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Shocking, Interesting, True.

Terranova - 1 hour 23 min ago

The other day, a reporter asked me whether video games are art, and thus the waves of Roger Ebert's lately weakly retracted opinion to the contrary crash lap upon our shores. If Roger Ebert can offer a strong opinion just for the heck of it, so can we! So let's dive in.

Here's my take: Good art is shocking, interesting and true.

Shocking: It takes you out of your normal mode of thinking. It forces consideration and reflection. 

Interesting: It draws you in. You find yourself unable or unwilling to ignore it.

True: It accords with a proper understanding of the human condition. It pierces the shell of your biases and immaturities, allowing you to come upon thoughts that are neither lies nor myths but rather subtle and profound insights. 

Are video games capable of being shocking, interesting, and true?

To answer, let's use these razors a bit and see how they cut.

Cage's 4'33" may be art, but it is not good art.

It's not shocking. It was once shocking for about a quarter-hour, I suppose, but with 30 minutes' reflection it can be seen as an unimaginative extension of Duchamp's toilet. Forever after, the only reasonable thing to say (other than yawning) is "It's been done." Shock value in art is difficult to achieve. The standard is this: On repeated experiences, do I become troubled? Reflective? Moved? Does it feel different each time? Too many artists (Far too many! Please become sheep farmers or recluses or lawyers, please, please, just go away!!) seem to think that any lazily considered move that does not fit within the contemporary norms of un-PhD'd folk must therefore meet the standard of artistic shock. It's easy to shock the housewife in Peoria. Put crucifixes in urine, shit in cans, and buildings in cellophane. But you see, shocking her is not enough. You have to shock me. Good luck with that. "But - it's GREAT BIG cellophane!!" Uh-huh. Yep. Great. Thank you so much for coming. Next, please.

Speaking of yawning, 4'33" is not interesting. Silence is not interesting, nore are its equally overused siblings, noise and abstraction. Silence and noise and theoretical shapings are not interesting, they are BORING. Music, the repeating art, is interesting when it establishes expectations and then satisfies them in an unexpected way. Silence and noise don't do that. In visual arts, mere abstraction confronts the viewer with a closed door. Thus: Mondrian is BORING. Rothko is BORING. Intellectual art similarly drives the person away. If I have to read seven books on art theory and history to grasp the significance, it is not good art, it is BORING. Deconstructions, destructions, critiques, ready-mades, and reductions are not bad because they are too easy ("My kid could have drawn that!") but because they offer, on reflection, no good reason to pay attention. What's a "good reason"? It comes down to my humanity which, I must report, I am not at all ready to surrender. I am a human being. In this dull, dull, dull world of office buildings and "Click here to win!" banners, I need to encounter things that massage my aesthetic sensibilities and keep them alive. I am concerned about the engagement quality of art not because I am a petulant sensation-seeker but because I need art that lives in my world with me. My world is a battle between steel, silicon, and blood. If art does not have blood in it, does not engage me in my human needs, and that right quickly, it merely contributes to the oppressions that the rest of experience imposes.

Finally, 4'33" is not True. I am a Christian and a Catholic one at that (cf. "blood," above). At various times I've been a capitalist, a progressive, an atheist, a militarist, an internationalist, an anarchist, and God knows what else. Like you, I have mulled many approaches to life (with the frequent help of art), and like you, I have molded these thoughts into a trash heap of stances that I take, more or less, as my "position."  It's an ugly and disordered pile, yes. But it's mine, and dearly earned. It has changed over the years, but lately it has become pretty stable. Maybe I'm just old, I don't know. I keep kicking it and throwing stuff at it, just as I've always done, but there's a core to it that I (shock of shocks!) am comfortable calling The Truth. The Way It Is. Just the Facts. Saying this opens an easy and devastating move for those of you who don't believe in truth-with-a-capital: You can just say that the guy is an old-school Universalist and Absolutist whose views have been long discredited; Derrida said so, so did [insert names of 100 Frenchmen here], so, toss the essay. Hold, however, for one moment, so I can confess to you that my junk-heap is consciously post-ironic, post-deconstruction, post-critical. After destruction comes renewal, and I'm with the renewers. Well, whatever. This, my pile, such as it is, gives me a perspective on art, and having a perspective is essential to the act of aesthetic judgment. The junk-heap of Things You Have Decided Are True, whatever they may be, forms a standard that protects you from art that is mere ideology, sugary myth, or outright lie. Speaking of which: In my junk heap of stances, there's a big old couch in the middle, one of those comfy 100-ton things, that says "The Universe is not silent. It is filled with a voice of sentient love." From this perspective, I sense that silence is not true. In the same way, Duchamp's toilet is "not true," does not accord with my truthpile. Human artistic endeavor, including the institutions that frame it, does not amount to a toilet. Furthermore, those institutions cannot turn a toilet into art or silence into music. That just ain't the way it is. Thus, gg 4'33". You can have some respect or appreciation for art that does nothing more than attack or praise your comfy old couch, but mere attacks and lauds are not enough. The art must resonate with the couch, enlighten your understanding of it, grasp it and help you grasp it. Otherwise its not art, its just entertainment (or less).

Very well, 4'33" is not good art. What is? Take Richard III. Not a deep play at all, but when staged in a way that respects the author's intentions (Yes, authors have intentions, and we can know them through the work itself), it's good art. It's shocking - encountering the depravity of Richard in his pitiable body always takes you out of your comfort zone. It's interesting - Shakespeare wrote for *everybody.* The groundlings liked his plays, so did the Queen, so did the other playwrights. Art can and should appeal to lots of people at the same time and in a similar way. That, by the way, is the standard for democratic art; I'm amazed at the flippancy with which contemporary art is described as democratic even when its offerings are impenetrable (BORING! Admit it!) to other thinkers, let alone the guy on his way home from work. Finally, Richard III is true. We know all too well that narcissists crave thrones and will manipulate our sympathies to get them. Moreover, there's a pattern of such broken people, empowered, doing awful things. It all accords with my Truthpile. As much as I might dislike being reminded of it, some people that I feel sorry for can be dangerous to things I care about. It's a fact of human life that I ignore at my peril.

Given all that: Can a video game be art? You bet. Consider Fable.

Shocking: These days, we normally think of Evil as something rather noble. Evil acts, it is said, are merely misunderstood acts. The skills of moral discernment have fallen into disuse (or are in no more use than they ever were, I suppose). In the public sphere, even acts of profound wickedness are massaged into the acts of crazed minds - not minds under the influence of a Deceiver. The whole idea of thinking in such terms is considered childish and impolite by many otherwise reasonable folk. Thus there's great confusion (not debate - confusion) about what's good and what's evil. You see this in most games.  Play the "evil" side and you're really just a dark hero. Not so in Fable. Play as an evil character there and you get the actual experience of being a monster. You murder the innocent, oppress the weak, steal from the poor, and scare little kids. As a result, people shriek when they see you. They hate you. They disrespect you. They curse your name. They seek to keep you from their company; they shun you; they make you alone. They would kill you if they could, and the person who drove the lance into your heart would be hailed as a redeemer. This treatment of evil - as an utterly pathetic and ignoble choice - is, in contemporary contexts, quite shocking. It may be shocking for other times as well; evil is said to have a glamor. Perhaps the reminder of what evil amounts to always has shock value. In any case, Fable is shocking, and not cheaply so.

Interesting: Fable is a fun game.

True: Somewhere in my pile is a huge stack of histories according to which there have been many evil acts, and, on a thorough review, there really hasn't been anything noble or heroic about those acts. They are typically sophomoric outrages perpetrated by lazy thinkers (mine certainly were are). Those who commit bad deeds are not secretly brilliant, unfairly marginalized victims of society's oppressions. Villains like to think of themselves this way, as did Shakespeare's Richard, but the record shows that your typical villain is just an emotional toddler with weapons and a theory. The villain's lack of self-control and compassion rightly earn ostracism and imprisonment. We do well to control such people if we can, run away if we have to. Thus the treatment of evil in Fable accords well with my Truthpile.

Putting it all together: Yes, video games are capable of being art.

That's my answer to Roger Ebert! What's yours?

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Zynga May Be Readying for New Releases on Mobile

Inside Social Games - 2 hours 3 min ago

In early 2009, several up-and-coming social game companies were active in iPhone gaming, releasing ports of top Facebook titles for mobile users. Then, as the social companies realized that players weren’t showing up in any great numbers, they mostly turned away from mobile development.

Today, some of those same top companies may be changing their minds again. The one most are watching is Zynga, which was given stage time beside Steve Jobs himself for the June release of FarmVille for the iPhone.

Although Zynga has said nothing publicly about a broader mobile plan, some of its actions do suggest that the company is planning more than just ports of its most popular games — maybe even games designed specifically for mobile.

Acquisitions

In the space of two weeks, Zynga has announced the acquisition of two companies that both have ties to mobile: Dextrose AG, a German HTML5 platform developer, and Bonfire Studios, a Dallas-based game developer.

Dextrose, as we noted at the time of its acquisition, is developing an HTML5 “Aves engine” that the company specifically touted earlier in 2010 as being useful for cross-platform web and mobile. If Zynga intends to stick to the web for most of its games, it’s probably best served by using Flash instead of trying to use HTML5, at least for the near future.

But the standard, which will work as well on Android or an iDevice as on an ordinary browser, could offer possibilities to develop a game just once for both web and mobile platforms, instead of going back for a later port as Zynga did with FarmVille. For now, most developers still wouldn’t consider this process straightforward, but Zynga may see greater possibilities in the Aves engine; we’ll have more on this later.

Bonfire Studios is a less clear case, because the company worked on titles owned by other companies. One its few known projects, however, was Ngmoco’s We Farm, an iPhone title with a clear connection to FarmVille. Ngmoco is the best-known name in the social mobile space, so Zynga’s buyout of Bonfire three months after the release of We Farm was probably not coincidental.

In August, Zynga also bought Unoh, a Japanese developer with well known social-style games on Japan’s mobile social networks.

Hires

With more than 1,200 employees, it’s hard to tell exactly how many people Zynga has hired who have a mobile background. The company only loosely refers to its mobile gaming plans, like when it participates in Apple launch events, or when it makes new executive appointments, as with its appointment this week of former Yahoo exec David Ko as its head of mobile.

At other times, Zynga has been seen advertising to fill Android development spots, mobile product management and interface roles. Right now, the company has at least two mobile engineering roles open in San Francisco.

Investments

Zynga’s acquisition of Unoh in August was not completely out of the blue; the two companies may have been connected through Softbank, the Japanese conglomerate that invested $150 million in Zynga in July.

While Softbank and other Japanese firms have hopes of interesting Japanese gamers in web-based games, the country’s hot business is in mobile. It’s difficult to see why Softbank would have invested such a large sum without some expectation that Zynga would go into mobile, at least in Japan.

Still, for now the best evidence of a Zynga strategy to become a true multi-platform developer remains circumstantial, though we believe it intends to progress down this path. The first full view of Zynga’s plans may not come until the company is ready to release a new product — something it has been slow to do throughout this year, even on the web.

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Fashion, Farming and Parties Appear on This Week’s List of Emerging Facebook Games

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/10/08 - 14:40

This week’s AppData list of emerging Facebook games, still under a million monthly active users, is led off by Playdom’s new game ESPNU College Town, which gained 822,745 users in a single week. For reference, that number is less than half the gain that Playdom’s previous hit, City of Wonder, enjoyed in one of its first big growth weeks — but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Top Gainers This Week - Games Name MAU Gain Gain,% 1. ESPNU College Town 969,093 +822,745 +562% 2. ???? 891,216 +373,686 +72% 3. Mall Dreams 954,655 +246,702 +35% 4. ????(????) 719,727 +225,569 +46% 5. Cupcake Corner 800,387 +217,143 +37% 6. Fantasy Kingdoms 705,479 +196,066 +38% 7. Crime City 381,350 +184,228 +93% 8. dtac one D.I.Y. 150,635 +149,969 +22,518% 9. Mynet Çanak Okey 580,073 +140,511 +32% 10. Party Central 181,420 +133,890 +282% 11. La Ferme 510,579 +130,178 +34% 12. My Sweet Shop 517,963 +123,272 +31% 13. Bingo Charms 256,398 +116,869 +84% 14. Green Farm 468,314 +105,567 +29% 15. Bingo Island 2 509,677 +105,462 +26% 16. Wheel Of Fortune 275,640 +98,313 +55% 17. Pacific Poker 197,196 +94,464 +92% 18. Ranch Town 975,864 +87,824 +10% 19. Jersey Shore 563,467 +86,993 +18% 20. Robot Unicorn Attack 543,519 +78,874 +17%

We looked at ESPNU earlier this week, so you can head over to our review for more on the title.

Of the two Chinese-language titles that appeared, it’s the second, ????(????), that is worth some attention. The new Boyaa game puts an interesting spin on the farming genre that we haven’t seen replicated in a Western title yet.

Mall Dreams is the latest from Metrogames, which seems to want to stick with its winning formula — the same company previously broke five million MAU with Fashion World. Mall Dreams uses the same fashion formula, but expands the play outward from a single store to the whole mall.

A few more games merit some mention. Fantasy Kingdoms, by Austin-based developer Sneaky Games, is a fairly unique farming game whose growth plateaued for months before beginning to rise again a couple weeks ago. Crime City, which we reviewed yesterday, is an interesting graphical take on the mafia RPG.

Finally, Party Central is yet another Ubisoft game. Unlike Ubisoft’s other efforts to follow up on its core gaming titles, this one is pretty similar to other social titles out there, especially Booyah’s Nightclub City. As such, it also seems more likely to immediately do well than Ubisoft’s more creative bets.

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Green-Minded Game, Oceanopolis, Readies for Full Release on Facebook

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/10/08 - 14:36

The environment is a delicate thing, and most people are ignorant of that fact. However, the folks over at Greenopolis are seeking to remedy the issue with their new Facebook title, Oceanopolis. Having debuted at the Casual Connect conference a few months ago, the game is preparing to move out of closed beta next week.

Essentially, players are tasked with keeping their own personal island green and clean, while turning it into an ocean-bound paradise of their choosing. The game itself is rather basic, and feels a bit clunky at times. Unfortunately, the performance issue often overshadows the overall message, however noble it may be.

First and foremost, Oceanopolis is a virtual space game. Players purchase any number of buildings, flora, or random accessories to try and make their island beautiful. In order to do this, however, players must participate in the game’s primary premise — cleaning up the land itself.

This rather basic mechanic has players click on the trove of litter that washes ashore their island. Metal cans, plastic bottles, glass, and soda cans can all be recycled, and with each pick up, a blurb of text indicates what is happening and, more importantly, what the user should do with it in reality. As an example, before one can pick up a soda can, they must first “rinse it out,” then “crush it.”

Once the player has collected enough of these items - dubbed “treasures” - they can begin to utilize them in the different buildings that can be purchased. These buildings become a source of income, as set amounts of recyclable items can be turned in to make eco-friendly items to sell.

The big downside to these mechanics is that it takes a painstakingly long time to pick up all the trash — doubly so since users must click once to clean it out, then again to pick it up. Players can click on all the trash sequentially to queue it up, but it will still take two passes to actually finish.

In addition to the litter, players can also interact with virtually everything they place on the island. Plants can be weeded and watered, while huts can be cleaned. Some objects will take a few minutes for the action to complete and others an entire day. However, there doesn’t appear to be any point to these actions, other than the occasional educational blurb of text (though most of it is pretty obvious). These actions don’t even grant experience. Evidently, this is only earned through picking up trash, with the purpose being to gate what objects one can buy.

Curiously, what is perhaps most interesting about Oceanopolis is also the most unclear. According to all the announcements and statements made about the game way back around the Casual Connect conference, players are supposed to be able to earn points during game play that can be combined with points earned, separately, at Greenopolis.com. Unfortunately, the exact means in which to earn them remains elusive within the game itself. Nonetheless, these points, also earnable through actual Greenopolis Recycling Kiosks as well as Greenopolis.com can later be redeemed for rewards or discounts from a rather large number of restaurants, movie theaters, and retailers.

Socially, the game offers your basic implementation of visiting other friends’ islands and helping to clean up. However, this is far from the highlight of the game. That’s reserved for the message itself. As with the tooltips presented when picking up trash, Oceanopolis is sprinkled with recycling knowledge. The most apparent of these are interesting facts about recycling and/or the environment whenever one levels up.

As part of this message, the Greenopolis Foundation even hosted a Twitter event, over the summer, where they donated $1 to Ocean Aid per person who retweeted a message about stopping ocean pollution.

Message aside, it’s going to be hard for the majority of users to really look past Oceanopolis’ clunky presentation. Not only is the game play pretty basic, the visuals are also dull. Some of the static 2D art work is okay, but with flickering animations and a soundtrack made up with “demos from StockMusic.net,” it’s just not a game that feels complete, coming out of closed beta or not.

Overall, as a game, Oceanopolis needs a lot of work. Of course, being an early rendition, and developed by a non-game maker, such issues are understandable, and the cause is certainly worth while. Hopefully, enough people will take part to encourage the developer to put further work into the game.

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A Review of Ubisoft’s Facebook Take on Assassin’s Creed Franchise, Project Legacy

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/10/08 - 02:03

Having been milling about in the social space for some time now, French developer Ubisoft is releasing one of its top franchises onto Facebook: Assassin’s Creed. Dubbed Project Legacy, this social rendition of the popular games steers a bit away from the stories of Altair and Ezio Auditore and focuses more on the history and storytelling that has made the series memorable.

Project Legacy is the first significant Facebook role-playing game from Ubisoft, which has mostly released city building and sim games thus far. Unlike the console version of Assassin’s Creed, which has players free running through the city streets as an assassin, players take a more passive look through history as Abstergo Industries investigates the “truth” behind truth, and history as it appears in the “genetic memories” of the player. As interesting as this concept is, Ubisoft does show its console roots with a significant lack of social mechanics.

For context, the original Assassin’s Creed games have the player utilize a machine called the “Animus” to relive the time of their ancestors, by pulling memories from their genetic code. This science fiction concept is the core of Project Legacy, as players step back into the machine to investigate the lives, and deaths, of historic characters.

Using basic Facebook RPG standards, players consume energy (Action Points) to complete various missions (Events) and unlock the story. As each mission is completed, new memories become available. These also use the Facebook-standard mechanic of repeating the quest multiple times to achieve 100 percent completion, but the storyline does a decent job of justifying the process.

It’s worth noting that each time the event is repeated, new text or dialogue is presented to make it feel like a chain of events, rather than a repetitious action.

Like other RPGs, many missions require items to proceed. In many cases, like needing swords, these can be purchased, but others require the presence of specific people or soldiers to advance. Many of the missions involve recruitment of some sort and will have a chance of rewarding some type of non-player character (soldier, villager, thief, etc.). Dubbed Chance Items, they cannot be bought, meaning that the player must return to these recruitment missions in order to rally the characters they will need to complete future ones (e.g. a major battle).

There are also chance items such as supplies. For example, there is a mission to forge weapons, but players need iron bars to do so. In order to get the bars, they must do a different mission. However, these chance items are consumable, so in order to reach 100 percent synchronization with the original mission the supply mission must also be repeated.

Doing missions also has a chance to acquire set items called “Mnemonic Sets.” These are no mere achievements, however, as once a set is completed, it can be claimed for various bonuses that will last a set amount of time. For example, should the player complete the Este Family set, they will receive a 25 percent experience bonus for one hour.

Leveling up one’s character is unusual too. Unlike other RPGs, players don’t earn the typical stats of strength, defense, agility, and so on. On the contrary, every point is used to enhance the ability to play and earn rewards. The stats are four in number and consist of Endurance, Sleight, Usury, and Diligence. Each grant bonuses to Action Points, earning Chance Items, earning extra money, or gaining extra crafting slots (thus far, we have yet to unlock this feature) respectively .

It’s certainly an interesting game, and the story is not half bad. That said, and knowing the past Assassin’s Creed titles, Project Legacy will likely get much better and much more confusing, story-wise. In fact, there is even a five question quiz right from the get go centered around one’s opinions and philosophies, and if playing the past titles taught anything, it’s that those answers will come back and play some role sooner or later. Additionally, for a 2D Facebook game, the presentation is done quite well with quality art work, Ken Burns effect movies, and a high quality user interface.

Unfortunately, as a social game, Project Legacy is significantly lacking. As it stands, all players can do is conjure up a wish list of items they need and view achievements earned by their friends. It’s possible the Ubisoft intentionally stunted social requirements, with an eye toward making the game friendlier to console game players who are logging on to unlock items in the main storyline.

As a Facebook RPG, Project Legacy certainly has a different feel than most. It has a number of the same rules, but follows them much more loosely than other’s of the genre. Even the interface is starkly different from its predecessors. Regardless, the current build is focused heavily around the single player mode, and while interesting, lacks in many of the social elements that make other RPGs popular, such as battling in Mafia Wars. Traffic to Project Legacy over the coming weeks should prove whether or not this was a wise plan for Ubisoft.

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New Hires In Social Gaming: Booyah, Kabam, MindJolt, & More

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/10/07 - 20:06

After a quiet previous week of hiring, things are starting to pick back up. It isn’t a tremendously busy week, save for Zynga, according to data from LinkedIn, but of the top developers, seven are seeing changes or new faces, including quite a few big hires.

Booyah is getting a new Director of Business Development in the form of Shawn Foust and RockYou is getting a new Director & Corporate Controller with Mei Costello. The big hires don’t stop here either, as Zynga gains a new member of its Corporate Counsel with Stephanie Adamson King as well as an even bigger name in the form of Yahoo’s former head of its U.S. Audience unit, David Ko, who will now take the helm of Zynga’s mobile division. As for the overall numbers, this week has still proved more of an average week of hires, with only one or two for most companies.

If there’s anyone we missed, and your company is bringing on new people or making a notable promotion, please let us know. Email editor (at) insidesocialgames (dot) com, and we’ll get it into this or next week’s post.

As for people who are hiring, be sure to check out our Inside Network Job Board.

Here’s this week’s list:

Booyah

  • Shawn Foust -As noted prior, Shawn Foust is the new Director of Business Development as well as General Counsel for Booyah. Previously, he was the Head of the Video Game Industry Team at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

Kabam

  • Amit Ranade — Kabam gets a new Executive Producer this week as Ranade joins the team. Ranade’s prior role was as a Senior Producer at Hi5.
  • James Holloway — Also joining Kabam as an Executive Producer is Holloway who was previously part of Product Management at CrowdStar.
  • Carolina Tello -In the art department, Tello joins Kabam as a new Art Lead. Her past role was as a Senior Concept Artist at Paragon Studios.

MindJolt

  • Marc Siegel - A single hire for MindJolt this week, as Siegel joins the team as their newest Community Manager. Prior experience stems from TBD where he was an Online Community Manager and Social Media Consultant.

Playdom

  • Robert Anthony — Playdom makes an internal change as Anthony changes roles from a QA Lead to a Product Manager.
  • Swapnil Patni - Formerly a Senior Product Developer at Stratify, Patni joins Playdom as a new Technical Lead.

Playfish

RockYou!

  • Jonathan Klein - Now a Sales Planner for RockYou, Klein’s prior experience was as an Account Coordinator for CBS Interactive.
  • Mei Costello — Costello joins RockYou as its new Director & Corporate Controller after serving as the VP of Finance & Administration at Gala-Net.
  • Nicole Guico -In an internal change for RockYou, Guico changes from a Social Media Marketing Account Manager/Campaign Manager to an Account Manager of International Sales (EMEA).

Zynga

  • David Ko — As noted, the former head of Yahoo’s U.S. Audience unit, David Ko, is leaving his role to head up Zynga’s mobile division.
  • Kevin Yun — Yun joins Zynga as a new Sr. QA Lead. Yun comes from Sony Computer Entertainment America, where he was a TRC Supervisor - Format QA.
  • Stephanie Adamson King -Stephanie Adamson King becomes part of the Corporate Counsel at Zynga. Prior to this, she was a Senior Manager, Legal at Gilead Sciences.
  • Kyle Sun — Once a Summer Intern, Sun moves up in Zynga to a Software Engineer.
  • Robert Hilario -Formerly a CS Lead for Mobile Games at Zynga, Hilario is now a Community Specialist for Mobile Games.
  • Laura Dansingani - Previously a KIN Product Manager for Microsoft, Dansingani joins Zynga as a Sr. Mobile Product Manager.
  • Robert Zubek -Another internal change at Zynga as Zubeck moves from Senior Software Engineer to Principal Software Engineer.
  • Michael Judge -In yet another Zynga change, Judge switches from Art Director to Creative Lead.
  • Kevin Bernstein — Joining Zynga as a new Systems Administrator is Bernstein whose prior experience comes from Genentech, where he was a Systems Engineer.
  • Ajinkya Apte — Apte is a new Software Engineer for Zynga. Previously, he was a Graduate Student at the University of Southern California.
  • Rocco Di Leo -Now a Country Manager at Zynga, Di Leo was previously CEO at Dextrose AG.
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The Facebook Global Monitor, October 2010 Edition, is Now Available

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/10/07 - 18:00

We’ve just released the October 2010 edition of the Facebook Global Monitor through Inside Facebook Gold.

The Facebook Global Monitor is our data report tracking Facebook’s audience growth around the world, and now includes an expanded leaderboard and country profiles for over 60 new country markets that are seeing Facebook adoption and growth.

The Global Monitor tracks Facebook’s international metrics, and provides both historical data and forward-looking projections to enable developers, marketers, and analysts to spot trends and opportunities.

Each month, the Facebook Global Monitor provides the latest comprehensive data on the expansion of Facebook’s audience in approximately 100 global markets. It also includes alerts on breakout and cooling markets, and our latest in-house projections on Facebook’s growth in each country 30 days, 90 days, and 12 months into the future. See the full table of contents below.

All data in the report are based on primary research by Inside Network using data from Facebook, and each section is designed to elucidate key actionable trends. In addition to the Facebook Global Monitor, membership to Inside Facebook Gold includes monthly editions of the Global Monitor, in addition to access to our other data reports on Facebook’s top languages, user demographics, and more.

We believe big opportunities exist for developers and marketers to reach and engage the Facebook audience in these rapidly emerging and expanding markets. As always, we’ll continue to use data from the Facebook Global Monitor data as a foundation for our global growth coverage here on Inside Facebook, but if you’re looking for even more numbers, please check out Inside Facebook Gold.

The Facebook Global Monitor

Tracking Facebook in Global Markets

October 2010

Contents

I. Introduction: The Year That Facebook Went Global

II. Global Market Report

1. Audience Size Today

2. Fastest Growing Audience

  • Last 12 months
  • Last 90 days
  • Last 30 days

3. Market Penetration Today

4. Largest Market Penetration Increases

  • Last 12 months
  • Last 90 days
  • Last 30 days

III. Emerging Market Analysis

1. Growth Projections

  • Next 30 days
  • Next 90 days
  • Next 12 months

2. Technical Alerts

  • Breakout Markets: Last 90 Days
  • Cooling Markets: Last 90 Days

IV. Regional Summaries

1. Africa

2. Asia / Pacific

3. Europe

4. North America

5. South America

V. Country Updates

1. Argentina

2. Australia

3. Austria

4. Bahamas

5. Bahrain

6. Bangladesh

7. Belgium

8. Bolivia

9. Bosnia & Herzegovina

10. Brazil

11. Bulgaria

12. Canada

13. Chile

14. China

15. Colombia

16. Costa Rica

17. Croatia

18. Cyprus

19. Czech Republic

20. Denmark

21. Dominican Republic

22. Ecuador

23. Egypt

24. El Salvador

25. Finland

26. France

27. Germany

28. Ghana

29. Greece

30. Guatemala

31. Honduras

32. Hong Kong

33. Hungary

34. Iceland

35. India

36. Indonesia

37. Ireland

38. Israel

39. Italy

40. Jamaica

41. Japan

42. Jordan

43. Kenya

44. Kuwait

45. Lebanon

46. Lithuania

47. Luxembourg

48. Macedonia

49. Malaysia

50. Maldives

51. Malta

52. Mauritius

53. Mexico

54. Morocco

55. Netherlands

56. New Zealand

57. Nicaragua

58. Nigeria

59. Norway

60. Oman

61. Pakistan

62. Palestine

63. Panama

64. Paraguay

65. Peru

66. Philippines

67. Poland

68. Portugal

69. Puerto Rico

70. Qatar

71. Romania

72. Russia

73. Saudi Arabia

74. Serbia

75. Singapore

76. Slovakia

77. Slovenia

78. South Africa

79. South Korea

80. Spain

81. Sri Lanka

82. Sweden

83. Switzerland

84. Taiwan

85. Thailand

86. Trinidad and Tobago

87. Tunisia

88. Turkey

89. Ukraine

90. United Arab Emirates

91. United Kingdom

92. United States

93. Uruguay

94. Venezuela

95. Vietnam

Learn more or join to download the report at Inside Facebook Gold.

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How Design Choices Impact Virtual Goods Purchases in Games

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/10/07 - 15:56

[Donghee Yvette Wohn is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University; her post, below, is based on research she is doing in social games. Wohn is also editor of Play as Life, a blog examining the cultural impacts of gaming.]

Only two years ago, I was attending a conference on virtual worlds and people were discussing whether or not microtransactions would be a viable business model. Many people were skeptical about whether the success of microtransactions in Asia would translate to North American users. Now, there seems to be less talk about whether or not microtransactions work, and more talk about what makes them work.

Industry stats show that yes, people are spending real money on social games. That said, however, the percentage of players who actually spend money is extremely small. From a research standpoint, it has been difficult to find out the characteristics of these spenders because of the difficulty in getting enough people to provide a sample size large enough to derive results that we could generalize.

To look at a larger population, my colleague at Keio University and I collaborated with Puppy Red, a social gaming service in South Korea, to collect de-identified log data. The game that we looked at was for children and tweens, similar to services like Club Penguin.

We collected the data of users who had accessed the site at least once during three months from November 2009 to January 2010. After conducting filtering process on missing data and outliers, the dataset showed 224,827 users. Among this population, 64,076 users (less than 28.5% of total active users) had spent real money at least once and only 17,750 (less than 8% of active users) had spent real money during the most recent three months.

The below graph shows the number of paying users and their cumulative spending. You can see that 2,000 of 18,000 users accounted for nearly half, 46 percent, of the total money people spent on the site.

Factors that contribute to spending real money

We looked at factors that contribute to spending real money, and found several positive predictors: time spent playing the game, length of membership, and overall number of items. However, players who had received more free items spent less real money. This point was interesting, because a lot of marketing research shows that free items are good for getting consumers to purchase more items. Our research suggests that too many free items can decrease the likelihood of spending.

Impact of Gifting on Spending

Perhaps our more interesting findings were those on “social” factors. For instance, giving virtual gifts and receiving virtual gifts were positively associated with the spending of real money. The number of friends did not determine whether one player who purchased virtual goods spent more money than another, but spenders did have significantly more friends than non-spenders. This implies that while more friends don’t lead to higher spending, players without a lot of friends may not spend any real money at all.

Implications

For those who want to cash in on microtransactions, our research suggests the following:

  1. Provide a lot of virtual goods so that players can customize their game space and avatar.
  2. Limit your amount of free virtual goods.
  3. Encourage multiple types of exchange behavior between players; this is the second study we’ve done that implies that social players spend more
  4. Incentivize having friends. Friends can increase playing time, encourage social interaction, and create competitive elements that contribute to spending.
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Crime City Adds Slick Graphics and City Building to the Mafia RPG

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/10/07 - 14:50

Yesterday on our list of fastest-growing games by daily active users, a new, high production value Facebook title popped up called Crime City. Set with the same theme as Facebook’s various mafia games, the new title appears to be by a San Francisco developer called Funzio, and has quickly grown to over 325,000 monthly active users.

Crime City takes players into a hybridization of RPG, city building, and classic console concepts as they wreak havoc through the city streets. Stylishly presented, it’s an app that is surprisingly well done for being so under the radar. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect as it does suffer from frequent, social “reminders.”

Players take on the role of your common, everyday thug out to make a name for themselves. In order to do so, users follow the typical Mafia Wars steps of doing jobs to build up that reputation, earn cash, and grow stronger. The big difference is that this game is not a text-based RPG. On the contrary, it’s actually an isometric world that players walk about and physically interact with.

Of course, “interact” is a term used somewhat loosely, as doing jobs consists of clicking on buildings and non-player characters while the player’s avatar performs some animation. Usually this involves, shooting, beating, or hitting something. Regardless, no actual skill is involved; it’s essentially Mafia Wars with graphics. Once a job is performed bits of cash, experience, and other random items pop out FrontierVille-style. As the user grows in level, more demanding jobs begin to appear (some of which must be done multiple times).

The game is driven by a quest system that tasks the player to travel to different parts of the city and perform specific jobs in order to grow their mafia. Such jobs include robbing stores, performing hits, extorting businesses, and just about every other crime one can think of. In order to do them, however, specific items are required, and as the buildings and victims become more protective or “higher level,” for lack of a better term, more powerful equipment is needed.

This becomes the basis of a simple story, but in truth, the narrative is rather shallow. Granted, it’s a Facebook game, so award winning plots are hardly expected. Despite this minor complaint, the whole of Crime City is of high quality, and there’s far more to do than just these jobs.

A whole other aspect of the game comes in with city building features, used to build up the player’s “hood.” This isn’t the kind of complex city building that requires a happy population and other political calculations, but players are able to construct various structures to earn supplemental income and decorate their virtual space as they see fit. After a period of time, structures will pay out a sum of money, and can be upgraded to pay more. Additionally, some structures are needed to produce building materials, such as steel, which is a requirement to building most everything beyond decorations. Some equipment, such as cars, also require certain structures to acquire. In this case, a parking garage would be needed.

The city building mechanic is also a catalyst for some social mechanics. Like many games in the genre, special buildings require the help of friends to complete. Producing special items (e.g. energy instead of money), these structures, such as the Coffee Shop, require friends to send the user specific gifts by clicking on a wall posting link, as well as requiring the user to perform a certain action, such as gifting a friend.

The social elements don’t end there. Aside from joining other players’ mafias to increase collective strength, players can visit not only friends’ virtual spaces, but opponents’ as well. This is a feature deserving of praise as typically, players compete with one another by just clicking “attack” and having a random, text-based outcome. Here, while the result is the same, users actually visit that player’s hood, and can physically rob all the stores as well as attack the player’s avatar itself.

These aggressive actions can earn a tertiary currency called “Respect Points.” Thus far, however, we’ve haven’t seen what these points are used for. Another in-game virtual currency, called “Diamonds,” is earned by doing jobs in the various missions, and used to purchase more expensive equipment (such as cars).

Also on the social menu is the concept of posting achievements where one “shares” earnings. Yes, this is done a lot, but the difference here is that players receive the opportunity to not only share coin, but Respect Points, Diamonds, and even experience.

Our only other, minor, complaint about Crime City is that the game frequently “reminds” the player of inviting friends to join their mafia. This isn’t a huge deal, but the frequency can become annoying.

Overall, Crime City is a surprising improvement on the mafia-style RPG, and its incorporation of city building mechanics adds a good deal of play to the game without feeling tacked on. Granted, the core is the same as any other mafia RPG, but the presentation both more rewarding stylish.

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New Groups Functionality Offers Potential for Gamers

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 22:46

Facebook’s product announcement today, a major change to Facebook Groups, was touted by Mark Zuckerberg as a big shift for real-life social units like families and business colleagues. However, there’s also an important potential for game-related groups.

New groups will be created and administrated by individuals on Facebook. Each will come with three potential settings: Open, Closed and Secret. The last two options are for private groups, while all the content and members of Open groups will be publicly visible.

We’ve covered the new features in depth over at Inside Facebook. In brief, there are four important points to note: ease of creation, notifications about new messages, group chat, and API access for developers.

Here’s how Groups could end up helping games:

  • More communication channels for players. While this point seems obvious, having to coordinate channels off Facebook has been a barrier that has kept all but the most hardcore players from having real interaction around a game.
  • Real-time coordination between players. While most Facebook games are built for asynchronous play, some have experimented with in-game chat and groups. Facebook is now offering another channel for real-time communications, left under the control of players.
  • Potential benefits to retention. Once players have  formed tightly-knit groups around a certain game, they’re less likely to stop playing. Users shy to talk about games in their main feed will now also have another outlet.
  • Fewer spam apps. Hundreds of apps built specifically for players of large games like FarmVille have popped up on Facebook; most have subsequently been banned. Groups provide a good alternative.

There could also be downsides to the new groups. Players will find it easier to coordinate activities meant to break or circumvent the structure of games, for instance, and unlike the communication channels on MMOs, game administrators won’t be able to secretly tap into their communications.

And since the new Facebook Groups functions are designed for smaller social units, the functionality may break down when a group becomes larger. Facebook has addressed this to a degree; for instance, the company already plans to turn off group chat when a group has over 250 members. But there will ultimately still be a need for forums, blogs and other external communication channels.

Overall, the Groups changes look positive for games. How useful Groups will be depends on users, who will how to show how far they are willing to take the new features.

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Highlights This Week from the Inside Network Job Board: Playdom, Wild Needle, Lolapps, & More

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 19:57

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 Playdom, Wild Needle, and Lolapps.

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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Metrogames Continues to Grow With Mall Dreams on Facebook

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 18:00

With over 8 million monthly active users, Metrogames has become a strong, mid-sized social game developer. Their new title for Facebook,  Mall Dreams, recently appeared on our top emerging apps list and currently has more than 860,000 monthly active users.

Following recent city-building games, Mall Dreams contains aspects of  Mall World, but players run an entire mall rather than just one store. It’s certainly a logical extension of the mall concept, and Mall Dreams proves entertaining. Unfortunately, the game play requires significant micromanagement and its requests to publish information becomes repetitive, both of which bring the game down a bit.

In Mall Dreams, your goal is to construct a successful mall. You build various stores and after a period of time, collect the income they earn. The time it takes to collect income from a store depends on the amount of stock items it has to sell. After you collect a store’s income, you must pay a set amount of money to refill sold wares. The higher the restock value of what you purchase, the longer it will take to collect money, but the more the store will earn. The amount of stock depends on the level of the store as well and many can be upgraded.

As patrons file into the mall, thought bubbles will show what they are looking for. They are often searching for stores, but sometimes other items including ATMs, benches and so on. To benefit from the needs of your customers, you must click the NPC and issue “help” (or drag them to what they’re looking for). Doing so will earn you extra experience and expedite the time it takes to collect income from stores.

You must also be vigilant of trash and moles to clean up. Moles function the same way trash does, and we’re not sure why the designers chose moles per se.  Anyway, “cleaning” the space grants small monetary rewards. Not cleaning will prevent you from placing of any new items where the  trash and moles exist.

Many of the stores take up a lot of space and this sometimes feels completely arbitrary. For example, the game’s pet store requires four empty spaces in front and two behind. No part of the building fills these squares, they’re just there. Perhaps these areas are to accommodate upgrades at some point, but for now they feel like wasted space.

Customers in Mall Dreams also seem completely helpless, requiring assistance every couple of seconds. Granted, you don’t have to continually assist them, but it is annoying to see dozens of thought bubbles littering in your space. This becomes particularly acute when you purchase extra transportation hubs (e.g. bus stops, airports, etc.) that increase the number of patrons. We’d like to see these NPCs be a little bit more independent.

Beyond these qualms, the game prompts you to make a wall posting every time a new store is built or upgraded. Since building is a big part of the game, this pop-up becomes annoying quickly.

To run your mall, you hire workers in shifts. Stores will only earn revenue so long as someone is working and some shifts earn more revenue than others. To reduce the cost of workers friends can be hired to work the stores for you.

Additional social elements include basic gifting and leaderboards. You can visit friend’s malls to clean up trash and help customers. Much more interesting, however, is the concept of “investments.” With this mechanic, you can spend money on a friend and when they reach a certain level, they will pay out a return to you. For example, if you invest 125 coins in a friend and  they reach level 20, you will earn 1500 coins back.

As for any final features worth mentioning, Mall Dreams has a nice quest system to give the player some direction and monetary reward. You can also use Facebook Credits to start a “Sale” that will dramatically increase revenue for a set period of time.

Overall, Mall Dreams is an decent game, with familiar but solid core mechanics. Some of its less important features and mechanics can get in the way of  the overall experience, but players who enjoy shopping or city-building games should give it a look.

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Several New Titles Reach This Week’s List of Fastest-Gaining Facebook Games by DAU

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 14:57

If there’s any theme to this week’s AppData list of the fastest-growing Facebook games by daily active users, it’s that several of the titles are new — if not to Facebook, at least to our top 20 lists. Here’s the list:

Top Gainers This Week - Games Name DAU Gain Gain,% 1. Millionaire City 2,073,078 +256,585 +14% 2. ESPNU College Town 253,552 +202,834 +400% 3. ???? 234,727 +170,501 +265% 4. Mafia Wars Game 4,269,328 +103,525 +2% 5. Pet Society 2,266,755 +72,402 +3% 6. Madden NFL Superstars 249,067 +70,013 +39% 7. Fantasy Kingdoms 115,846 +53,066 +85% 8. Hunch 54,511 +50,946 +1,429% 9. Bingo Island 2 91,873 +46,129 +101% 10. MMA Pro Fighter 365,816 +45,550 +14% 11. Pacific Poker 42,409 +37,988 +859% 12. ????(???) 932,239 +33,880 +4% 13. Critter Island 121,086 +29,409 +32% 14. Car Town 1,141,883 +26,621 +2% 15. Crime City 70,366 +26,213 +59% 16. Mynet Çanak Okey 87,365 +24,977 +40% 17. Party Central 28,766 +22,358 +349% 18. Cupcake Corner 121,673 +19,526 +19% 19. Birdland 227,844 +18,863 +9% 20. War Of 2012 19,068 +18,485 +3,171%

Millionaire City has finally hit the top of the list, and crossed two million DAU, making it Facebook’s tenth-largest game by that measurement.

In second, ESPNU College Town is the latest from Playdom. The game essentially repurposes the Social City / Age of Wonder concept to a college campus, using ESPN’s branding and real team and school names. Like the titles it takes after, ESPNU is growing fast.

Skipping past a few familiar titles, Fantasy Kingdoms is one of the games that’s newer to our list. The Sneaky Games title has been around since May, when we first reviewed it. Just under two weeks ago, it began growing, and has since doubled in size. This new growth is likely due to new promotion of the title by the company.

Bingo Island 2 and Pacific Poker have an obvious thematic connection, and they’re also by the same developer, Mytopia. As with Fantasy Kingdoms, the growth of the two virtual gambling apps looks like the result of new promotion.

Finally, Crime City is a brand-new game. While the name may make this game sound like another Mafia Wars retread, it’s actually fairly unique, combining the popular crime theme with city building and missions. Some effort obviously went into this title; unfortunately, we’re not yet sure who the developer is.

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Offerpal Changes Its Name to Tapjoy as Mobile Payments Grow in Importance

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 13:00

Offerpal Media has chosen today to take on the name of a company that it acquired in March: Tapjoy, a former game developer that eventually moved on to in-game offers.

It’s more difficult to categorize Offerpal / Tapjoy (we’ll refer to it as the latter from here on) today than it was a year ago, when the company was almost exclusively dedicated to providing advertising offers on Facebook games. Today, it has three distinct businesses, and even its Facebook offers have grown beyond what they used to be.

“Right now, the majority of our business is still in the the previous core, the social side, but we do see the mobile side quickly gaining ground,” says Matt McAllister, Tapjoy’s director of marketing. “I think it will be pretty well balanced pretty soon between the two, and that just reflects the market itself.”

In mobile, Tapjoy is building its business mainly around pay-per-install offers. Game players will agree to install a new game or app in exchange for virtual currency, earning their points only after they’ve tried out the new app. The installed game pays 35 to 50 cents per install, which McAllister says is a far cheaper and more reliable way to get users than advertising.

There are a few brand offers mixed in with Tapjoy’s mobile platform, but for now they’re still far more limited than its Facebook offerings, where the company also offers surveys, videos, Mechanical Turk tasks and other options. Like Social Gold, Offerpal is still quite active on Facebook, despite the ongoing rollout of Facebook Credits (which uses other payment options).

The third arm of Tapjoy’s business is SocialKast, which gives games the ability to cross-promote and send notifications across multiple social services. We covered SocialKast during its July launch, but McAllister says the company will be sharing more details soon as the product leaves beta.

By combining the three businesses, McAllister says that Offerpal just recorded record revenue for the third quarter of 2010 — contrary to rumors that the company is a sinking ship, started when it laid off some employees, also in July.

Of course, the name change to Tapjoy may also bring up accusations that the company is trying to scrub away bad associations with the name Offerpal. “We understand that the name Offerpal carried some baggage, but that’s not why we’re changing it,” says McAllister. “It’s to reflect that we are a new company now, and the name was a bit limiting in terms of what it described about us.”

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Playdom & ESPN Launch ESPNU College Town on Facebook

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/10/06 - 02:12

Playdom and ESPN are getting into the football movement with a new title called ESPNU College Town on Facebook. Of course, football is only half of the battle, as the new social title also features college basketball. But with the college football season well underway, the timing looks focused on football.

ESPNU is not the type of game one might think. Rather than being a football-centric app such as Ultimate Fan, Playdom is doing what it seems to know best, creating another themed city builder to join both Social City and City of Wonder. Although ESPNU is certainly of a different flavor than the previous two, it’s also essentially more of the same.

Players start out in ESPNU with a two-fold goal. First, to build a successful college campus, and second, to create a top set of college sports teams. Right off the bat, players get to choose their school affiliation, by selecting any actual college to associate with their virtual school. This choice doesn’t appear to do much functionally, but it does give the user access to that school’s colors as well as a few virtual goods associated with it (e.g. their mascot). There is also a nice section that grants access to the top college team leaderboards, letting players see how their affiliated team is doing in reality.

Once their team is selected, users can get down to the core of the game. To veterans of any of Playdom’s past city-builders, the game is rather familiar from here. Though the names and visuals have changed, players still build structures to complete contracts (here they are venues such as a football stadium), housing to increase population, and decorative elements to increase happiness. Additionally, there are entertainment structures that will periodically earn small sums of money.

As one would expect, contracts are mostly sporting events and the longer they take, the more money is earned. There’s also the basic resource management element of what structures to buy, as when the students aren’t happy, population (enrollment) cannot grow. Thus far, the only noticeable difference is the idea of upgrading certain buildings.

Tying upgrades to happiness is a new concept for Playdom city-builders as, typically, gating systems are controlled by level. Here, better payout opportunities from events require a structure to be upgraded to a certain point.

This upgrade system also applies to many of the decorative, or academic, structures as well. This element, in particular, is a nice change, as each upgrade not only changes the visuals, but increases the amount of happiness it creates. This makes it less necessary for the player to constantly redesign their campus in order to accommodate newer, better buildings and reduces the number of overall structures to select from.

Of all the aspects of ESPNU, the social elements are the most different. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean better. As the game does revolve around college and college sports, the primary social mechanic is to challenge other players in either football or basketball. While this sounds well and good, it’s actually quite disappointing.

The games consist of issuing a challenge to a player of similar level and selecting players from the user’s roster to pit against the opponent. Each player has stats such as strength, endurance, speed, leadership, and so on. In order to win, the stats need to be higher, but a sort of slot machine will select which stats to use, meaning that if the user has a player with high strength and that stat doesn’t come up in the slots, it does no good.

At first, users can only put one of their players in for a game, but as they level up, games using more players will also become available, and once more than one team member can be chosen, a little bit more strategy (though the term is used loosely) emerges.

In order to improve the team, users must also buy (“recruit”) new players as they level up. The higher the level of the user, the better the players available. That said, this mechanic seems quite shallow: level up, then buy new players. If luck favors the user, they’ll win and earn some extra experience. This would be all well and good for Playdom in the past, but in comparison to City of Wonder where players could choose their rewards by selecting specific types of engagement (trade, cultural, or war) as well as augment the results by building certain structures, ESPNU’s social mechanics feel very boring.

Regarding friends, this feature is underused. Granted, they can be challenged the same as any other player, but it has no different effects. Otherwise, all one can do is visit their campus and click the standard “help out” button for some extra coin.

In the end, ESPNU College Town is a pretty good application, but it’s basically a spin on Playdom’s past two city-builders. In fact, it feels like a downgrade from the most recent, City of Wonder. The only truly different, and significant, mechanics are the social challenges against other users, but even then those feel not only basic, but shallow and arbitrary. There’s just no depth to it. Yes, the depth might appear in time, but the first impressions, for a Playdom title, are surprisingly weak.

Despite our gripes, ESPNU College Town is currently growing with around 500,000 monthly active users.

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GSN Quietly Grows Large on Facebook With Game Shows and Tournaments

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/10/05 - 21:37

For 72 million American cable subscribers, the Game Show Network is a household name. But on Facebook, the company has been a relatively unnoticed presence, quietly growing to eight million MAU as GSN.

It’s relatively easy for a new competitor to slip up the rankings on Facebook — growth to a substantial size can come in just a few short months, sometimes almost by accident. But GSN is just embarking on a larger strategy that’s based on a years-old winning formula from its web business.

“In the last year or so we’ve gotten very aggressive in social games,” Peter Blacklow, the executive vice president of GSN Digital, said when we checked in about the company’s plans. It’s pursuing three separate strategies, which we’ve broken out below.

Mesmo Games

The driving force behind GSN’s growth so far has been Mesmo Games, a portal that, at first glance, looks a lot like MindJolt Games. Players are presented with a choice of several dozen games to play, most of which are short, casual affairs.

What isn’t immediately obvious is that Mesmo is the successor to WorldWinner, a cash games business that GSN has run successfully for years. The basic idea is that most of the games are based on skill or reaction time; players train up on the games and then enter tournaments that return prizes to the winners. GSN essentially takes a cut of the tournament entry fees, which some players will have to buy virtual currency to pay.

After WorldWinner started up in 2000, other companies followed suit. King.com, the largest single portal, reports hundreds of millions of plays each year. It’s a big business, and one that GSN wants to bring to Facebook.

White-Label Tournaments

The rest of WorldWinner’s history, not mentioned above, is that the company went on to serve as the technology back-end for others who wanted to run tournaments in their own games. Blacklow says that the tech requirements can become quite significant — fraud and cheating detection, fair matching systems, automatic tournament creation and much more goes into the business.

GSN is just starting to work with other Facebook developers, but over time it hopes to become the tech platform for a burgeoning skill-game business. That could eventually extend into more typical social games, where players aren’t usually capable of entering a real-time, head-to-head match. “What we’ve found is the majority of tournaments and revenue is coming from asynchronous play already,” says Blacklow.

How much are tournaments worth? GSN is a private company and thus won’t share figures, but Blacklow says that a lifetime value per consumer of $400 to $600 was reported when GSN was still a public company (it’s now owned by Sony and DirecTV).

Branded Game Shows

Everyone sat up and took notice when Family Feud topped seven million MAU. That game wasn’t developed by GSN, but it was a branded property of the sort that GSN has easy access to.

So in September, GSN released its first game show property, Wheel of Fortune. There’s already a version of Wheel in Mesmo Games, but now there’s also a standalone app for real fans.

So far, Wheel of Fortune has gained about a quarter of a million MAU, following in the footsteps of other game show-based social titles like the Price is Right. The latter also isn’t a GSN title, but the company does have more tricks up its sleeve, including Jeopardy, which Blacklow expects to release early next year.

In the model that Feud started, most game show games are following a similar model of giving players a couple “episodes” to play each day, and charging for more. GSN, of course, can also create tournaments around the property.

What GSN is doing is just the start of a wider migration of casual games onto Facebook. A competitor and partner, Arkadium, has already released some of its content on the social network, and others will follow. “Our players thus far have looked a lot like traditional casual game players,” Blacklow says of his Facebook users. “There’s no doubt that the casual game player has migrated, I wouldn’t say exclusively onto Facebook, but they’re certainly spending more and more time there.”

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Zynga Buys Bonfire Studios, Creating Its Sixth US Studio

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/10/05 - 17:00

Following up a string of social and mobile game developer acquisitions, Zynga has branched out in Dallas, Texas by buying Bonfire Studios, which is run by developers best known for their PC and console gaming work.

Bonfire won’t be a recognizable name to most social game companies. The studio was one of two that emerged in early 2009 from the collapse of Ensemble Studios, a Microsoft subsidiary that created the Age of Empires and Age of Mythologies series, as well as the Halo real-time strategy spinoff Halo Wars.

Unlike its sibling Robot Entertainment, which is continuing work on Microsoft’s RTS titles, Bonfire’s name hasn’t been attached to any new games since it was founded. The company has reportedly been doing third-party work on multiple platforms.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much to say about Zynga’s buyout of the group, other than that the social gaming giant has picked up a few more high-profile names from the core gaming world to join Brian Reynolds, the famed designer of Civilization II and Alpha Centauri who now heads up Zynga’s Baltimore studio and work on FrontierVille.

David Rippy, the CEO of Bonfire and former lead producer of Age of Empires 3, will become the general manager of Zynga Dallas. Two more Bonfire co-founders, Bill Jackson and Scott Winsett, will become creative director and senior art director at the new studio, essentially holding onto their previous roles.

With Zynga Dallas, there are now six Zynga studios across the United States. Many of those come from acquisitions made this year. Here’s a quick recap of Zynga’s buys this year, including its international acquisitions:

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Football Games Continue With QUICKHIT NFL Football

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/10/05 - 15:01

Football titles on Facebook aren’t limited to major games from Electronic Arts and CBS Sports. There’s also Quickhit NFL Football from QuickHit Inc., a stand-alone football-game website that has been around since early September. While not as big as its predecessors, Quickhit does come with a multi-year license from the NFL, granting them legal rights to use NFL trademarks, teams, and names.

According to the developers, Quickhit has already picked up more than a million users on Facebook. With the start of the NFL season and a Madden’esque type of play, we can see why Quickhit grew so rapidly.

Quickhit is very good at hooking new players. About 10 seconds after jumping onto the website, you pick an NFL team and are thrown into the top-down view of a game’s forth quarter. Unlike other social titles,  this game is not automatically played and decided solely by statistics. Rather, you actually direct the action, play by play.

The game works similarly to the console Madden titles. You are given a play clock and a set number of plays, and must choose one before receiving a penalty. Each play is a legitimate football play, but it’s up to the player to choose the best one. If you don’t  know that much about football, there is also a “Coach’s Pick” that typically represents one of the better options — but perhaps not the best.

Once you choose the play, then the computer takes over and automates the process. How the individual players on the team perform, however, is determined by how high their “Training” is, and what “Skills” they have.

Before these stats can be set, you actually have to sign up for Quickhit — the first game was a quick ploy to get the new user interested. You can connect using credentials from a number of social networks including Facebook Connect. Once you’re signed in, you can access the rest of the game features.

The Training in Quickhit will be familiar to social sports-manager game players. But Quickhit doesn’t focus on signing new player contracts. Instead, the game allows you to spend a currency called CP (Coaching Points) to improve the lineup you already have. These points are earned by playing games and completing various challenges. The higher your level, the more you can train an individual team member.

Each individual player on your team has a set level, which indicates their training level. As this number increases, the CP cost also grows. Higher levels also unlock new skills. These skills become passive abilities that improve an individual team member’s performance and include bonuses to breaking tackles, catching, passing, running, and so on. If you ever finds yourself short on CP, you can always “Untrain” players to earn some back.

The game also has a number of interesting challenges for you to overcome. Beyond just random, quick games, you can take part in Season, Division, Coaches’, and Draft Showdown Challenges. Each of these are single-player challenges that pit you against your chosen team’s actual 2010 schedule, both NFL divisions, the league’s top coaches, and teams made up of the top draft picks respectively. These add a great deal of longevity to the game.

Facebook Connect isn’t utilized all that much, but you can compete with other players through online matches. These play more or less the same as the single-player matches. Players are also sorted by their relevant skill levels (Easy, Medium, or Hard). Once in a game, there is a built in chat system, and there are competitive leaderboards for both the single and multiplayer brackets.

Monetization for Quickhit is a bit unusual. There is a virtual currency called Quick Cash, used to buy new plays and the occasional Free Agent Player. You can also upgrade your account to a subscription base ($3.99/month) and play online in 3D. The subscription comes with a monthly allowance of Quick Cash and Coaching Points. If you don’t wish to subscribe, you can opt to pay about $15, one time, and get just the 3D. For some, this might be worth it, as the top-down, 2D view is rather drab and highly pixilated.

For those that love Madden, but don’t want to spend $60, then Quickhit may be worth checking out. However, the games in Quickhit are not particularly complex: pick play, watch play, repeat. Even picking a play felt a bit empty, because you can  choose the Coach’s Pick and come out alright most of the time.  But this probably changes as you level up and opponents get tougher.

In the end, Quickhit NFL Football is a nice, socially connected, title for those that enjoy the sports game genre. It has a decent balance of management and in-game playmaking. Also, it’s multiple single player challenges and multiplayer segments do add longevity. It isn’t as good as its console counterparts, but it is free to play and low-cost to upgrade.

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RockYou Aims at a Younger Audience With Toy Land

Inside Social Games - Mon, 2010/10/04 - 22:30

Social developer RockYou! recently launched Toy Land, a new game for Facebook. Appearing last Friday on our top emerging apps list, the new beta-build title has already found itself with close to 600,000 monthly active users.

Despite its hodgepodge of virtual space, treasure hunting, and board game elements, Toy Land feels very different from other current games. But though it’s unique as a whole, many of Toy Land’s aspects are yet to be optimized or fixed -perhaps to be expected at this stage.

Long story short, an evil scrooge has destroyed the toys of the world, and it’s up to the player, as the “toymaker,” to bring happiness back to the land. Of course, doing so is hardly free, but seeing as this is a sort of children’s fantasy premise, cash is replaced by hearts, and jobs by promises.

As the toymaker, the user’s “employees,” as it were, are a collection of elves. These are the primary source of income for the user, fulfilling contracts called “Promises.” Just like other games, such as Social City, that use contract system, players pay a small cost to fulfill a promise, which will pay out a profit after a set amount of time. The longer the promise, the higher the payout, dubbed “Hearts.”

Once a fair amount of Hearts are collected, the user can then build any number of children’s toys including cars, board games, doll houses, and so on. Each toy also has a set amount of happiness it provides, so the idea is to make enough high quality toys to keep the children of one’s land happy. The happiness level is pretty easy to discern, as an emoticon in the upper right displays the current mood. Furthermore, the player’s virtual space — creatively portrayed as a game board — has random children popping in to play, and their thoughts can be viewed via thought bubbles.

If the children are bored, they will flat out tell you, but they have a few other quirks as well. For one, if they are happy, they’ll produce extra Hearts, or if they are looking for specific toys, they’ll ask you to direct them to them. They can also produce even more Hearts when they are fed treats like ice cream. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that this is hardly a lot of income, and is only a bonus.

As the virtual space is a game board, players also get to play a mini-game in which they periodically earn “Rolls.” Using these rolls, the user can move about the game board and earn extra items such as toys, more hearts, more elves, or even collection items.

This is where the treasure hunting element of Toy Land comes into play. Players are able to visit a handful of themed locales and search for “treasure” in a similar fashion to Treasure Madness and Treasure Isle. Consuming a small bit of energy each time, users can search houses, trees, and various fantasy creatures for collection purposes. Like in the noted games, certain objects require certain tools to be purchased before they can be searched, but rather than a monetary reward, completing a collection will earn a new type of toy to be placed in the virtual space.

Unfortunately, the virtual space itself can be seen as a negative elements. Usually the key to virtual spaces is being able to decorate so that it feels aesthetically pleasing to the player. In Toy Land, this becomes a daunting task, since the items that can be purchased and placed are randomly selected. Granted, some are nostalgic spoofs on things like Gumbi, which is amusing, but placing them just makes the space look like a cluttered mess. There are also “decorations” like blocks or toy trees, but they still feel like everything else. But this complaint may be irrelevant, since Toy Land does appear tailored to a younger audience.

The only other issues with the game are those that one might expect from an early beta build. As it stands, not all the features are rolled out yet, including the social mechanics. Thus far, we have been unable to invite any friends to play.

As for any remaining features of note, it’s all fairly standard. The only other aspect is a quest type of system that gives the player direction in what toys or tasks they should specifically build or do. Other than this, toys also tend to get dirty and worn after a while, which lowers happiness, and must be “cleaned,” at the cost of energy.

RockYou does appear to have a nice new app on its hands. Though Toy Land is a little clunky in its current form, it feels like it could appeal to the younger crowd effectively and seems rather different from most other Facebook titles despite having many familiar mechanics. Although there are issues for RockYou to work through, Toy Land seems like it could turn out to be a decent title.

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Playdom CEO John Pleasants Named Disney Interactive President

Inside Social Games - Mon, 2010/10/04 - 16:01

Disney signaled over the weekend that it’s ready to make social games an important part of its online strategy, appointing Playdom CEO John Pleasants co-president of its interactive division along with former Yahoo vice president Jimmy Pitaro.

Only two months have passed since Disney acquired Playdom for $763 million, but Pleasants is being given an important role, with responsibility over Disney’s entire video gaming business, including console, online and now social elements. Pitaro, meanwhile, will oversee the non-game elements of Disney Interactive Studios.

Rather than taking over a stable, well-defined role, Pleasants will likely be expected to shake up the interactive business, which Bloomberg points out is Disney’s only money-losing division.

However, Pleasants also won’t be moving into a totally corporate position — he’ll instead stay at Playdom’s Mountain View headquarters, from which he’ll run that company as well as Club Penguin, Tapulous and other acquired companies.

In the social game market, most have been paying close attention to Disney since it picked up Playdom. Pleasant’s move up chain of command should serve as a signal of much more to come from Disney — although future moves likely won’t be confined to Facebook, as CEO Bob Iger suggested during Disney’s August earnings call. Exactly what that will mean remains to be seen.

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