PopCap shutting down Bejeweled Blitz on Google+

After developer wooga announced it was pulling its games from Google+, it turns out the social network is also going to lose EA PopCap’s Bejeweled Blitz.

The news comes straight from PopCap’s support page, which states Bejeweled Blitz on Google+ will go offline June 18. The studio’s disabled the ability to purchase coins and additional spins and is encouraging players to spend whatever coins they have left over. Any coins earned or purchased before this point in the game cannot be transferred to other versions of Bejeweled Blitz or other PopCap titles on Google+. The Facebook version of Bejeweled Blitz, meanwhile, is still one of the top 25 Facebook games in terms of daily active users; this month, it took the No. 11 spot with 2.9 million and is still holding that number.

Despite still going strong on Facebook, this is technically the third high-profile EA social game to be shut down in as many months, with Facebook titles Restaurant City in April and Dragon Age Legends in May. EA seems to be struggling with to maintain its status as a top social games developer, now that The Sims Social is winding down and no top-trafficking game has launched to replace it. The company now shifts between the No. 3 and No. 4 spots on our Facebook game developer leaderboards by DAU, often trading places with wooga. EA may be scaling back on developing social games to pursue publishing instead, as it recently announced it would publish Insomniac Games’s Outernauts on Facebook.

We’ve reached out for a comment from Google, PopCap and EA, but have yet to receive a response at the time of writing.

Update: Bejeweled Franchise Director at PopCap, Giordano Contestabile, tells us, “Our decision to pull Bejeweled Biltz from Google+ had nothing to do with EA scaling back on anything. On the contrary, Bejeweled Blitz has doubled revenue over the last 6 months and we’ve seen steady revenue growth since the EA acquisition. The Bejeweled team (not the greater PopCap, and certainly not EA) chose to scale back the Google+ offerings because, like most game teams, we want to spend our resources improving games to have the biggest impact on the most customers. Shifting some of our resources from Google+ onto higher-impact efforts was a pretty straightforward decision.”

Loot Drop’s Pettington Park launches on Google+ under Zynga umbrella

Developer Loot Drop ‘s new game Pettington Park is now available to play on Google+, arriving on the social network under Zynga’s publishing banner.

Pettington Park’s  look and mechanics bear a resemblance to what Loot Drop originally planned for Cloudforest Expedition before the title was shelved by RockYou. Players assume the role of a dog or cat who is part of a larger force at war for control of a park. These characters are tasked with decorating a park with buildings, arcade cabinets and courts; the latter items provide soft currency rewards via their minigames based on popular genres like pachinko, tennis and match-3. In order to build these structures, players also have to harvest resources and fend off dogs hostile dogs/cats invading their territory.

There’s also a light player-versus-player element in the game that maps to its cats and dogs theme. Everything players do is assigned a point score and counted as part of an overall team score; every Wednesday, the total scores are compared and a winner is declared. No details have been revealed about what kind of bonus — if any — members of the winning team will receive.

Pettington Park marks two firsts for Loot Drop: Its first time creating a game for Google+ and its first time working with Zynga. A spokesperson from Zynga said the company had no comment about details of the relationship. Zynga has announced publishing deals for its own platform with Playdemic, Rebellion and Konami as well as with Sava Transmedia, Mob Science and Row Sham Bow. So far, Row Sham Bow is the only game to see the benefit of Zynga’s cross-promotion bar on Facebook. None of the developers currently have games on Zynga.com.

The game’s launch on Google+ seems a little odd; Zynga only has three of its own games on the platform so far and hasn’t made any other investments in it that we know of. Zynga’s interest seems especially curious given that fellow Google+ Games launch partner wooga is leaving the social network. Several developers we’ve spoken to over the past few months have expressed reluctance to join Google+ because there just aren’t enough users or social features for their taste yet. It’s also been nearly a year since Google+ launched its games platform, and there still haven’t been any publicly-reported traffic for its social games channel or custom social features that set it apart from Facebook. Taking all of that into account, it could be that Zynga is using Google+ as a proving ground for Pettington Park before it commits the resources for a larger launch.

As for developer Loot Drop, Pettington Park is its first ever Google+ game and its second game launch in as many months. May marked the first official launch for Loot Drop under publisher Ubisoft with Facebook game Ghost Recon Commander, a tie-in title that shares unlockable content with console game Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Ghost Recon Commander has only been live for a little over weeks and has yet to gain much traction on Facebook. The title was featured prominently, however, at Facebook’s App Center launch last week, which could give the game a lift for the month. On for future games, Loot Drop seems to be committed to the publisher-developer relationship despite the fallout from RockYou and Cloudforest Expedition last year; that game has yet to find a publisher after being shelved. Note that Cloudforest’s early concept drawings hint that the game had an awful lot in common with Zynga’s Adventure World.

Wooga removing games from Google+

Wooga is removing its games from the Google+ platform. Diamond Dash, Monster World and Bubble Island will no longer be available to G+ players as of July 1.

Social Games Observer first reported the closures, pinning them on a lack of G+ users to sustain the game. We had heard some developers claim the “numbers aren’t there” to support a social games ecosystem, but some were optimistic that Google’s more focused approach to curating social games would yield healthy retention if not large audiences. On Facebook, Diamond Dash ranks as wooga’s largest title at 17.7 million monthly active users and 3.6 million daily active users, according to our AppData traffic tracking services. Note that Diamond Dash alone is cross-compatible with an iOS version, which gave the game a bump in traffic after launching in December 2011.

Wooga served as one of the launch partners for G+’s games service along with Zynga, Playdom, PopCap Games and Kabam. The German developer stood out from these partners’ early offerings by focusing on two arcade titles and a farming role-playing game. According to what some developers have told us, Google+ doesn’t populate its game genres with too-similar titles. The platform also offers very few social features, currently limited to invites, a games-only activity feed viewed from the Games tab and more recently a site-wide chat feature that offers no games-specific activity (e.g. sending game items via chat message).

The developer did not respond to request for comment as of press time.

YoYo Games makes cross-platform development more affordable with GameMaker: Studio

This week, YoYo Games is officially launching GameMaker: Studio, a new development tool designed to let developers create casual and social games for a wide array of platforms.

GameMaker: Studio is the next version of 2D drag-and-drop game development tool GameMaker. Originally created in 1999 by professor Mark Overmars, YoYo Games acquired the license in 2007. This new version of the program provides developers with the options to export native titles to most platforms, including HTML 5, Facebook canvas (as seen with YoYo’s own Grave Maker), Android, iOS, Windows and OS X.

German developer Handy Games has partnered with YoYo Games to use GameMaker: Studio to create a new, as-yet-unnannounced role-playing game, but YoYo Games CEO Sandy Duncan tells us the tool is primarily intended for small companies working on a budget. According to Duncan, creating a cross-platform casual game with GameMaker: Studio can cost less than $10,000 in total. A more labor intensive social game can be done for under $50,000.

 

In the low-end of the game development market GameMaker: Studio could prove to be serious competition for companies like Unity Technologies and GameSalad. Priced under a modular model the base price for GameMaker: Studio is $99, which allows developers to export to Windows and OS X. HTML 5 is another $99, while iOS and Android cost $199 each. All-in, the entire platform is a one-time purchase of less than $600, compared to $1500 for Unity Pro and GameSalad Pro’s yearly subscription rate of $299.

 

Rumble Games focuses on both casual and core gamers, skips out on traditional social mechanics

Rumble Games believes its upcoming action role-playing game KingsRoad can provide a deep social gameplay experience for both core and casual gamers while eschewing traditional social mechanics like energy bars and forced player invites.

KingsRoad is inspired by Blizzard’s juggernaut hit Diablo, with hack-and-slash action and glossy production values. It looks like it’s designed to only appeal to core gamers, but Rumble CEO Greg Richardson claims the game is meant for anyone who enjoys great storytelling and will be easy to pick up with its mouse-driven control scheme. The game is planned to initially launch for web browsers but it will eventually be fully playable on social networks like Facebook and Google+, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. Richardson tells us smartphones are not a focus quite yet, mainly because the small screens of these devices provide limited in-game view.

“We’re technology agnostic,” he says. “The consumer we have cares about graphic fidelity and wants the games to be simple and accessible, but sophisticated enough to keep them around. Whateve technology can ge us the best possible experience to the broadest audience we can reach, we’re a fan of.”

The game’s social elements are designed around co-op gameplay, as opposed to leaderboards and viral sharing of milestone achievements. Richardson doesn’t believe in creating a title that relies on the standard social game mechanics like an energy bar or requiring players to invite friends into the game in order to progress, going so far as to call such things “crazy.” The game will utilize microtransactions, but Richardson won’t reveal any specifics. Instead, he says, “we strive to let players amplify their fun by paying, rather than punishing players if they don’t spend money.”

Richardson’s not worried about the game’s monetization potential because he believes the audience Rumble is pursuing monetizes incredibly well. “When you’re going after an audience that loves to engage and has a propensity to spend money on it, that’s half the battle,” he explains. “These games are progression driven, and people are going to want to spend more money in the game. As they do this, we’re going to give them opportunities to spend money that will make the game more fun to play.”

Innovation isn’t always a recipe for instant success and there are elements here that could lead to a misfire. The recent god game Idle Worship includes stunning production values, synchronous multiplayer and deep gameplay, but it hasn’t taken off yet and is instead hovering around 40,000 daily active users. KingsRoad’s epic scale and action-driven storyline could potentially turn away players simply because it’s so different from anything else that’s available on social networks right now. Rumble Games wants the game to appeal to both core and casual players, the two groups that respectively represent a high amount of monetization and traffic.

Rumble is building one other unannounced game right now, but is also using its $15 million first round of funding to become a publisher for third-party developers. The company will publish titles on browsers, social networks and mobile devices, but Richardson didn’t disclose what kind of promotion and marketing Rumble will do on behalf of these games. Although no deals have been revealed yet, Richardson says that a public announcement is coming soon.

The signup for the beta of KingsRoad is available on Rumble Games’s website, as is more information about joining up with the company’s publishing program. KingsRoad does not have a release date yet.

Nekki brings free-running to Facebook with Vector

Shadow Fight developer Nekki is ready for round two on social networks with its new game, Vector.

Vector features the silhouette-heavy art style of Shadow Fight but its gameplay is based around the acrobatic free-running of parkour instead of mixed-martial arts. Previously known as Shadow Runner, Vector has a lot in common — both in style and in story — with Mirror’s Edge, the only core video game to ever feature parkour as its primary game mechanic.

Nekki only recently started bringing its games to Facebook, even though the company itself is already 10 years old. Last year, the developer surprised us when it launched the arcade fighter Shadow Fight on the social network and the game quickly graduated from our emerging games list. The game peaked at 2.1 million monthly active users and 214,000 daily active users, but AppData shows it still brings in 1.1 million MAU and 100,000 DAU. Nekki also launched 11×11 – Online Football Manager on Facebook in January, which is currently maintaining approximately 530,000 MAU and 60,000 DAU.

Nekki Founder and CEO Dmitry Terekhin is now ready to publicly talk about Vector, as well as how Shadow Fight is still going strong.

Inside Social Games: What was the inspiration for Vector? 

Dmitry Terekhin, Nekki Founder and CEO: We really like dynamic arcade games. After the success of Shadow Fight, we wanted to continue work in this genre, but with an entirely new spin. We reached out to focus groups chosen from Shadow Fight’s players to find out where they had interests. Somewhat unexpectedly, there was a very clear standout: That community was rabid for a great parkour game.

We got pretty excited about that idea too. Parkour matches nicely with our arcade/sports games preference, so the concept seemed a perfect fit for us and our players. Parkour also offers a great opportunity to demonstrate another of Nekki’s competitive advantages — the realistic animation technology we built for Vector’s spiritual forerunner, Shadow Fight.

ISG:  Will Vector be available on any platform other than Facebook?

Terekhin: You bet. Nekki is a dedicated multi-platform game company. In addition to Facebook, we plan to release Vector on the Russian social networks (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, MoiMir) and internationally on Google +, StudiVZ, and Nasza-Klasa.pl. Also, for the first time, we will release mobile versions for iPhone, iPad and Android.

ISG:  Is there a plot that goes along with the game’s scenario?

Terekhin: As it happens, there is a concise backstory that’s set up superbly in the intro video. It goes like this: in the totalitarian world of the future, freedom no longer exists. Our hero escapes the shackles of the system and escapes into the world. In this world, to live free is to run free.

ISG: How will Vector monetize?

Terekhin: Free-to-play arcade players respond better to paying for content and power-ups rather than participating in the “wait, pay or promote” model you commonly see in other free-to-play genres. While it’s still under discussion, at the moment we’re proposing to have Vector sell additional levels, tricks and gadgets. Mastering new tricks helps achieve higher scores and makes free-running each level more spectacular. Gadgets grant the hero special powers, such as slow-motion or a temporary escape from his pursuers.

ISG: What types of gameplay modes will be available?

Terekhin: We’re planning several exciting game modes, which allows us to expand the gameplay for Vector over time. “Chase”  is the core mode and requires player to escape his or her pursuer while collecting bonuses and performing tricks for extra points. Additional modes under consideration and construction include a time trial and an endless mode where players compete for the greatest distance survived. We also plan to use our synchronous PvP technology to enable various multiplayer modes in which players around the world can play with or against each other in real-time.

ISG:  Since Shadow Fight (pictured above) launched in 2011, the game’s numbers have maintained steady player retention. How have you managed to keep so many players coming back?

Terekhin: Now more than a year old, Shadow Fight remains a player favorite. Nekki is one of the few independent Russian game developers on Facebook. We did not work with a publisher, but took the game to Facebook on our own. I credit most of Shadow Fight’s success there to the uniqueness of the game for that platform (there aren’t really any serious competitors), and a really good viral hook.

Traffic exchange bars like Applifier and MauDau worked quite well for us. These cross-promotional tools really help high-quality games attract new players for free, once you get the engine running. We were so impressed by the idea of traffic exchange as a tool to optimize and grow an online game audience, we were inspired to create our own version: AppBoost is our own home-grown solution that we think does the job even better.

ISG: What lessons did you learn with Shadow Fight that you’ve incorporated into the development of Vector?

Terekhin: In Vector, we used a number of technologies developed for Shadow Fight. For animation, we used our animation tool, Cascadeur, which allows easy creation of physics-based animations. Players find it surprising that we don’t use any motion-capture in either Shadow Fight or Vector. It’s all animation created in Cascadeur. We plan on continuing to develop Cascadeur and use it to make even more fantastic gameplay, and we also would like to provide this software to others for free in order to build a community of animators using Cascadeur in interesting and innovative ways.

Eastside Games’ Zombinis: a game with legs… and arms, eyes, and brains

Zombinis from Eastside Games recently launched on Google+ as a 30-day timed exclusive. The game tasks players with building up an army of zombified monsters and then using them to win battles, complete missions and expand their own arsenal of creatures. It combines elements of Pokémon and the board game Risk with the “collection” element common to many social games to create an altogether unusual and well thought-out experience.

Zombinis begins with players choosing one of the three available types of Zombini: Air, Land and Sea. Each is strong against one type and weak against another in a “rock, paper, scissors” kind of arrangement which the player is reminded of on every loading screen. Rather than beating their preferred type outright, however, being “strong” against another Zombini simply means they have an advantage in combat rather than a guaranteed victory.

The majority of the game is spent in combat. This takes place in a turn-based fashion, with players firstly choosing a Zombini from their squad to take on the enemy. Both the player and the enemy then roll virtual dice in order to determine the result of the combat, with Zombinis who are strong against their opponent getting more dice to roll. Similar to the board game Risk, whoever rolls the single highest number using all their dice wins that round of combat and inflicts a point of damage on the other. There’s a twist on the formula, however; doubles always beat a single die, even if the double is of a lower number. Likewise, triples beat doubles, quadruples beat triples and so on. Rolling more than one of the same number inflicts additional damage — for example, doubles inflict two points of damage while triples inflict three. If both sides roll more than one of the same number, the group which is made up of the higher number wins and inflicts the additional damage. Players may give themselves an advantage in combat by spending “brains” to add extra dice to their roll — these brains may be purchased using real money or found throughout the Zombinis’ adventures.

The twist on the standard hit point-based combat is that each hit point for a Zombini corresponds to a body part, which falls off when it is damaged. This means that healing a Zombini is not a simple matter of giving them a healing potion or first-aid kit — players must dig up replacement parts from a graveyard near their home base and collect sufficient pieces to repair the damage. Alternatively, players can spend hard currency to immediately restore a lost body part, or remove the Zombini from the active battle squad to automatically regenerate all their lost limbs after a period of real time. Alongside this, in order to create a new Zombini to add to their team, players must first defeat the Zombini in combat, acquire its body and then dig up the relevant parts to complete it.

Players are encouraged to play with friends, as visiting friends’ bases allows them to search additional graveyards for Zombini parts rather than having to wait the usual ten minutes between searching or spending hard currency to immediately search again. There does not appear to be an option for friends to pit each other’s Zombinis against one another at this time, however, and the selection of Zombinis available for players to collect is (so far) relatively limited, with the vast majority of promised possibilities listed as “Coming Soon” in the game’s “laboratory” menu.

Zombinis is a relatively simple game that is well-polished and has plenty of potential. It could do with some extra social features beyond simply visiting friends’ bases, but it’s still in its early days, as the game is officially still in beta. Eastside Games is keen to develop the game’s core features before expanding it too much. “We decided to… really work and improve the game, to focus more on community driven design,” Eastside cofounder Josh Nilson told Inside Social Games earlier this week when asked about the developer’s change from its original plans to launch Zombinis on Facebook and as a standalone title. “Rest assured a standalone [version] is still in the plan.”

You can play Zombinis right now on Google+.

Play

A good start for an unusual new game, though its social features could do with some expansion.

Funzio’s Kingdom Age brings competitive hardcore strategy to Google+

Funzio’s Kingdom Age is a hardcore strategy game that challenges its Google+ players to build up a kingdom, defend it from attacks by other players, loot and pillage rival fiefdoms, kill monsters, complete quests and, of course, find treasure. There are a lot of different aspects to the game, but this breadth of experience is what sets Kingdom Age apart from offerings by competitors Kabam and Kixeye rather than being a simple clone.

After designing a custom avatar — which the player may choose the gender but not the name of — players are thrown straight into the action with a tutorial which introduces PvE combat against monsters, PvP combat against rival kingdoms and the basics of the citybuilding gameplay. This tutorial moves at a brisk pace and sacrifices any sense of narrative to get players acquainted with the game systems as quickly as possible — for example, the PvE tutorial sees players rescuing a monk from monsters, but upon his liberation, said monk then immediately suggests that the player goes and attacks a rival kingdom with no explanation whatsoever. It’s a small yet noticeable issue, but the decision was presumably taken to provide a balance offering new players the chance to learn the basic mechanics while keeping the tutorial short enough for experienced strategy players to charge onward into the meat of the game as soon as possible.

Following the tutorial, gameplay is guided by a series of quests at the side of the screen. There are generally several quests at any given time, concentrating on each of the game’s three main areas: PvE combat against monsters; PvP combat against rival kingdoms; and building up the player’s own kingdom. This helps keep downtime to a minimum, as players can focus on another aspect of quests while waiting for their energy (used to battle monsters) or stamina (used to battle rival players) to refill.

PvE combat superficially resembles popular computer RPGs such as Diablo, but mechanics are kept very simple. Players simply click on a monster to attack them, an amount of energy according to the toughness of the monster is deducted from the player’s stock, the player character automatically chooses the best weapon available to use, damage is inflicted on the monster and then, finally, the monster usually inflicts a small amount of damage directly onto the player’s energy with their own attack. Certain monsters require prerequisite items in order to battle (antivenom for spiders, skinning knives for rats and so on) but otherwise there’s little depth to the combat, and while exploring PvE areas the player is safe from attack by creatures unless they are specifically clicking on one to battle it, meaning there’s little sense of “danger” during these adventures.

The kingdom building component requires players to manage their food stocks by building farms and silos to produce and store food; train troops (who consume food) and build structures that generate income. There’s also a research component which allows players to unlock various new buildings and troop types, and structures may be upgraded to increase their output. Unlike many of Kabam’s recent offerings, which see players spending several hours building and upgrading buildings before getting to any action whatsoever, Kingdom Age spreads its “build this, upgrade this” quests over a longer period of time, offering a welcome variety to the gameplay. As is usual for this type of game, buildings take varying amounts of real time to build and upgrade, though this wait can be negated by spending hard currency.

PvP combat uses the troops which players have trained to attack rival players, who are chosen from a list. Players see a map of their rival’s kingdom and must then choose a small area which they would like to attack. The rival’s defending troops then line up in this area and the player’s attackers charge through. The attackers’ strength is compared to the defenders’. The amount of units by which the attackers’ strength is greater than the defenders’ will then “break through” and attack randomly-chosen buildings in the area, potentially destroying them if enough damage is inflicted. It usually takes several battles to destroy a single building early in the game, more powerful units take the field later on — and paying players have the option of purchasing premium equipment using the game’s hard currency to give them a significant advantage. It’s a simple but effective system, though quests that require the player to destroy a specific building can prove infuriating at times, as attacking troops blindly charge forward and attack a cottage instead of the adjacent farm which they were supposed to be razing — and there’s no means of giving direct orders.

Kingdom Age’s three gameplay components work well together to produce a game with depth and variety. It still needs a little work, however. Art assets load slowly, for example, meaning the screen visibly redraws whenever transitioning to a different area — worse, the visuals are created using several “layers,” each of which refresh one at a time in a rather disconcerting manner. PvE combat lacks depth and a sense of danger; PvP combat lacks control. Sometimes health bars for buildings in PvP combat display inaccurate values. And full-screen mode occasionally refuses to register mouse clicks.

There’s a good game underneath, however, and some strong social and monetization features are already in place. Should Funzio be able to iron these issues out, it will have a strong offering for fantasy, RPG and strategy game fans on its hands. It’s just not quite there yet.

Wait

A deep, varied strategy game which needs a few gameplay tweaks and technical fixes before being ready for the primetime.

Google rebrands Android Market as Google Play, does another sale to round up credit cards

Google rebranded Android Market as Google Play today to showcase the company’s recent forays into other types of digital content like movies, music and books. Google Play is now a single destination for apps, games, movies, music and books, in the way that the iTunes store has also hosted songs, podcasts and TV shows for several years. The company says Google Play is based on the same back-end that Android Market was, so developers don’t really have to do anything differently than they were before.

“We believe that with a strong brand, compelling offerings, and a seamless purchasing and consumption experience, Google Play will drive more traffic and revenue to the entire ecosystem,” the company said in a blog post today.

This might add to concerns that Google is featuring other types of content at the expense of visibility for apps. But Google says it won’t show favoritism toward one type of content over another.

Read the rest on our sister site, Inside Mobile Apps.

Google+ digs up 30-day exclusive with Eastside Games’ Zombinis

Google+ gets another 30-day exclusive in the form of Zombinis, Eastside Games’ collecting-and-battle game featuring exploding zombie animals with detachable body parts.

This is a bit different than the original plans Eastside revealed to us last July. At that time, the developer said it was planning to launch the game on Facebook and its own site, with G+ listed as a potential platform.

“We are still actively working on launching Zombinis as a stand alone experience, but we felt that we first needed to work on some core mechanics in Zombinis to ensure our players were having a great experience,”  said Eastside Co-founder Josh Nilson when asked about the change. “We decided to extend our closed Beta and really work and improve the game, to focus more on community driven design. Rest assured a stand alone is still in the plan.”

Google+ has been steadily adding games to its network, but it’s difficult to gauge just what kind of metrics developers can expect to see on the platform. We’ve heard that, compared to Facebook, retention is an issue and player conversion is nowhere near as strong as what many developers are used to. Clearly something about the platform appeals, however, as this is the fourth 30-day exclusive launch title hitting G+ after Digital Chocolate’s Gangs of Boomtown, Kabam’s The Godfather: Five Families and  Plarium’s Pirates: Tides of Fortune. The recently-announced Google Play app platform may also play a role in encouraging developers to take a risk on G+.

Nilson says part of the appeal is in the small selection of games currently available for the platform. “For an indie studio this means you can get discoverability,” he says. “We have had success on Facebook and also on the open web and see potential in G+. We want to be able to contribute to G+’s success, more platforms in the social space would be great for the game industry, both for developers and also for players.”

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