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Zynga Releases Mafia Wars iPhone App; Printing Money?

Zynga may well be one of the fastest growing companies that you've never heard of. And if you haven't heard of Zynga, you've probably interacted with one of its Facebook, iPhone or web apps. Lots of other developers and companies compete in their space... and many do very well. But Zynga has really mastered the UI. Today, they launched Mafia Wars for the iPhone (already a popular application on Facebook). In and of itself, this isn't news. There are remarkably similar games available... I even remember playing the same game on my TI-83 calculator in high school.

What is noteworthy is how terrific Zynga's artwork, user experience and development are. The game is gorgeous. The UI is exceptional. And this is how Zynga makes a not-so-unique game stand out. zynga mafia wars iphone app

It is also how Zynga makes other games and applications stand out: they get viral behavior and they understand how it translates into gaming applications. Scramble and Poker are not huge successes because the games are so differentiated - they are successful because Zynga taps into your social graph and masterfully layers in incentives.

And that is how Zynga supposedly now makes $50 million on virtual currency (tip @VCMike):

By building terrific games that are weaved into your social graph, Zynga attracts the users. That 'social stickiness' allows Zynga to profit from the users' willingness to upgrade, advance their characters, and differentiate from the masses.

The Next Step in iPhone Gaming: Nintendo NES

At the break of the new year, I listed 20 predictions for Digital Media in 2009. The third prediction was: iPhone Gaming Will Progress Beyond Novelty

At the time of that article, the biggest application was iFart which, while not a traditional game, represented what one of three game types to successfully hit the iPhone:

1. Accelerometer based games (SGN is the king here) 2. Role playing games / storyline games (such as iMob and SGN's Agency Wars) 3. Novelty games (iFart, Beer Pong)

I find games like iMob and Agency Wars fascinating because they are perfect for the iPhone: always connected, progressing storylines and ideal for several short play sessions.

I also think that what SGN has built for with their accelerometer-based sports games is terrific - bringing together the Wii's form-factor with the connectivity of mobile (and now Facebook Connect).

But I want more. I find the current gaming offers interesting.... but mostly ephemeral. Nothing, for instance, I would shell out $9.99 or $29.99 for... after all, Playstation 3 games now run $59.99 - and I spend a lot more time with my iPhone.

The next generation of iPhone gaming needs to look back to the original Nintendo. Place the original track pad and A/B buttons on the iPod's touch screen... and use traditional gameplay navigations that have been a staple of controllers for ages:

iphone-game-575 Even though it is less sexy than developing against the iPhone's accelerometer, gameplay would be richer and longer-lasting. Super Monkey Ball is fun... but the novelty wears off soon there after - particularly when the controls aren't terrific.

Imagine connected, online equivalents of Super Mario 3 or Zelda that play on the iPhone and tap into Facebook Connect... it might not be sexy (and I might be dating myself) but it would be powerful. And with the creativity and horsepower developing against the iPhone - why can't the next Mario, Zelda and Metroid emerge?

Update: To be clear, I am not suggesting that the iPhone bring back Nintendo games (see comments); rather, the point was that Nintendo-inspired controls would introduce more compelling games on the iPhone.