News, research and discussion on virtual goods, currencies and economies globally.

Inside Social Games

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Tracking Innovation at the Convergence of Games and Social Platforms
Updated: 3 hours 16 min ago

Social Gaming Roundup: FarmVillain, gWallet, Cie Games, & More

Sat, 2010/08/14 – 01:53

FarmVillain Gets Approved for the App Store — After four attempts, the FarmVille spoof app, FarmVillian is finally available in the iPhone App Store. Now, users can take revenge on their friends for spamming their feeds with fertilizer requests with funny and in some cases offensive jokes.

gWallet Forms Advisory Board — Social media monetization firm, gWallet, announced a new advisory board this week. With executives, brand marketers, and entrepreneurs such as Marc Ruxin, Eric Bader, Joe Hyrkin, and Doug Chavez, the board is intended to drive the company’s overall strategies, moving them forward, as it applies to what big name advertisers are looking for. The hope, is to better bring big brands into the social gaming space.

Cie Games Officially Launches Car Town with Big Brands — Cie Games has officially announced the launch of its virtual space game, Car Town, on Facebook. However, the game doubles as a business opportunity, with automakers earning a licensing fee each time a player buys one of their cars in game. Honda is among the first to join, and will provide an in-game showroom for its CR-Z sport hybrid and will advertise via virtual, in-game, billboards. Other noted licensing partners include DeLorean, Dodge, Fisker, Ford, General Motors, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Lotus, Mazda, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Opel, Ram Truck, Scion, Toyota, Vauxhall, and Volkswagen.

HeyZap Launches HTML5 Support — The embeddable, social games distribution platform from HeyZap got an upgrade this week as the company has announced that it will now support HTML5 games. Until now, HeyZap has focused exclusively on Flash-based titles.

MySpace Gets New User Homepage — MySpace is getting a new design for its user homepage, as Mashable covered this week. The new look will focus on content discovery through the stream and better sharing tools. Currently, only a handful of people have access to the new layout, but all users will have it come August 16th.

[image via Mashable]

Doubloon Launches iPhone Support — The virtual goods optimization service from Doubloon is coming to iPhone this week. Announced Wednesday, the company will provide Cocoa libraries for iOS developers who wish to add a ready-to-go virtual goods transactions platform to their games. Additionally, the beta iPhone Library will allow for easy integration with the Doubloon API.

Buy a Pet Society Mayor Today — Pet Society fans can now take a piece of their game home with them as Playfish has made available a limited edition figurine of the Pet Society Mayor. The item can be purchased in both the US and UK Playfish stores on for about $25.

PayPal Seeks to Improve Virtual Goods Transactions — According to the Associated Press, PayPal is looking to make it easier to purchase virtual goods. Typically, digital goods are bought with some form of virtual currency that is bought in blocks of money such as $5, $10, or $20. Since many goods cost less than this, PayPal is planning to allow people to purchase such items with a sort of tab, then charging them once they accumulate a set amount.

In addition to this, eBay Inc. is currently in talks with Google to possibly bring the PayPal payment service over to the Android smartphone, according to Bloomberg.

Germany-Based Entreprenuer Dives Into Social Games — Germany-based entrepreneur, Ibrahim Evsan (or “Ibo”) has teamed up with Thomas Bachem to start up Up Web Game, reports TechCrunch. Founders of the European video sharing site, Sevenload, the pair is seeking to get into social games with their first project “Fliplife,” a 2D variation of the Second Life concept and built on its own proprietary platform.

PopCap Buys Intriguing Domains — PopCap Games has purchased dozens of gambling-oriented URLs for some of their most popular games such as Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, and Zuma. A full listing can be found at superannuation. As for what “” will be used for, your guess is as good as ours.

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Note on Facebook’s Application Stats Reporting Bug

Sat, 2010/08/14 – 01:53

As many developers may have noticed over the past couple weeks, starting around the beginning of the month, Facebook began reporting some suspect traffic numbers for certain applications. For example, some applications have seen steep increases in reported traffic numbers that do not match stats that developers themselves are seeing in their own logs.

We’ve been in detailed conversation with Facebook about the issue, which they confirmed was a bug when it first appeared two weeks ago. Facebook says they are still working on correcting the bug, though they don’t know exactly when numbers for the affected apps will be corrected.

In the meantime, we’ve taken the step of flagging applications on AppData that have clearly had suspect gains reported by Facebook. For those apps which we’ve flagged, we are instead using the last accurate numbers from before the bug appeared in calculating developer totals. We’ll let you know as Facebook resolves the issue.

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Jambool Confirms that It Has Been Bought by Google

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 21:30

Although Jambool and Google weren’t offering comment about the report this week that Google bought the virtual currency service provider, cofounder Vikas Gupta has now confirmed the deal — although the company’s not saying anything about the reported $70 million to $75 million price.

Joining Google has been a long road for Jambool and its monetization product, Social Gold.

Like other companies in the same space, Jambool has been getting squeezed out of Facebook as that company introduces its own virtual currency, Credits. Gupta responded at length to Facebook’s aggressive introduction of Credits in a lengthy interview with us last month.

Despite the Google acquisition, Jambool says that it’s still doing business as usual, and will continue to operate all its accounts and work on Facebook.

Here’s the message that the Jambool homepage is currently displaying; it doesn’t provide detail on what the company’s plans with Google are, although one can easily assume that those plans have something to do with Google’s new social product efforts.

A Letter from our Founders

August 13, 2010

We are excited to announce that Jambool is becoming a part of the Google family today.

Jambool started as a social collaboration platform in 2006. In 2007, we shifted our focus to build applications on social networks. Along with success, we found fun and lucrative ways to monetize our apps – specifically virtual currency and goods. That led us to create a platform to help developers create, host, manage and monetize their virtual economies.

Social Gold has grown by leaps and bounds since it went live in 2008. In the first half of 2010, we’ve processed more than double the entire payment volume we processed in all of 2009. And we’ve welcomed hundreds of developers to our platform. The fact that our highest revenue day was in the last week attests to the continued growth of online gaming.

Our vision is to build world-class products that help developers manage and monetize their virtual economies across the globe. When the opportunity arose to join forces with Google to execute against this vision, we couldn’t pass it up. We are thrilled to bring the Social Gold platform to Google’s global users. And we invite you – our customers, partners, and friends – to continue on the journey with us.

Over the last few years, we have had the great fortune of working with an incredible team. Every day, we are amazed and humbled by what they have accomplished. We have had terrific support from our partners, investors and advisors; and we are lucky to have worked with each of them. Thank you!

As a team, we remain passionate about innovating on behalf of our customers. We aim to deliver the most frictionless, seamless transaction experience inside applications and games on every platform. We are thrilled to be part of Google, and we look forward to the exciting road ahead.

The game has only just begun.

Vikas & Reza

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Social Network Veteran Owen Van Natta Takes Big Position at Zynga

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 21:25

Another top role has been filled at Zynga, with the hiring of former MySpace CEO Owen Van Natta as executive vice president of business. Van Natta, who was also chief revenue officer at Facebook until 2008, is also getting a spot on Zynga’s board of directors.

In some respects this hiring looks a lot like Zynga’s last placement, which made investment bank pro Dave Wehner the chief financial officer.

Both Van Natta and Wehner are men with deep connections across the tech and media industries, at home and internationally. That kind of experience can be difficult to find in the insular Silicon Valley community.

Zynga’s plans look increasingly geared for a broad expansion, though, and it will need executives that can guide it into new areas. As such, these recent appointments don’t necessarily imply an IPO, as some have speculated — the company would need to make similar hires whether or not it’s planning an offering.

Another similarity between Wehner and Van Natta’s hiring is that both men were reportedly involved with the company long before they were given their positions. In Van Natta’s case, he was serving as an advisor, as All Things D reported in July.

There has been plenty of activity at Zynga lately. Aside from the new hires, the company has also taken investments of over $100 million from both Softbank and Google, acquired developers Unoh and Challenge Games, and entered into high-profile brand partnerships like its 7-Eleven cross-promotion.

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New Hires in Social Gaming: CrowdStar, Kabam, Playdom, & More

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 19:13

Though the last few weeks have been a bit quiet, the past seven days have certainly been a lively bunch for hiring amongst the major social developers; based on the data found on LinkedIn. A large portion of the activity took place over at Slide as a number of individuals are changing roles due to the recent acquisition by Google. In fact, the company’s Vice President of Operations, Ken Brownfield,  is now an Operations Manager for Google. Additionally, the developer formerly known as Watercooler, Kabam, has also been added to our list.

As a side note, be sure to check out the Inside Network Job Board to see who’s hiring now.

Here is the list:


  • Brice Morrison –  As the company’s only new hire this week, the former Technical Designer for Electronic Arts, Morrison is now a Game Designer for CrowdStar.


  • Jim Pearson – Formerly an Art Director for Playdom, Pearson joins the Kabam team as their new Art Lead.
  • Keith Crowell – In a simple title change, Crowell was once Director of Customer Service while under the Watercooler tag. Now under the Kabam logo, he is Director of User Experience.


  • Ted Howard – Howard is now the Directory of Developer Experience at Playdom. Prior to this, his role was Director of External Development.
  • Chad Meyers – Playdom gains a new Server Programmer in the form of Meyers. Previously, he was a Software Engineer for Seven Studios.
  • Kaesi Solomon – A former PM at Tendril, Solomon is now a QA/Developer for Playdom.


  • Ian Griffiths – Griffiths changes roles at Playfish from QA Manager to Associate Product Manager.
  • Martin Ritchie – With experience as a Senior Software Engineer at J.P. Morgan, Ritchie joins Playfish as a Server Side Developer.
  • Ke Ren – Now a Server Developer at Playfish, Ren was previously a Senior Software Developer at Truphone.

PopCap Games

  • Scott Willoughby – The former Director of Conversion & Retention Marketing at SEOmoz, Willoughby comes to PopCap as its new Customer Engagement Manager for Social Games.
  • Darren Toshi – PopCap gains a new Facilities Manager with Toshi. Previously, he was Site Operations Manager at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


  • Nathaniel Lee – Formerly an Illustrator/Animator for Zynga, Lee is now a Flash Artist at RockYou!


  • Tawnee Kendall – The first of many rearrangements since the Google acquisition of Slide, Kendal is now Sr. Strategist of Customer Operations under the Google tag. She was previously a Community Manager under the Slide name.
  • Ruben Zakarian – Under Google, the former QA Lead Engineer, Zakarian, is now a Software Engineer in Test.
  • Pedro Meza – Though still a Software Engineer, Meza officially adopts the Google tag.
  • Christyn Tannenbaum – A Product/Business Analyst for Slide, Tannenbaum is now a Quantitative Marketing Manager.
  • Paul Thiel – Formerly an Engineering Lead, Thiel is now a “Member of Technical Staff” for Google.
  • Kee Zhang – Zhang keeps his Graphic Designer role from Slide as he transitions over to Google.
  • Ken Brownfield – Previously the Vice President of Operations for Slide, Brownfield is now Operations Manager with Google.
  • Ray Courtney – Only a minor title change for Courtney with the acquisition as he goes from Engineering Manager to Manager of Software Engineering.
  • Cameron Boehmer – Boehmer keeps the same title of Software Engineer through the acquisition transition.
  • Cory Petosky – Petosky, too, remains a Software Engineer, though his tag changes from Slide to Google.


  • Rajneesh Malik – A former Sr. Recruiter for Microsoft, Malik is now a Recruiter for Zynga.
  • Arya Asemanfar – In a job role change, Asemanfar is now a Principal Software Engineer at Zynga. He was a Developer.
  • Kenji Bliss – Bliss joins Zynga as its newest 2D/3D Artist. Previously, he was a Concept Artist for Firaxis Games.
  • Yohanes Frezgi – Once a student at Harvard Business School, Frezgi is now a Product Manager for Zynga.
  • Heather Houston – Formerly a Research Associate at Cornerstone Research, Houston is now a Product Manager for Zynga.
  • Arvin Bautista – Zynga gains another 2D/3D Artist in the form of Bautista. Before this, Bautista was a Senior Artist for Backbone Entertainment.
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Trip Hawkins on Digital Chocolate’s Social Gaming Focus

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 15:42

Talk to Trip Hawkins for more than a few moments about Digital Chocolate’s efforts on Facebook, and he’ll be sure to tell you that his company has been the fastest-growing social game developer this year. That assertion comes with a few qualifiers — mainly that Digital Chocolate is still far smaller than competitors that started earlier, so it’s easier to have a higher growth rate — but it’s true enough to get the point across.

The point, of course, is that Hawkins considers Digital Chocolate a viable contender to become one of the top five social gaming companies. With the money earned from developing hundreds of mobile and casual games, Hawkins has been turning his 300-employee company’s attention to Facebook, and beyond.

There are more than a few entrepreneurs with similarly aggressive visions. But Hawkins, who founded both gaming giant Electronic Arts and the now closed console maker and publisher 3DO, has a rare set of credentials.

One more thing about Hawkins: he can certainly keep up a conversation. The below interview is a bit long. But there’s plenty of good material, especially in the second half, so don’t miss out.

Inside Social Games: What’s happening with Digital Chocolate on Facebook right now?

Trip Hawkins: Millionaire City is the first of our second wave of Facebook games. Its success was informed by a lot of the things we learned on first products like MMA Pro Fighter. That’s encouraging for us. We did a lot better with Millionaire City, so we know we’re learning.

There’s a perfect storm we want to create between marketing, and virality and cross-promotion. If you can get one product built to a certain level, that’s a leverage point to launch your other products. We’re just finding it’s more efficient and easier for us as we go on.

ISG: In 2009, Digital Chocolate was all about the iPhone; now you’re getting large on Facebook. Are you more excited about one or other?

TH: I think at the moment the iPhone is a better platform for conventional games and Facebook is better for social games. For the iPhone every customer has already provided payment details and Apple has one-touch payment.

On Facebook you have a legitimate social network and a lot of social channels and cross-promotion, but not as many people with a one-touch payment method, so you’re better off if you’re focused on virtual goods. Whereas a virtual goods social game isn’t as likely to do well on Apple because it’s a smaller audience, and you don’t have the viral channels.

Over time the platforms could become more functionally similar. If Apple is really successful with Game Center and social features and grows their customer base to a billion, and Facebook does the same, you could start to see more similarities.

ISG: Millionaire City has become your big Facebook game, while your NanoStar franchise hasn’t done as well — but you’ve said the latter is close to your heart. What’s the plan for NanoStar?

TH: With the Nanostars, it’s just the beginning. We built two games and launched them around the same time, had a lot of good customer reactions and saw some good metrics. We also saw some technical problems that up to this point have not allowed us to really promote the Nanostar platform. We’re about to start doing that now, and we’ve made a lot of improvements in both games.

There are also certain game design models that are better for the Facebook environment. A game like Millionaire is focused on asynchronous sessions, it appeals to both men and women, it’s clearly a casual game.

ISG: NanoStar Siege is an in-depth strategy game. Are there enough players for it?

TH: What we’d hope to have is eventually a deeper and longer-term relationship with someone for whom gaming is more of a hobby. We’re not really daunted by the challenge of sifting through players on Facebook to find out which ones can really fall in love with being a gamer.

I’d say I went through a similar process with EA, because before that people played board games. When I built EA Sports, I could reach a larger audience, because I could bury the game in the computer. I called it real life in a box. Some of these board and card games didn’t reach a large audience, but EA has reached tens of millions of people. Those people didn’t think of themselves as gamers, and now they do.

On Facebook, a lot of people absolutely don’t think of themselves as gamers, but now they are. People that are EA sports gamers wouldn’t like to go back to play Strat-O-Matic, and a Facebook farm game player wouldn’t want to play the EA sports games.

You can tell there are certain kinds of games that, because they’re simple and purposely shallow, it’s easy to get people to play them. Anyone with a background in the game industry would hope to do more than that, to get people to be patient enough that they can develop an interest.

That’s one of the challenges on Facebook. The Facebook audience is the new ADD generation, so there’s a lot of drive-by activity where people don’t want to embarass a friend so they’ll take an action, but they won’t stick around.

ISG: So you’re going to keep working on the existing NanoStars games?

TH: For Nanostar Castles we thought, hey, this will be really fun to play live, then when we put it out there we discovered there were server scale issues so we couldn’t really promote it. And when you have a live game you can’t promote, you’ll have trouble getting a critical mass of players. We just recently got that problem fixed.

Now what we’re working on is to make the single-player game better. When we first started with the NanoStars we had the idea that some people could get NanoStars [in-game heroes] for free and you could get more if you paid for them.More recently we’ve realized that that policy is too alienating for free players, they churn out of the games faster than we’d like.

So we’ve concluded that it’s better to keep the free players interested, since they add to the community and the virality and give the paying player more people to play with. To make it more motivating for the paying player to stay in — we’ve already rolled this out in Siege, it now has earnable heroes. We’re going to do a similar thing in the Castles game.

Another thing is live in-game chat, so you can chat with whom you’re playing even if they’re not a friend, and go look at their profile to add them as a friend if you want.

ISG: Most of the big Facebook developers avoid live chat in their games. What’s the attraction for you?

TH: You can make the argument that there are a lot of people on Facebook who don’t want it to be a gaming destination. If you look at what we’re doing, it’s a portfolio approach where we’ll try to do different things, some are more game-y and some are more Facebook-y. We’ll keep trying to do things that are more game oriented for people who want it.

But instead of us beating our heads against the wall and wishing Facebook were different, those products will be our lead as we move off Facebook. By the end of this quarter you’ll see our first few games have their own websites. We’re working on bringing some of those social games to mobile devices for the first time, and you’ll see us anouncing distribution and partnerships that go beyond Facebook.

Even Facebook wants gaming to move off, and use the open graph. will probably remain premier when it comes to cost per acquisition, cost per trial and ease of virality, and when you get to an off-Facebook destination, you get the people who are more into it, it’s a more important gaming activity for them than just sneaking it in for three minutes while they’re on

ISG: What about the other developers? Will everyone move off Facebook?

TH: Zynga is a product entirely of As they move beyond Facebook, they have tremendous size, scale and resources going for them, but as far as their game design, they’re a creature of Facebook. That’s how they understand design and gamer behavior.

We come from other platforms and we’re very new to Facebook, so we’re way behind Zynga in that way, but we understand gamers and games. As a deeper game company and more of a cross-platform company, as we go off Facebook and onto mobile, that plays to some of our strengths that haven’t been useful on Facebook.

[Various communication devices] will eventually became interoperable. We’re just at the starting point where you’ll see that for games. For me it makes sense as software-as-a-service. In the future people will like a particular game, and no matter what the device or screen size, they can get to that game and communicate with their friends.

It’s a huge opportunity for social media, because it so much wants to be and needs to be interoperable. For social media it’s not just convenience. Facebook doesn’t want the entire world to be camping on, they want people to be out in the long tail.

ISG: For now, is Facebook the new frontier for creativity in game design?

TH: It’s a very different kind of platform, and for that reason there’s plenty of potential for innovation and creativity. It’s obviously from what new kind of games have been invented. You have to look at the farming genre and realize that there are some pretty fresh, interesting approaches in games like that that happen to fit the Facebook platform pretty well.

ISG: My followup to that, then: is enough innovation happening on Facebook?

TH: No. As a general rule, there are a lot of people trying to get onto Facebook who haven’t been there before, who are doing things that are derivative. They’re coming from somewhere else or trying to copy someone. There’s way too much of that activity, but that shouldn’t surprise anybody. There could be innovative things going on that nobody has discovered.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better opportunity in the game industry for innovative, original IP. The internet already demonstrated that truth. If you look at it, where’s the big value? With CBS? Microsoft? It’s with new IP like Facebook and Google, and now Zynga and so forth.

ISG: Can a new developer make it in this market?

TH: I think a lot of developers are being lured to the slaughter because they think it’s easy to publish on the iPhone. What they discover is that it’s not easy to make a profit on the iPhone. You don’t hear so much about the little developers who lost their nest egg, you hear about Angry Birds. So for every one of those there are another thousand who will go lose their nest egg.

If you think about books or music, the publisher provided both an editorial role and a business role, manufacturing, packing, shipping. As an artist you sure didn’t want to deal with that. With all these virtual channels there’s nothing more like that, so you can collapse the chain. But the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, because a lot of developers do need business advice and editorial guidance on the game.

To bring that back to both the iPhone and Facebook, you have guys who stand in the middle of that and say, hey you’re a developer and you’re intimidated, or you tried to publish and aren’t getting traction. Join forces with us, we’ll get you that. Then they’re asking for, in my opinion, too big a share of revenue, and what they’re gonna do is not sustainable. They say, we’ll go promote your game and you’ll make this much, but they’re only going to promote it for a brief period.

With the iPhone for example, no game gets promoted for a long period. I look at the top grossing chart all the time. No matter what product is in there, within a couple months it will get churned out. There’s this massive tidal wave of apps coming, and they just plow under what was there a week before. That’s an unhealthy ecosystem because it’s encouraging oversupply, and that makes it hard for anyone to get traction to scale up.

ISG: That sounds pretty dismal. Why isn’t there an online equivalent to a publisher and distributor, like EA in the traditional gaming world?

TH: Here’s how EA does it. They go into Walmart and say hey, we’ve got the exclusive NFL license. Now a whole bunch of inventory is on the shelf and Walmart owes a payout to EA. At some point the game is no longer selling so fast, so Walmart asks them to take some back. EA says sure, we can take some back, but I want you to take another umpteen thousand units of this next product. Over a period of time they can build up ownership and control of more shelf space, and they control more working capital owed through the payables.

I saw this from both sides, at EA where we felt like we owned that shelf space, and at 3DO where I felt like even though I could make a better baseball game, I could go to a retailer and instead they’d buy all the EA units of an inferior game.

It makes you wonder if someone could do online what I did at EA, saying hey, there are a whole bunch of these little guys, they need to be rounded up and gotten organized. I’d express skepticism about that because it’s all virtual shelf space.

ISG: What will make any given gaming company successful in the future?

TH: The past of media is finance and leverage that made people into winners. In the future it’s technology and IP. EA was in the middle. If you look at the past it’s all analog, brick and mortar, and in the future it’s digital and on networks.

I think of Pixar, where at the start of its relationship with Disney, Disney thought of them a lot like its other studios. They thought, we’ll make all this money because we control access to the theaters. What did Pixar do? They took the money and built a technology model, got vertically integrated, got best practices, attacked a particular segment that benefited from technology, and systematically built better movies, because each movie could use previous technology.

Not a lot of companies in film were willing to do that, and not a lot could because it required a lot of engineering and tech expertise. Look at how the Pixar story ends up. They get systematically better until they’re actually threatening the biggest business in Disney’s history, animated movies. Who armed them? Who gave them the money? Disney. And how much did it cost them to fix that? Eight billion dollars later, they bought Pixar.

In my view, that trend accelerates as we move to the internet and unlimited digital shelf space. You need a strategy if you’re going to cover more billing systems, technologies, languages — you need to be organized to do that, and big media companies aren’t really doing it yet. I’m sure established brands will have value in these new media paradigms, but it’s also a big opportunity for the creation of new IP. The best way for startup companies to really create their own value is to be tech companies.

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Highborn HD on the iPad Shows That War Can Be Fun

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 12:43

It’s safe to say that iDevice games are getting better, as a quick perusal through the iPad App Store’s top paid games list reveals the turn-based strategy title Highborn HD from Jet Set Games. At #5 when we found it, the relatively new game is certainly there for good reason.

Set in a satirical fantasy world, Highborn comes off as deceptively simple, but as players delve deeper into single player missions, that simplicity evolves into a rather surprising amount of depth. Other than a few minor problems with repetition and usability, it’s certainly a game worth the $2.99 price tag.

Players start off controlling the Highborn hero “Archie” — an overly cheerful, “fancy-pants” paladin — and his troops as they set out to rid the world of evil. Along the way, the forces of Decay, lead by the arch lich Floyd, will attempt to stop them.

For each level, users are given some sort of objective to complete and move their squads of units about a grid in order to kill enemy soldiers and capture useful structures.

For the record, there are a metric ton of unit types in Highborn stemming from fantasy lore, but for the most part they consist of ranged, melee, and hero types. Ranged classes, such as archers, can attack from multiple grid spaces away, which will prevent melee units from attacking back. Melee, on the other hand tend to be stronger, but must be adjacent to a target to do anything. There are many variations of these, such as flyers that travel very far and ignore terrain, healers, catapults with, and even stealth units.

Heroes are where things change up a bit as they are extremely powerful, generally killing an enemy unit in one strike. Typically, however, they are limited in some way, such as Archie, who cannot move as far per turn as one of his knights. However, heroes are granted a special spell that can be cast every couple of turns. Such spells can do direct damage to enemies, heal allies, or even turn them to stone so they can’t fight back.

Terrain also plays a role in strategy. Aside from the occasional wall or rock formation a ranged unit can shoot over, certain grid tiles can have adverse effects. Moving through forests, for example, runs the risk of revealing hidden enemies (you can hide there as well), while moving through rock will reduce how far a unit can move in one turn and moving through swamp can actually do damage.

The battle gets more interesting with the concept of capturing buildings. Players don’t start out with many units, and must stand adjacent to a neutral or enemy structure in order to capture it and earn more. If the structure is controlled by the opponent, then players must defeat the automatically placed garrison there in order to take it. Different types of structures will spawn different types of units. For example, a monastery will produce a monk that cannot attack, but can travel far and heal allies. Other structures, such as a wizard’s tower, will also come with added defenses, bombarding enemies within range with fireballs or arrows.

The only way one gets attacked by defenses, however, is if they actually engage in battle. Whenever a unit is close enough to attack something, a circle will highlight it. Telling them to attack will whisk them away to a 3D battlefield where the two forces duke it out, with the attacker going first. The player has minimal control, with the only option being to use special spells at the start of a battle they initiate (should they have any) and recharge every few turns. As for where these spells come from, they are earned by capturing buildings called “monoliths” and will do everything from weakening enemies to inflicting tremendous damage.

Unfortunately, these battles are where the few complaints for Highborn come into play. Visually, it’s not all that impressive, and matches in the campaign are very long. Watching the same animations a couple dozen times does begin to get old (at least the first few times are amusing as death animations tend to be a bit overdramatic). Beyond this, it is exceedingly annoying to be able to undo moves. Once the player has moved a target unit, even if they did so accidentally, they cannot reverse the effect.

Another key aspect to Highborn worth noting is that everything about it comes with a very tongue-in-cheek style of comedy that is actually quite funny. Most of it comes from the dialogue and interaction between heroes, but there are other subtle elements of the game worth noting too. Perhaps the most memorable is the options menu that houses a “broken” button with a sign taped to it saying “do not press.” Don’t worry, we won’t tell you what happens.

Moving onto the social mechanics of the game, Highborn evidently once utilized Facebook for its multiplayer system. In a recent update, however, that was removed for OpenFeint. With the addition, a rather sizable number of shareable achievements were added, but being a basic social feature, it is easily outshined by the asynchronous multiplayer.

It goes without saying that multiplayer is always a popular choice, and as far as social games go, asynchronous modes tend to be more attractive than synchronous ones. In Highborn this works similar to a challenge system in other social games, and players can apparently access multiple games in progress. The downside, unfortunately, is that the games must be created with OpenFeint friends that play. There is no obvious way to challenge random users.

In the end, all this is merely just the tip of the iceberg that is Highborn HD. Each level can take 30 or more minutes to complete, so there is a tremendous amount of longevity to the title. Other than some minor repetition in the battle systems and usability qualms, it’s a game that comes highly recommended. Furthermore, even if you don’t own an iPad, it’s also available for the iPhone as well.

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Empire Avenue Draws Real Investment to Virtually Buy and Sell Friends

Fri, 2010/08/13 – 04:58

A couple years ago, games like Friends For Sale sold millions of Facebook users on the idea of buying and selling friends.  The fad eventually died down, but new interpretations of the concept continue to pop up.

Empire Avenue is the latest, a social site dreamt up by a group of former BioWare, Electronic Arts and MySQL employees. The founding group is enough to convince us to take notice, but today the company also disclosed a $200,000 investment from a group of angel investors, led by Boris Wertz of W Media Ventures.

So what, besides the all-star cast, makes Empire Avenue stand out from the classic friend trading concept? Most notably, it’s that the people being bought and sold aren’t on just one social network. They come from all of them.

Okay, so the game doesn’t connect with MySpace or other small networks (yet), but using connections to Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, Empire Avenue tags players with an initial value then drops them into a virtual stock market to become stocks. It’s an interesting enhancement the original games of yesteryear, and actually pretty fun if you get some friends to play with you. That said, as with Friends For Sale, it does feel like a game that may wear thin once players start asking “what’s the point?”

Essentially, players sign up for Empire Avenue and give themselves a unique “ticker” name (like the six letter abbreviations at the stock exchange). When they start out, their stock is not worth much. However, the means of increasing that value is very natural.

The game doesn’t actually require players to do anything on the site to increase their worth. Once logged in, the iser can connect to the three aforementioned social networks, and any action performed on them will increase how the player’s worth. This includes commenting, status updates, tweets, and so on. Furthermore, any privacy settings set on, say, Facebook, will translate over to Empire Avenue as well.

This is where the core of the game comes into play. Players increase their value so that when investors buy shares, the palyer earns more money (Eaves). These Eaves are then used to purchase shares of other players, turn around, and sell them when their value grows. As in the real stock market, it’s an investment, so it can be prudent to buy stock when it’s low.

In fact, in less then five minutes after account activation, we were bought, showing there are already people searching for new, cheap, players, before they start tweeting up the internet. In addition to buying and selling, there’s also the more strategic means of directly trading stock, but most of the community updates and player statuses are seeking to buy.

Though the basics of the game are simple enough, there is a great deal of strategy to be had. Users are given charts and graphs that show fluctuations in players’ values during the past 30 days, daily gainers, weekly earners, and various communities. It’s a lot to take in, honestly, and it looks a bit too much like a real stock site, which has the obvious tendency to turn off a lot of potential users. It just doesn’t look fun.

As far as other social elements are concerned, there are a few more beyond the already noted. One of them is a community dashboard that allows people to connect with other individuals based on city, interests, or personal, private communities. These are not much more than discussion threads, but each one is part of the leaderboard system in Empire Avenue, creating a sort of team oriented competition where the overall community value is measured.

Of course, leaderboards seem to be the only driving factor behind playing Empire Avenue. The problem is that not all players care about these. As it stands, players buy and sell stocks, while raising their own value, in order to make more money, which is then used to repeat the same process. There’s no real tangible reward (save for a few achievements that pop up every now and again). Even the in-game shop where people can spend their Eaves on something other than stock consists mostly of means to purchase more stock.

As a side note, however, players can purchase Google Ads-style advertisements for themselves to place on other users’ pages. In fact, it works very similar to the Google counterpart, with a cost per page view. That’s an interesting mechanic, but how players will use it remains to be seen.

Overall, Empire Avenue is a pretty cool idea, and earns bonus design points for rewarding players for doing what they already do anyway. Unfortunately, that reward all goes toward a single, repetitive point, which is to make money, in order to make more money, in order to… you get the idea. There’s no tangible reward other than trying to top the leaderboards. In addition to that, the site feels a little bit too much like a stock site. Despite the fact that it’s the theme of the game, it may be a bit frightening to most, and likely drive them away before they try anything. Sadly, most people do, in fact, judge a book by its cover.

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Highlights This Week from the Inside Network Job Board: Kabam, ZipZapPlay, HeyZap, Meez, Blue Fang, & More

Thu, 2010/08/12 – 20:39

Recently, we launched the Inside Network Job Board – dedicated to providing you with the best job opportunities in the Facebook Platform and social gaming ecosystem.

Here are this week’s highlights from the Inside Network Job Board, including positions at Kabam, ZipZapPlay, Heyzap, Meez, Blue Fang Games, Meteor Games, A Bit Lucky, DeNA Global, and Electronic Arts.

Business Development Manager (San Mateo, CA)

Game Creative Capture Artist – EA2D (Redwood City, CA)

Listings on the Inside Network Job Board are distributed to readers of Inside Facebook and Inside Social Games through regular posts and widgets on the sites. That way, you can be sure that your open positions are being seen by the leading developers, product managers, marketers, designers, and executives in the Facebook Platform and social gaming industry today.

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Brazil Sees Facebook Growth in Key Demographics

Thu, 2010/08/12 – 20:25

[Editor’s Note: The following article presents analysis and data excerpts from Inside Facebook Gold, our research and data membership service tracking Facebook’s traffic growth and demographic landscape in global markets.]

Brazil is on its way up in the world. A growing powerhouse of 192 million citizens, the giant South American nation is receiving ever more attention internationally for both its culture and economy.

The country is a world to itself on the internet. While the rest of the continent finds advantage in freely intermingling online, Brazil has the numbers — fully half of South America’s total — to create its own online market, and a distinct language, Portuguese, that encourages division from the rest of Latin America.

This is evident in social networking. Brazil is now the only nation in the world in which Orkut, Google’s social network, is more significant than Facebook.

How much more is somewhat uncertain, but an estimate of 28 million Brazilians on Orkut is often used. Facebook reports 5.8 million users in the country.

In an interview published this morning at Inside Social Games, Juan Franco, the CEO of game publisher Mentez, suggests that Orkut’s penetration into Brazil may actually be much higher — up to 50 million of the nation’s 72 million internet users.

> Continue reading on Inside Facebook.

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How to Localize Games: An Interview with Orkut-Focused Brazilian Publisher Mentez

Thu, 2010/08/12 – 16:59

On Monday, we wrote about social game publisher Mentez, which specializes in localizing games for the Brazilian market and Orkut, the most popular social network in that country. Mentez claims some 22 million users across its games, has a new partnership with Playdom, and just raised money from Insight Venture Partners.

We caught back up with CEO Juan Franco to hear more about his company’s strategy of localizing other developer’s games for Brazil and other Latin American countries. This interview is part of our ongoing series about localization worldwide.

Inside Social Games: Tell us about the Brazilian market.

Juan Franco: The Brazilian economy is booming, not only the technology sector but every other sector. People believe that it’s going to become the number five economy in the world soon.

There are more than 70 million people with internet today, and that’s growing over 10 percent a year, so we expect that in a couple years we’ll have more than 100 million internet users. There are almost 200 million mobile phones, so the mobile market is strong as well. As far as social networks, there’s Orkut, then Facebook, which is growing but still not as large.

[At Mentez] we have a strong monetization platform that’s a combination of online and offline. In Brazil, about 40 percent of people don’t have a credit card, so there’s a payment gateway to process cards, and 120,000 points of sale on the street, so users can go and buy the credits. Also, 35 percent of the population accesses the internet through cafes.

ISG: What cultural differences do developers need to know about?

JF: When you launch a game in Brazil, it’s not just about translation, it’s localization. So we work with third party developers and spend a lot of time on localizing — which means translation, changing names, adding specific content for Brazil.

It’s all about the language, the content, the way people play the game. I believe that one of the key factors of our success has been to really localize for Brazilian users, and the next generation successful of games will be those that really create stories for the Brazilian users, [like] a game about the Amazon, or Carnaval.

You should go during Carnaval. There’s no other place in the world to see what it’s really like for a Brazilian. The country stops. You need that sort of thing in the game, but that’s not easily understood by a developer in California or the UK.

Another example is that in farming games in Brazil, users could steal from other users. That wouldn’t work in the US or Europe, but for Brazilian users it was a key functionality, and it’s a reason our farming game is number one in Brazil.

ISG: You don’t make any games of your own. What’s your process for working with outside developers?

JF: At this time we’re focused on the quality of games. The next generation is high quality, so we’re doing research on that. Basically we sign our partnership to work together, we do translation, we have our own developers who develop local content for the game. We provide the local content, they integrate it, and we launch the game in the market. We’re now trying to release three games every three months.

ISG: How does publishing and marketing games on Orkut compare to Facebook?

JF: For a new developer that’s launching a new game today, it’s ten times more difficult to grow the game than six months before, the same as on Facebook. But for us, it’s still easy to grow our games. The industry has gone to the big players.

ISG: Will Orkut grow any further in Brazil? And what’s your take on Facebook’s chances?

JF: Right now Orkut is huge, I believe the number one site in Brazil. My estimation is that it has over 50 million users. So for Orkut to keep growing is difficult. I don’t believe they’re growing because they have 80 percent penetration of internet users, and from what I’ve seen Google is investing in Orkut and they want to keep their leadership.

But Facebook is investing as well. The way that Facebook is growing in Brazil is with high-income users, people that speak English or have friends in the US. They’re very strong with the high-income users. However, the Brazilian market is a massive market, so if you want to be a player in Brazil, you need the rest, where Orkut has its leadership.

ISG: How well do Brazilian users monetize?

JF: The good news is that the Brazilian user’s monetization behavior is similar to the United States. Four to six percent of the user base does transactions, versus what I hear is about six to eight percent in the US.

For our only game that has been on the market for more than a year, we’ve seen users spend $10 per year. The life-cycle of our games, from what we’ve seen, is 8-12 months, but like in any other market they eventually get flat and start to decline.

This interview is part of an ongoing series on localization. Past coverage includes:

Wooga: Spreading Across Europe
RockYou: Working in Japan
6waves: Localizing for Asia

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London Goes to Hell-In-A-Hand-Basket with Echo Bazaar on Twitter

Thu, 2010/08/12 – 12:23

It has been some time since we looked at anything making use of Twitter as a social gaming platform, but the browser-based role-playing title Echo Bazaar is doing just that. Developed by London-based Failbetter Games the title first got our attention when it was announced that it would be coming to Facebook. It doesn’t look to have done so yet, but the browser-based app is still available through Twitter login credentials.

Though it is a role-playing game, Echo Bazaar shares little in common with other social titles of the genre. While many found on networks such as Facebook do have story, few have the level of storytelling that Echo brings to the table. Built in a choose-your-own-adventure style it’s a game that evolves based on player choices, allowing them to tailor their virtual selves around more than just attack power, defense, and mafia size.

The premise of the game is an alternative history type of concept where players find themselves in a faux-Victorian London that is all sorts of messed up. A mile beneath the earth, the world is dark, bizarre, and full of strange people and creatures including hedonists, devils, and squid-men. Oh, and the player starts off in prison.

This is where the game begins taking shape, as players are given choices to make their escape using Dangerous, Persuasive, Shadowy, or Watchful abilities. These become the primary character stats in the game, and based on what the player chooses, different story paths will unfold.

Each time a path unlocks, different tasks will become available and grant experience towards a particular stat. Typically, this is the stat(s) that the player is best at, meaning that if they initially chose the Shadowy path, more of these will be presented. As the story advances, more advanced story tasks will appear as a skill is leveled. However, these are unlocked with a minimum required level of a skill, so the lower it is, the greater the chance of failure, forcing the player to skill up through the repetition of older, repeatable tasks.

What makes failing costly is that the player can only perform 10 actions at any given time. This works like energy in mafia-style RPGs, and regenerates over time, but only so many, in total, can be done in any 24 hour period. When a task is failed, it seems that players garner less reward, but the big detriment is not being able to progress in the story.

Another element of the game that uses up actions are what are dubbed “Opportunity Cards.” Every couple of minutes, new cards are added to a deck. Interestingly enough, these may not have much to do with the main plot line, so they are more along the lines of side quests. However, many have unique rewards that one may not find in the story as well as opportunities to level up different skill sets.

Rewards (items) in general, earned through both opportunities and story, are quite important. There are many situations in the story where the player must accomplish some specific task(s) in order to reach new chapters (so-to-speak) such as finding a home. What is curious is that there are different means of doing so. If one is Shadowy, there are spy-like tasks to find information and pay bribes. High Persuasive skills might be used to  convince someone to let them stay in their home. Or, if money is no object, then a direct purchase may be in order.

Unfortunately, cash is a bit tough to come by. The game isn’t completely clear on how to earn it, but the main currency is called Echos. The only evident way to earn it is through selling tangible items one finds in the world, but most, at least early on, only sell for a fraction of an Echo, called Pennies. All the same, it is needed to buy new equipment and items that can enhance the various skill sets of the player.

As for social elements, these are tied directly into both the story and Twitter. With each task, a new aspect of the story is unlocked and players can Echo the short “storylet” on their feed. What is more interesting, is any Twitter friends that plays can have their story viewed in-game as well. Other than that, the sharing of stories doesn’t do much. However, it does refill one’s energy once a day.

The other social mechanic is a battle system called “The Game of Knife & Candle.” Players have to actually sign up for it to attack other users or be attacked themselves, but it is not recommended for new players. The reason is that the game states that the Dangerous skill is the most important for it and should be at least at level 25. This does create a bit of an issue for some players though, as if they choose a different skill set in the story, it can be a bit difficult to raise this statistic quickly, leaving them to rely on randomly drawn opportunity cards most of the time.

The last element worth mentioning is a pretty cool Mysteries section that has a series of questions about the storyline. Should the player input the right answer, they could win some virtual currency called Fate, that is used for little things like refilling actions or getting more opportunity cards. It seems that they are limited in time (more are likely released on a regular basis), so it’s prudent to answer as soon as possible. What’s nice, though, is that users can see what other players think the answer might be as well.

Overall, Echo Bazaar is a curious little title, with a more interesting story to it than most browser-based RPGs. Its best elements are the more engrossing element of choosing one’s own story and customizing it based on a specific skill set. At the same time, however, choosing certain skill sets can slow the player down in their ability to effectively participate in the battle system, though at the very least they still have the social aspect of seeing friends’ stories and what they are doing. It’s probably not a game for everyone, as many social RPG players do like the player versus player aspect, and here, it just feels overshadowed. Regardless, if one is an advocate of story, then Echo Bazaar is worth a look; with any luck, it that will appear on Facebook sooner, rather than later.

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Report: Google Venture Puts Small Amount of Funding into Ngmoco

Thu, 2010/08/12 – 00:49

Google Ventures, an investment arm separate from the main company, has invested in Ngmoco, a studio and publisher with games on the iPhone and iPad, according to TechCrunch. The estimated amount: $3 million to $5 million.

This is part of a new, fourth round of funding that would value the company at above $100 million, according to the report. Ngmoco has been busy bringing in new investment this year, having closed a $25 million third round, announced at the end of February, for an unknown valuation.

Since it’s from the venture arm of Google, this funding looks a bit different from the search giant’s other recent social and gaming moves. It has invested heavily, reportedly paying up to $200 million for a stake in Zynga, $228 million for all of Slide (including a retention bonsu) $75 million for monetization company Jambool, and in April, an undisclosed amount for LabPixies.

The Ngmoco investment differs greatly in scale from all of Google’s most recent moves, resembling an ordinary investment rather than a strategic buy-in.

Still, there’s likely something more to the story than just testament to Ngmoco’s future. Like a few other mobile developers, Ngmoco has so far avoided Google’s Android mobile operating system in favor of Apple devices — apparently even telling Gamasutra in a recent profile that it would continue to design for the iOS only.

That’s too bad for Google, since Ngmoco is one of the few mobile developers that’s successfully creating free-to-play, social games, most notably We Rule and We Farm. It also has its own mobile social network for gamers, called Plus+, which is so far not available on Android. However, as the valuation suggests, the mobile social gaming business has yet to grow as big as the web-based form has.

More than just gaming, Google appears to be aiming for a credible social offering to rival Facebook. Support from Ngmoco could help, and an investment is a good way to ask for that support.

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Playdemic Goes Farming with Gourmet Ranch on Facebook

Wed, 2010/08/11 – 20:38

As the name suggests, Playdemic‘s growing Facebook title, Gourmet Ranch, is a combination farming and restaurant simulation game.

With over 143,000 monthly active users and climbing, it’s doing well as it attempts to hybridize concepts from the farming genre and a Zynga title, Café World. While the game is technically sound and well made, it doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the game play directly. However, it does score bonus points in the forms of convenience and social elements.

The basic idea is to create a successful organic food restaurant. To that end, players create an indoor/outdoor space in which to serve customers. Using specific ingredients, dishes are cooked up (with more valuable ones taking longer) and placed on a counter, where a waitress comes to serves it to the paying patrons. Each dish has a set number of servings, and only one dish can be cooked per stove and served per counter-top.

As far as the restaurant half of the game goes, there is also a popularity rating for the business. As customers come and eat, they give varying amounts of praise that increase this number, and the larger it gets, the more patrons there are to fork out money. Unfortunately, the popularity element seems almost arbitrary, as we’ve yet to see anyone get upset and lower that rating (it does seem to decay passively), nor has it exceeded 130. Whether or not this changes at higher levels is yet to be determined.

Cooking up food is only half the game. The other half comes from the farming realm as each ingredient needed for the large quantity of potential dishes can be grown. Like in FarmVille, this consists of crops, trees, and animals, with the better ones taking longer to grow. It’s the typical plow, harvest, rinse and repeat concept with the only differences being that one doesn’t have to replow after a harvest and animals must be placed in pens.

One of the nice things about Gourmet Ranch is that one never has to take part in both aspects. There are convenient ways to work around both of them. If someone is only interested in the restaurant stuff, they can always purchase ingredients from a random non-player character (though this is a bit pricey). If they just want to farm, they can put their crops up for trade.

Farming, however, is a bit more difficult to make an income off of, as it’s where the major social features of this app comes into play. After each harvest or finished dish, players can choose to either keep it for themselves or put it in their Trade Store. From here, friends that play can purchase the item at a cheap price. Obviously, this means that if one doesn’t have many friends that play, it’s not a reliable revenue source, but it’s a nice addition all the same.

Regarding other social elements, they are all fairly basic to the farming niche, consisting of visiting each others’ farms and fertilizing crops. However, there is a minor addition to wall posting that allows them to include a specific Gourmet Ranch emoticon representing a sultry, happy, or sneering look. Additionally, if friends do click on a post, the player gets little bonuses to things like the serving size of a dish.

On the negative side, Gourmet Ranch is mostly two games stuck together with minimal innovation. Other than improved social features and some greater convenience, there’s not a whole lot to write home about. Moreover, the combination of popular game premises is something that’s been occurring in increasing frequency. Already, this exact combination of Café World and FarmVille mechanics was done with Wonder Island from Gamenaughts. Though it uses different games, FrontierVille is yet another app to mix and match features (such as FarmVille and Treasure Isle).

Unfortunately, such a complaint is no easy fix. One that is (though minor by comparison), is the extraordinarily high price of decorative items in Gourmet Ranch. Plants, flowers, and rocks are affordable enough, but some things are just absurd. In the game, players earn small amounts of money per paying customer, yet a simple Wagon Wheel costs $150,000 while a Welcome Sign costs $96,000.

In the end, Gourmet Ranch is a technically sound good that plays well. At least for a time, it will do well and attract some new players too. Nevertheless, it is still made up of two concepts that have been seen time and time again, thus the longevity of the title and its potential will likely be a bit stunted. FarmVille’s continual decline is proof enough that people are getting bored with the farming concept, thus challenging developers, new and old, to be more innovative with social games.

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Win in Real-Time with New Facebook CCG Game CLASH: Rise of Heroes

Wed, 2010/08/11 – 18:42

Rather than cloning another farming concept, Qunify Games is taking on a less-popular social genre with the card-based strategy game, CLASH: Rise of Heroes. Almost identical, in most respects, to analog collectible card games (CCG) such as Magic: The Gathering, it’s a game that takes only a few minutes to get the hang of, but has enough depth to create a rather respectable amount of strategy.

Essentially, the game is a comic book rendition of Challenge Game’s fantasy Facebook CCG, Warstorm. However, while many elements are similar, many are different as well, including a more colorful means of storytelling and the one thing that CCG players are always looking for: Synchronous game play.

Clash has an interesting means of starting things out, tasking players with the creation of their own, personal superhero. Of course, creating an avatar is nothing new, but this hero comes with two specific, chosen, sets of powers that translate into unique cards and becomes the central, and most important, card in one’s deck.

On the battlefield, the player’s hero has three stats associated with it: Focus, Strength, and Health. The objective is to reduce the opponent’s hero’s health to zero. The most basic means of doing so is to simply “attack” (ending one’s turn), with a hero’s strength indicating how much health it will take off the enemy. Obviously, however, this is not the most strategic way to win, and will likely result in a loss.

The idea is to play cards that are drawn into a hand of five. Each one costs a certain amount of focus (more powerful cards cost more focus), which is generated by the hero each turn. The longer the game runs, the more focus is generated, so it becomes a strategic choice as to when to play certain cards. These card types will consist of allies, items, defensive spells, or offensive spells.

Allies are among the most powerful, as they can be placed into four slots adjacent to the hero, attacking any of the enemy’s allies that lay across from them on the battlefield and attacking the enemy hero if none are present. Additionally, allies often come with special abilities such as double attacks, forcing enemies to lose turns, and so on. These, too, have health, and once it reaches zero, the ally is removed from play.

In order to keep them alive, one has to play items, defensive spells, and offensive spells. These are the real money makers, so-to-speak, as they can be used immediately. Sometimes they will do direct damage to a target (e.g. a card called “Energy Beam”), while other times they could heal a friendly card or even protect it from damage for a short while. Of course, these are all basic examples, and as the player plays more, new and better ones will be added to the deck. Moreover, should one save up focus, these can be played in rapid succession for devastating results.

Earning new cards isn’t that tough either. The first, and most direct, way to earn new ones is to level up or win single player battles, where aside being given the typical option to post the achievement, a free card is granted to the player. Aside from this, players can participate in the single player campaign or short missions to earn what is called VP (Victory Points) that can be used to purchase new cards. As one might expect, they cost a good chunk of the in-game currency, but users can always purchase the virtual currency, Clash Cash, to buy cards for cheaper costs.

As far as different forms of play goes, Clash is pretty interesting as well. The game doesn’t just plop the user down into random battles, but in an actual single player story-mode. What is cool about it though is it takes the approach that Exorcists vs. Demons did and gives the players a few pages of a comic to tell it. Once finished, can sit around and wait for more campaigns to release, but likely, they will jump into the battle-mode.

This is the primary social mechanic to Clash, as unlike other Facebook CCG, the battles are actually real-time. In competing titles such as Warstorm, the cards are auto-played with most of the strategy occurring in assembling the deck. Here, assembly and on-the-spot decisions win the day. Of course, the big concern is that synchronous titles are not always popular with the average Facebook user, as many are not traditional gamers. However, as the platform continues to grow, so does the potential audience for synchronous titles.

All in all, Clash is a surprisingly addictive game. Whether one prefers the single player or the multiplayer, it’s still pretty fun if you like strategy. That said, the latter doesn’t come too highly recommended until you have a strong deck, but it’s still pretty entertaining. Overall, there is really not much to complain about and any qualms is mostly nit-picky elements that are easily overlooked (such as slow loading tool-tips or small, rasterized, white borders where some effects were cut out in Photoshop). In short, if you’re a fan of CCG or of strategy, CLASH: Rise of Heroes is worth checking out.

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Next Up for Playdom: Branded Disney Games, Alternative Platforms, and Subscriptions?

Wed, 2010/08/11 – 11:40

Disney’s first quarterly conference call since its $563 million acquisition of Playdom took place late yesterday, and as one might expect, the discussion between analysts and company execs often turned to Disney’s social plans.

Much of what CEO Bob Iger had to say was fairly obvious: Disney acquired Playdom because it thought it could profit more from directly publishing games than licensing its brand, and that between Playdom and Tapulous, which Disney acquired in July, the company will now be publishing games across all platforms.

However, Iger did have a few comments that added color to Disney’s acquisition of Playdom (thanks to Seeking Alpha for the call transcript):

I mentioned in my remarks that the customer base is pretty diverse from 18 to post 50. It’s dual-gender, meaning it doesn’t skew just in the men’s direction, which we know a lot of other games do. It seemed tailor-made for not only Disney-branded games, but Marvel and ESPN, and we really like the opportunity.

The other thing that was really interesting to us is that we now have over 50 million people, who are members of various Disney, ESPN, and ABC Groups on Facebook. So, we began with a very, very solid base of people to market to and when you add to that the over 40 million people, who are playing Playdom games already, that seemed pretty compelling to us.

Further into the call, Iger said that he’d been pursuing licensed social games with ESPN and Marvel, but decided that Playdom looked fairly cheap — although it was also noted that the Playdom buyout is expected to be dilutive to earnings for several years.

Another interesting tidbit came when Iger was talking about online monetization opportunities:

We believe long-term that monetization will occur in compelling ways, we think it will be diverse in terms of how it is delivered from micro payments, we will see for instance on the social games front to subscriptions, which will see from places like Hulu and obviously, on the social games front to advertising to varying forms of pay-per-view. We’re pretty pleased with how we’ve entered the market as broad and diverse as it is.

Micropayments are what most social game companies survive on, so that part is another obvious call. But read back over this part: “to subscriptions, which we’ll see from places like Hulu and, obviously, on the social games front…”

What Iger is referring to sounds more like a massively multiplayer online game, in which players are engaged enough to pay a set, recurring fee. With that in mind, it seems possible that Disney has a more in-depth and engaging future in mind for its social game development.

Finally, Iger had an interesting response when asked whether he felt threatened by Facebook’s dominance as the only real social gaming platform:

I think it’s already been demonstrated that game playing on Facebook is good for Facebook, and it’s good for the creators and owners of the games. Clearly, the addition of Facebook currency, while in some cases can be viewed as Facebook acting like a gatekeeper, the existence of that currency I think will enable more people to spend money in their games experience. So I think it’s mutually beneficial.

The other thing that I think as to be considered is that these games exist on multiple platforms and we’re going to take a platform agnostic approach to the distribution of these games, not only to other social networks but just to other platform. There is no reason why you can’t play some of these games on, what I’ll call traditional dot com sites or on mobile devices and we intent to distribute rather broadly, particularly as we move our IP through Playdom into the system.

Disney is obviously ready to deal with Credits; immediately following the acquisition, we were able to report that Playdom had signed a deal to use Credits exclusively on Facebook, a decision that their new corporate bosses must have had a say in.

However, Iger also makes it clear that Facebook is just a part of Disney’s social gaming plans. Whether the company will be more successful than Zynga in finding good alternative platforms to Facebook will only be told with time, but with its brand heft and experience in distribution, Disney should prove a powerful force in evolving social games.

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Zynga Pulls FarmVille Off MSN Games

Tue, 2010/08/10 – 21:40

Zynga has removed its hit game FarmVille from MSN Games, one of the bigger game portals around, we’ve learned. Zynga first added FarmVille to MSN in February.

This is not the first time that Zynga has pulled a game from a platform. The company did the same with the social network Tagged, canceling a much-discussed partnership.

The departure from MSN looks much more notable, in the grand scheme. MSN itself claims to have about half a billion monthly users worldwide between Games and Messenger — equal to what Facebook claims for itself.

One of the big stories in social gaming right now is that developers are interested in moving beyond Facebook, keeping a line back to the social network’s graph with Connect. With partnerships like FarmVille on MSN, Zynga has been a leader in that move.

But it appears that Zynga didn’t find the traffic MSN produced meaningful enough to continue running FarmVille on the Microsoft platform. Since MSN is traditionally one of the biggest gaming sites on the web, Zynga’s departure suggests the traffic other social developers are hoping to find off of Facebook may be more difficult to find than expected.

A lackluster performance for FarmVille on MSN may also serve to explain why Zynga appears to be putting much of its energy into mobile apps, and international markets like Japan and China. There’s still hope for the US market, though, at least judging by Google’s investment of up to $200 million in Zynga and plans for a new social effort.

[Update] A Microsoft spokesperson offers the following comment: “Farmville is not currently available on MSN Games. We have a great relationship with Zynga, and will continue to work together to provide robust games experiences for casual and social game players in the future.”

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Mixpanel Follows Up with Android Analytics Platform

Tue, 2010/08/10 – 18:25

It has only been a few short weeks since gaming analytics company Mixpanel told us that it had followed up its popular Facebook suite with analytics for the iPhone, but the company is already back with another new product: Android analytics.

Mixpanel’s argument is that current mobile analytics programs keep developers from producing the best games possible, because they only provide a limited view of activity, unlike the tools available to Facebook developers (which are also offered by other companies).

Hundreds of customers signed up for Mixpanel’s iPhone analytics since its launch, according to the company’s head of business development, Jeremy Richardson.

There won’t be much to differentiate Mixpanel’s Android offering from its others, although that’s partially the point; the idea is to offer something similar to full-featured web analytics for mobile apps, so that developers have the info to make granular improvements (like button positioning) as they already do with web games.

You can check it out here; there’s also a video introducing the Android analytics platform below.

Mixpanel Android Analytics from mixpanel on Vimeo.

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Teen-Oriented Social Network MyYearbook Opens to Game Developers, Starting With Omgpop

Tue, 2010/08/10 – 16:00

A few niche social networks are, unlike most of their peers, actually growing. MyYearbook claims to be one of them, with a youthful user base and emphasis on meeting new people.

MyYearbook has grown since its 2005 founding to 4.5 million unique visitors each month, according to CEO Geoff Cook, with 50 percent growth since last November. It also clocks an average of 167 minutes per user, per month. The new user growth may be driven by the tendency of teenagers to look for a place of their own (in this case, besides Facebook), but the high engagement is driven by the site’s games.

When it comes to the games, MyYearbook is again a bit different. For two years, casual gaming company Arkadium has been behind MyYearbook’s in-house selection of games, with relatively little involvement from other companies.

Now, however, MyYearbook is opening up to outside developers, starting with Omgpop, which runs its own teen-dominated platform. Omgpop will get its own tab on MyYearbook’s site, with integration of games like Balloono and the Pictionary-like Draw My Thing.

Omgpop’s games will also feed off MyYearbook’s in-house virtual currency, called Lunch Money. Unlike Facebook’s Credits, Lunch Money is given out in large quantities as a free promotional tool.

Lunch Money is easy to get, but it’s also won, lost and otherwise used all over the site, so sales of additional Lunch Money end up driving about a third of MyYearbook’s total monetization; Cook says the revenue run rate is up to about $24 million a year, and has grown 64 percent since the start of the year.

Any developers adding their games to MyYearbook’s site will also end up working with Lunch Money, which can be converted into other currencies, like Omgpop’s Coins. That works well for the latter company, since it has a similar model, giving out some Coins for free.

Going forward, sites like MyYearbook could drive an interesting alternative to Facebook’s social gaming ecosystem. On MyYearbook, games are an integral part of the experience; some even feature in the site-wide news feed, which is called Chatter.

Also, though it hardly seems possible, MyYearbook’s games are generally faster and lighter experiences than your typical Facebook farming or city building game, with a heavier social interaction component.

Part of the difference is that MyYearbook and Omgpop both promote interaction between unassociated users. “People have a desire to play not just with friends, but based on level, genre, skills, and to meet new people,” says Omgpop chief revenue officer Wilson Kriegel.

That means more synchronous gaming, but with the same social networking features that made Facebook’s games more successful than their casual counterparts.

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Deep Fry Stick-Men in Tesla Wars for iPad

Tue, 2010/08/10 – 13:26

Fans of casual games might recognize this one. Having found its way to the top of the App Store charts last week, we came across the OpenFeint enabled iPad title Tesla Wars (also on the iPhone) from Pavel Tarabrin.

A combination of tower defense and Storm the House style games, Tesla Wars is a simple app that gives users the ability to deep fry hordes of ravenous stick figures with the power of lightning. The game also has elements of both strategy and twitch reaction, as users vainly attempt to defend themselves against an ever growing onslaught.

The goal of the game is simple enough. Players control a single tesla tower and fence at the center of the map. From both sides, waves of enemies will charge the defenses and attempt to bring it down. With each level, these waves become more difficult and it is up to the player to live for as long as possible.

The controls are easy enough, as merely tapping on an approaching enemy will zap him with a massive jolt of electricity. However, one zap only knocks him down, and the resilient little fellow will quickly get back up and charge again. In order to kill them, users will have to hold their finger down until they explode into a gruesome display of sticky body parts. Truth be told, it really is quite gratifying.

Here’s the catch: The longer one’s finger is held down, the more energy is drawn from the tesla tower. It does regenerate slowly, but users must still be aware of how much they have as the only time to refill it fully is at the end of a level.

This is where strategy comes into play. Before starting a new level, players earn money based on how many kills they got in the previous one (as well as from bonuses like not taking any damage). This income is then used to not only repair an damage or lost energy, but also purchase and upgrade both the tower and powerful special abilities. These include increased damage, health, and energy regeneration for the tower as well as actively used abilities such as mines, air strikes, or lightning storms. There are also passive bonuses such as shooting double lightning or chaining lightning strikes from one target to another.

Without going into the specific abilities of each power, we’ll just say that each is very strong. However, users must actively pause the game, select a power, then target where it strikes. In the case of the mines or air strike, they will target where the mines/bombs are placed, while the lightning storm will simply go off in one big explosion, hitting everything. Once an ability is used, though, it must recharge, with the more powerful ones taking longer, making timing very important.

Interesting as they are, special abilities are the first complaint to be had with Tesla Wars. The fact that one has to pause the game to use an ability creates a very unnatural and awkward break in game flow. Additionally, one has to pause it again to check on if it is ready. Never does it appear while defending. Part of the fun is the chaos and fast pace, but to just bring everything to a screeching halt doesn’t feel right.

On the positive side, it is pretty gratifying to take out the hordes of enemies. Beyond exploding, sometimes you will do enough damage to leave them crawling toward or away from you. Sometimes you will just blow up their top or bottom half, leaving the other half running away (or, in some cases, still trying to kill you). Moreover, there is such a wide variety of enemies — kamikazes carrying explosives, lightsaber swordsmen, jet pack riders — that there’s plenty of challenge in figuring out on who to blow up first.

Unfortunately, this is where controls work against Tesla Wars a second time. Since you have to hold your finger down to target and kill the baddies, half the time, the carnage is covered up. The enemies are just that small. It’s less prevalent when there are lots of enemies on screen, and far less annoying than pausing the game to activate specials, but it does take away from the experience.

Though there are some control issues, the game’s unlimited play — one plays until they are defeated — does give it a great deal of longevity. Additionally, its OpenFeint integration makes that potential length even longer. There aren’t a whole lot of leaderboards to compete in (only three, based on the difficulty levels), but there are a ton of shareable achievements.

Overall, Tesla Wars is a fairly fun game with some satisfying ways to slay thousands of faceless stick figures. With an ever increasing difficulty, it’s a title that comes with a well placed difficulty curve and should appeal to many tower defense or Storm the House fans. All the same, the controls do feel a bit ill thought out as the holding down of one’s finger often covers up the action and the pausing to use specials destroys the fast game flow. Regardless, the game did make it to the top of the App Store lists once, so it’s obviously a complaint that many are looking past.

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