Feb 9, 2022 - Technology

Zynga outlines its ambitious NFT gaming plans

Photo collage illustration of Matt Wolf and the Zynga logo

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Zynga

Mobile gaming powerhouse Zynga has big plans for blockchain and NFT-based gaming this year, including staff expansion, acquisitions and some playable games.

Why it matters: Zynga is taking more aggressive steps than other traditional gaming companies into the booming, but controversial, blockchain gaming sector.

  • Blockchain/NFT games tie in-game objects to unique IDs, that can then be bought or sold, adding a real-world economic layer to games.
  • Proponents say this empowers players to earn money through play, while detractors say it only drives speculation and doesn’t make games better.
  • More than $3.6 billion was invested in blockchain gaming in 2021, according a report by Drake Star, but that largely involved companies outside of gaming’s mainstream.

The details: Zynga aims to build its new blockchain team from a current 15 or so to as many as 70-100 by year’s end.

  • “It’s a studio,” Zynga blockchain chief Matt Wolf told Axios, who said the company is currently hiring for senior positions, including creative director and a “tokenomics designer.”
  • Part of the team’s expansion plans include partnerships and acquisitions, continuing Zynga’s position as a frequent buyer of game companies.
  • “Things are really frothy right now,” Wolf said. “So we're looking at the cycle and we're figuring out where we want to jump in, but we definitely have feelers out.”

No NFT games from Zynga have been announced yet, though Wolf said he hopes to release a “ground-up, dedicated product” this year, “sooner than later.”

  • Initial news of Zynga’s NFT plans last year stoked speculation of the company’s signature games Farmville or Words with Friends getting NFTs. But Wolf says the current plan is to separate its NFT game ideas from its big series, citing potential player confusion.
  • He says the company’s game teams will have the option to opt in or out of any NFT plans, a notable stance given reports of internal protest against the technology at game companies EA and Ubisoft.

Zynga’s early blockchain games will target players familiar with the genre and who may not be looking for robust gameplay.

  • “When they enter into one of these products, they come at it from an investor or, a whale, point of view and are interested in specific elements including yield,” Wolf said. (A whale is common industry jargon for players who are big spenders.)
  • “We don't want to bring them something that they didn't ask for, and we don't want to assume that they want a super, super deep gameplay experience.”
  • Wolf believes current blockchain gamers find their fun in the owning and selling of NFT items.

Yes, but: Zynga is also facing a significant transition if a proposed $12.7 billion acquisition by Grand Theft Auto publisher Take Two goes through.

  • In a recent interview, Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, who has tapped Zynga leadership to run Take Two’s mobile business, expressed interest in NFT games, but said current executions focused too much on speculation and need to involve more entertainment.

Between the lines: Wolf joined Zynga to spin up a blockchain team last fall, as other traditional game companies also began talking up the tech.

  • The job arose from a lunch between Wolf, a 30-year games industry veteran and company president Bernard Kim: “The conversation kind of went like: there may be a flood coming. And if the flood is Web3 and blockchain games and NFTs and we're not building for capability, we may be swept away.”
  • In December, Ubisoft launched its first in-game NFTs. Though they drew backlash, Ubisoft committed to creating more.
  • Both Zynga and Ubisoft have also pledged that their NFT projects will involve blockchain tech that has a low carbon footprint, responding to criticism that the current dominant blockchains use environmentally destructive.

What’s next: Aside from making games, Wolf hopes to draw together leaders from other traditional and upstart gaming companies to form a blockchain gaming council to address issues across the sector.

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