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On ‘Horn’ And Zynga Partners: How A Favorable Business Deal Will Correct A Past Problem

Phosphor Games’ moody hack-and-slash Dark Meadow ($1.99) was great and all, but people sort of forgot about it just as quickly as they got behind it (until the free to play fiasco, anyway). It blasted up the charts, then it fell down, never to see its highest highs again. This is why Phosphor decided to partner with Zynga for the release of its next game, Horn. On paper, Zynga might be able give the game some oomph over the long haul, making it possible for Phosphor to turn a profit with Horn and continue doing the thing it would like to do: make original mobile games.

Horn is the first Zynga Partners game. It seems that Partners is a publishing initiative. In exchange for something, Zynga gives third-party game creators access to some of its tools. As we understand it, Partners will prop up Horn by flushing it with users who play Zynga games, which should be beneficial to Phosphor. This could be a solution to its Dark Meadow problem, although it remains to be seen if Zynga’s casual player base will be interested in something as “core" and gamer-centric as Horn will probably be.

We spoke with Phosphor about the Partners program and how it might inform the creation of Horn. It also walked us through why it started hunting for publishers and why Zynga is going to be a good fit, while cautiously avoiding discussing any significant details.

The gist is this: other publishers were too demanding, but Zynga wasn’t. In fact, Phosphor believes you won’t notice that Horn is being published by the social game behemoth.

“Let me start a bit at the beginning — after Dark Meadow, one thing we realized is that we actually needed a partner for our next game," Phosphor’s Chip Sineni told us in an e-mail chat, responding to a query about why it decided to use a publisher.

“There are lots of articles on how difficult ‘discoverability’ is on the app store. We were the game of the week, but after that first burst, you are pretty much out of sight and mind for most people — with rare exceptions for indie devs bucking that trend. In general, the games that linger the longest on the charts are games that have some sort of network of users that are led to the game after launch."

After deciding to go with a publisher, Sineni said that Phosphor had talks with all the “major mobile publishers" and even some traditional publishing houses. The results were poor at best. Some potential publishers demanded changes that would threaten the game’s vision. Others offered straight-up lousy business deals.

One house, however, offered something grand — insanely grand, actually. Zynga is giving Phosphor complete creative control over the game, and also not insisting that its social hooks or IAP schemes be thrust into the title. Also, Horn won’t have ads.

“Zynga came forward with the best proposal for us, allowing us creative control and other favorable terms, despite whatever associations people may have, the Zynga Partners relationship has been one of the best publisher relationships we’ve experienced."

“The people we work with over there are super passionate about us delivering a solid premium product, and something to keep in mind is many people there have worked at more ‘traditional’ game publishers and get what high quality is. They never once pushed for doing anything to the game that didn’t make sense for the product," Sineni explained.

Partners will promote Horn across other Zynga games. How it will be promoted, we’re not sure. Even simple details like these apparently can’t be revealed to the public. So, we’re left to guess at what exactly Phosphor’s “favorable terms" are. Did Zynga toss some money into the development of Horn? Is it going to handle all future marketing and PR efforts? What else is it doing for the game outside of these areas? Also, what is Phosphor doing for Zynga in return?

Developers don’t talk about Zynga Partners, which is weird considering how big of a deal it seems like it could be. Phosphor says it’s something of a guinea pig for Partners, suggesting that Zynga isn’t so sure what it wants to pull off with the its new platform, either.

Regardless of what you think about Zynga, it feels like this partnership could be good move for Phosphor. Horn will get some extra promotion across a wildly different demographic, and that might have a positive impact money-wise on the game.

As to what Partners really is … we’re just kinda throwing our hands up in the air. The secrecy around the whole thing is bordering on something closer to what we’d expect out of Fight Club members than people making a video game. We’ll get a fuller picture when the other partners release their games, if they’re still enrolled in the program, that is.