Zynga Gets One Step Closer to Unfriending Facebook

I would have dumped social game maker Zynga (Nasdaq: ZNGA  ) before Valentine's Day, and it looks now like Zynga wants to sever some ties of its own.

It's no secret just how much the company relies on Facebook, whose nearly exclusive friend request it accepted long ago. The two have been peas in a pod in a committed long-term relationship that has lasted for years on end in sickness and in health, although the partnership is a bit asymmetrical. Unbalanced affections are the seeds of a loveless marriage, and this one is no different.

"I love you more." "No, I love you more." "OK, you're right."
In Zynga's most-recent, freshly filed form 10-K, the company reiterates a line that we've seen before and with which we are all too familiar:

To date, we have derived substantially all of our revenue and acquired substantially all of our players through Facebook. We expect to continue to derive a substantial portion of our revenue and to acquire a substantial portion of our players from the Facebook platform for the foreseeable future.

In contrast, Zynga accounted for just 12% of Facebook's revenue last year. This is clearly a symbiotic relationship, but the game maker has a lot more to lose than the social networker if things go sour.

Zynga has also made it clear that it's uncomfortable with the current arrangement, as it has been aggressively trying to broaden its horizons and diversify its platform base. It has made strides in mobile platforms like Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iOS and Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android, both organically (assuming you include copying as "organic") and through acquisitions.

I don't only have eyes for you
Right now, looking at the iOS App Store and Android Market, you can see that Zynga claims multiple spots under both "Top Grossing" sections. On iOS, Zynga Poker is No. 3 and Scramble With Friends is No. 24. On Android, Zynga Poker sits at No. 2, while Dream Zoo ranks No. 5.

I would have thought that these signs point to meaningful revenue coming in from those two dominant mobile platforms, potentially enough to reword its risk factors language on its Facebook relationship. But alas, "substantially all" remains unchanged.

Facebook has consistently generated between 91% and 94% of Zynga's revenue and bookings over the past eight quarters.

Allow me to introduce myself to … myself
Enter "Project Z." Back in October, the company announced a new social games service called "Project Z," which integrates with Facebook Connect. The initiative is an attempt to move away from Facebook and create its own platform for its own games along with third-party games.

Well, Zynga has just unveiled the service as the Zynga Platform, which has just launched in beta. It will be incorporated directly into Zynga.com and the site will be redesigned later this month.

Here's the curveball: It will still use Facebook Credits as the primary virtual currency. The service will integrate with Facebook, so you can play with existing Facebook friends, along with the "zFriends" you might meet separately on Zynga's platform. The company was quick to point out that it's not trying to steal traffic from Facebook's site, and that the move is an "extension of the companies' strong and collaborative partnership."

This is clearly just PR fluff, because the only reason Zynga would go to such lengths to create a platform is to begin weaning itself from its dependence on the social networking giant. Interestingly, just last week iSuppli said the couple's honeymoon was over, as Facebook's gaming platform has started to dry up.

Brave new world
Imagine this: Years from now (after Zynga's arrangement with Facebook governing its revenue split on Facebook Credits expires in May 2015), Zynga operates its own online gaming platform, where it hosts third-party games along with its own, inevitably competing directly with Facebook's own gaming platform and somewhat indirectly with iOS and Android. Zynga becomes a gatekeeper -- just like Facebook, Apple, and Google -- along with a tollbooth collecting a cut from third-party game developers requesting entry.

This is clearly the end goal that Zynga has in mind, and investors are seeing it too, with shares promptly gaining 10% on the announcement. The real question is how well it can pull it off, since this is just the first step in what would be a momentous strategic shift for the company.

I've always been a skeptic of Zynga, but I'll give the company some credit (and not even a Facebook Credit) here: This could improve user monetization by cutting out the middleman, then eventually becoming one itself. Now all Zynga would need to do is address its corporate governance voting issues and shrinking revenue pipeline,and I may just change my tune.

Until then, though, Zynga is still a Faker Breaker.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio.

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  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2012, at 5:50 AM, Marceteer wrote:

    ZNGA is playing it smart launching it's own bank of servers to house the game play while retaining the relationship with facebook via the continued use of facebook credits. Gamers will enjoy the features, lack of lagg and direct customer service. It's a straight up tick which will continue to rise quickly. Great value now but moving up fast. If you wait, watch and see you're going to miss a great entry point. We (investers) look for continued profits.

    I have a stock interest in ZNGA which proves out my claim that's it's a BUY. I don't work for them. I just wanted to share with other fools like me, who know a good buy when we see one. Happy trading.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2012, at 11:39 PM, helldruid wrote:

    ZNGA will still be reliant on Facebook's platform to acquire, engage, retain, and monetize their players through Facebook wall posts, messages, friends, and credits. This also means Facebook will continue to take a 30% cut of their revenue on virtual goods sales. There is no added benefit to the player to use zynga.com over Facebook. The reason for Zynga's success to begin with is because of Facebook's high engagement rate and market share. Creating a platform is not their core competency. Making games is barely their core competency as many articles in the previous weeks have shown Zynga basically copies others. A company that lacks innovation is a company that will not be successful. I can think of no reason to invest in this company. Disclosure: I'm shorting the hell out of it.

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