Meet Zynga.com, also known as Zynga Direct, Z-Live and Zynga’s declaration of independence

Zynga today reveals its very own social game platform, Zynga.com, which was previously called Z-Live and Zynga Direct. The service launches today with five of Zynga’s best-performing games: CastleVille, CityVille, Words with Friends, Hidden Chronicles and Zynga Poker.

Here’s what Zynga.com is: a platform on which social games can run synchronously and relatively seamlessly between it and Facebook. A CityVille player logging into Zynga.com today will find their city exactly as it appears on the Facebook canvas, with the same amount of virtual goods in their inventory and same amount of virtual currency in their e-wallet. Thanks to a deeper-than-anything-we’ve-seen integration with Facebook Connect, all in-game activity that takes place on one platform happens on the other. That CityVille player can buy a new park decoration on Zynga.com and it will appear in Facebook if they player were to jump back to the social network and play CityVille there. A Facebook player can used Credits to buy 20 Crowns in CastleVille and those 20 Crowns will be in the virtual bank if the player jumps to Zynga.com.

Here’s what Zynga.com is not: an alternative to Facebook. The service is focused on the games experience to the exclusion of almost all other social networking tools. Players can’t post pictures, can’t create events and can only group themselves by Facebook friends and players that play the same games. The only social network features Zynga.com cribbed from Facebook are the chat function, social discovery of new friend connections and a live app ticker for games activity (which is something Facebook recently disabled on canvas apps).

So why play games on Zynga.com and not Facebook? The hook is in the promise of faster progression. Zynga games rely almost completely on social interactions — a friend gifts you a virtual good you need to finish constructing something in CityVille, a friend needs to join your poker table to get the game started, a friend plays “Qi” in Words With Friends for a cheap shot triple-letter score, etc. On the asynchronous Facebook platform, it’s a gamble just how long a player has to wait before a friend gets back to their own game to send a gift, respond to a request or play their next move. With Zynga.com, the developer creates an environment where players can easily access their own friends — and an entire network of other players willing to help them out at any time.

Zynga calls this network the “Active Social Network” — the group of friends (or sometimes strangers) that can be counted on to participate in games. To these players, Requests are not “spam” and unfulfilled Requests represent someone that’s not a very good friend. By tapping into a player’s ASN and comparing it to others’, Zynga.com is able to create social discovery of new friends — which in turn broadens the reach of the individual ASN and quickly ramps up players new to the platform.

Let’s walk through a CastleVille example. Say we’re trying to get together six crystal shards to craft an exploration crystal. If playing on Facebook, we send out Requests to all the players listed in our friends list and wait maybe four hours to hear back from half of them. Within roughly three play sessions over 24 hours, we might have all six shards and can craft the exploration crystal. We can also exit the game to go read our friends’ Timelines to see if they have any CastleVille activity posts from which we could collect shards for clicking on the post. If playing CastleVille on Zynga.com, however, we can send the Request to the live app feed where it can be viewed and responded to by our friends, or by any other CastleVille player also playing the game at the same time. Because the activity is live — and because responding to Requests nets both players virtual goods — we’re more likely to get all six of our shards within minutes as opposed to hours, and within the same play session. We can also use the chat feature on our Zynga.com friends to alert them to our request, if they’re not already in CastleVille (“Hey, when you’re done in Zynga Poker, can you send me some crystal shards in CastleVille?”). We can also send and receive energy directly from the chat window. All of this activity can be completed on Zynga.com without ever leaving the game to fulfill requests, accept gifts or troll friends’ profiles for posts that generate rewards.

By speeding up the gameplay experience, Zynga.com introduces a new type of social graph tailored specifically to games players — something Facebook has avoided creating. You can read the difference in approach just from how a user profile appears on the sites. On Facebook, you see a person’s profile picture, their Timeline, their friends and and stuff they Liked. On Zynga.com (pictured), you see a profile picture, a list of games they play and how many times they’ve helped someone in a particular game. Friends on Facebook are suggested based on how many friends you have in common; friends on Zynga.com are suggested based on how many games you have in common, how often you help people in games and on friends in common. On Facebook, there is almost no way to interact with strangers intimately without first sending a Friend Request. On Zynga.com, any stranger can respond to any request at any time without first being your friend — and if you decide to make them your friend on Zynga.com, they do not become your Facebook friend. On Facebook, there is no concept of rank; on Zynga.com, friends are positioned as competing for who is more helpful in more games because their profiles are more likely to be surfaced to power players that will help them progress through games faster.

The core concept of the Zynga.com platform is strong — a destination gaming site that marries the best of the social graph to the actual goal of gameplay. The platform, however, is infancy and there are some features that raise questions about which direction Zynga.com will take as it grows. Here are some examples: the platform currently conducts payments only in Facebook Credits; there are no game balancing measures in place to keep the playing field equal between Facebook CityVille players and Zynga.com CityVille players; cross-platform play for mobile devices in theory will work for Words With Friends — but we’re not sure if Zynga.com can or will support a mobile version for Zynga’s mobile games; Zynga.com player profiles use real names instead of aliases; there are no display ads on the site, but there is plenty of room for them if Zynga wants to run ads. Zynga.com is also offering its platform in 16 languages — including Chinese — but unless a player has access to Facebook, they cannot access games on Zynga.com (which means mainland China, where Facebook is still banned and yet CityVille is available on Tencent).

Some future features are clear, however. Though only launching with its own games, Zynga.com plans to publish third party games on its platform in the very near future — announcing developers MobScience (inFamous Anarchy), Row Sham Bow (Woodland Heroes) and Sava Transmedia as early platform partners. Details on partner publishing are scarce — Zynga declined to discuss the revenue share model — but we do know that Zynga is planning to open its APIs to all developers later this year.

As for what Zynga.com does for Zynga and Facebook’s publicly traded stock, that will depend on investors understanding of the social games business model. Many people previously viewed Zynga’s games platform as a split from Facebook — something that could jeopardize the stability of both companies. Others believed that without Facebook, Zynga couldn’t possibly support its own games ecosystem with so many other competing open web games portals already out there. As we see it, however, Zynga.com is a value add for both Zynga and Facebook. Zynga gets the freedom to try games features that Facebook forbids or doesn’t have an interesting in supporting; Facebook gets to hold Zynga up to investors as a shining example of the business opportunities to be had on the platform. The deep Facebook Connect integration on Zynga.com still creates the dynamic interdependence that makes investors wary, but Zynga now has its own platform to call home.

Zynga.com is due to go live this month. COO John Schappert will talk more about the platform in his Game Developers Conference keynote speech, “Why ‘Free’ and Cross-Platform Is The Future of Gaming” next week at Moscone Center in San Francisco.

How bootstrapped Serbian startup Nordeus beat EA’s FIFA at its own Facebook game

Of all the sports games on Facebook, soccer-themed games reign supreme, accounting for more than half of the 40 most popular sports games on the platform.

The leader of the pack is Nordeus — a bootstrapped Serbian developer founded by three former Microsoft employees. Its game, Top Eleven – Be a Football Manager is a detailed football management sim, and despite its complexity, has 3.6 million monthly active users and 1.2 million daily active users, far above its closest competitor, the officially licensed title EA’s FIFA Superstars, which currently has 1.9 million MAU and 300,000 DAU according to AppData.

However, what may be most interesting about Top Eleven is the game’s slow burn. Unlike the average Facebook game, which typically sees most of its growth in the first six months, Top Eleven is still adding players 21 months in and is the most popular its ever been. Since the game’s launch in May 2010, Nordeus has taken Top Eleven cross-platform to iOS and to Android and introduced a raft of new features and updates, but has so far been silent about upcoming projects.

Inside Social Games had a chance to interview Nordeus’ co-founder and CEO Branko Milutinović and ask him about the success of Top Eleven, and what’s next for Nordeus.

Inside Social Games: Top Eleven is the most popular sports game on Facebook right now. Why do you think the game has been so successful despite the fact that its competing against officially licensed games like FIFA Superstars?

Branko Milutinović, Nordeus co-founder and CEO (pictured right): As well as double the MAUs, Top Eleven also has over four times more DAUs. That’s really important for us because it means our users are engaged and coming back to play regularly!

But to answer your question, we took the risk of developing a technically very advanced platform that enables rich gameplay, synchronous multiplayer experience and truly cross platform gaming (i.e. it’s exactly the same game on Facebook, Top Eleven.com, iPhone and Android). This gave us the opportunity to offer our users a game they find challenging and exciting to play with their friends.

Another thing we’ve focused on and think is crucial is the level of realism. We’ve tried to be as close to the real world of football management as possible, including a complex match simulation engine based on English Premier League stats. Actually, the only thing missing to bring us to the absolute realism is licensed brands, everything else we’ve covered.

ISG: When you released Top Eleven in 2010, Facebook was a very different platform. Since then user acquisition costs have risen quite dramatically — what are the challenges you’re facing now and how has Facebook changed as a platform?

Milutinović: The platform has changed a lot in the previous two years. We know the Facebook team is working hard to improve the platform for everyone, both users and app developers and most of the changes we find really positive.

From a developer point of view it is true that user acquisition has changed dramatically with viral growth channels narrowed, but I can understand that Facebook had to do that to preserve user experience on the platform. User acquisition is becoming a big obstacle for newcomers and companies that cannot rely on cross promotion from their other games, which is why we think publishing other studio’s games is going to become more common. At Nordeus we look at the changes as challenges we need to overcome. It’s evolution. We improve ourselves every day and try to adapt to the new conditions.

ISG: In September you revealed your relationship with Facebook was “very close” – can you reveal more about how Nordeus and Facebook work together?

Milutinović: Some time ago Facebook launched an initiative to strengthen the collaboration between platform and the developers. We were recognized as one of the brightest examples of how to leverage the platform, build a great product as well as a successful company around it. Since then we’ve been working with Facebook to implement new updates the platform, building the best possible experience for our users. That probably helped Top Eleven to be voted as The Best Sports Game of 2011 by Facebook based on user satisfaction.

The Facebook team is also doing great job in fixing bugs we report and we’re proud that we’ve helped the platform to become better, especially when it comes to Android and iOS support.

ISG: Are you interested in taking on partners for any reason such as publishing, acquisitions, etc?

Milutinović: We’re always open to new opportunities, but on the other hand have full belief in our own capabilities. When it comes to publishing I can say that we are considering the idea of publishing others’ games, but given that developing games is in our DNA we will probably focus all our effort on getting our titles that are under development right now to the market as soon as possible.

ISG: You’ve said before you want to be “the Zynga of Europe” and that you wanted to consolidate the talent in Southeast Europe. What is Nordeus’ long term strategy around this?

Milutinović: When it comes to hiring our long term strategy is actually to continue doing what we’ve been doing in the previous two years, especially in the last few months. We want to combine best young talent of the region with the most experienced experts from the industry. Examples of that effort include our new Head of Business Development who joined us after over 5 years of running sales and user acquisition for Eve Online, as well as a college hire from Caltech, both relocated to Belgrade. (If you’ve ever been to Belgrade you’d understand why ;)).

We’ve also organized initiatives to attract the best talent, like the game development hackathon we held two months ago. Over 200 of the brightest computer engineering students and graphical designers from the region applied. We’ve already hired ten of the students that took part, with more interviews ongoing. We strongly believe our people and company culture are our strongest assets and we will continue to nurture that.

ISG: What’s next for Nordeus? You’ve released iOS and Android versions of Top Eleven. Are you developing a new game or games? Will they be sports strategy games? Will they be on Facebook?

Milutinović: Unfortunately I can’t share as many details about specifics as I’d like to, but we are working full speed ahead on the next generation of games, which will introduce a lot of new concepts. They will continue to carry on our philosophy of unified gaming experience throughout devices, so they will definitely be available on Facebook, Android, iOS, and other platforms as well.

Making Fun launches photorealistic Hidden Haunts, looks to expand into sports and more on Facebook and mobile

News Corporation social game developer Making Fun launches its third Facebook game today, entering the hidden object genre with Hidden Haunts.

The game differs from all other hidden object games on Facebook in that it’s photorealistic — the developer composed physical sets for each level of the game and snapped photographs of the scene to form the basis of the levels. The rest of the game experience will be immediately familiar to fans of Gardens of Time; players click on hidden objects, receiving a scoring bonus for finding objects in rapid succession and progression is tracked both by score and by the number of decorations a player has added to their mansion. To those ready to cry clone, however, Making Fun points out that it changed Hidden Haunts’ story immediately after Hidden Chronicles and World Mysteries launched to remove a missing uncle story element so that Hidden Haunts wouldn’t come off as too similar to other hidden object games on Facebook.

“We would like to be known for richness and depth,” Making Fun President John Welch tells Inside Social Games. “We had to launch Hidden Haunts early because we didn’t want to be left behind [by Hidden Chronicles]. There’s a theme here, and if you already like it, hopefully you’ll really like this game.”

Making Fun has had some success with its other two Facebook games, Clash: Rise of Heroes and Noah’s Ark, and with its iPad title Santa’s Village. Each game is a completely different experience — collectible card game, farming simulation and city-builder, respectively — and this helps Making Fun understand how to tap into different demographics on different platforms. The developer is still learning basic social features and monetization practices, however.

“We’re anti-whale,” Welch says. “But we still have to teach [players] spending.” He relates an incident where Hidden Haunts’ designers went back and forth on whether or not to give players free premium currency and then walk them through the pay flow as part of the tutorial — which is standard practice for most social games, but one designer new to social games worried that it took away some of the fun.

Going forward, Making Fun is exploring new genres both for Facebook and mobile. In a demo reel to be shown at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next month, we saw snippets of a basketball sports sim for Facebook that looks to be a combination of turn-based play and statistic tweaking. We also saw a tower defense game themed around bugs that looks nearly final. We also couldn’t help but notice a sketch on the wall behind Welch that appeared to depict a hybrid board and matching game based on what looked like Alice in Wonderland; Welch declined to comment on it directly.

Look for our review of Hidden Haunts later this week.

zCloud evolution heralds ZLive launch

Zynga’s aggressive development on its private cloud infrastructure, zCloud, shows us just how close the developer is to hosting an independent games platform.

Zynga started sharing more details on its cloud service as of yesterday during its Q4 earnings call, stating that about 80% of its games catalog now runs on zCloud instead of on public clouds. A blog post and infographic released today further illustrate how far the service has come in the last 12 months (click on the image to see a larger version of the infographic).

It’s significant because it means Zynga is almost ready to release its ZLive platform. For two years now, we’ve heard rumors and rough details around what ZLive — or Zynga Direct — is really supposed to be. Near as we’ve been able to tell, it falls somewhere between a fan network and a mobile social games portal built on deep Facebook integration. As early as October 2011, we knew that ZLive was capable of hosting some of its existing social games. Now that Zynga is sharing how far along zCloud has come in the last year, we know that Zynga is planning on hosting all of its games, plus some yet to be released or announced.

In its blog post, Zynga claims that zCloud is able to support more scale, efficiency and power than anything the developer experienced with public clouds through Amazon Web Services (AWS). In mid to late 2011, the developer began launching its games directly within the service instead of starting them off AWS. Mobile game CityVille Hometown was the first title onto zCloud; CastleVille followed some months later, testing the limits of infrastructure with high production values and rapid traffic growth. Zynga CTO of Infrastructure Allan Leinwand tells Inside Social Games that zCloud is already capable of supporting cross platform games for web and mobile — like Words With Friends.

The next step, then, is expanding beyond Zynga’s existing games catalog.

While Zynga certainly plans to launch more of its own IP on its own cloud and eventually on its own platform, we could potentially see Zynga publish other developers’ games on ZLive or some games portal extension thereof. Zynga hasn’t done very much with publishing as yet — beyond hiring Sony’s Rob Dyer to oversee the department and announcing a licensed Slingo game for Facebook as of this morning — but if the developer had an infrastructure capable of doing even more than what Facebook does for games, it’s not hard to imagine that Zynga would court other developers to come launch games on its service. It would go a long way toward decreasing Zynga’s dependence on Facebook.

Zynga brings Slingo to Facebook, edges closer to real money gambling partnerships

Slingo, a popular slots-and-bingo hybrid from the developer of the same name, is coming to Facebook today by way of Zynga in a licensed game called Zynga Slingo.

Slingo may be familiar to web game connoisseurs, given the game’s 15-year history on its own site and portals like Yahoo Games. Players spend balls on individual spins of a number-generating slot machine attached to a bingo card above. Once the numbers appear, the player must select as many of their tiles as correspond to the numbers, hoping to complete rows, columns or specific patterns to score points. Special joker cards and other powerups alter the dynamic of the game, allowing players to select corresponding numbers faster or gain better odds each spin. More advanced players have access to larger cards with more numbers.

Where Slingo becomes a Zynga experience is in the energy mechanic and the social features. The game is organized into five worlds with nine levels in each world. Players must spend different increments of energy to access different levels, with higher difficultly levels costing more. At launch, social features will be limited to friends-only leaderboards, gifting energy or powerups. Zynga tells us, however, that it is testing a multiplayer feature where players can challenge one another to beat their high score on individual levels. Primary monetization comes from the sale of powerups and energy refills.

As to why Zynga and Slingo partnered on this game when Zynga already developed its own games for the Zynga Casino franchise, both companies say the move made sense given Zynga’s experience in social games and Slingo’s experience in i-gaming — internet gambling. Though Zynga hasn’t entered the i-gaming word quite yet, it’s well-positioned to do so with Zynga Poker on Facebook and mobile and potentially with its other casino franchise games. Last month, the developer told AllThingsD it was looking for partners in i-gaming — this month, COO John Schappert told investors on its Q4 earnings call that Zynga saw i-gaming as a “very interesting opportunity.”

The licensing partnership with Slingo moves Zynga that much closer to seizing the opportunity. Slingo already has strong ties to real casinos via gaming machine supplier IGT — which acquired social game developer DoubleDown Interactive earlier this year — and it has a firm grasp on how i-gaming revenue compares to what social games are seeing.

“It’s 10-times plus, how much people will spend on some of the games out there,” Slingo CEO Rich Roberts tells Inside Social Games. “Remember you’re not buying items, you’re at a slot game online. There are numbers on one operator where certain operators are driving seven figures in profit on one game in one operator. When these numbers start coming out, once [i-gaming] becomes legal in the U.S., you’ll see more and more developers seeing this as the next opportunity.”

As to why Slingo went with Zynga, Roberts explains that it was the strongest possible partnership opportunity to make the classic game social. As a company, Slingo has developed along two paths for the past decade and a half: its online presence and its for wager presence in real life bingo games and slot machines at casinos. “For online, it’s our website, our past history with AOL and our future social game with Zynga,” Roberts says. “We look at i-gaming as a mix of both worlds of us — that’s our future, down the road. Today, it’s how we’re going to build our brand overall with our partners — including our new partner, Zynga.”

Update: A Zynga spokesperson says Zynga Slingo will not be a part of the Zynga Casino franchise. This contradicts what Rich Roberts told ISG.

Liveblogging Inside Social Apps: Trends in Social Gaming

We’re at the San Francisco Design center, blogging Inside Network’s third annual Inside Social Apps conference.

The second panel of the day is “Trends in Social Gaming”. Joining moderator AJ Glasser on stage is Loot Drop’s COO and game designer Brenda Garno Brathwaite, Zynga Dallas’ creative director Bill Jackson, Gaia Interactive’s CEO Mike Sego and King.com’s co-founder and chief creative officer Sebastian Knutsson. The following is a paraphrased transcript of the discussion.

AJ: I wanted to talk about the evolution of social games. Are they going to mimic the path of traditional games?

Bill: I come from that sector — for me it’s not a separate path, it’s the same path and one continuum. Atari, Nintendo and PCs all brought in larger audiences. I think the mission in my mind is to make the audience larger and make room for play.

Mike: I think the evolution of social games has been in an interesting path. It’s been very different from the evolution of console games. Games that evolve with better graphics are missing the point, I think the point of social and mobile is to expand the audience and bring in new players. I think it there is room for a wider variety of games. Three developers working out of a garage can open up a new segment on social and mobile and invent a new genre of game.

Brenda: I do see a trend that the social space is actually following the development path of the traditional games industry. The traditional games industry got very “genre-fied” and the social game space is following that. We’re getting a culture of fast-follow where we take things and copy it and there’s a lack of innovation.

AJ:  King.com has been very good at innovating on older games like Snood and Puzzle Bobble and making it into a totally different game. Can you tell us about your development process?

Sebastian: Our focus as has been to stay with our core demographic and make games that are easy to play and get into. Even though people are asking for more advanced graphics, the strength is social. People want to play with their friends.

AJ: What do you see as the future use of friends in social games? Will it just be leader boards?

Sebastian: I think the focus will be on cooperative and collaborative gaming, allowing people to hook up with other players, not just their friends.

Brenda: I think playing with your friends is just a bribery function right now. In the game I’m working on I very deliberately didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make sure that having it there felt like a natural and intrinsic part of gameplay for both casual and hardcore players. That was probably one of the most important features in the design.

AJ: One of the trends that we’ve seen is combat – what impact do you think real-time competitive play will have on social games?

Bill: I think that’s a tool and the game needs to demand that tool to use it well. I think there’s an opportunity in the space for synchronous play. So far we haven’t had a giant hit but I don’t think there’s a reason there couldn’t be. I’m excited to expand on asynchronous play because I think that’s one space where social games have innovated.

Mike: I think Facebook and the web is very successful as an asynchronous platform. It’s a platform where I can update what I did three hours ago and get feedback on it. I think the success of Words With Friends is based off how well it fits with Facebook’s usage habits. That said there’s a lot of people playing games on Facebook and people are interested in playing synchronous combat games. Facebook does compete with other platforms, and when you play a game on Facebook you’re not playing on another a platform. For synchronous play to be a hit, there needs to be a game were you can bring in players that wouldn’t play a real-time combat game and bring them into that experience, even if they’re not the type to play a game for two hours on a console.

AJ: When we talk about branching out the different genres of social games, where do you see the opportunities to go into new territory and bring in new users?

Brenda: I see Facebook as one part of a whole. My game may be on Facebook, iOS and PC, but it needs to work together for the greatest monetization. If the game is fun you’ll get money. If you have to bribe or use tricks you’ll break the game. The most social game I’ve ever played is Minecraft. That game doesn’t have a marketing budget but it’s a wonderfully social game and I’m happy to give that guy money regularly.

Bill: As a game developer I think that fun is something you need to aspire to, but it’s not everything — for example some players have limited time and you need to give players a way to keep up with their friends if they’re limited on time. That means there are other items like accelerators that people will covet, but fun is the core.

Brenda: You can have fun or pay to have fun faster.

Mike: I think what monetizes is what people feel strongly about — creating an emotional experience. Size is also what monetizes. There’s a much wider variety of what monetizes on Facebook now. If you looked at the top three games last year it was CityVille, FarmVille and maybe poker and the other games were following along those lines and trying to make the same kinds of game. Today there’s a much broader variety of games that can all monetize in different ways and monetize thorough different audiences.

AJ: When you’re testing your games, how do you know when you’ve hit that sweet spot of “fun?”

Bill: I follow a combination of design and metrics. When we’re designing a game we start with design and then you start collaborating with players to improve the game. It’s a combination of feedback, the data that backs up that feedback and working from that feedback.

Sebastian: We find the real issue is hitting the sweet spot in the difficulty curve. If it’s too easy or too hard they won’t come back or they’ll get frustrated. Users tend to prefer shorter playtimes so we err on that side.

AJ: Bill — was there anythigng that you changed or fixed in the first 14 days of CastleVille being live?

Bill: There’s definitely issues with difficulty curves. In Castleville we had issues with balance and crafting and getting that right. In this discussion we talked about fun, but these are social games and so it’s not just a conversation, but that it will scale when it gets to be truly social and how players will interact together. How is it that you’re engaged as a single player and how are you engaged as a community? I think people will love a game world and the environment when they’re engaged in a larger community.

Mike: I think that goes back to user feedback and that’s not just user feedback that comes to you but that users share with each other and the meta community that springs up. I think if people both love your game and hate your game it means you tapped into an emotional response.

Brenda: I don’t think we’ve tapped into feeling that users get from games like World of Warcraft where you will feel bad if you don’t log in and do something at 10 pm every night because you’ll be letting your guild down. Social games haven’t done that yet.

AJ: How do you feel about mobile? How do you approach bringing a game to mobile?

Sebastian: We’ve focused on keeping the game the same on each platform. Our games are simple and it fits us very well to create cross platform games.

Bill: I also think it depends on the type of game and what’s right for the platform. I do see mobile as a way to keep in touch with a comfort zone of what you’ve established. Our express apps have been very popular.

AJ: My last question is a difficult one that Brenda has agreed to take. What about what could harm the social game space? What about cloning?

Brenda: Cloning is a disgusting subject. The technology isn’t a challenge. You can license an engine and outsource the art and develop a game in two months. What matters now is the idea. Inside of Loot Drop we had a meeting with a publisher and a game designer discussed an idea for a game and the publisher came back next week and said they’d be making the game and they might need us to consult on it. That game had been cloned before a line of code had even been written. I’d never heard the term fast-follow until I came into the social games industry. We as game developers need to be phenomenally protective of our games — in the traditional space, a great game would come out and you would say “how can we make a game that good and improve on that?” What we have now is “how can we change the narrative and make the same game?” That’s like putting out the Peaches of Wrath rather than the Grapes of Wrath. In any other medium it would be considered a tremendous fail and I think its because the space is about monetization and not about creativity. I think that could hurt innovation because developers may not come into this space and may choose to stay in console development. I think its very unfortunate. As we see bigger companies come in, they’ll have money to fight the clone wars that smaller developers may not be able to do.

 

Exclusive: Nexon Brings KartRider to Facebook

After a tentative start on Facebook that includes MapleStory Adventures, Zombie Misfits and Wonder Cruise, Korean free-to-play giant Nexon is ready to launch its popular KartRider franchise on the platform.

KartRider is an online multiplayer racing game that has racked up over 270 million registered since its 2004 launch. Players control a single kart and can race against human and computer controlled opponents in various gameplay modes. Nexon Mobile released an iOS version last year that topped 1 million downloads in a little over a week; the company reports that the game is now at over 6.7 million downloads. The Facebook version, KartRider Dash, is due out in March.

Nexon has taken its time finding footing on Facebook. Aside from launching MapleStory Adventures in 2011, the Korean publisher experimented with different ways to engage with the platform throughout the last year — including investing in developers A Bit Lucky and 6waves Lolapps and co-developing or publishing new IP for the platform. Results have been mixed with MapleStory Adventures performing well while Zombie Misfits struggled to find an audience and Wonder Cruise has yet to really set sail. Speaking to Inside Social Games, Nexon EVP of Social Games Aron Koh acknowledges the learning curve — but says “we can do better than what we’re doing now.”

“We’re still learning how to approach players on Facebook and [other] platforms besides our core PC business,” Koh says. “It’s been challenging. It’s not easy to push out multiple updates to get the metrics up. But we’re very conservative when it comes to acquiring new users. We spent very, very little on [MapleStory Adventures] and we could see that the IP was popular and that was the main factor in acquiring users. It was a very good experience and we’re very happy with how our original IP translated to the platform.”

Aside from the appeal of the franchise itself, KartRider has a shot at defining the racing genre on Facebook. Leading car game Car Town only has a nominal, asynchronous racing game; Title Town Racing never made it big; and BMW xDrive Challenge is an advergame first and a racing game second. At one point, it looked like EA might bring its Need for Speed franchise back to Facebook (in fact, it still might); but so far, there isn’t one racing game that’s made it big on the platform. Meanwhile, over on Google+, mobile developer Gameloft proves that a rich 3D racing experience is not only possible on a social network, it’s probably a good way for a developer to distinguish itself from all the citybuilders and the puzzle games.

“One thing I’m very interested to see from our own [studio] and from other companies is more synchronous games on Facebook,” Koh says. “There a couple of synchronous games out there, but it’s very limited. As a company we’re interested to see more players jumping into that arena.”

Nexon raised $1.17 billion in its initial public offering late last year.

Social games getting bolder with closed, open beta tests on Facebook

Closed beta tests and “sneak preview” open beta tests are getting more popular with social game developers on Facebook. Tetris Online Inc. and EA PopCap provide two recent examples with Tetris Stars and Solitaire Blitz.

Betas on Facebook are tricky. Open betas run the risk of “losing” users that have no patience for unfinished games; several developers have told us releasing a game on Facebook before it’s optimized is a death sentence compared to other social networks where you can get away with less-than-perfect. Closed or limited betas, meanwhile, usually can’t be monetized and sometimes aggravate potential users when friends in the beta bombard them with invites that won’t actually get them into the game. Past examples include MetroGames’ Auto Hustle (launched before it was ready), EA2D’s Dragon Age Legends (unstable invite-only beta lost player data) and EA PopCap’s Pig Up! (which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere).

Despite the risks, betas are crucial for social games because they provide early feedback on core gameplay, presentation, monetization and retention. It’s easier for developers to make changes or roll out fixes with a smaller user pool than it is to redo an entire early user experience while serving 100,000+ daily active users. Even without monetization implemented, a beta can buy the developer the time it needs to take a game from mediocre to successful.

Take, for example, Tetris Stars. Developed by Blue Planet Software and published by Tetris Online, the game entered an open “Sneak Peek” beta sometime in winter 2011.The game updates the classic puzzle game with a “digging” feature where each line of the puzzle cleared removes a layer of dirt or rock. The goal is to unearth as many buried Stars and power-up items in 60 seconds with Stars freed and special moves earning the player points. The entire game is controlled via the mouse rather than keyboard buttons.

“We’re doing a fairly quiet release at first so we can work with [Blue Planet Software] to optimize the code and balance the gameplay,” Tetris Online VP of Marketing Casey Pelkey tells us. “We’re also anxious to see how users respond to the mouse controls.”

From what we can see, the mouse controls haven’t changed much in the past two months. We have seen, however, the number and price of power-ups have been adjusted, the flow of gameplay tweaked and bonus time has been added for each Star freed. The overall impact is the game went from being too easy in December to too hard in January. As of now, the game is somewhere between the two points and Tetris Online still isn’t ready to officially launch the game.

EA PopCap’s Solitaire Blitz, meanwhile, is off to a stronger start than Pig Up! Neither title has ever been officially announced by the developer — PopCap only owned up to Pig Up! after it was reviewed by Games.com — although Solitaire Blitz at least has a cross-promotion bar with other EA games on Facebook. It seems like the developer learned from the lack of response to Pig Up!’s bare bones beta, however, as Solitaire Blitz had monetization and viral sharing features up and running when the game entered open beta late last month. We actually found the game entirely through invites.

Solitaire Blitz is a variation on solitaire where players are racing the clock to clear as many columns of cards as possible to uncover treasures hidden underneath each column. An EA PopCap spokesperson declined to comment on the game, but it seems as though gameplay tweaks are still being made.

Facebook brings back games discovery module

Some users are once again seeing the “Discover New Games” module in the right sidebar of Facebook.

The Discover New Games module highlights games a user’s friend is playing or that are otherwise popular. This time around it includes a larger game thumbnail instead of their friends’ profile pictures as we saw in March 2011. The module still includes the prominent “Play Now” call to action.

This is an additional way the social network is trying to please game developers and help them gain users after a period in 2010 when they cut off several viral channels. In a developer blog post on Monday, Facebook announced a few new ways it is promoting games on the platform, including a games-only activity feed and aggregate News Feed stories.

Although we’ve seen the company recently identifying games by genre to encourage users to click over to them, it has not done so in the latest version of the Discover New Games module.

This story originally appeared on our sister site, Inside Facebook.

Marvel Avengers Alliance marries turn-based combat to rich comic book IP

Disney Playdom’s Marvel Avengers Alliance is a turn-based combat game heavily influenced by classic role-playing games.

Playdom acquired the rights to develop the game from Marvel after Marvel was bought by Disney in 2009 but before Disney acquired Playdom in 2010. When the game finally debuts on Facebook in North America, Marvel Avengers Alliance will have been in development for nearly 17 months all told.

All that time has been well-spent according to Michael Rubinelli, Disney Playdom’s VP of studio operations. Not only did the development team at Playdom-acquired Offbeat Creations have plenty of time to collaborate with Marvel on perfecting the IP, but the design of the gameplay deepened over time to reflect a higher degree of polish and layered complexity that Rubinelli deems “future-proof” for social game platforms.

“We are absolutely opposed to cloning,” Rubinelli tells us. “It’s one thing to be influenced by something — but this [game] is very specific to Marvel and it stands on its own.” He believes that because of the depth and because of the Marvel brand, no developer would stand a chance at actually being able to clone the Marvel Avenger Alliance experience.

Rubinelli and Offbeat Creations COO and co-founder Robert Reichner walked us through a hands-off demo of the early and mid-game experience. Players take the role of a S.H.I.E.L.D. trainee in the Marvel universe — an extra-government agency tasked with protecting Earth against terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats. A force from space called Pulse unleashes a chemical called Iso-8 in New York City. As Marvel’s supervillains race to collect it, the player teams up with Marvel superheroes to stop them.

Core gameplay is combat. The player forms a team with their own customizable character and up to two Marvel heroes, each with their own individual stats that can be improved by training, with consumable items during combat, or with Iso-8 upgrades the player earns through gameplay. The player’s team appears on screen against up to three enemy combatants with turn order determined by individual character statistics. Like the classic RPG gameplay made famous by Final Fantasy, players have a range of options to use during a character’s turn — like attack, use item, summon additional hero or a special attack. Some attacks are unlocked only as the player levels up or as that individual superhero levels up. Superheroes each have 12 levels.

Fights themselves are governed by health for each character and by overall stamina that is used by each individual combat action. Players can use health or stamina packs on themselves or on superhero characters. The player can also choose to skip a turn in order to recover lost stamina. If a player’s character is knocked out during a fight, the player can still control the remaining superheroes; but they can no longer use health and stamina packs or any special items that would increase or decrease character stats.

Outside of combat, there is a deeper level of strategy involved in forming player teams and training characters. As players progress through the main story of the game, new heroes become available for the player’s team. Heroes are divided into one of five character classes — Blaster, Bruiser, Scrapper, Tactician and Infiltrator — that have a rock-paper-scissors balance of strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the combinations of those classes, players can also tweak their teams through weapon and armor equipment items available in the store or as quest rewards. With the added feature of a “distress call” summon that can bring a Facebook friend’s superhero into combat for a single attack, the customization options for forming the “perfect” team are pretty complex. Leaderboards track players’ high scores as well as which team combinations they prefer to use.

Overall gameplay is governed by various types of currencies. Silver is the soft currency earned in combat or through timed “remote ops” missions that the player can spend on items in the store. S.H.I.E.L.D. Points are a social currency gained by visiting friends and can be spent on unlocking new customization and upgrade options for characters, weapons and armor. Challenge Points are a regenerating currency that is spent only on asynchronous player versus player matches where player teams fight one another. An energy mechanic is applied to each fight encounter in the story mode. The remote ops missions are limited by a staffing mechanic where a player has to recruit friends in order to send heroes out on missions to other cities.

With so much content and so much history behind it, Marvel Avengers Alliance runs the risk of overwhelming new players. Rubinelli and Reichner both feel that the game hits that fine balance between too much and too little exposition on the story side — meaning both Marvel fans and newcomers can easily follow what’s going on. The developer went with modern visualizations of Marvel characters, based in part on the recent run of movies like Thor, Captain America and the upcoming Avengers film, so that characters should be easily recognizable. As for adapting to the combat style, individual matches can be completed in game sessions of no more than 10 minutes, which won’t intimidate the average social game player. We observer that many core video game players will also naturally take to the combat, as it should be familiar from classic Japanese RPGs.

At launch, the game will have 28 hero characters and just over 100 Marvel characters total (counting villains). The opportunities for expansion through characters are wide; especially as certain characters have premium missions that the player can purchase to gain a bit of extra story around their favorites. A partial lineup provided by Disney Playdom includes:

  • Human Torch
  • The Invisible Woman
  • Mr. Fantastic
  • The Thing
  • Colossus
  • Cyclops
  • Kitty Pryde
  • Nightcrawler
  • Phoenix
  • Storm

We’ll have a review of the game once it enters open beta in the coming weeks. Marvel Avengers Alliance is still on track to launch on Facebook in Q1 2012. Rubinelli could not confirm a Google+ launch, but Disney Playdom already had a publishing relationship with that platform, so it’s not unreasonable to think the game could find its way there.

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