the findings – I'll go get that report right away.

  • I'm sure you're right that Facebook's execution has been much better. But back when I was an equity research analyst, the emergence of free email as a killer app for portals was poorly understood: it took me ages to get investors to see the value of having your email address (which you need to check regularly) integrated into a single portal.
    Games seem to be doing the same for Facebook: checking into Facebook to see what your friends are up to is OK, but not pressing (unlike email). But checking on your crops is time-sensitive.
    And the stat that 49% of social gamers log in *specifically to play games* is an amazingly high one. Zynga has 200 million MAUs (non-de-duped). So that's 100 million logins just to play games. (I know this isn't a valid stat – they might log in anyway some other time in the month – but it's an indication of the value to Facebook of games)

  • Games are no doubt one of the most compelling types of content on Facebook, but even with the above surveys I'm still a little unsure they're the cause of Facebook's dominance. It seems more intuitive to me that Facebook is winning because they have really nailed the experience of connecting with your real life friends much more than anyone else. And people choose Facebook to play games on rather than MySpace as that's the main place they spend time online with their friends.