Play-Doh Create ABCs brings the Alphabetic Principle to children on iOS

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One of the most widely recognizable names in children’s toys has partnered with PlayDate Digital for an educational reading app on iPhone and iPad. Hasbro’s Play-Doh Create ABCs is the first educational app created in the Play-Doh brand’s 55-year history, and it was developed in-part with the input of educational expert Dr. Michael Cohen.

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Guest post: Vostu’s insights on retention patterns in social vs. casual games

[Editor's Note: The following article comes from Vostu co-founder and Chief Scientist Mario Schlosser and Chief Researcher Neil Molino. It compares retention patterns between Vostu's city-building sim, MegaCity, and its recently-released real time soccer sim, Gol Mania.]

In Vostu’s experience, what makes a successful traditional social game (defined here as games with common social features like quests and gifting) is building a highly dedicated and engaged long-term userbase that plays up into very high levels in the game. Game play in high levels becomes complex and extremely social. (High-level users exchange a lot more gifts than low-level ones, for example.) These games lose a lot of users early on, but those who stay (at least in a good game) are there for long periods of time and are highly engaged with the game. And, hopefully, they’re paying users.

In contrast, casual games (defined here as games that are social but rely less heavily on traditional social features like quests and gifting) have a tougher time engaging a long-term audience. Gameplay in high levels tends to be the same straightforward, simple activity that it was in lower levels. That means it is harder to continuously engage users in casual games when they reach high levels. This game type does have its advantages, however, as it is easier for users to re-engage with a casual game after a lapse.

From our perspective, social games are soap operas while casual games are sitcoms. The retention characteristics for a traditional social game like MegaCity, our city-building simulation, are very different than those we see in a casual game like Gol Mania, our real-time soccer game. But some of these differences clearly point to opportunities for casual games to learn from social games and vice versa.

We’ll quantify a number of key differences between MegaCity and Gol Mania below. First, at a very basic level, we see the amount of minutes that users play per day shows a divergence between the two games. When we drill into this and break down the userbase of the two games by level, we see that this divergence really stems from the fact that (a) social games have a higher portion of high-level dedicated users and (b) these high-level dedicated users actually play longer each day than their analogous users in casual games. The chart below shows the percentage of users who play x minutes or less per day. “Social game” stands for Vostu’s MegaCity, and “Casual game” is Vostu’s Gol Mania. For example, in Gol Mania, 80 percent of users play 30 minutes or less per day, while in MegaCity, just 60 percent play 30 minutes or less per day.

In the graph below, we see that low-level users show very similar time played per day for both games. Note that it normally doesn’t make sense to compare levels across games, as level 10 in a poker game is bound to be different than level 10 in a cafe game. In our case, however, we can calculate our games’ level curves in a way that an average user levels up every 1-1.5 days regardless of which type of game they are playing. This is interesting: in a user’s early days, casual vs. social games don’t differ.

Mid-level users start to show differences in the duration of play per day:

This difference becomes even more extreme as we progress to very high levels. Hard-core users in MegaCity are highly engaged. A full 50 percent plays more than 30 minutes per day. That’s not the case for long-standing fans of Gol Mania, which are less engaged.

As we can see, the main difference between the two games in minutes played per day is that MegaCity enjoys a larger portion of high-level users and that these users play more minutes per day than those we find in Gol Mania.

Similarly, we see that as a whole, the games show a different distribution of their users’ “login intensity.” We define this term as the fraction of distinct days since registration that the user actually played the game. For example, if you played eight out of 10 days since you joined, your login intensity would be 80 percent.

The left skew for MegaCity is apparent. As a whole, its userbase logs in more frequently; in fact, nearly one in five MegaCity users has logged in more than 80 percent of the days since registering. We can attribute some of this behavior to the fact that MegaCity does a better job pulling users into higher levels. We can also say, however, that the game’s age plays a significant role, as MegaCity is old enough to have accumulated a lot of high level users whereas Gol Mania is comparatively young.

So we’ll look at login intensity by level below, across both games:

In terms of login intensity, casual and social games actually turn out to be pretty similar once you normalize correctly for game age, etc. While active users log into both games at about the same rate, they play casual games less intensely once they’re logged in, however. This behavior is very clearly a function of the fact that casual games are less social than social games.

The chart below illustrates the point. It shows the percentage of game sessions that started with the user entering the game through a “social” channel, like clicking on a news feed story or accepting a gift.

There are a number of powerful observations in this chart. First, casual games and social games work very similarly when it comes to viral acquisition. In early levels, users are about equally likely to enter the game because of some viral channel like a canvas app ticker story.

But social games exhibit a higher virality via in-game activity. At higher levels, users in a social game are a lot more likely to get back into the game because of some viral activity like an in-game gift request. This is because viral activities like exchanging gifts to build stuff are the bread-and-butter of the high level user experience. That type of gameplay also explains some of the differences we’ve seen in previous charts: viral mechanics like gifting lead to more intense engagement for higher levels in social games.

In contrast, there is no high-level gameplay loop at work in casual games. We’ve recently begun experimenting with this by adding more personalization to Gol Mania. For example, we introduced in-game “private rooms,” where users can directly challenge their friends to an immediate real-time match. In a period of a few days, roughly 7 percent of active users invite their friends to Gol Mania, whereas 17 percent of those users who enter a private room invite their friends to a match. So, there are ways of making casual game more social — and therefore more viral.

To us, this represents an opportunity for casual games. An important share of a social game’s everyday traffic is users who had left the game “waking up” from a lapse in daily play and returning. If casual games could recreate the viral “wake up call,” they could potentially enjoy an even larger audience of high level users.

That may be easier said than done, however, as social games naturally encourage users to return — or suffer consequences like withering crops or expired storyline quests. Here, casual games gain the upper hand as users suffer fewer consequences for a lapse in gameplay, meaning there’s less of a barrier to returning. The chart below is a bit complicated: it shows the probability that a user returns to the game after being gone, depending on how long the user has been away from the game. While it is true that the longer a user is away, the less likely they are to return (the lines both slope down), an extended break does not decrease the probability as rapidly in a casual game as in a social game:

In casual games, crops don’t wither, quests don’t expire and the gameplay is more or less the same as it was when the user left. No matter how long a user is gone, it’s just as easy to return to the game as it was when the user was playing daily. The effect is powerful. Casual games get a lot more out of waking-up users than social games.

Moreover, once a user wakes up in a casual game, they are more likely to play more frequently. We believe this is because a casual game feels new and more self-contained each time a user plays. The graph below shows the login intensity for users who wake up and return to a game:

Social and casual games need to learn from each other. Social games need to make it less burdensome for users to return: ease users back into the game instead of showing them the one hundred feature launches they missed while they were gone. Casual games need long-term investment opportunities for the user.

For Vostu, it makes sense to keep a portfolio of both social and casual games. Our casual games have a higher chance of getting users back into our portfolio and also bridge the gap between big social game launches. We think of them as the sitcoms you flip to during the commercial breaks in your prime time soap opera. Having the soap opera, though, is necessary to really build a longer-term, engaged and paying audience.

Watch Sessions from Facebook’s First Ever Games Hack

Facebook’s first social games hack, aimed at educating developers on Open Graph integrations, ended with prizes for GameHouse, Tien Len, GameFace.me, and Attributor.

GameHouse — already established on Facebook with the Uno franchise and a deep bench of casual game classics — built a bubble shooter with a competitive multiplayer mode that publishes results via Open Graph. Thus far, we’ve only really seen an integration like this in Zynga’s Words With Friends for Facebook, where individual moves and scores are published with screen captures of the game board. Vietnamese card game developer Tien Len added Achievements to their HTML5-based game at the event — unfortunately, we were unable to view the results for ourselves as the game is compatible only with Google Chrome browsers. GameFace.me added to their game a customization option that use friends’ profile pictures and also created game stories based on that activity to share in News Feed. Attributor, which isn’t actually a social game developer, added an Open Graph feature that publishes stories whenever users add books to their virtual bookshelf.

The lecture portion of the evening contained segments on best practices for building Social Games on Facebook, Scores and Achievements, Open Graph, Game scenarios for Open Graph and the Facebook mobile platform. Some of the information was probably already known to the audience, which was made up of devs from experienced Facebook game developers like 6waves Lolapps, Crowdstar, EA and EA PopCap, GSN, iWin, Kixeye, Nexon, Disney Playdom, Ubisoft, wooga, and Zynga. A few details may lead to new social game features, however, as these developers experiment with exposing different player activity types via Open Graph — such as how much users spend on specific items, which we could imagine seeing in a game that uses a player-driven auction house for virtual items.

Transparency is an issue game platform developers struggle with in closed systems like Facebook, Steam, or any of the major video game consoles. In cases where a platform developer hasn’t made it easy for developers to understand and integrate key platform features (e.g. Nintendo when the Wii console was first released), there tend to be a lot of substandard games flooding the platform in its early days. Over time, as developers become more familiar with the features, the games improve — by then, however, the target audience may have lost interest both in the games and in the platform itself.

Facebook initially encountered this problem by at first allowing game developers a great deal of freedom, and then cutting back on that when the nature of social game viral mechanics began to damage the broader Facebook user experience. This year, Facebook has taken great pains to restore some of the virality and open up lines of communication between itself and game developers through the Facebook+Games Page, Operation Developer Love, and events like the game hack. By the middle of 2012, it’ll be easier to see if these efforts have paid off in the form of a vibrant and well-informed game developer community.

Social Gaming Roundup: Conservation, Facebook Ports, HTML5 Publishing, & More

MyConservationParkHelp Endangered Species Through Facebook — Social games startup Good World Games is looking to give players a means to help endangered species through its first Facebook game, MyConservationPark. Fifteen percent of virtual goods purchased in-game will be donated to programs such as the Din Fossey Gorilla Fund, Sea Shepherd, Wildaid, and Orangutan Outreach.

Fruit Ninja Coming to Facebook — Mobile developer Halfbrick is expanding its popular Fruit Ninja iOS game to the Facebook social network. The company tweeted that” Fruit Ninja Frenzy” would be coming to the platform “soon,” and that users can earn a chance at testing the Alpha stages by filling out a short survey. Halfbrick also previously announced the game’s coming to Kinect, Microsoft’s full-body motion controller for its Xbox 360 console.

Square Enix Sunsets Social Games on Mobage — According to a post from Siliconera, Square Enix isn’t doing too well on Japanese social network Mobage with its game, Samurai Eleven. Both it and another Square Enix title, Snowboard Life, will shut down on June 30th.

Infinity BladeInfinity Blade X to Come to Mobage — Japanese company DeNA announced that the popular iOS title Infinity Blade will becoming to its Mobage platform. Infinity Blade X will be the first Mobage game run with the Unreal Engine. The game is a collaboration between Epic Games and ChAIR Entertainment. It’s expected to be released this fall.

GameSalad Launches HTML5 Game Publishing — GameSalad, a startup that allows game makers to more easily develop and share mobile and web-based games, has announced the launch of its new HTML5 publishing capability. Users will now be able to games across multiple web browsers, gaining access to an audience of over 1 billion.

Moshi Monsters Creator Valued at $200 Million — According to TechCrunch, Spark Ventures sold half of its stake in Mind Candy for $4.9 million, marking at 15x return. The valuation of the company is now noted at $200 million. Mind Candy is the creator of kids’ virtual world Moshi Monsters.

Games at GoogleGoogle Moves Into Social Gaming — Engadget spotted a new job posting from Google that fuels speculation tech giant is getting into social gaming. Unfortunately, no further details beyond their search for a product manager, for a property dubbed “Games at Google,” is known.

[image via Engadget]

Social Point Raises €2.4 million — In funding news, Barcelona-based social games company Social Point has raised €2.4 million ($3.4 million) in an investment round with Nauta Capital. Its games have been getting a lift in monthly active and daily active users over the past week or so.

What Zynga Will Look Like as a Public CompanyAllThingsD gets some accountants to muse on what we might learn about Zynga’s under-the-hood area when the social game developer goes public. Based on what Zynga shares, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other governing bodies could develop formalized methods for accounting the sale of virtual goods in social and mobile games.

[Announcement] Bigpoint Hits New Milestone — Germany-based online games company Bigpoint has announced new milestones this week. The company states that it now hosts 200 million registered users, integrates over 180 payment solutions, hosts over 1000 media partners, and processes over 1 billion transactions a day.

Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? On Facebook, Sort Of

Carmen SandiegoThe Learning Company and Blue Fang Games have released another classic PC title to Facebook with the recent launch of Carmen Sandiego. Following on the heels of The Oregon Trail this new title attempts to trigger the nostalgia of the past gaming generation while attempting to induct a whole new crowd of internet sleuths to ask the question: Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

A game of piecing together clues in order to locate and apprehend criminals of Carmen’s V.I.L.E. organization, it tacks on a handful of social elements on Facebook but lacks the difficulty and style that made the original version memorable.

Carmen Sandiego, if you’ll recall, is a former member of the police agency ACME, and the most notorious criminal on the planet. Traveling around the globe, she and her criminal underlings steal everything from the bizarre (all the pedestrian signs in a city) to the grandiose (e.g. a monument).

TravelingThe idea behind the game is that players need to travel around various global cities in search of clues that will either (a) narrow down their list of suspects in order to issue a warrant, or (b) point the player to where the criminal may be hiding. For each area of a city investigated, a bit of time is consumed, and for each time the user must hop a plane to another city, even more is eaten up. The goal is to find the correct city the criminal is hiding it, narrow down the suspects enough to issue a warrant, and do so within an allotted amount of time.

As a social game, it tends to have a finite amount of play in any one sitting. Players are given a series of missions that change every couple of hours, with the experience reward depending on how difficult the case is. As best we can tell, cases that change every, say, 30 minutes, are easier than those that take several hours.

CluesYet, none of the cases seem very hard. Possibly, “harder” cases will be come about at higher levels, but based on initial impressions of the game, difficulty is likely going to be increased along arbitrary lines of less time to do them. It’s the clues that need to be harder, and for the several cases we solved, many of them were cringe-inducingly lame. Some examples are his eyes “were on the non-green side of teal” or “her eyes nearly set off my smoke alarm” (when there is an eye color called “smoky”). [Update: We did hear from the developers and there are, in fact, significantly harder clues that take on a more riddle-like feel such as "When he switched the lights off, I thought he was trying to hide his face. Turned out he was trying to offset his morning toast." Unfortunately, it may take some time until players are presented with these challenging, and much more fun, cases.]

Even clues in terms of figuring out where the suspect is headed are easy. Each one is worded in such a way that one merely has to type it into Google and the city and country are probably within the first two results. Heck, players don’t even have to type: They can copy and paste! In a sense, this is a problem caused by the Internet age — something that was obviously not an issue in the 1980s. Even so, many of the original clues were at least a bit more vague, describing a landscape or a “striped flag of yellow and blue,” or some such. At least then, should players “cheat” with an almanac, some research — and by extension, they had to learn.

To further trivialize the game, players don’t even have to really worry about making mistakes. If they need an extra clue, they can purchase it with a marginal amount of virtual currency. If they are low on time, they can take a “fast” plane that consumes zero travel time. They can even post to their wall, asking friends for help. In truth, that’s not a bad idea, but because of the Google element, it’s pointless.

SuspectsAs for other social elements, these too feel a bit of a stretch. Other than some simple leaderboards (based on level), the only noticeable mechanics appear to be cases that require a set number of friends to unlock, and an apparent ability to gift cases. That said, we did learn about a much more interesting feature, and that is that friends will occassionally appear as criminals in the game, ripe for apprehension.

Yet another aspect of the game that feels lacking is that none of the criminals the player apprehends (when apprehended or when a warrant is being issued) ever looks unique. In fact, most of the characters in general don’t feel all that unique. No matter where the player goes, there is always the same handful of witnesses and two ACME characters (the chief and a robot named SAM). Yet if players visit the robot SAM, he has a database of all the criminals and there is actually unique artwork for them.

In the end, Carmen Sandiego on Facebook has all the parts that made the original game good, but but not as much style. Everything is just far to easy and obvious clue-wise, and the social mechanics feel more forced than anything. Additionally, if the Internet age didn’t trivialize the game enough, the ability to circumvent core game play mechanics (e.g. flight time) with virtual currency makes any remaining challenge moot. On a final note, the social translation of the game has altered the whole point of Carmen Sandiego! People played this game in the hopes that their next case would be to find Carmen herself, not to try and be the top of a leaderboard! Where is in the world Carmen Sandiego? Probably crying in a corner somewhere after this.

Social Gaming Roundup: Zynga, RockYou, Vostu, & More

ZyngaZynga Expands in Ireland — Zynga appears to be expanding again, as its job boards are hosting a whole new slew of European positions in their newest office in Dublin, Ireland. Thus far, the jobs are for centered around multilingual customer service and recruitment.

RockYou Acquires TirNua — Following up on an earlier announcement that it plans to be more aggressive about game development, RockYou has acquired TirNua, the maker of a 3D social game engine, according to VentureBeat. The acquisition price wasn’t disclosed.

VostuVostu Receives $30 Million in Investments — Brazilian social startup Vostu has received $30 million in investments from Accel Partners and Tiger Global Management. The company has a popular farming game, Mini Fazenda, on the social network Orkut, according to The Wall Street Journal.

EA’s Future Plans — Electronic Arts‘ stock price isn’t doing too hot, having dropped 73 percent over the past three years. In response to this problem, EA is looking to cut retail titles by 40 percent and invest more heavily into mobile and free-to-play online games, according to Reuters. Its revenue from digital content already rose 30 percent, to $570 million, last year, and it is expected to grow another 30 percent this year.

Bloomberg further notes that the game publisher has considered a large number of potential acquisitions (about 25), but most have been deemed too expensive. CEO John Riccitello said that he considered a reasonable price for many to be 5 to 10 percent of the asking price.

TRON LegacyNightclub City Promotes Tron Legacy — As a promotion for the upcoming Disney movie TRON: Legacy (and its console games), Nightclub City has added a new TRON: Legacy location for user nightclubs as well as TRON decor and avatar items. Additionally, the movie’s soundtrack is slated to be added to the game which includes music from Daft Punk.

Playtomic Adds HTML5 Support — Playtomic, an analytics service for casual and social games, has announced full support for games developed using HTML5 or JavaScript; along with the previously existing Flash support.

PlaySpan Reports on Black Friday Sales — Monetization solutions provider PlaySpan, has reported on some of its Black Friday sales this week. The most notable were retail game cards — specifically the Ultimate Game Card — which increased 48 percent. Additionally, the PlaySpan Marketplace reported a sales increase of 56 percent on Black Friday, as well as a 19 percent increase over the course of the weekend.

BokuBOKU Partners with FAMM & Mobilians — Online mobile payments company BOKU has announced a direct carrier billing deal with two new partners this week. The first is the French Association of Mobile Multimedia (AFMM) in France, which includes the carriers of Bouygues Telecom, Orange France, and SFR. The second is Mobilians in Korea, which encompasses all Korean carriers. Besides direct billing connection the deals include advanced billing services such as refunds, pre and post-authorization, and higher spending limits.

Activision Finds Little Value in Mobile & Facebook Markets — While many core game developers are turning to mobile devices and Facebook for new revenue streams, a post from Finger Gaming notes one company that is not. Activision-Blizzard states that “[they] don’t view the App Store as a really big opportunity for dedicated games.”

Orkut BadgesOrkut Adds Badges — More news involving the Google-owned Orkut. The social network has recently added earnable badges to the mix that will appear on one’s profile page once acquired.

Social Gaming Experiments in Journalism — An interesting post from the Nieman Journalism Lab outlines a social Alternate Reality game experiment called “Picture the Impossible” from news site Democrat and Chronicle. The game revealed that while only 600 of the initial people (2,500) signed up were engaged, they spent 62 minutes on-site per unique user, compared to 30-35 minutes on the D&C’s core sites. Editor Traci Bauer concludes that the news industry should harness gaming strategies in some fashion.

Sony Online Entertainment Sets Wildlife Refuge Free on Facebook

Wildlife RefugeWe’ve seen our share of animal husbandry and virtual space oriented applications, but Sony Online Entertainment is launching a new version, Wildlife Refuge, that shows the genre still has life. The new game is noble, too, seeking to educate people about endangered animals of the African savanna, and contribute certain proceeds to charities.

Reminiscent of games like Digital Chocolate’s Safari Kingdom, Wildlife Refuge takes a very new approach to virtual spaces by combining the other game concepts from titles like Treasure Isle. Long story short, players are researchers on the African savanna and it’s their job to set up a refuge for the endangered wildlife of the region. Given a virtual space, players decorate and tend to the creatures that live within the digital refuge, caring for them until they can breed and their offspring be set free. Each of these actions within the refuge consumes the typical energy, and while players might be groaning “not again” at this point, this is where the game changes.

ExplorationWhile many animals can be purchased from the game’s store, this is hardly the fun part. Since this is Africa, players have to go exploring out on safari. Driving their off-road jeep around the savanna, players use a treasure hunting mechanic to inspect and search trees, rocks, dens, and so on. Consuming “fuel,” each search will yield coin and experience, and the occasional collectible item. From snakes to butterflies to poacher equipment, these act like standard treasure hunting collections and can be turned in for rewards when a set is complete.

As players search for these “basic” things, they will also occasionally uncover animal tracks. By following these, players could discover rare and exotic African species such as a black rhino or baboon. Depending on level, these creatures, which are “injured,” can be taken back to the refuge and nursed back to health. These exotic creatures cannot be purchased, they must be found.

This is the most gratifying element to Wildlife Refuge, because it allows players to get something truly unique for their virtual space, and something their friends may very well not have. It’s sort of like collecting cards when you were a kid; it was always gratifying to find that one rare card in a pack.

EcosystemOnce a rare species has been successfully caught, there’s a little bit of prep work to be done in the refuge. Animals cannot merely be placed. Exotic creatures require a certain level of “Ecosystem” to be used and in order to raise this, the player must decorate the space with ecological décor such as plants, trees, rocks, etc. For every animal placed, a certain amount of Ecosystem is removed, so players must constantly add to it in order to support more animals.

In addition to plant life, players can also construct special buildings that will provide some Ecosystem, along with something extra. For example, a water tower will produce coins on a daily basis, while a “camera trap” (a tree stump with a camera attached to it in order to take photos of animals) will produce items for one of the “treasure” collections noted earlier. However, each building must be constructed in stages, requiring more than one energy to complete and requiring the player to purchase, with in-game currency, building supplies to even start.

There are also farming elements. Players can plant crops to sustain their refuge; every couple of hours, these must be watered and will yield rewards once grown and harvested. Other plants, which yield Ecosystem, also must be watered and reward coins, but are not consumed in the process.

BuildingsAs for social elements, the biggest aspect of the game is visiting one another’s virtual spaces, and helping them out from time to time. Namely, this consists of getting rid of poachers and a nasty plant called the thorny acacia (which also appear while exploring the savanna). Players can help each other by gifting animals, building supplies, and a few plants. The developers claim that players can also share animal offspring with one another, but we have yet to unlock this feature. Unfortunately, while the rest of the game plays quite well, the social elements feel a bit underwhelming.

Breeding is another highlighted feature that unlocks slowly. Rescued animals have a set number of stages in which they can be cared for. Once the right stage is reached, fulfilled via a click every couple of hours to a day, breeding can start if a male and female are present.

One feature that’s front and center from the beginning is a very nice almanac of all the creatures in the game, both male and female. Part of the game’s quest, as it were, is to educate people about endangered species, it not only displays the rarity and level requirement of the species, but also its habitat, its real world threats, and its level of vulnerability in reality.

CharityTo further educate people, SOE has also incorporated two charities into its game. The first is a Cheetah Statue that provides extra fuel for exploring the African plains, but more importantly, its proceeds go directly to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). There are also frighteningly cute Baby Cheetah animals that not only provide significant experience and extra energy, but send proceeds to Cheetah Kids, a program dedicated to educating kids about wildlife conservation and motivating them to do their part.

Overall, there is really nothing to complain about with Wildlife Refuge. Not only does the game contribute to a good cause, it also takes the repetitive mechanics of past games and gives them a far more gratifying purpose. Everything does not revolve around just the aesthetic here, but rather the prospect of finding and collecting these animals, then utilizing animal husbandry, décor, and farming to support that. Furthermore, the game is beautifully made and very clean. Suffice to say, even if one is tired of old concepts, Wildlife Refuge is a title that makes them feel new again.

Social Gaming Roundup: RockYou Layoffs, Offer Walls, Virtual Greats & More

RockYou Restructures, Lays Off Employees — Social game developer and advertising network RockYou, which was once considered an equal to Playdom or CrowdStar, has laid off a significant number of employees, according to TechCrunch. The company is moving to focus only on social games, like its recent release Toy Land.

Deal United Introduces Offer Wall Converter — At the Virtual Goods Summit, Deal United announced the launch of its Offer Wall Converter, which will allow easy integration of Deal United’s pay.by.shopping platform alongside existing offer providers. Additionally, the company is offering a $50,000 sign up bonus for the first 10 online games to use the Offer Wall Converter.

iJet

i-Jet Media to Raise $20 Million — Russian social games publisher, i-Jet Media is seeking to raise $20 million in funding at a $100 million valuation, according to Vedomosti. I-Jet says that the funding will be used to further expand the company and enter new markets.

Virtual Greats Continues to Grow — Earlier this week, we noted the growth of virtual goods with Virtual Greats’ integration of branded goods within PageFad’s sports games. The company just announced another partnership, this time with Mentez, to bring branded Paris Hilton virtual goods to the Latin social network, Orkut.

MMMApp Genius to Reward Players for Losing Online — App Genius has announced the launch of their new title on Facebook, My Mad Millions, where users try to spend $300 million virtual dollars. As a reward, the top 20 percent of active players (chosen twice a month) will be rewarded with 50 percent of the game’s revenue.

Gossip & Ultima From EA — There’s been a huge among of gossip and ranting out of Electronic Arts recently about its problems producing successful MMOGs. Among the rants, the anonymous “EA Louse” alleged that the classic Ultima franchise is coming to Facebook as a pet project of an EA exec.

BonfireBonfire Studios May Have Cost $6.3 Million — A form D SEC filing submitted by Zynga notes that the company paid at least $6.3 million for Bonfire Studios; the developer acquired by the company earlier this month.

Zynga Expands Further — In other Zynga news, VentureBeat noted a list of new job postings from the company, including positions at what appears to be a new Seattle office.

Save Energy With Social Games — After a round of angel funding, Formative Labs has said that they’re looking to teach people to save energy, says TechCrunch. While the company has not disclosed details on how, they will be using social gaming.

App HubMicrosoft Unveals Windows Phone 7 & App Hub — Microsoft announced this week the coming of a new series of Windows Phone 7 devices, as well as App Hub, where Windows Phone and Xbox Live game developers can find everything from development tools to support.

Scoreloop Partners with Samsung — Social, mobile gaming platform Scoreloop is partnering with Samsung this week, making the Scoreloop SDK available to developers of the smartphone platform.

KivaKiva’s Biggest Rival — Micro-lending startup Kiva attracted some attention this week by calling Zynga its biggest competitor. Why? Because Zynga games soak up attention and disposable income online, drawing those resources away from non-profits and other social causes. A video from TechCrunch explains Kiva’s plans to compete over the next five years.

Gravity Bear Rants About “Gamification” — Social developer Gravity Bear has written an amusing rant against gameification, the process of adding game elements to non-gaming media. While much of the digital media industry appears excited about the concept as a business model, Gravity Bear says the concept is just a fad.

A Recycled View of Oceanopolis, an Environmentally-Themed Facebook Game

OceanopolisA recent mix up with the developers behind a new Facebook game, Oceanopolis, led to a premature look at the green-oriented title. Now the developer, Greenopolis is telling us that the real Oceanopolis is launched and ready to go, so we decided to give the game another spin.

Still a collection-oriented game post-changes, many of the environmentally-themed title’s more mundane aspects have been remedied, and the mechanics revamped to have some semblance of a point. The game’s different elements now feel much more interconnected, forming a sort of ecosystem of their own (no pun intended). Along with presentation upgrades, the app has come a long way since its closed beta. It’s still not the greatest title in the space, but for a, primarily, non-game developer, it’s an improvement, and thankfully, not another farming, city-building, or business sim clone.

The goal of Oceanopolis remains the same, which is to create the perfect island paradise. The problem is that trash litters the space. The game informs users that a nearby ocean gyre is continually washing the litter upon the shore. Considering the wastefulness of many people, the amount of trash that appears is not terribly surprising.

This trash must be picked up, with blurbs of text portraying the proper way to dispose of it. Since its first version, Oceanopolis has modified the once-monotonous mechanic of picking up trash, in that it doesn’t constantly reappear at an accelerated rate and only has to be clicked on once (as opposed to two or three times in past versions). Once collected, the trash becomes a means of income as it can be turned in to an in-game Greenopolis recycling kiosk — in sets of 10 — for extra coin.

UpcyclingThis income is complimented by buildings that can use smaller quantities of litter to “upcycle” it into things like jewelry.

Of course, these are all merely improved mechanics from older versions. There are some new aspects as well, to help to tie everything together. Previously, we complained about the fact that players could care for decorative items called “Greenspace.” These were things like flowers, trees, and so on, but there was no real point to it. In this new version, three new consumable elements are introduced: Water, Energy, and Food.

Energy is roughly the same as any other Facebook game. It gates how much a player can do in any single sitting. That said, it doesn’t appear to regenerate passively. Instead, users must eat food to recharge it. While new users do start with a nice chunk of food, once it’s used up, new sustenance can only be acquired from specific Greenspace items (e.g. coconuts from palm trees); others are merely decorative.

Water plays a major role here as players must use this consumable to care for these trees, flowers, plants, etc. until food can be collected. In order to gain water, players must purchase certain “Accessories” to place about their island. Unfortunately, the only one that appears to have water-gathering capability for now is a rain barrel item that collects water on a daily basis. In general, food and water require a 24 hour wait to collect, which some users could find frustrating.

DolphinsThe only means to expedite collection of these resources is through friends who can gift water, as well as decorative items, to one another. Aside from this, however, the social elements are still fairly basic, consisting of island visitation and cleaning up one another’s trash. There has also been an addition of sharable achievements.

The educational aspect of Oceanopolis is also improved slightly with random events. We had a dolphin wash up on our beach. These items work the same as interacting with any other object on the island with blurbs of moderately educational text, but sadly, the animals can’t be kept as a reward.

Truthfully, Oceanopolis does still suffer from repetitive game play with its basic, point-and-click, collection mechanics, but at least now there feels to be more of a point to it all. Presentation-wise, it looks more respectable as well. It still has a bit of a flat and static look to it, but everything is at least more vibrant and less clunky feeling. Unfortunately, that clunk still rears its head in placing objects. Sometimes they just don’t want to go where they’re told.

Of course, we haven’t yet mentioned what is, perhaps, the most important aspect of Greenopolis. The developer has a real-world parent company, the giant trash-handling company Waste Management, which has the in-game Greenopolis Recycling Kiosks placed, in reality, at grocery stores and other locations nationwide. These kiosks offer users a unique way to earn virtual currency: recycling real-world trash. It’s not yet clear that such extensive effort is warranted, since the players have yet to arrive, but the real-world tie-in should provide great marketing for the game, provided that it’s as widespread as Greenopolis states.

Despite some complaints, Oceanopolis earns brownie points for trying to teach users a bit more about the environment, and not trying to be another FarmVille, Social City, or Restaurant City. Yes, the game is still rather basic, but the interconnection between elements such as water, food, and energy does open up options for greater depth and even potential strategic choices. In the end, this new Greenopolis app is much improved from earlier versions, but still has more than enough room to learn and grow.

As a final note, the developers have given us word that readers can also redeem the promotional code “InsideSG” for a free 200 coins in-game.

Playdom & Atakama Labs Launch New Terraforming Title on Facebook

TerranovaPlaydom has published its latest Facebook title built by an outside developer: Terranova, by Atakama Labs. Atakama is an advocate of “meaningful games,” and this eco-friendly application — complete with environmental factoids — is about using a virtual space to terraform a desolate desert world.

Terranova doesn’t innovate much within the virtual space genre, but it does have an off-beat premise that offers the user a satisfying visual sense of progression. Nevertheless, this the the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Playdom: technically perfect, but repetitive and dull after a while.

Players play the role of a crashed spaceman (or spacegirl) who must transform a wasteland planet into a thriving, livable, environment. To do this, players plant various forms of flora ranging  from simple cacti to tropical palms. The idea is to slowly build up the planet’s “bio health”, as indicated by a gauge at the top of the screen. Different plants will improve bio health rating by different amounts. Each plant must also be watered periodically, costing both energy and water.

GardenThe challenge is that there is not a lot of fertile ground in the beginning.  As players level up, more and more of the ground becomes green and lush — this is the visually satisfying part.  Decorating a world is nice, but watching the world transform is gratifying.

However, changing the whole world is going to take a while. It is a big world with a lot of space, compared to most virtual space games. At the lowest levels, there are six sizeable areas to explore and decorate. Many areas have special items that can be placed there.

Items are introduced through a quests, which act as a secondary tutorial in the beginning. For example, the first quest is to find a glacier. Once discovered, players can use the virtual currency Terracash to purchase a machine called a water drill.

QuestsLike most games that require players to spend energy to advance, both energy and water generate slowly. However, machines like the water drill will produce water more quickly. Other machines grant similar bonuses such as refilling energy, increasing water capacity, and so on. But every machine the player builds takes away from the bio health of the planet, so a balance must be kept.

Every couple of hours, the user can perform a “Bio Audit.” With this mechanic, a monetary reward is granted based on factors such as bio health, biodiversity (the variety of plants one has), daily bonuses, and how many friends play too.

But money can be earned other ways. Every plant, and some of the decorations, produce collection bonuses. Plants produce a small amount of coin, while items like a beehive produce sellable honey. Like Zynga’s FrontierVille, trash, toxic geysers, and toxic waste from machines fill up the land and must be cleaned up. With the proper equipment, these can be collected and disposed of for coin as well.

The social features of Terranova feel a bit drab. They are basic, standardized elements: leaderboards, visiting friends’ virtual spaces, and gifting.  But the occasional social quests stand out. One involves finding and unlocking a hidden treasure chest and requires friends to send specific gifts (e.g. a key) to help users accomplish it.

Water DrillTerranova does a pretty good job at bringing the world to life with a number of details that add flair to the world, e.g. insects are attracted to certain items. There is always a gratifying sense of progression, but most of the game is unoriginal. The concept is still plant, water, harvest. The bio health stat helps to mitigate these time-worn mechanics, but it just doesn’t make a big difference. It’s still farming game — only in space.

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