This Week’s Headlines on Inside Facebook

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

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Gbanga Famiglia Looks for a Hit in the European Location-Based Market

The next generation of location-based services is moving beyond check-ins and badges to parallel worlds with game mechanics. One iPhone title we’ve been watching is Gbanga Famiglia, a mafia-themed game by a Swiss developer called Gbanga.

Famiglia is just the latest iteration in the parent company’s journey to figure out what works, both with location games and the European audience. Gbanga started out two years ago, when some Zurich residents received a newspaper article referring to a conspiracy theory, with a link to a webpage.

The mailer was an intro to Gbanga’s experimental first game; a second try, which had users chasing virtual tigers around the city in an environmentalist-themed game, drew 700 users. Those initial attempts, which lasted just a few weeks, convinced the company that it had a good enough idea for the mass market.

The idea behind Famiglia is closer to Booyah’s MyTown. Users explore a cell-based map of their own locale, with each cell containing specific locations. Groups of players — mafia families — fight to take over and own these locations. Some, like restaurants, will also offer real-life deals.

Gbanga’s cells make it a bit different from some services. Think of them as a bit like neighborhoods; as long as you’re in a cell, you can make actions involving any location it contains. Users can thus potentially play from a fixed location.

For now, according to cofounder Matthias Sala, “simpler games have a higher chance of keeping users.” While users are quickly learning that location-based games exist, the cell setup and familiar concept help bring in players.

The next step for Gbanga is to add on-map virtual goods that can be purchased to give an edge in the game, as well as an option to spend in order to move around even less in the physical world.

And Sala is hoping that partners will pick up the Gbanga platform to build their own stories and alternate realities for other locales, in Europe or elsewhere. “Of course we want to port it to other platforms, as many as we can,” says Sala. “It’s not enough just to have global critical mass, where the whole world is trying to solve a riddle happening inside one space. Here it’s one riddle in Zurich, and another elsewhere.”

Asked how the European market is different, Sala points to German-speaking populations.

“[They] are very sensitive with privacy, and these innovations are struggling because of that. If you compare the States to Europe, the big players like Gowalla and Foursquare are pretty weak in Germany,” says Sala. “So we don’t want to be a location-based information system but a game. The game market for strategy games is huge in Europe, so I think there’s a chance that this browser-games market becomes location-based.”

Booyah Brings a New Generation of Poking to Facebook Places With InCrowd

The first app spawned from the launch of Facebook Places is out today: InCrowd, a location-based iPhone game by MyTown creator Booyah.

InCrowd was created by Booyah in under a month, but that doesn’t mean the new game isn’t interesting. Using art from its Facebook game, Nightclub City, Booyah gives players customizable avatars that they can use to virtually interact with each other in their real-life location.

“We stepped back and said hey, we don’t want to just federate check-ins, we want a brand new experience and brand-new app,” says Booyah CEO Keith Lee. “We’re trying to push the envelope in terms of how we can create new experiences or new gameplay based on location.”

For now, InCrowd is pretty simple; Lee compares it to poke apps in the early days of social networking. Users can interact with other people in their location with actions like hi-fives or dropkicks, which are immediately sent to their friend in the app and on Facebook. “One of the things that has been missing on Facebook is real-time social interaction,” says Lee.

Over time, poke apps evolved point systems and a sort of light gaming element (the Vampire series being perhaps the penultimate example). InCrowd is starting out with a similar system. The hi-five, for example, will add popularity points to the receiving user, while the dropkick will take points away.

InCrowd isn’t just a one-off experiment; Booyah will add to it progressively over time. One upcoming feature is customized virtual spaces for different locations, so that a particular baseball park or store is identifiable as the actual location. The store might even include a non-player character to guide or give information about the store. The virtual item system from Nightclub City might also migrate over in some form.

“What we’re really trying to do is build a hub and platform,” says Lee.  “It’s a lot more elegant than a boring check-in app that just has a pop-up coupon.”

The key to the future is in how players use the new app, though. Lee expects a younger audience for InCrowd. “You’ll start to see some really interesting use-cases. Imagine how people in high school or college would use it,” he says. “You have a sense people are from your dorm but you may not know them, so you have a new way of interacting with them.”

Less trafficked places could experience another kind of interesting user behavior, Lee speculates. Since the app will show the last 30 or so check-ins, a place that isn’t visited much could allow asynchronous interaction and discovery of new people. “Besides checking into your office, maybe you check-in to an antique bookstore… in places that aren’t frequented as much, you want to find people who are similar.”

It also remains to be seen how many new users Places will bring to Booyah, which already has over three million users with MyTown, but Lee expects a significant number to appear due to increased virality in the feed.

For more, check out our analysis of the future of location-based games o Places, published earlier this morning.

Analysis: With Facebook Places, Location Based Social Gaming Mechanics Offer Broad Opportunities

Facebook Places was released two weeks ago, potentially allowing every Facebook user to make location-based check-ins. What does it mean for game companies?

Many of the stories on Places so far have discussed its potential uses as a marketing tool, doling out coupons, promotions and incentives to users who visit real-world businesses at the right time.

There’s obviously a lot of potential here. Every physical business wants better ways to promote locally, and will happily pay location-based companies that are capable of bringing customers through the door.

However, game developers should think twice about trying to beat marketers at their own business. Straightforward local marketing — for example, giving users an in-game virtual good or virtual currency for visiting a business — will become highly competitive soon as marketing service providers push to secure the ad dollars that businesses allocate to location services.

While game companies might benefit from partnering with marketers, their internal creative energies can be better spent on what games are all about: fun and engagement.

With that advice in mind, we take a look at how game companies can think more deeply about Places, below — specifically looking at how structure and rules, fictional themes, group cooperation and time tricks can take advantage of the emerging gaming medium. But first, here’s a reminder of what Facebook has to offer as it introduces its APIs.

Integration with Facebook

The first step is getting connected to Places. While this is obvious, the service is still at an early stage, so it’s worth going over the details. (If you don’t care for the technicalities, feel free to skip on down.)

Like other Facebook services, Places is accessed through developer APIs, in this case read, search and write. A large majority of third-party developers will be limited to the read and search APIs, for now.

The read API essentially offers access to Places’ own data on user check-ins. To give an example, if John checks into Starbucks, Facebook will record and keep that information for itself. If John then gives a third-party application permission to look at his check-ins, the developer of that app can check John’s info at will.

There’s a problem with read privileges: John’s direct interaction is with Places, not a third-party mobile app, and the developer also has to get John to go through the steps of agreeing to share his info. Read will work fine for existing Facebook games that want to add a location feature or challenge. It may not be enough for a new iPhone app that wants to use Places, but is separated from the user by Facebook.

The write API is the solution to this problem. With write, a third-party iPhone app can log John in through Facebook Connect, perform the check-in itself and report it back to Places and the feed, the latter step potentially helping with viral growth. John is kept in the user interface of the app — which may be especially vital for an immersive game.

Facebook hasn’t yet announced when the write API will leave private beta. For now, only five companies who have launched apps have access: Booyah, Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR and Yelp.

Locating the game

However, it seems likely that Facebook will give write API access to more developers with clearly innovative apps, and high business practice standards. With that in mind, it’s time for companies to start planning how to best use Places.

Thinking past what location-based developers have done in the past will be the first challenge. When Loopt, Where and others in the first wave of smartphone-powered LBS startups began adding features several years ago, tie-ins with services like Yelp made sense to gather data on actual locations, most of which were in fact businesses.

From there, the tendency to favor marketing-based mechanics developed naturally. With only a small market at hand, due to the limited penetration of smartphones, LBS startups needed to make money where possible. That couldn’t be the user, so direct relationships with businesses began to appear.

The desire to interact with businesses is clearly visible in the most popular location mechanics today. Take check-ins for example. Competing to become the mayor or owner of a property is a mildly amusing, playful task for most users, but the clearest beneficiary from the feature is the coffee shop or store that gets a bevy of repeat customers.

More complicated mechanics like “appointment”, which makes a game of getting the user to return to a location at a particular time, could be interesting for both users and businesses — but remain far more so for the latter.

Location-based apps should be in the position to make bigger creative bets soon. Places has access to millions of mobile users, and by extension, the other 500-odd million people on Facebook who can see shared Places, and be tagged in them. As in the early days of social gaming, location apps can now focus on convincing an existing mass market that their application is the most fun.

So how should location startups that want to focus on gaming think about the problem? Here are suggestions on how to start:

Structure

One major element of ordinary games, missing from the majority of location-based apps, is a sophisticated structure and set of rules.

A popular philosophy today is that location apps should encourage users to get out and experience new things. But how often do, say, World of Warcraft users hear the same advice? Millions of game players consistently prefer to stay indoors, glued to a screen.

Their reason isn’t a secret desire to be an orc or widespread heliophobia. It’s the structure of games, which keep players on track through feedback loops — truly sticky games, from chess to FarmVille to MMOs, create worlds with strict boundaries and rules.

Real life contains few feedback loops that don’t relate to food or sex. Location-based apps are based in real life. But does that mean they can’t create new feedback loops?

Most location apps already make use of trophies and leaderboards, which are certainly game-like. Yet both of those mechanics were created as additions to full-featured games on platforms like the Xbox, to get players more engaged in experiences that were already engaging on their own. Trophies and badges are icing, but they’re missing the cake.

The trick is thinking of gamelike mechanics for real life. SCVNGR, started this May, allows challenges based around specific locations, like creating origami from the foil in a burrito shop. Booyah’s MyTown virtual real estate game drew over three million players before Places launched, with gameplay inspired by Monopoly. These rule-based games are probably just a starting point for a new niche of the game industry.

Fiction and Fantasy

Closely connected to the need for structure is the idea of theme and story in location-based apps. In ten years, it may seem odd in retrospect that location games started out with a reality obsession. Why should a house, park or store necessarily be the same in its virtual, device-based representation as it is in real life?

Here there are again examples to look at. Gbanga Famiglia, released in April by a European developer, is much like MyTown but creates a alternate reality overlay for users to pretend that they’re part of a mafia; it’s the demo for a platform which could conceivably be used for any game theme. Zombie, Run! has players try to escape in a city from a virtual horde of zombies.

The qualities that make a fantasy world or story attractive to players are hard to pin down, especially before those worlds have been created. But good alternate-reality fiction is already proven to work by movies, books, theater — it simply hasn’t found the perfect place in this new form of gaming.

Interaction

Some of the above-mentioned games, like Gbanga, riff on a social theme: player groups like guilds and, of course, mafias. It’s easy to forget with a location-based app, that location itself can just be a means to the end of having fun. Social features may be especially key with Places, since user interaction is Facebook’s specialty.

Interestingly, a few relatively successful location games have gone all the way to the other end of the spectrum, mostly involving cooperation between strangers with a locational payoff only coming at the end. Geocaching and DARPA’s balloon contest are prime examples of users working together for long periods to find locations, rather than first finding the place and then playing a game.

Existing services are also pondering how to bring together many users at once. Foursquare, for instance, is developing a group specials feature that could form shopping flash mobs.

Facebook may be more interested in seeing apps create personal experiences between friends, though. It’s easy to come up with simple ideas for this; for instance, SCVNGR’s challenge mechanic could be combined with geocaching for an ordinary guy to leave a trail of clues for his girlfriend, leading to a special dinner date. But again, the best concepts probably have yet to be invented.

Time tricks

Time is going to be a major challenge for location-based apps of all sorts. Not only does it take quite a long time just to go from place to place, but the daily routine for a great many people is limited to home, work, perhaps a grocery trip, and then home again — and there’s no time or energy left for anything else.

Justin Beck, the CEO of Parallel Kingdom creator PerBlue, told VentureBeat that his location-based game started out forcing players to move through the real world to make progress in the virtual game. “The feedback we got from our first iteration was almost uniform: It sucks!,” he said.

There may be multiple ways to address this problem. One is to make actions that the user already performs in their daily life more meaningful. Alternately, developers can just make location a tightly-integrated feature of their existing short-session games.

This might be where the most opportunity lies. An existing Facebook game like Mafia Wars could easily run an Italian-restaurant storyline that offers players the chance to get further ahead in the game if they visit certain locations. The challenge is integrating such features with gameplay in a way that meaningful to the existing story.

Conclusion

Right now, developers are still in the first phase of innovation, and most existing gameplay mechanics remain rough around the edges.

Part of the evolution here will be decided by Facebook’s approach. Social gaming as we know it — games built on friendships and communication channels for reaching those friends — was made possible by Facebook’s open platform. Facebook’s master plan has never been to becoming a social gaming platform, as much as social gaming has been discovered and refined by third-party developers. But the process has been messy at times, with spam and scams being prevalent even as developers figured out where the real value was. Facebook’s approach to restricting the write API today is intended to curb abuse this time around, especially because location information is, for many users, considered even more private than friend relationships. The company will need to find a balance in how it opens up write access, both preventing abuse while helping developers realize the full potential of the concept.

There are other complications. Users have also sometimes expressed wariness toward location services. And then there’s the matter of convincing good designers and investors that it’s a viable field. Social gaming itself had no shortage of critics and detractors in its early days, but Western investors and entrepreneurs also had the proven model of South Korea, China and Japan to work from — much of their experimentation on the platform was figuring out what aspects of the free-to-play virtual goods model fit best with Facebook users.

There’s no equivalent multi-billion dollar industry to compare against here — just a relatively new technology and millions of potential users, now more accessible than ever through Places. Many of those users may continue to prefer not to share their location on a regular basis, and there are still plenty of other challenges in creating a new location-based service. But Facebook is motivated to succeed in location, and has the scale to change the market; smart entrepreneurs can handle the rest.

ESPN Creates Location-Based iPhone App, ESPN Passport

ESPN PassportSocial, location-based apps like MyTown, Foursquare, and Gowalla are undeniably popular. Now ESPN is looking to get in on that popularity with a relatively new iPhone release, ESPN Passport. Unlike the others of the genre, this particular app is not for use everywhere, but is intended for a more niche audience.

ESPN Passport narrows its check-in to the sports-goer: the person that goes to stadiums — be they baseball, basketball, football, or soccer — frequently, much like ESPN’s previously existing, web-based version of Passport. As such, the app makes for a nice enhancement to the experience, but as one might expect it’s a far less useful title for those that don’t, or can’t go to the live games.

The concept is simple enough. Upon logging in, users will see games in their area from which they can check-in, which they do by a tap of the “I’m at this game!” button. Additionally, upon check-in users will also have access to their respective Facebook and Twitter accounts, allowing them to post or tweet their check-ins to make all their friends and followers jealous.

Of course, this isn’t the only thing you can do while at a game. After you’ve checked in, the app will take you to an Event Summary page. Here, there is a superfluous, yet nice, addition to the game where you can actually view how many times you have been in attendance for a particular team’s game. Additionally, that total will be ranked amongst other fans in a leaderboard, of which, the Top 25 can be viewed at any time.

EventsFrom the events page, users can not only view the records of both teams playing, but can also enter their seat information, upload photos, and leave comments. All of these can also be posted to Facebook and/or Twitter, and will be viewable to other users as well.

Unfortunately, viewing what other people do at these games is the limit if one isn’t actually going to major sporting events. If there are no events within one’s general area, all that gets displayed are those that have recently occurred, or will occur soon. It’s still a convenient means to get the final scores of recent games, and it’s also sometimes amusing to see peoples’ commentary on the game. That said, it’s just not the same as being there. Plus, it feels a little creepy to view other strangers’ personal photographs.

Aside from all of this, viewing any event will grant access to ESPN Gamecast. Though the information can be garnered in any number of ways, its inclusion with Passport grants users quick access to any number of stats for that specific game. If the game hasn’t started yet, users can view weather reports, times, ticket information, make comments, and even read a nice preview of the game that wraps up what one can expect. In addition to this, a vast majority of the ESPN network is also quickly accessible for scores, season information, dates, more stats, and so on.

Wrapping up the contents of Passport, the only other element worth mention is that the application also allows users to view any past events that they’ve checked-in at and retroactively add photos and comments.

Overall, ESPN Passport is a nice little application for a sports fan. All the same, if frequenting the actual games isn’t a possibility, it’s more or less a pointless app to have. One possibility for expansion would be events other than the actual games — perhaps local viewing events at, say, sports bars. Fact of the matter is, ESPN has a neat idea for the sports enthusiast, but it caters, very much, to a minority of their potential user base. Regardless, it goes to show just how popular location-based apps are becoming, when companies as large as ESPN start to get into the mix. With any luck, they will add to Passport before football season.

This Week’s Headlines on Inside Facebook

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

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Friday, August 13th, 2010

A Quick Look at Location-Based Developer Loopt

Five year old location based developer Loopt doesn’t get as much press as newer entrants like Foursquare and Booyha’s MyTown. But the company reports an impressive four million users, and is hard at work on adding features to its own location based apps, as well as striking branded deals to entice users.

Loopt has four big apps. The original, simply called Loopt, helps users share and broadcast locations and updates. Loopt Pulse is a rich iPad version, less mobile than its siblings, while Loopt Mix is for meeting new local friends. Then there’s Loopt Star, the most similar to today’s other successful location-based apps, with a focus on finding nearby deals and rewards.

Star can be thought of “like a virtual loyalty card,” according to co-founder Alok Deshpande. A recent deal with brick-and-mortar store Paul Frank, for instance, had users check-in for a 20 percent discount on purchases. Actions within the app can also grant badges and points, which are tracked against the user’s Facebook friends who also have the app.

The gaming elements are important, says Deshpande, but have to be balanced with tangible rewards. “We launched the app with a couple gaming features and continue to add more in the way awards are structured and the interactions you can have with friends, but we still have real world applicability,” says Deshpande. The gaming elements are a catalyst to make the social features and winning rewards better.”

One key to transferring user attention toward location apps when they’re out is offering the unexpected, like a promotion at a bar within a limited window of time. “There’s more spontaneity [to Star] than coupons, which need a long lead time,” says Deshpande. “And spontaneity is a lot of fun — people like the element of surprise.”

Of course, what Loopt really needs is scale, both with users and partners. Right now, both Loopt and the other location-based apps have multiple partnerships with big brands, but less traction with the thousands of local businesses that might find value in participating.

Early this year, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was checking out Loopt, possibly with an acquisition in mind; however, nothing seems to have come of that, at least yet. Meanwhile, it seems more likely that Facebook will introduce a federated system allowing Loopt and other location-based services to syndicate check-ins to users. So for now, Loopt should have much the same strategy as its competitors: working to gain ever more visibility, until location-based apps can finally break into the mainstream.

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