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IGN Launches Its Own Social Platform for Gamers

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/07/28 - 16:00

Online publishing company IGN Entertainment is taking a step beyond its venerable (by web standards) gaming editorial content today by opening its own social platform for gamers, called My IGN.

IGN’s theory is that, while Facebook has unlocked the idea of social collaboration around gaming, many gamers prefer not to talk about their hobby on their public profile — especially long-time gamers, who may be accustomed to hiding their habit from their wider social circle.

Facebook’s own method of letting games post updates to users’ walls doesn’t help the situation. “It feels odd to put in a lot of automation, and share information that’s not interesting,” says Peer Schneider, IGN’s senior VP and publisher.

The company also wants to differentiate from earlier traditional-gaming sites, which Schneider says were “very focused on creating a closed community around a certain game or genre of games.” Instead, IGN’s platform will seek to have members talk about all of their gaming activities, interacting with content both from each other and from the site’s editorial side.

We’ve seen a number of companies turning to create their own gaming social platforms of late; last week a half-dozen launched during Casual Connect. Each new effort varies, but there does seem to be a common thesis — namely, that Facebook is not the right place for gamers, whether casual or hardcore (IGN’s current coverage spans both).

Facebook itself is still working on automating user feeds so that everyone only sees what they’re interested in. Ultimately, that should make gamers more comfortable. But it may also be that Facebook is just a temporary stop for the social side of games; as ever more gaming move on, a parallel growth in sites and mechanics to learn about and share games, across many different web sites, could take place. At least, that seems to be the hope, both for IGN and others.

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Battle.net Gets More Social With Blizzard’s Launch of StarCraft II

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/07/28 - 14:59

After over a decade of waiting, real-time strategy fans have finally gotten their hands on the anticipated StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty from Blizzard Entertainment. As good as the real-time strategy game is turning out to be, however, it’s the new life being breathed into Blizzard’s Battle.net network that has caught our eye. Back in May, Blizzard announced that Starcraft was to have Facebook integration, coupled with any number of social features for the Battle.net network. So how did the promises hold up?

For those unfamiliar with Battle.net, it was a system founded when the company released Diablo 13 years ago. Until recently, however, it has just served as a collection of multiplayer games, and not so much a social network. Since February, Blizzard has been talking about making major overhauls to turning the site into a game-oriented social network.

With StarCraft II’s release, the second major game (World of Warcraft being the first) is now added to the mix, and while not all promised mechanics are implemented yet, the existing ones are working well.

The first and most notable social parameter is the “always-connected experience.” This has been dubbed the Real ID system, in which players can connect with real friends in any Blizzard game, on any server, allowing them to interact and chat with one another. This social element added to World of Warcraft about a month ago, but it wasn’t until now that some of its possibilities have come to shine.

One of the most basic of all social networking elements is also present. Though it is called “Broadcasting” here, it is essentially status updates. Any player’s friend in the Real ID system will be able to see these broadcasts. Moreover, players can quickly and easily add real friends to this list, by simply connecting to Facebook. Unfortunately, this is the current extent of Facebook integration and users cannot yet post their in-game accomplishments. According to the StarCraft II community site, accomplishments are something that they are still looking to implement.

Beyond Real ID friends, users can also add people to their network as in-game friends. Through this feature, they can form parties which will allow them to remain connected — with voice chat — throughout whatever StarCraft II modes they may be playing: single player or multiplayer.

Of course, it wouldn’t be StarCraft without the multiplayer, so the game obviously has synchronous matches both with or against other players. What is different in the sequel, is that it’s a lot easier for users to get into multiplayer without getting stomped into the ground. Beyond clearly visible competitive divisions (leagues) to participate in, the game actually puts you through placement matches to determine where you should start.

Once the player is placed, they begin hacking away at another common social element: the leaderboard. StarCraft II also comes with a boat load of achievements. As was noted with the unimplemented Facebook integration, these are not yet sharable, but players can apparently view them in one another’s profiles.

Unlike the Battle.net of yesteryear that merely showed win and loss records, this profile consists of play history, achievements, avatar portraits (special ones can also be unlocked, earned, and displayed), as well as a “Showcase” where the user can put their top achievements on display.

It’s also worth noting that players can apparently record and replay matches they play online. True, this is nothing terribly new, but with the expected, full, Facebook integration, it could become an interesting, sharable element.

Overall, the social mechanics for Battle.net and StarCraft II are a wonderful addition, and serve as an excellent enhancement to an already good game. Granted, many of these features existed in the previous StarCraft, but have certainly since been improved. Moreover, with the coming Facebook integration and the continuing evolution of the Real ID system, you can bet that a new era of mainstream gaming is here.

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Pirates and Cupcakes on This Week’s List of Fastest-Growing Facebook Games by DAU

Inside Social Games - Wed, 2010/07/28 - 13:32

This week’s list of fastest-gaining Facebook games by daily active users holds an unusual number of mid-sized games that just keep growing, week after week. It’s led, though, by Pirates Ahoy, a new title by Electronic Arts.

Here’s the full AppData top 20:

Top Gainers This Week - Games Name DAU Gain Gain,% 1. Pirates Ahoy 286,094 +261,556 +1,066% 2. Baking Life 1,051,448 +193,187 +23% 3. ???? 195,915 +189,191 +2,814% 4. Fashion World 734,642 +187,424 +34% 5. Ninja Saga 916,979 +185,225 +25% 6. Fanglies 197,438 +122,483 +163% 7. Games 808,522 +94,727 +13% 8. Cafe Life 188,537 +91,853 +95% 9. ???? 762,225 +58,130 +8% 10. Tarjetitas 130,869 +56,652 +76% 11. Nightclub City 845,726 +52,701 +7% 12. Ameba Pico 119,254 +50,917 +75% 13. Mall World 712,237 +45,438 +7% 14. Millionaire City 710,038 +44,084 +7% 15. My Vineyard 210,704 +42,014 +25% 16. World at War 145,839 +40,962 +39% 17. Kingdoms of Camelot 590,600 +37,709 +7% 18. Bloom Town 37,497 +35,245 +1,565% 19. FrontierVille 6,260,764 +33,360 +1% 20. Bejeweled Blitz 3,229,900 +32,005 +1%

We actually reviewed Pirates Ahoy on July 8th, but this is the first significant growth we’ve seen for the title. It appears that Playdom decided to take a couple weeks to work all the bugs out of Pirates before beginning to advertise for the title.

Baking Life is one of those aforementioned titles that has been around for a while but keeps growing. The ZipZapPlay restaurant management sim just topped a million DAU, which places it firmly within the ranks of significant games. Below it, you can see several more mid-sized titles with a similar growth profile: Fashion World, Ninja Saga, Nightclub City and Mall World, most notably. (Cafe Life, further down, is similar in its love for cupcakes.)

????, a new Chinese-language title from Boyaa, is worth a look for those that can navigate it. It’s a tower defense game with a twist; the area to be defended is a river, with boats traveling from one end to another through a hail of attacks.

Finally, there’s Fanglies, a new vampire-themed game from Playdom. We’ll likely see this game again on our Friday list of emerging titles, along with some of the other new games shown.

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Disney Announces Playdom Acquisition for $563.2M, Plus Up to $200M Earn-Out

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/07/27 - 21:42

In a deal that has been in the work for weeks, Disney announced today that it would buy Playdom for $563.2 million, subject to certain conditions, as well as a performance-linked earn-out of up to $200 million.

Playdom, the second-largest developer on Facebook, successfully transitioned over the last year from its home base on MySpace, and now pulls in a total of 42 million “estimated active players” per month, according to the press release — 39 million of those are on Facebook, according to our AppData service.

Its investors have hinted at an initial public offering since last year, but we’ve also heard that the company has been busy talking to interested media companies, including News Corp, earlier this year; TechCrunch and VentureBeat reported the pending sale to Disney, last week. This deal has been in the works for at least four or five weeks, and may have closed weeks ago, according to an industry source we spoke with.

Chief executive John Pleasants, a veteran game executive, “wowed the Disney board with a presentation on social gaming at a recent company retreat,” according to The New York Times, and now he “is expected to work to develop new titles based on Disney characters and franchises.”

Pleasant’s presentation no doubt showed off the company’s big in-house hit this year, Social City, as well as Bola, a soccer game developed by Three Melons, a company it bought a few months ago. The two titles are the best results so far from the company’s build-and-buy strategy, which has included seven acquisitions so far in 2010 and numerous new games.

One of Playdom’s biggest rivals, Playfish, was bought by Electronic Arts last year in a deal worth up to $400 million, a watershed acquisition in social gaming that until today had been the largest purchase in the emerging industry. Playdom’s larger rival, Zynga, is valued up to more than $6 billion, we’ve heard from industry sources, it has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. It is on track to make $500 million this year, according to our Inside Virtual Goods report, although it’s possible that the company will make more, as some reports are indicating.

Disney had already been moving closer to Playdom lately, with subsidiary ESPN signing a co-development agreement with the game-maker in May, and with investment arm Steamboat Ventures joining in a $33 million second portion of its first round this past June. Disney Interactive Media Group President Steve Wadsworth tells PaidContent that Steamboat had participated in the latest funding “without any thought that we’d buy out this company,” but explains that since the investment, the two had gotten “a lot closer.”

The company has raised a total of $76 million in venture funding, reportedly at a single, $260 million pre-money valuation. The acquisition is expected to close by the end of Disney’s 2010 fiscal year, the company says.

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PopSugar’s Retail Therapy: A Growing Boutique Business Game on Facebook

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/07/27 - 18:19

The last time we came across a Facebook game tailored to women was with 6 Waves-published Mall World. While the game has done well for itself - even making our top ten of 2010, thus far - its now getting a bit of competition from women-focused online media company PopSugar and its growing Facebook application, Retail Therapy.

Having dramatically grown over the past few days to about 93,000 monthly active users, it’s safe to say that Retail Therapy is doing well for itself so far. In a Sims-like setting, players create, own, and operate, their very own boutique. With a different style and feel, it’s a game that does feel like a better experience then Mall World in regards to aesthetic appeal, but isn’t quite as social.

Though it is seated in virtual space concepts, the primary goal of Retail Therapy is not so much to create a beautiful store (though that is obviously a major part), but to be a successful businessperson. Each day, players must stock their shelves with a wide variety of dresses, tops, shoes, and handbags as non-player characters browse and purchase the wares.

It’s all fairly simple. Players are granted a handful of stock shelves in which they can place orders. From here, they can determine how long an order will take to be delivered by adjusting the quantity to be purchased. A small order of five will take five minutes to arrive, while and massive order of 2000 will take two days. Immediately, the primary time consumption mechanic of the game is made extraordinarily convenient and it doesn’t require users to level up in order to use it.

Of course, level does gate the quality of items one can buy, but that’s a mechanism that should be expected in any modern game containing a virtual space of any type.

Regardless, once the clothes show up, they are stocked and displayed on various racks, shelves, and counters that the player must purchase before moths come and eat them (like when crops whither if not harvested). This is where the next sort of business choice comes into play, as these items are a requirement for NPC shoppers to actually, well, shop. As the user grows in level, other functional items are also be unlocked. This stems beyond mere aesthetics as eventually, more registers and even dressing rooms may be required.

This is actually where things become a bit unclear in the user feedback department. Evidently, the characters that enter the store exhibit forms of like or dislike, indicated by stylized thought bubbles. As the tutorial pop-ups suggest, their happiness drops in situations where they can’t get what they need or want. Examples include waiting too long at the register, the store being devoid of goods, and, likely, whether or not dressing rooms are available (though we are currently not high enough level to purchase any). The problem is, that whether or not happiness or unhappiness of customers affects the store in any way is invisible. One would presume that more happy customers and/or better stock would increase the popularity - such as in Restaurant City - but there is no clear cut way to tell.

As far as social elements to the game go, these feel a bit shortchanged compared to Mall World. Rather than friends entering your store and buying items, they can be hired as extra help, so these two sort of counter act one another. However, one of the draws to Mall World was that players could visit other players’ stores and buy goods from them. As clothes were gated by level, and there was a tremendous variety of them, players could visit other higher level users’ stores and purchase any number of ensembles for their avatar that they could not otherwise buy.

In a sense, you can still do that here, but it is limited to visiting friends that play. Beyond this, the only other stores in which to purchase stuff are two fancy retailers: Diane von Furstenberg and Topshop. It is worth noting, however, that while these are not other players, they are real brands that users can try on and buy, giving the game tremendous potential for acquiring other clothing lines.

While the game could use some work on the social front, it is a lot more gratifying to play then Mall World. With its isometric, Sims-like view, players are able to create a far more intricate, personalized store than the simple 2D layout of Mall World. Moreover, the prior game may have had friends enter and buy goods, but if they did not play, they all looked the same. Here, they may be NPCs, but there is such a wide variety that the store does truly feel alive.

The core of Retail Therapy is solid and with a few tweaks and improvements, it ought to do quite well for itself.

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Social Gaming Industry Growth Looks Great for Potential Employees

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/07/27 - 17:00

Since the social game industry suddenly ramped up last year, hiring and new company formation has been intense. We recently sat down with VonChurch, a specialized recruiter that has made over 120 placements since it got into the industry in September 2009, to get some perspective on the state of the market.

The first and most important detail, according to VonChurch senior partner Katy Haddix, is that it’s a seller’s market — in other words, there are fewer qualified candidates than positions, even with social gaming companies drawing from traditional games, web development, graphic design and other fields. “Consistently, we see clients planning on doubling or tripling in size between a 6-9 month time frame,” Haddix says.

Together, a handful of top companies now employ thousands, and there are numerous small and mid-sized developers who are striving to gain a place at the table. Experienced employees are using the opportunity to job-hop to better positions, while less experienced newcomers are still drawing big salaries.

Across all of VonChurch’s placements, the average has been $95,000 a year. We also asked for breakdowns across a few specific fields:

  • Flash engineer, mid-level: $90,000 - $115,000
  • Flash engineer with social gaming experience: $150,000
  • Front-end web developer: $120,000
  • Product Manager: $115,000
  • Artist: $65,000

Some 98 percent of VonChurch’s placements have received equity, with more senior candidates getting much larger packages. The largest companies, of course, are giving out less equity than they used to, but there are still new startups that balance lower salaries with much larger equity packages.

Haddix says that candidates have become extremely picky, with demands beyond just high pay. Some turn up their noses at large companies or those that they don’t think produce original games, while others want a more favorable work / life balance than some startup jobs offer.

Perks can be fairly easy for companies to offer, especially if they’re profitable — for instance, Haddix says that CrowdStar, her biggest client, recently flew its employees to Italy for a one week working vacation. Most employees are young men, so a smattering of nightlife and adventure can go over well.

Companies that don’t offer the right working environment may suffer. Haddix says that a big trend right now is the “Zynga effect”, in which employees of the large incumbent are looking for a way out.

As for what, exactly, the Zynga effect is, here’s Haddix’s definition: “Zynga has 1) Hired in mass and worked their talent to their max and 2) have quickly replicated basic games … Candidates are ready for an environment where they are no longer a number within a mass organization. They want some semblance of work-life balance. They want a larger contributing piece to the project they are working on, and they want a project that is going to be unique and not a replicated version of a Farmville.”

If that seems a bit tough on Zynga, it probably is. The company is no hellhole; we’ve heard of a number of special events that it has put on for employees, and there are perks, most famously the freedom to bring dogs to work. By the measure of much of the tech industry, Zynga looks pretty good.

Still, VonChurch’s larger point stands — until the supply of good employees evens out with demand, the most talented candidates will have an unusual amount of power to dictate the terms of their employment.

Check out the Inside Network Job Board for the latest jobs in the Facebook Platform and social gaming ecosystem.

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Space Empires Gets Reborn on Facebook

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/07/27 - 16:00

In 1993, a new era of strategy gaming was born, in the form of Space Empires. It quickly became popular among strategy titles of the time and eventually paved the way for four sequels. Over time, though, the game’s following died out to some degree, but nearly 20 years later Nvinium Games is set to launch a new, social version of the cult classic in the form of Space Empires: Battle for Supremacy.

It comes out today but we’ve gotten a chance to take an early look at the application. A compilation of concepts from popular science fiction titles such as Mass Effect 2, StarCraft, and a sea of social apps, the game is, if nothing else, going big.

First and foremost it appears play similarly to social strategy titles such as Starfleet Commander mixed with various Civilization clones. However, that is only two of many social games that has been merged into this concept. From Starfleet, Space Empires incorporates the basic concept of building up a base and armada to both defend and conquer the Facebook galaxy. However, unlike the strictly text-based Starfleet, Space Empires takes on a much more visual approach.

In each world the user controls, they can establish visible colonies and military bases in which structures are physically placed upon plots of land. In essence, this is no different than just text, but to have an actual visual of the big picture does create a rather grand sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the player can actually place buildings wherever they wish (like in a city-builder), rather only on sections of terrain that are dubbed free plots of land, similar to Kingdoms of Camelot or Evony. In fact, Space Empires could in part be described as a sci-fi rendition of these popular titles.

Regardless, these buildings — and there are a lot — come in your standard shapes and sizes. Like in any strategy game,  there is a typical technology tree to work up before more advanced structures can be created. These include basic buildings that allow for building ships, defenses, researching new tech, and probes as well as resource gathering and defensive buildings themselves.

Resource buildings are perhaps the most interesting. In a slight page from StarCraft (vespene gas geysers), resource gathering structures for crystals, metals, gas must be constructed atop actual resource nodes. The only one that does not require this is energy, which is created by various power plants and the like. Nevertheless, it is a resource structure called the Colony Farm that is even more curious, housing a very common social element: Farming. In the preview we were given, the user can actually create a colony farm where they can plant crops. Just like FarmVille, Farm Town, and the sea of others, players plant, care for, and harvest (lest they wither) goods for a currency called “Sigil.” Unfortunately, the requirements to build one take a little while to fulfill, so we have yet to unlock it.

In fact, that is an aspect of Space Empires worth pointing out. The game, though a lot like Evony and its ilk, is very slow to get started. Only a small handful of elements take under 10 minutes to make, and unlike the noted games, there is no means to speed them up for free. Typically speaking, anything that takes under 15 minutes in such games could be built instantly, for free,  if the user desired. They still can do so here, but at the cost of constructions drones that cost varying amounts of the virtual currency Credits, based on how much time they take off the building. In the long run, this is not a huge deal as this would be the case for advanced users anyway (there are also Evony-style quests that often reward items that cost Credits), but for a brand new user it does hinder the ability to really hook them.

If one does stick with the game long enough, one of the first things they will notice is that there are a finite number of resources on their home planet. This is where exploration and expansion come into play. In a nice addition, users can send out probes to various regions of the space to find suitable worlds for colonization (or conquest if that’s their thing). Once a “colony ship” is built, they are free to expand.

The term “expand” may be an understatement, though. As you can imagine by now, the scope of Space Empires is already pretty broad, but it gets bigger still. The galactic map may have players start off on a single planet, but they can actually zoom out from the base view to see the planet and any nearby celestial bodies. From there, they can zoom out to a solar system view; then to a galaxy view. From here, players can then hop back and forth between, currently, two massive galaxies, revealing all of the worlds for users to explore, colonize, or conquer.

This visual magnitude is stated to be inspired by the galactic resource gathering and surveying mechanics from Mass Effect. There was just something awe inspiring about seeing an entire galaxy, and it’s an effect that Nvinium hopes to at least somewhat recreate.

As for social features, the core elements appear to be battling. For those wanting to fight right away, rather than explore the galaxy looking for one, they can dive into an instant battle with a random, online player, that is presumably in the user’s level range, choose what fleets to fight with, and enter a shootout, of sorts, with the enemy Mercenaries of War style. Based on the preview, the battle doesn’t look all that pretty with barely moving images shooting awkward looking lasers, but here’s hoping it gets polished out more. Sadly, there’s no way of knowing yet as people have just started playing and, suffice to say, no one has any significant ships yet this morning.

Friends are not left out of the picture either, as Space Empires now takes a page from the Facebook role-playing genre (e.g. Castle Age). In Space Empires, your Facebook friends can be added as one of four “Commanders” for your various fleets and bases in order to grant them various bonuses. Unlike what was noted in the preview though, it appears that they do have to play in order to be recruited, but if they do, then at least you earn extra allies (alliances, with friends and other Space Empire players, will almost certainly be critical to have at advanced levels) and means to earn a few free gifts from them.

On the negative side of things, the most dominant issue is still the new user hook. It’s one thing for someone who has been playing for a while to build only two or three objects a day, but even at 10 minutes, most new players aren’t going to stick around long enough to do much else.

The other current issue is an expected one (and one that will surely be remedied quickly), but there are still a number of obnoxious bugs. The two most annoying was a situation where mousing over a plot of land created one contextual menu, but before it faded away we opened up a building’s menu and the close buttons were overlapping, making both inaccessible. To top this one, at one point, a publish request for a finished structure appeared and would not stop popping up. It required closing the client twice to stop it; something a new user will never take the time to do.

Again, such qualms will no doubt be fixed. From a game play perspective, most of Space Empires works very well and is pretty straight forward. In truth, the only unclear element for a beginner is what Sigils do. Even in our searching, we only ever found three items that require them. Additionally, there is even a galactic exchange for them where users can trade in crystals, metals, or gas. Certainly, this must mean there is greater use at upper levels, otherwise the farming and this Galactic Market aspect would have no point.

Overall, Space Empires is still looking pretty good and ought to be a nice addition to the Facebook strategy genre. Not all the bells and whistles look amazing yet, and there are some concerns with hooking a new user who is not already a Space Empires fan; especially with the current bugs. Regardless, as an early version, these will be fixed and if the quality ends up coming anywhere close to the level of quantity, then Space Empire fans ought to be very pleased. We’re looking forward to seeing more.

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Cie Games Revs Up Car Town, a New Facebook Game

Inside Social Games - Tue, 2010/07/27 - 14:45

Cie Games, a spun-out games company from Cie Studios, has a new title out. The social developer is taking a more automotive approach to gaming with Car Town.

From cars, to avatars, to a full blown garage, Car Town is a game that gives players everything and a bag of chips to customize to their own personal aesthetic. While the game doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the table in regards to virtual spaces, the quantity and premise offers a fair substitute for originality. And the rather hefty number of social mechanics it makes for an excellent title to play with one’s friends.

Car Town’s objective is no different from other virtual space games at its core: create the best looking personal space you can. In this case, it’s a car garage of sorts. But more than just building a garage, the game is also about customizing your own collection of cars.

Virtually any guy would relish collecting cars, but few of us have the money to build a real collection. Cie grants players the next best thing, allowing users to buy and customize everything from a vintage 1960 Chevy Corvette to a 2010 Lamborghini Murcielago LP 670-4 Superveloce. Once purchased, each car can be customized with rims, body kits, paint, tires, and virtually everything else.

Not all customization elements are purely visual. Each vehicle has a performance rating, and it’s possible to increase that rating with new shocks, steering, engines, etc. In fact, this is where the first major social mechanic comes into play.

Players can actually race their friends in a sort of challenge mode which consists of an actual drag race. Instead of a traditional racing game, this race is a simple exercise in timing that uses a single mouse click to hit the accelerator and shift gears at the proper time. Between the precision of the user and the performance level of the car, the winner will be determined.

The cars themselves are a grand source of income. Beyond racing friends, players can take their car on a five minute pizza delivery jaunt (in which “excess” pizza can be delivered to friends) to earn some extra coin.

Two other social exercises that are even more interesting than the pizza deliveries. The first one is a 24 hour “job” called a road trip where players travel to any number of locations (beach, camping, Vegas, and so on). What is interesting is that players can actually pick up other friends, up to five, that play and earn extra income based on how many join the trip. Second, players can also enter a 24 hour car show where users actually vote on their favorite customized cars.

But wait, there’s more. In a more traditional virtual space/business endeavor, players are able to purchase various mechanic bays for their garage in which to perform jobs for cars that park out front. Ranging from two minutes to a day or more, players can assign workers to take care of various automotive needs; needs such as installing fuzzy dice or a jet engine, perhaps. Obviously, the longer the job takes, the more money it earns.

Workers are also the primary gating mechanism to Car Town and are directly linked to level (which also gates what you can purchase). Only so many can be had based on one’s level and every job done with a car or with a mechanic bay indisposes that worker for the duration. Also, as in other past virtual space games, players hire their real Facebook buddies to slave… err, work… for them, and as yet another means of customization, they, as well as the users’ avatar, can be customized. It’s also worth mentioning that Car Town even has functional décor such as arcade cabinets and vending machines that can also, periodically, earn the player extra income.

As far as negative aspects go, there’s not a lot to complain about. Our biggest qualm is that Car Town is yet another virtual space oriented game. Granted, there is a lot more to it, and the quantity of customizable elements is wonderful, but it does still feel like a bit more of the same.

Other complaints are minor by comparison, such as the horribly obnoxious honking when customers are waiting at the curb. We don’t like it when people do it in reality, and it’s no less unnerving here. Moreover, having the customers pull up does seem kind of pointless as the player can initiate any mechanic job from the bay itself.

Overall, Car Town is an excellent addition to the virtual space collection of games. As a virtual space game, it certainly has everything under the sun for the player to play around with, and the prospect of collecting sexy cars is always a plus for the male demographic. Wrought with as many social elements as customizable ones, it certainly feels like an apex for this style of game. At its core, however, it’s still a type of game that is now beginning to saturate the market, and while good, begs the question: What is after virtual spaces? And is it time to begin evolving past them?

[Correction: A previous version of this article said the game was made by Playdom. Cie Games currently has no direct connection to the company.

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UK Developer Launches First Facebook Game, GoGo Native

Inside Social Games - Mon, 2010/07/26 - 22:39

Farming games on Facebook have seen their share of revisions and remakes in the past year or so, but there’s still room for new ideas — like UK-based developer Geek Beach’s first Facebook title, GoGo Native. At time of writing GoGo is still in its final phase of testing, but from what is working, its looks like it has a good deal of potential.

GoGo is a farming game at heart, it’s true, but rather than working in an infinite harvesting cycle to earn money and harvest some more, Geek Beach adds extra reasons to grow different crops, in the form of animals. These critters appear to be far more useful than your everyday farm animal that merely produces milk or eggs every 24 hours, and even play into the social and mini-game mechanics. In fact, said mini-games stand up well by themselves, and while their full potential and integration cannot be seen early on, may prove to be a strong extension of the overall farming theme.

When starting out, players are granted a minimally customizable tribal avatar and a small clearing in the jungle. From here it’s up to them to decorate it as they see fit, but also to grow crops in order to make a profit. Here’s the catch, though: crops are for more than just mere income.

Each plant grants the player one of three “powers,” so-to-speak, called Oomf, Zing, and Jomo. You see, each plant apparently has a value for one of these, and planting them will increase the associated power. It’s not 100% clear as to how this works, but based on the few tutorial pop-ups that are presented, different variations of these powers will attract different types of animals to your clearing.

This is where things start to get interesting. By attracting animals, or buying them from the market if you have a good chunk of change handy, players can eventually breed them. The following mechanics get really weird: Players can apparently cross breed animals. No, no… really cross breed. As an example, if one attracts a dog, and, say, buys a pig, they can purchase a “Love Shack” building and create creatures like a “Pigdog.”

This has two rewards associated to it. The first is social, in that players can visit a place called the “Native Market” and buy animals from other users. The second is that each animal gives players varying bonuses and advantages in the three GoGo Native mini-games.

As best we can tell, the farming/breeding aspects of the app support the mini-games, especially the one called Jungle Rumble (but more on that in a bit), and the mini-games are more oriented around competitive achievements and leaderboards. In truth, they don’t feel all that tightly knit together (though that may be because we don’t have much in the way of bred animals to help us yet), but individually, they do work. Regardless, there are currently three to play: Swamp Jumper, Voodoo Charms, and Jungle Rumble.

Each of the three has a unique flavor, and is exceedingly simple to play. Jumper is a game where players control a toucan as it hops from lily pad to lily pad and avoids traps and some nasty witch doctor and his minions. Charms is similar to the casual game Collapse in that players must remove tiles by clicking on them, before they reach the top of the screen. The more one clicks, the faster they rise, but it’s mitigated by special bombs and area of effect tiles that take out everything within their proximity. Unfortunately, the mini-game still came off as a bit boring compared to Swamp Jumper.

The last mini-game that’s currently active is a synchronous multiplayer game called Jungle Rumble. Based on what little description we have, it’s a game that lets you directly compete against friends or random people. Unfortunately, due to the early testing and thus, the lack of players, we were never able to get a match, but according to the developers, it will involve a battle of throwing spears. Also, should the player have animals, they will come into the game with the user, granting them extra power and/or even be usable as weapons.

The last curious addition to GoGo Native worth mentioning appears as part of the three powers — oomf, zing, and jomo. As players accumulate them (again, by planting specific plants), their power can be invoked to speed up things like plant growth (zing), hasten cross-breeding (jomo), or give more power in Jungle Rumble (oomf). Typically, such powers are reserved for virtual goods like fertilizer that usually cost virtual currency, so these three elements also apparently create a secondary set of rewards for building them up beyond attracting animals.

Overall, the only negative aspect to GoGo Native is that it’s just not done. It has a lot of new mechanics that farming-game players are not going to be familiar with, and its current build just doesn’t do a whole lot of explanation. All the same, these are minor annoyances that are fairly expected in an “officially unlaunched” title. Even with its issues, Geek Beach’s first title certainly looks more interesting than most of its competitors, holding a potential not seen in the farming genre for a long time.

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Indian Social Networking Site Ibibo Launches Mafia RPG, Uses Facebook

Inside Social Games - Mon, 2010/07/26 - 16:00

Facebook’s growth in India has started to pick up in India the past few months, and with that growth has come new social games from developers in the country. The latest we’ve seen is a Mafia Wars’esque sort of game called Mumbai Underworld, from ibibo, for one of India’s major social networks of the same name. However, while the game is only available on that site, it is connected through Facebook Connect, allowing users to use their Facebook credentials to become part of the ibibo network as well.

Though Mubai Underworld is similar in respect to Mafia Wars, it’s not actually text based (nor does it have missions). Players actually build an illegal business empire through a more visual, virtual space-style means. Nevertheless, while the game may be more visual, it’s not necessarily deeper.

Players start out with a simple terrain full of locked venues. At the start, all players can own is an “illicit” dance bar, though, eventually, they will unlock a shipyard, casino, hotel, etc. From here, everything is quite simple: Open it up and start building oneself up as the top underworld mogul.

This is where the virtual space concept comes into play. Players will earn money periodically by merely owning a venue but extra income can be generated by hiring various “assets.” As far as the dance bar goes, these include pole dancers, bartenders, bouncers, and miscellaneous equipment such as a music system. Each one will “work” for a set amount of time, and the player will be able to collect income from them at varying times (e.g. the pole dancer earns money every two minutes). Once purchased, the assets will also appear in the space, performing whatever animations they have.

Unfortunately, while the addition is great, and can create a wonderful sense of progress, the player starts with so much money at the start that everything that isn’t gated by level can be bought right off the bat. Additionally, the ones that do move are not very fluid; animating at an extremely low frame rate.

Once your dance bar is pulling in its weight, it’s time for the social aspects of Mumbai Underworld. Like Mafia Wars, or any other game of that genre, players can attack, so-to-speak, other players. Oddly, however, those other players are stated to only be one’s friends that play the game, yet we have a few random users we can fight as well.

Perhaps the word “fight” should be used loosely, as it only actually occurs if a “Gunda” is present. What a Gunda is, is a friend who has been dropped onto another player’s property to loot a percentage of its income for about 12 hours. Also, that Gunda will reflect that friend’s level and equipment (some of which can be bought with a virtual currency called iCoins). The only time a fight occurs is if you visit a property and someone else’s Gunda is present or if one invades your place directly.

Regardless of the reason, fights are pretty straight forward. They are automated, with the winner being determined based on the weapons the player owns (which increases their “power”), the current level of health they have, and how many friends they have.

Interestingly enough, there doesn’t appear to be any form of stamina or energy that limits how many actions the player can do in any given session. They can simply play until they run out of money or health, with the latter healed in the hospital. The true limiting factor on game play sessions is actually stuff to do.

Even though there were some random players in our friend’s list, there were only two. There is nowhere to pick fights with other random players of the game as there is in just about every other mafia-style game. Moreover, when attempting to place Gundas in these two random individuals’ dance bars, one of them already had a significantly higher level Gunda present, meaning there was nothing that we could actually do to win.

Yes, one could level up and unlock better weapons, but therein lays another issue. Leveling is painstakingly slow. In a single session, players only garner a handful of experience for the different actions they can perform, and it takes 200 experience just to get to level three. Typically speaking, most games will at least let a user get to level five or six before things slow down this much, in order to hook the user.

Overall, Mubai Underworld is headed in the right direction, and the Facebook Connect integration to ibibo makes it easy for new user to jump in, despite some of the design problems.

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Electronic Arts Hints at a New Business Model With Live Gamer Announcement

Inside Social Games - Mon, 2010/07/26 - 12:00

Live Gamer, an in-game monetization company that has mostly worked in the social gaming space to date, is making its third partner announcement for July today: Electronic Arts has signed on the company as its partner to introduce virtual goods into its online games.

Unlike a similar partnership that Live Gamer announced last week with THQ, in which a popular strategy title called Company of Heroes will become free-to-play and supported by virtual good microtransactions, there are no specific titles to talk about for EA.

But other companies will surely be watching EA closely. As the most visible Western game publisher, EA has also led its peers toward online gaming, acquiring Playfish last November for up to $400 million and working connect with online gamers in its traditional titles.

During EA’s most recent earnings call in May, top executives said they’d seen significant upside from adding downloadable content to its most popular game franchises, like Madden, FIFA and Battlefield.

For the most part, that content isn’t free — players pay several dollars for each addition. If the amount EA makes from these add-ons begins to rival the up-front income from game sales, the company could begin switching over its biggest titles to a free-to-play model, which can bring in many more potential customers.

The broad trends suggest that this online tipping point may be approaching. Last week the NPD Group released a study showing that PC game downloads now rival box gamed purchases, while Microsoft and Sony are both reporting good results from their online stores for the Xbox and Playstation; players are evidently becoming comfortable with all their games including an online component.

The game industry itself might also prefer the virtual goods model, since it would provide a lasting connection to customers (and their wallets). “We believe the ship-it-and-forget-it mentality is giving way to much deeper relationships between the consumer, the game and the publisher,” said chief operating officer John Schappert on EA’s earnings call.

The other recent Live Gamer relationship, announced in the middle of last week, was with RealNetworks’ GameHouse.

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This Week’s Headlines on Inside Facebook

Inside Social Games - Sun, 2010/07/25 - 14:00

Check out the top headlines and insights this week from Inside Facebook— tracking Facebook and the Facebook platform for developers and marketers.

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

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Social Gaming Roundup: Chuck Norris, Raptr, TinierMe, & More

Inside Social Games - Sat, 2010/07/24 - 00:00

Chuck Norris Rejects FarmVillain - Apparently Chuck Norris is more powerful than Steve Jobs as the FarmVille spoof app, FarmVillain, makes its fourth failed attempt to be approved by Apple for release in the App Store. The reason? It includes Chuck Norris who “has previously objected to other applications that include features that use his name or likeness, and believes that such features infringe his rights.”

Virtual Goods Create Results for Brands - In a new research study from appssavvy, the real world value of virtual goods as they apply to brands has proven to be a most valuable opportunity. Among the highlights, it increased brand awareness anywhere from 44.5-69.8%. Mobile ad awareness was increased by 60.1-74.2%. Purchase intent was shown to have increased 31.5-62.8%.

Raptr Upgrades to 1.0 - Social gaming tool, Raptr is getting a big upgrade this week. Beyond its cross-platform buddy list (Xbox Live, PSN, Steam, Xfire, etc.), the service is stated to now support messaging on any instant messenger network including Facebook, AIM, and Yahoo. Additionally, the developers note that it will now dynamically generate a profile for users based on the games they play and achievements they unlock.

Super Rewards Monetizes TinierMe - At the Casual Connect conference this past week, Super Rewards announced that the developer behind social MMO TinierMe, GCREST, will be using the company to monetize itself through virtual currency.

TinierMe Adds Japanese Icon - In addition to the monetization announcement, GCREST has also debuted the appearance of the Japanese icon, Hatsune Miku in the culturally saturated TinierMe. Players will now be able to acquire limited edition virtual items for their avatars as well as have the chance to listen to free music from the anime-singer.

SupersonicAds Partners with BigPoint, Playdom, & Watercooler - International virtual currency monetization firm, Supersonic Ads, announced three new partnerships at Casual Connect this week: BigPoint, Playdom, and Watercooler. Players of these developers’ games will now be able to earn in-game currency through SupersonicAds’ targeted advertising and offers.

Shockwave Launches Virtual Goods Platform - Earlier in the week, casual gaming portal, Shockwave, announced its first virtual goods platform. Using Shockwave Cash, players will now be able to purchase in-game items across any number of the site’s games.

Real Networks Partners with Live Gamer - In more virtual goods news, Real Networks has teamed up with Live Gamer. The latter will power the virtual goods transactions within Real’s social gaming platform, GameHouse.

Sony Working with Codename - PlayStation 3 virtual world PlayStation Home is set to be transformed into a social gaming space. Partnering with indie label Codename, Sony has announced that the company, along with other international developers, will develop exclusive new games for the virtual world.

Heyzap Introduces Heyzap Arcade - Hot on the heels of its $3 million in funding, Heyzap is launching its newest product, Heyzap Arcade. Now, users will be able to add up to 30,000 games to their website with only one line of code. Already, the tool has been adopted by social network platform, Ning.

Zindagi Teaches Entrepreneurship with Social Games - In order to teach students (ages 10-15), a startup called Zindagi is working on a game that combines social game mechanics, problem solving, education, and real money management, says ReadWriteWeb. According to the developers it is “FarmVille meets Mint.com” and will teach kids concepts such as budgeting and saving, using actual money.

GameCoins.com Sees Success with “Missions” System - Introduced at E3, Sometric’s GameCoins.com‘s new “missions” system sought to create a fun means to intertwine game online mechanics and marketing campaigns. Now, the company is reporting that it is tracking an 86% completion rate with over 50% of those players earning extra virtual currency by telling their friends about it on Facebook.

Scvngr Adds “Bumping” to Location-Based Games - Scvngr is attempting to further socialize location-based games with a new means of checking in. Using the app of the same name, users will be able to complete in-app challenges by physically bumping their iPhones together.

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Wooga Becomes the Fourth Large Developer to Use Facebook Credits Exclusively

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/07/23 - 22:36

[Editor's note: This story was previously posted on Inside Facebook.]

Each week, it seems, we hear about another company choosing to pass by Facebook’s many independent monetization companies and use Credits, the social network’s in-house virtual currency, exclusively. Wooga, a German developer with 9.7 million monthly active users, tells us that it’s the latest.

Last week, we covered RockYou’s decision to use Credits, before the company officially announced a new contract with Facebook this Wednesday. Before RockYou, we reported the switch by LOLapps, which is known for both games and quizzes. Along with CrowdStar, Credits’ biggest cheerleader, that now makes four big companies using Credits exclusively.

There’s an interesting twist to Wooga’s story, though: the company didn’t have to switch to using Credits. For a year, since the July 2009 release of its game Brain Buddies, Wooga lacked any monetization options at all: no ads, no virtual goods, no subscriptions.

Monetization is the focus for most companies, so Wooga’s failure to include it in its first three games – now including Bubble Island and Monster World — sounds naïve. CEO and co-founder Jens Begemann doesn’t have any regrets, though.

“Our goal is more long-term,” Begemann says. “We want to create one of the top three game companies in the world — but we started roughly 20 months later than Playfish or Zynga. Last autumn, we had the decision to either monetize as quickly as possible, or raise venture capital and invest it in growing the userbase. We took that option. It’s a little bit like what Facebook did for a couple of years. We didn’t make money, but we grew.”

Since Wooga is based in Germany, it also publishes its games on StudiVZ, that country’s largest social network with 15 million users versus Facebook’s 10 million. Along with the release of Credits on its Facebook games, Wooga added monetization to its games on StudiVZ, so we naturally wondered how Credits compared.

Surprisingly, Begemann says that Credits perform almost as well as StudiVZ’s payments, which have the advantage of targeting local options like mobile payments.

“We find Facebook Credits are better than they’re being talked about if you deeply integrate them into the gameplay,” says Begemann. “If you look at Monster World, Facebook Credits is the currency, we don’t call it something else. That, as we see it, tends to reduce conversion. But if you make Credits your currency, it works pretty well.”

We’ve written extensively about Credits here at Inside Facebook. For the best of our coverage, check out our in-depth examination of the issues around the virtual currency and our interviews with industry leaders on the pros and cons of Credits, over on Inside Social games.

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Disney Is Latest Media Company Said to Consider Playdom Acquisition

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/07/23 - 17:29

While media giant will pull the social gaming acquisition trigger first? Playdom, one of the largest social game developers on the Facebook platform, has been talking to Disney about an acquisition, sources tell TechCrunch and VentureBeat. Rumored sale prices start at the company’s previously-estimated $345 million valuation from its last funding round, and go up past $600 million.

While Playdom has been busy buying smaller developers in the last several months, we’ve heard rumors about it selling during the same period — including through the past few days. It’s possible that the company is talking to other suitors too. It wouldn’t be the first time as we heard that Playdom was talking to News Corp, back in March:

Indeed, we’ve been hearing continued rumors in recent months, the latest of which is News Corp’s interest in Playdom, one of the largest developers on the MySpace developer platform and an increasing presence on the Facebook Platform. Given Zynga’s size and Playfish’s recent acquisition by Electronic Arts, Playdom and fellow developer CrowdStar are two of the more likely acquisition candidates over the coming year. And Fox’s involvement would certainly make the dynamics between it and Facebook even more interesting.

CrowdStar was in talks with Microsoft, Tencent and other suitors earlier this year, according to other reports and one of our sources. The company is still independent, though.

The two other market leaders on Facebook’s platform, Playfish and Zynga, are both accounted for. Playfish sold to game giant Electronic Arts last fall for up to $400 million. Zynga, the largest social gaming company, has been busy raising money (or maybe its early investors have been busy selling off chunks of their stock?). Anyway, after having talked to a range of companies about selling itself last year, it appears to have hundreds of millions of dollars available, and a valuation of more than $6 billion, we’ve heard from industry sources. It is still busy trying to buy smaller social gaming companies, these people say.

Overall, Playdom is in one of the better positions among social game developers, with historical strength on MySpace, mobile forays, and two solid Facebook hits this year, city-builder Social City and soccer game Bola. With some $76 million in funding, and stats that imply significant revenue — it currently has 41.3 million monthly active users and 4.84 million daily active users on Facebook alone, according to AppData — it could very well stay independent, and eventually make an initial public offering like it has hinted at.

We also expect media companies like Disney, if not other game developers and international market leaders like Tencent, continue looking at buying social game developers, even as many of them test out their own apps.

For Inside Network’s in-depth research on the social gaming market, check out Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming 2010

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How to Localize Games: An Interview With Global Publisher RockYou

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/07/23 - 15:00

Last Friday, we ran the first segment of an interview series with leading international social game publishers. We started in Asia, talking first to the Hong Kong publisher 6waves.

This week we’ve moved slightly further east, into Japan. That’s where RockYou, a leading social game publisher in the United States, is working to secure a new foothold for itself. And it’s not alone.

Zynga, for instance, recently took a $147 million investment from Japan’s SoftBank, and appears to be planning to publish its titles with Yahoo’s local subsidiary. CrowdStar, also a leading light in social gaming, has its own plans to break into Japan.

RockYou went into Japan earlier than other companies, so we talked to co-founder and chief technical officer Jia Shen to find out what they’ve learned.

Inside Social Games: What is RockYou’s high-level take on localization?

Jia Shen: RockYou does games and applications in the US, but we’re doing the same stuff in Asia as well. It’s not that different from the console world; you’ve got to figure out language and content first, then in the broader scope figure out the game types and display formats. One thing you have to focus more on in the Japan market is mobile, since the social networks here are primarily on phones. Technically there are three large social networks in Japan — one is only mobile, another is 70% mobile and web. It’s a broader problem than just content.

ISG: How do you handle translation? Is it an internal team or do you contract out?

Shen: With the localized translation stuff we do both. We work with outsourced teams who do the localization, then take two or three passes. The external team does the first and maybe even second pass, then internally you definitely do the final pass with people more associated with the content. Words may not translate over properly unless you know the context for things like actions, and what the user interface looks like.

ISG: Japanese is known as a hard language for English speakers. Does that carry over to translating game content?

Shen: Definitely. There are also formatting problems. Ultimately you’re doing creatives in both languages. Content is kind of a blurry word, but whether you’re doing the local for a game or a banner [advertisement], all that stuff is a lot different. You can translate it, but you want to also touch on nuances that incentivize people, so you have to do more culturally oriented changes.

ISG: Is it too difficult for most Western companies to break into Japan?

It’s definitely a hard market. If you look back at the ecosystem of game companies that have been successful here, they’re not from the West — the barriers are not just about language. Games can be thought of as a cultural consumption, and there are differences in not just interaction, but how you perceive colors and other things. China and Japan are very different from the US. [For example,] the US doesn’t like game connotations that are negative, but here it’s OK to do that to friends. And the platforms here are far more closed.

ISG: What makes Asian platforms more closed?

Shen: With Facebook there’s a lot of transparency in terms of statistics, who’s doing well. You get less transparency here. You don’t know the daily active user counts for any other applications. You just know they’re doing OK, but you don’t know how the number one app is related to the tenth like we would in the US market. It’s a lot harder to do competitive analysis and see how the landscape is changing.

ISG: How do you deal with not being able to see the numbers for competing games anymore?

Shen: You have to sniff around. In the US I can just hop on AppData. Here I have to look for different bellwethers. In any industry, competitive analysis is an important thing. In the US it’s a luxury we have. Transparency breeds competition, and that has been very good for the US. Japan wants to be a little more closed. Asia, in general, doesn’t understand open as much. Open source doesn’t exist here, they don’t see the benefits like the US does.

ISG: What about the social gamers in Japan? Are they radically different as well?

Shen: It’s no different from when FarmVille took off in the US — you have hardcore gamers and then all these people who didn’t care about games before. They’re playing because the games are fun in different ways than the hardcore games. But here there are also a lot more hardcore gamers who are actually participating [in social games]. In the US, hardcore gamers can’t drive a social application to be successful by themselves.

ISG: What are the differences in payment systems?

Shen: All of the platforms come with virtual currency built in and payments. The funny part is that Facebook is running after these guys, rather than the other way around, when it comes to payments.

RockYou US has gotten more margins from tuning our payments, whereas here there’s less control over it because the social networks have established all that. The cool part is, virtual currency is new in the US but not here, and that’s why Japan’s ARPU is higher. People are used to paying for stuff that’s virtual or in a game. The payment models that are evolving in the US are also pretty prevalent — payment cards, mobile payments.

ISG: You mentioned that mobile is big. Is the web developing more in Japan or will mobile remain the focus?

Shen: There’s a lot of evolution there. One of the big announcements recently was that DNAMobile is launching a big PC platform. It’s not that people don’t use PCs, it’s just a different demographic, an older one. There’s plenty of room to actually grow, but people haven’t been focusing on it previously.

This interview is part of an ongoing series on localization. Past coverage includes:
6waves: Localizing for Asia

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Farm Story Challenges FarmVille on the iPhone

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/07/23 - 14:00

Farming games may have saturated the Facebook platform, but the iPhone has seen considerably fewer. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, as Farm Story is just one of several examples. Developed by TeamLava, this older title has been recently updated with a few new social mechanics, which appears to have been enough to briefly push it above FarmVille on iPhone.

Farm Story itself is nothing terribly new to those that saw the farming foray that took place on Facebook last year. In fact it does little, in terms of its core, to really differentiate itself from a game like Farm Town, except for being on the iPhone instead of Facebook. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t a few different features. On the contrary, Farm Story actually does a better job in the social department than most farming titles.

As with any farming game, the player’s objective is to grow the biggest and best-looking farm they can. Right from the start, players are granted a sizable amount of land in which to decorate and till. Moreover, the controls are all quite easy and simplistic, as everything is controlled through context-sensitive tapping. Tap an empty piece of land, and a second tap will plow it. Tap a crop, and a second tap will harvest it. Of course, users can always select these specific tools from the game’s menus manually as well.

Like any other farming game, players plant crops that grow at varying rates, ranging from five minutes to a day or more, with the slower growing products generally being worth more. Should they forget to return for them, the plants wither and die, and must be replanted unless the user decides to utilize the virtual currency, Gems, to revive them.

This marks the primary means of monetization for TeamLava as users can purchase Gems directly from the application in quantities of 24, 105, and 275 for $4.99, $19.99, and $49.99 respectively. These can then be used to not only revive withered plants (which costs a large amount of Gems, depending on how many are dead), but also special plants, fertilizer to make things grow quicker, in-game coins, and decorative items.

Regarding décor, it’s about the same as any other Facebook farming title and is merely there for aesthetic value. However, there are some functional items beyond crops that can look nice, like animals and trees. Like others of their ilk, these are harvestable after a set amount of time, and thankfully, never wither. It is worth noting, however, that some of the items that do cost Gems are surprisingly expensive. A corgi or dachshund, for example, cost 55 Gems, making their cost about $10.

It isn’t uncommon for a virtual item to cost this much — Blizzard’s Pandaren Monk virtual pet for World of Warcraft cost $10 and sold hundreds of thousands — but such virtual items do a lot more than just stand there. In the Blizzard example, the pet that was purchased was forever bound to the user’s account, allowing them to have it on any character or server, past, present, or future, and actually looked fantastic and full of style. It even did kung fu; it goes without saying that your Farm Story corgi will not.

Moving into social features, Farm Story begins to outshine its competitors. Unlike virtually every farming game on Facebook, Farm Story does not force players to only interact with friends that the player adds as neighbors. Should the user wish, they can actually visit and water a limited number of crops at random users’ farms as well. Doing so will earn points toward a Star Rating and an extra reward.

As for the Star Rating element, the more the user visits other people — there appears to be no limit to how many they can — and the more crops they water, the higher ranked their profile will become, eventually leading it to the top of the social charts and making it more visible for other random users to see.

In addition to this, players can also post comments and see a feed of happenings and going-ons on both in their own and other users’ virtual farms. Adding to the social elements, the recent update also allows players to take pictures of their virtual spaces and share them on Facebook.

This makes for a rather interesting business choice, as this functionality appears to be granted through another downloadable app from TeamLava, Farm Story Snap. Additionally, those that search the App Store may also notice Farm Story Summer and Farm Story Flowers as well. Each download connects to the main game (like an expansion pack), granting the user free Gems along with exclusive items such as tulips or a summer home. As to why TeamLava took this approach, rather than just update Farm Story itself, it’s unclear, but it may have been a means to make the title more noticeable in the highly saturated App Store. Unusual, yes, but since the game has breached Apple’s top free apps list before in the past, it appears to be working.

Overall, Farm Story is a pretty standard farming game. It doesn’t bring much fresh to the table as far as the farming concept goes, and a number of its virtual goods are a bit overpriced. However, on the social side, it does a significantly better job than most iPhone titles, allowing players to interact and help strangers as much as friends. Granted, it may not be as interesting as farming with wizards or zombies, but for what it is, Farm Story is still pretty solid.

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Newer Facebook Games Are Attracting an Older Female Audience

Inside Social Games - Fri, 2010/07/23 - 09:05

[Editor's Note: The data cited in this article is excerpted from Inside Facebook Gold, our membership service tracking Facebook's business and growth around the world. It was previously posted on Inside Facebook.]

Last month we shared data for selected Facebook apps that showed diverse audiences across some of the top social gaming titles on the social network. Today we’re following up with stats on another popular set of games that have one key difference: they’re much newer than those we examined in June.

We chose four: FrontierVille and Treasure Isle, both by Zynga; Social City by Playdom; and Hotel City by Playfish. All date back no earlier than March. Looking at newer games allows us to gain some insight into how the audience has changed in the hectic first half of this year.

The first and most obvious insight we came across is that these apps, among the most popular of 2010, have a higher percentage of women than our last sample, which found about a 60/40 split between women and men:

As you can see, the gender distribution has swung even more strongly toward women. In part, this is because there have been few male-friendly hits released this year, like Zynga’s classic Texas HoldEm Poker.

Here’s how the breakdowns look for all four apps:

Women have long been the dominant force in the casual gaming industry, helping to produce estrogen-friendly hits like Diner Dash. While it’s also common knowledge that women play games in greater numbers on Facebook as well, the divide appears to be becoming starker than it was last year.

Of course, the force in casual gaming isn’t just women; it’s middle-aged women. Our next chart shows the age distribution for each of the four games:

Here, we have an interesting split. While the Zynga and Playfish games are almost identical in their age splits (Treasure Isle was exempted for clarity, but is very similar to FrontierVille), Hotel City stands out from the pack with a much younger audience.

Without the presence of Hotel City, it might seem that Facebook gaming is destined for the same almost exclusively female and older audience that casual games target. However, it’s entirely possible that developers are simply playing to the largest audience, while underserving the men and younger players.

For marketers, these results are also notable, for their suggestion that young people and kids who are gaming are moving (or being pushed) into more niche titles — even Hotel City, with its huge base of 8.3 million monthly active users, is smaller than the other games shown above.

The full demographic breakdown by app, as well as extensive audience demographic data for Facebook’s markets around the world, is only available to members of Inside Facebook Gold, our data membership service. To learn more or join, please see gold.insidenetwork.com/facebook

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New Jobs This Week on the Inside Network Job Board: EA, Storm8, iWin, ZipZapPlay, Lionside, & More

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/07/22 - 20:01

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

We’re offering a special launch discount code for new listings placed this week. Just use the discount code “INSJOB30” by this Friday, July 23rd, to receive a 30% discount on all jobs you post.

Here are this week’s new listings from the Inside Network Job Board, including positions at, Electronic Arts / EA2D, Storm8, iWin, ZipZapPlay, Lionside, Lolapps, and Context Optional:

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The Case For Facebook Credits

Inside Social Games - Thu, 2010/07/22 - 19:05

[Editor's note: This interview with CrowdStar chairman Peter Relan is a companion piece to another published immediately before it, The Case Against Facebook Credits.]

Among the many developers that have now tested out or exclusively adopted Facebook Credits, none has been a more vocal proponent than CrowdStar. The social gaming company first incorporated Credits into its game Happy Island last December, and has since championed the virtual currency’s ability to bring in more paying users.

We asked Peter Relan, CrowdStar’s chairman and founder, to give us his case for Credits; the results are below. Once again, if you want to take a look at our own lengthy examination of Credits, which contain many of the points in both interviews, see our recent coverage on Inside Facebook.

Inside Social Games: Give us a broad overview of your thoughts on Credits.

Peter Relan: The big picture is that Facebook Credits is all about increasing the size of the pie that we developers can participate in. That’s the single big concept that I think people aren’t getting. They’re assuming a single size of pie and fighting for every bit of margin.

Honestly, growing the market is the thing that Facebook’s trying to do. In the process they’re taking heat, but if I were in charge I’d do the same thing. They have to make sure the ecosystem has room to grow. They’re trying to increase the size by providing a single liquid currency across the userbase, and once it’s there we’ll all stop arguing. If you went to Amazon and every category had its own currency, you’d pay less — a single currency just removes friction. Why do you think, on the iPhone, they make billions? It’s because of a single system.

Let’s say that I’m in FarmVille and I buy Farm Cash. Later I have 200 of that currency left over, which I can’t use when I come to Happy Aquarium. I paid good money for it, I just can’t use it. How would you like that in Amazon? That issue is called liquidity. We have no cross-game liquidity now. That means that I’ll spend less liberally, and try to manage my spend to my anticipated purchase.

ISG: Couldn’t another company offer a cross-game currency?

PR: Why doesn’t Apple have some random company offering payment points? Generally you need a trustworthy source — it has to be a big brand, and very rarely can that brand be someone other than the platform. It’s like saying hey, in the United States, why doesn’t someone offer a point system? You want a government-backed dollar. Usually, the platform is the only stable scaled player who can provide any assurance — currencies are about consumer confidence. There are runs on banks when people lose their confidence. So Facebook has to be the bad guy.

ISG: An undertone to the debate about Credits is that it’s not fair for Facebook to push out other payment providers and promote Credits. Is that a valid argument?

PR: I think on Facebook.com there’s no question — it’s like asking whether on the iPhone Apple’s 30 percent is worth it. That 30 percent is the gold standard, for Microsoft as well.

Then there’s the question of what the market will bear off the platform when Connect is driving it. There are two arguments. One is that at the end of the day, Connect represents the tentacles of the core, meaning that it’s still one organism and 30 percent is still right.

Another is that since it’s the tentacle and not the core, the social graph is worth less. I think the market will determine that. We’re not off the platform, so it’s very difficult to say.

ISG: OK, that’s the overview. What are your secondary points?

PR: There’s a host of other things. With Credits the user’s payment experience becomes universal — you get a universal Facebook Credits user interface. For dollars, the dollar bill is the user interface. Here, there are three screens that everyone will get used to. On the iPhone, when I see something asking me to purchase from iTunes, I just say yes. That payment process is so fluid, I don’t think about it.

Fraud management and chargebacks are a key thing for consumers. If you have a payment option, you’ve got one source to deal with, Facebook, instead of seven different games and payment options.

By the way, Facebook for developers is also promoting Credits, and that’s a short-term benefit that everyone can take advantage of. If you’re playing a game in which Credits are the preferred choice, they’re willing to say, here are 5 Credits for free. This is huge in removing friction.

ISG: So you think now is the right time for developers to go ahead and implement Credits?

PR: I think the bigger developers should do it right away, and the smaller ones might want to wait — but the smaller players are also the ones who will get the promotion benefits, and they need those. The bigger players can wait this out, but it’s the small guys who need the distribution, the promotion, the help. They should definitely go for it. The big ones should go for a different reason, the size of the pie. It’s hard for a small player to say, ‘yeah, there will be a bigger pie,’  and take the hit. But my view is that they need the promotion.

ISG: If Credits really can expand the market, then by how much?

PR: We know that a user who’s paid with Credits before is an order of magnitude more likely to follow through with a purchase than one who’s never used Credits before.

I would venture to say that the pie could be three or four times larger. Today one to two percent of people in social games are actually paying users. The stat could be 5-10 percent in my opinion. When you have a 5-10x improvement, I’m not worried about the 20 percent extra I give to Credits. It’s a 20 percent delta versus 500 to a thousand percent increase. That gives you a feel for it, quantitatively.

ISG: How quickly could that 5-10x growth come about? When does it start?

PR: I’d say starting now. In 2011, maybe even Q4 of this year, you’ll start to see liquidity, and by 2012 a much larger pie.

ISG: You’ve made a few comparisons to Apple, which has a system of set price points. Could Facebook have done that to avoid the complexities of a currency?

PR: Apple’s iTunes system is a very high-level microtransaction system, but not a very granular one. Apple’s pricing came from the music industry, with 99 cents per song. Then when they came out with the App Store, they just stuck with that, going to 1.99, 2.99, etc. You can’t buy something for 5.49. Apple’s system is not like a virtual currency system, in which you can translate the money to other systems.

Apple is saying, I’m not a virtual currency, so game developers say fine, I’ll provide my virtual currency atop your currency price points, which goes to the same problem of cross-game liquidity. So I think in the long term, Apple will have to deal with this. As long as there was no virtual currency, things were working great. And there aren’t that many virtual currency games on the iPhone. But over time, if there were a billion-dollar virtual currency system, they’d have to have all the same discussions we’re having.

[Ed. note: To move on to the case against Facebook credits, click here.]

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