Social gaming powerhouse Zynga  went live today with its most aggressive foray into the music space yet-" GagaVille ." It's a significant launch because the company will be closely watching how the Lady Gaga-themed game performs as a way of informing its ongoing music strategy.
"Zynga is constantly looking for ways to innovate [and] we think it's natural to explore ways to join forces with media and entertainment," Raquel DiSabatino, Zynga's director of entertainment and media, told Billboard.biz during a visit to the Zynga offices last week. "Through this program, we're going to learn a lot -- learn what resonates."
The music industry is still searching for the right way to capitalize on the social-gaming phenomenon, and is looking to Zynga for answers. Some 250 million active users a month play its various games-such as "FarmVille," "Mafia Wars" and "CityVille"-which combined generated the company an estimated $850 million last year buying virtual goods and merchandise.
According to DiSabatino, Zynga's phones have been "ringing off the hook" from various music industry execs looking for ways to work with the company and its games, including labels, managers, and others. But while Zynga is open to the idea, it's not ready to rush into anything just yet.
"We absolutely believe in the power of music," she said. "[But] we're in the infancy of this. The logical first step is to put music in our existing games. It takes time to build a new game."
To date, Zynga has been rather deliberate in its integration of music into its various platforms. Snoop Dogg participated in some offline marketing activities around "Mafia Wars," and Dr. Dre last year became the first artists to distribute content and branded virtual items within the same game.
"GagaVille" is a notable escalation, with several elements involved, all designed to promote her upcoming "Born This Way" album -- including exclusive previews of songs from the album . First is the GagaVille, the in-world farm in "FarmVille" customized around Lady Gaga's sense of style, containing unique crops and animals that reflect the visual themes of the album (think glittering unicorns and the like). Next is a promotion around Zynga's pre-paid game cards at Best Buy, which users can redeem for in-game credits similar to iTunes gift cards. Anyone buying $25 cards at the big box retailer will get a promo code to preorder and download the album for free.
Additionally, Lady Gaga will have several themed virtual items for sale in RewardVille, Zynga's rewards program where gamers can redeem custom items for a variety of its games (think a Gaga-themed lipstick gun for use in Mafia Wars.). And finally, Zynga is releasing Gaga-inspired words of the day via Gaga and Zynga Facebook fan pages in its Scrabble-like mobile game "Words with Friends." Gamers who play the word of the day will have the chance to win prizes like free concert tickets or a signed album.
While the press attention is all focused on the "GagaVille" "farm," the above roundup shows how Zynga is making an effort to test out music integration on all its platforms-Facebook game, rewards store, mobile platforms, and retail sales. Doing so with the biggest artists in the world right now is a way of ensuring the company is gathering data from the largest swath of its user base as possible. And what it learns from this program will do much to inform the next steps it takes with the music industry.
In April, the company acquired the staff of music gaming service JamLegend, which earlier had shut down a "Guitar Hero"-like online music simulation game. That of course led to all manner of speculation about what Zynga's music plans might be.
So far, the company isn't talking. Instead, through "GagaVille," it's listening.