Exclusive: Nexon Brings KartRider to Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zynga Bingo enters closed beta today

Zynga kicks off a closed beta today for the next title in its Casino franchise, Zynga Bingo.

The game is a recreation of the classic gambling game where players receive cards with numbers placed along a grid and each column is identified by letter. A “caller” draws numbers at random from a pile, calling out the letter and number while players search for the corresponding spot on their cards. Should a player find the number called, they place a “dauber” token on the number; if they fill an entire line of numbers with daubers, they have a “bingo” and can claim a prize. Other winning conditions include filling up an entire card with daubers, placing daubers on each of the four corners of the card or completing specific number sequences that have been marked for prizes by the organizers.

Zynga’s main update to the game comes from power-up and bonus items, which are either bought, earned or gifted from friends. The power-ups are unlocked and used during the actual game of bingo; a boost bar fills up with each play, and once full, the player can click it to activate whatever power-up item they have queued. The power-ups available at launch are limited to placing down a dauber on certain numbers as if they had been called in normal play or increasing the number of bonus items received at the end of a game. Bonus items include soft currency, tickets (which are used to purchase bingo cards), mystery crates and keys to unlock said crates. The crates can contain power-ups, soft currency or tickets.

Other features in Zynga Bingo include real time chat, themed rooms that sometimes draw from Zynga’s own games and a Zynga Casino navigation bar above the canvas that presumably allows players to jump easily from Zynga Bingo to Texas HoldEm Poker or other Zynga Casino games as they are released. During a press demo, a Zynga spokesperson declined to discuss any upcoming features related to the Zynga Casino interface beyond what had already been revealed at Zynga’s 2011 Unleashed preview event.

Among social games, bingo has been slower to catch on than other casino titles like poker or video slots. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2011 that Buffalo Studios’ Bingo Blitz began to gain traction, hitting 2.8 million monthly active users and 930,000 daily active users before the end of the year. Other bingo games have since launched on Facebook to more modest success and some virtual casinos have added it to their lineup of games.

Zynga Bingo is the developer’s second Facebook title of 2012. Its first 2012 game, Hidden Chronicles, launched in the first week of January and currently enjoys 12.5 million MAU and 6.1 million DAU as recorded by our AppData traffic tracking service.

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.

Brighter Option’s user acquisition solution boosts dev’s users 60 percent

It’s a well known fact the cost of user acquisition on Facebook can be a serious challenge to mid-market and independent social game developers.

High cost per install (CPI) on new games typically means that user acquisition campaigns are reserved for big developers already dominant in the market, or well funded startups like Outplay Entertainment that are coming in with a war chest of money specifically for marketing. According to one estimate from advertising service provider AdParlor, a campaign to acquire 200,000 new players can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $130,000 depending on the type of game.

However, there are some companies that can work for smaller, less funded developers as well as for larger ones. One of those companies is London-headquartered Brighter Option, which claims its Social Ads Manager (SAM) software helped mid-sized German social games publisher Plinga rack up 60 percent more new users than it would have using the same marketing budget without SAM.

According to Brighter Option, using SAM, Plinga was able to see click through rates (CTR) of 0.09 percent for its Facebook ads, far higher than the 0.02 percent average typically seen on the platform. Overall, Plinga saw game installs grow from 60,000 to 1.2 million in the three months it was working with Brighter Option.

According to our traffic tracking service AppData, Plinga currently has 390,000 MAU spread across its games on Facebook, but had 274,000 MAU in mid-October.

Inside Tetris Battle, Facebook’s top multiplayer arcade game

Tetris Battle started out in 2010 as a quiet attempt to bring a classic video game brand to Facebook. Now, just over a year later, the game is on track to compete with the very biggest Facebook games from giants like Zynga and EA.

Already ranked among the top ten most popular games on Facebook as recorded by our AppData traffic tracking service, Tetris Battle currently enjoys about 3.1 million daily active users with 2 million of them arriving in the game within the last two months alone. Honolulu-based developer Tetris Online Inc. has set the sky as the limit for the game’s growth in 2012, hoping to grow the total player base of Tetris Battle to between 5 and 10 million DAU this year. If successful, this would place Tetris Battles in serious competition for the top spot of most popular Facebook game overall.

In this report, Tetris Online VP of Marketing Casey Pelkey and VP of Game Design & Executive Producer Eui-Joon “Ace” Youm share the design and deployment decisions that make the game an ongoing success, their monetization strategies, other Tetris Online games and future plans for Tetris Battle expansion Tetris Arena.

Tetris Battle gameplay: Variations of multiplayer

Tetris Battle’s basic gameplay is similar to the original arcade version, except played in several varieties of multiplayer with enhanced competitive aspects. In “Sprint” mode, players race to be the first to create 40 lines the fastest; in “Battle” modes, when a player forms one or more lines on their board, obstacles and hazards are sent onto the playing field of her competitors.

Gameplay makes use of both synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer competition. The developer prefers not to publicize the specific deployment method used in Tetris Battle, except to say that its goal is to make gameplay feel the same in both synchronous and asynchronous matches. Players are pit against competitors of a similar level and when competing in real time, they will see their competitors’ actual gameplay depicted onscreen. When playing the game with Facebook friends, matches are entirely synchronous and feature a live user-to-user chat feature. The company intentionally throttles live play connections to maintain good performance, but Pelkey says it still represents “a significant percentage of total games played each day.”

Tetris Online incorporates a number of mechanics to encourage continued engagement, including a leveling system which is used to match players with similar playing abilities, and to unlock new game modes. As with many social games, Tetris Battle also has an energy meter which is drained during play, but replenished over time or via monetization. A “Daily Bonus Spin” encourages regular play by offering players special items for playing the game over consecutive days.

Growth and usage: 80 percent word-of-mouth installs

Unlike many Facebook games, Tetris Battle does not employ a mandatory friend-adding mechanic in which a player cannot progress further unless they send game installation invites to their friends. Instead, says Youm, “We focus on the core gameplay… our core belief is if [players] enjoy the game and stay there, they will invite their friends.”

This partly explains the game’s relatively slow growth rates in its first 6-8 months. Initially launched in July 2010, it first had slow growth and low engagement rates, fluctuating between 7 and 15 percent of DAU as a percent of MAU (or DAU/MAU). Technical issues were also a culprit.

The game’s slow growth was also due in part to a lower install rate: Only 55 percent of players would go from launching the app to completing their first game. The reason for this, the developer believes, is that many Facebook gamers were unaccustomed to Tetris’ keyboard-driven gameplay, since nearly all games on the social network platform are mouse-driven. To address this challenge, Youm and his team put the game’s keyboard instructions in the first loading screen and focused players on only using the game’s main key controls for the initial game. As a result, Tetris Battle’s install-to-play rate increased to 80 percent.

The results of this design and layout change became quite evident in April 2011. According to AppData, the DAU/MAU rate then leaped from 20 to about 27 percent, and then began trending toward 35 percent. (Engagement rates of 20 percent DAU/MAU or higher are extremely good for a Facebook game.) Youm also believes that by April 2011, Tetris Battle had reached sufficient critical mass (then about 500,000 DAU) that word of mouth began to drive strong adoption rates, with current players actively inviting their friends to play. According to Youm, installations based on word of mouth are “at least 80 percent… and the funny thing is, it’s increasing.”

Some of Tetris Battle’s growth is also attributable to a viral mechanism involving tetrimino blocks, which can be combined and redeemed for additional energy. A player who invites Facebook users gets more chances to win tetriminos. Players who are Facebook friends with each other can give each other their tetriminos, which creates incentive for friend invites. Tetris Battle also sees significant growth via updates on friends’ Facebook walls, where news on winning games and other Tetris Battle successes can be posted. (As a skill-based game, Youm speculates that players feel more encouraged to share Tetris Battle victories with friends, than non-skill game updates.) Further, the developer reports that players who come to Tetris Battle via friend requests are more likely to put a full effort into the initial on-ramping experience, and are therefore more likely to convert.

In more recent months, Tetris Battle has seen noticeable growth through Facebook’s launch of the canvas app ticker, which amplified the game’s viral word of mouth. The developer hopes that Facebook makes it possible for users to immediately join friends in a multiplayer session, just by clicking on the relevant app ticker update. Doing this, they believe, would increase general growth of multiplayer games on Facebook.

According to the developer, the game now enjoys a peak concurrency of nearly 200,000 players, and routinely averages about 100,000 players throughout the day. Twenty percent of the total playerbase is classified as core players, defined as those who play over an hour a day. As noted, the game has an energy system, which kicks in after 30 minutes; at that point, a player must wait for an hour to refill their energy (i.e. playing time), or purchase extra energy. Core players are therefore playing at least twice a day and/or monetizing.

Monetization and demographics

The developer reports that Tetris Battle earns close to the puzzle game average of 1 to 2 cents in average revenue per daily active user, or ARPDAU. (Tetris Online declines to state specific ARPDAU for their game.) That monetization rate is typical for the game’s US audience, they say, with other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, the UK) also earning good monetization. At this range and at a conservative estimate, revenue for Tetris Battle probably exceeds $1 million per month.

Tetris Battle’s monetization options center around energy, decorations, and functional items, such as “armor,” which protects a player’s rank on the game’s leaderboard from decreasing whenever a player loses a match. Overall, functional goods that improve a player’s gameplay, such as speeding up the movement of their game pieces, monetize best. For the game’s 20 percent core users, a “fast speed drop” of incoming blocks is the most popular monetized item. Special discount sales of goods also increase monetization rates, as does localization of the game. Tetris Battle was also recently localized in Chinese, which resulted in a revenue increase among Chinese-speaking players.

Demographically, Tetris Battle players are roughly split 50/50 by gender, and retention tends to skew younger; in this case, meaning players in the 20-40 range. Core gamers (those playing for over an hour a day) are more male. In terms of players by country, the game reportedly grows in tandem with Facebook’s expansion into the international market. (Players from Denmark, for unknown reasons, comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the user base.)

Leveraging and protecting the Tetris brand on Facebook

According to Pelkey, the Tetris brand name has been an important draw for first-time players; however, retention depends not on the brand, but gameplay and user experience. He applies this lesson in general advice to Facebook game developers involved with other well-known brands and franchises: “You have to deliver a great game, period,” he says. And that includes adding features to the game that leverage all of the platform’s social components: “In Facebook, you better deliver [a game] that has something extra, and not only engages the player, but engages their friends as well.” So far, Tetris Battle is among the rare examples of games from the arcade era to succeed on Facebook.

Given that, and the continued growth of Tetris Battle, some might wonder if it will face copy-cat competitors which frequently beset successful Facebook games. In this case, Tetris’ holding company, Blue Planet Software, has a history of successfully protecting the Tetris brand from imitators in the legal arena. While games in themselves cannot be copyrighted, elements of a game can be trademarked; in this case, the Tetris logo, Tetris theme song, and tetrimino playing pieces enjoy that legal protection. As an example of Blue Planet’s protection strategy, a Facebook game called Blockstar, which had a striking resemblance to Tetris, was legally acquired and co-opted by the company in 2007. This move contrasts the fate of Scrabulous, a Facebook imitator of Scrabble that was shut down by the board game’s rights holder.

Instead of doing that, says Pelkey, “To help reduce the amount of time our legal team spent on shutting this particular game mode down, we were fortunate to befriend the individual who programmed [Blockstar]”. The company went on to “embrace it as an official game mode, making it a part of the Tetris history.” It’s still available within Tetris Friends, with 350,000 MAU. (Before joining Tetris Online, Youm himself was developing a knock-off of the original Tetris for an Asian developer.)

Future plans: Tetris Arena, localization and beyond Tetris Battle

In the second quarter of 2012, Facebook should see the launch of Tetris Arena, a gameplay mode in Tetris Battle that’s now in closed beta. Aimed at the core gamer market, Tetris Arena focuses on multiplayer, synchronous play, in which players compete live using the same playing pieces.

Given that focus, it will also come with a global ranking system — the first Tetris title to have one. For this reason, Tetris Online believes that the Arena mode will draw core players hungry to prove that they’re among the very best at the game overall. Also reflecting the developer’s goal to present Tetris as a competitive sport, Arena will also come with a spectator mode. The company has been testing it on gamers by publishing the Arena game mode’s unlock code on Twitter. Since starting this activity, the Tetris Battle Twitter account has gained 260,000 followers within two months. The Arena game mode is entirely live play, but since it’s still in closed beta, it represents a smaller percentage of the daily games played; the company expects this to grow as the game is opened to more players.

Monetization for Tetris Arena will vary from the main Tetris Battle game, with more functional consumable items. Since the game exists within the main app, the company plans to focus early launch on in-game cross-promotion.

As noted, Tetris Online recently launched a Chinese-localized version of Tetris Battle, garnering improved monetization in Chinese-speaking countries. In 2012, the company also plans to release localizations of the game in Spanish, French, Italian and German, with one new language deployed each month. All these versions will exist within the same Tetris Battle app ID, which will therefore enjoy any growth these additions are likely to attract. The developer notes that the game tends to gain growth momentum when it’s made available in a given country, and word of mouth kicks in; localization should further drive this growth.

Tetris Online also plans to launch a second product in 2012, a head-to-head multiplayer game, which will not be Tetris branded. Another game, Tetris Stars, which combines mouse-driven gameplay with a more casual variation of Tetris, is currently in open beta; the developer is still developing its Q1 2012 plans for that title.

Facebook games in 2012: Words With Friends vs. Tetris Online

At the start of 2012, several top Facebook games shared some common traits with Tetris Battle. Among these are Words With Friends (with 7.9 million DAU, 16 million MAU), Bubble Witch Saga (4 million DAU, 11 million MAU), and Bejeweled Blitz (3.1 million DAU, 9.2 million MAU). All currently enjoy strong growth, especially as compared to other games now topping the popularity charts, such as CityVille and The Sims Social, which have comparatively flat growth. Given these trends, it’s likely that puzzle/arcade games will emerge as 2012’s leaders on the Facebook platform.

For the part of Tetris Online, they consider Tetris Battle’s most direct competitor in the coming year to be Zynga’s Words With Friends. From Youm’s perspective, Words has the advantage of mobile connectivity and cross-platform play. By contrast, competitive Tetris games are difficult to deploy on phones, especially smartphones with touch screens. Additionally, EA holds the rights to mobile versions of Tetris and would need to be brought on as a partner for any mobile deployment of Tetris Online games. However, Youm argues that Tetris Battle has a more global reach than Words With Friends, with the Scrabble-like game probably limited in appeal to regions where English or Romance languages predominate.

These strategic assumptions will be tested as Tetris Online rolls out localized versions of Tetris Battle in 2012, aiming to cater more directly to European and Spanish-speaking countries. In any case, the company sees this year as an opportunity to transform the Facebook platform’s competitive space. Youm argues that multiplayer competitive games are more sustainable for developers, because unlike most other genres, there’s no clear end point where all the game’s content has been enjoyed. Just as Tetris the brand continues to thrive nearly three decades after launch, he believes multiplayer games on Facebook can thrive as long as people are interested in playing them against each other.

“The success of puzzle games gives people something to think about,” as Pelkey puts it. ”At the end of 2012, maybe there’s a different face of gaming in Facebook.”

Full Disclosure: In 2010, the author briefly consulted for Avatar Reality, an unrelated 3D virtual
world developer founded by Henk Rogers, president of Blue Planet Software.

2011’s Biggest Rumors and Controversies in Social Games

As we approach the end of 2011, Inside Social Games looks back at the biggest stories in the social games industry based on controversies and rumored controversies around everything from layoffs to sunsetted games.

While not necessarily the most popular articles among investors and developers, these stories and subjects tend to be repeated almost as often as the success stories of mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, and other exits or expansions. In the case of rumors, these stories often couldn’t be independently verified or lacked enough substance to warrant a news report. Even so, some of them were persistent enough to merit mention here.

Zynga’s Stock Clawback Scandal – November, Unconfirmed
This year Zynga took some very poorly timed heat from a Wall Street Journal expose that claimed company CEO Mark Pincus pressured employees to return stock rights due to poor individual performance. Surfacing a month before the company’s hotly anticipated IPO, the article called Zynga’s corporate practices and long term ability to retain employees into doubt. While Zynga never denied the story, CNN did obtain a company memo that said the Wall Street Journal’s article was based on hearsay, but also specifically mentioning “meritocracy” as a core company value. We’ve since heard rumors that the alleged stock clawbacks were only directed at a very small number of employees that truly were under-performing. In the end, Zynga’s shares went on to be priced at $10, netting the company a billion dollars in its IPO and a market valuation of $7 billion. The company’s shares slipped after they began trading, and are now worth $9.75.

RockYou’s Dramatic Pivot – November
The year started off well for RockYou with the Playdemic acquisition and a new ad platform and partner publishing program. By mid-summer, however, it was clear that the Zoo World developer was in trouble even as it continued to expand via acquisition. The first of its partner-published games, Cloudforest Expedition, was delayed and eventually beaten to market by Zynga’s Adventure World. Overall traffic declined across most of RockYou’s owned-and-operated games despite a strong launch of Zoo World 2. By the time SVP of Games Jonathan Knight left the developer-publisher in late summer, rumors of planned layoffs began to circulate. RockYou CEO Lisa Marino confirmed just over a month later, adding that Playdemic would be sold back to its original owners and that Cloudforest developer Loot Drop was released from its contract. RockYou is currently claiming a profit for the final quarter; Zoo World 2 is showing a resurgence in traffic; Cloudforest Expedition remains unreleased, though Loot Drop has signed new agreements with other social game publishers.

Diner Dash Finished on Facebook – July
San Francisco-based PlayFirst began the year wtih big plans for bringing its IP to Facebook and a $9.2 million round of funding it secured at the end of 2010. Despite a solid launch and strong initial growth of its premier franchise, Diner Dash, the developer sunsetted the game after just eight months due to poor performance — the third failure in a row following Wedding Dash Bash and Chocolatier: Sweet Society. SVP of Games and General Manager Eric Hartness left the company around the time of the game’s demise and an unspecified number of employees were laid off not long afterward. At it stands now, the developer appears to have made a full scale retreat from social games, with a company representative telling Joystiq that PlayFirst will now focus on on the “mobile casual gaming space.”

Kabam’s Restructuring – December, Partially Confirmed
At the end of spring 2011, Kingdoms of Camelot developer Kabam closed an $85 million fourth round of funding to put toward ramping up its existing Facebook games and launching new ones. At the time that the funding was announced, Kabam said it had 400 employees across multiple studios — including a newly-opened San Francisco studio. Around August 2011, however, multiple anonymous tipsters told us that Kabam was preparing or had already begun rounds of layoffs. The stories seemed inconsistent as Kabam maintained a steady flow of hiring during this time period, and continued to launch new games. We observe, however, that Kabam sometimes launches games on Facebook that are neither branded nor announced — for example, Samurai Dynasty, which we first saw on our AppData charts in June — and then sunsets them if they fail to gain organic traction. These scrapped games could be cause for layoffs as could general restructuring. Kabam came out this month and announced the latter, claiming that fewer than 80 employees were affected. This contradicts the information provided by the tipsters, which place the number between 80 and 200. A spokeswoman tells us that Kabam currently has around 475 employees; the developer recently launched a licensed Godfather game on Google+ and on its own site.

Sticky Situation at Digital Chocolate – October, Unconfirmed
Once a major competitor to Zynga, Digital Chocolate was already losing ground at the beginning of 2011 despite launching new games Army Attack and Millionaire Boss and expanding onto mobile and Google+ with some of its older titles. As Millionaire Boss began to decline rapidly and planned updates to Army Attack were delayed, it came as no surprise to hear from a tipster who worked at the company that the developer was considering layoffs. A Digital Chocolate spokesperson denied any major layoffs when we contacted the developer in October, but a second source with knowledge of the company told us that Digital Chocolate’s social studio branch in San Mateo had been completely shut down due to rising user acquisition costs on Facebook. Additionally, this source says a failed publishing agreement with a first-time social game developer hurt Digital Chocolate’s ability to offset user acquisition costs. Digital Chocolate recently launched a new social game, Galaxy Life, on both its own site and on Facebook.

Vostu’s Most Litigated Form of Flattery – June to December
Brazilian social game developer Vostu made some ink in June this year when Zynga sued the company for copyright infringement, claiming Vostu had copied their games wholesale, right down to unintended glitches and mistakes. Vostu hit Zynga with a countersuit alleging Zynga had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a partnership or acquisition with it before Zynga’s initial lawsuit. The companies settled out of court this month, with Vostu agreeing to pay Zynga an unspecified amount in compensation and make changes to MegaCity, Café Mania, Pet Mania and MiniFazenda. Vostu is currently branching out and is on track to release more casual social games, thanks to its earlier acquisition of MP Game Studio. Vostu is also working on adding new features to its core social games, like the custom in-game radio stations it just added to MegaCity and MiniFazenda.

Sony Online Entertainment Exits Facebook – May
Sony Online Entertainment started off the year by publishing a tie-in Facebook game for its EverQuest II franchise and continuing to operate several games developed by independent studios. None of these games found much traction in the first months of 2011, and somewhere around May, SOE quietly walked away from Facebook. Its games were either abandoned completely or handed back to their developers, as was the case with Night Owl Games’ Dungeon Overlord. A spokeswoman for the publisher wouldn’t confirm that SOE is completely out of the social game industry, but did say that the company was trying to get back to its MMO roots.

Deep Realms Deep Sixed – June/July, Unconfirmed
Disney Playdom was just beginning to exit its moratorium on new game launches at the beginning of the year, first with Deep Realms and then with Gardens of Time. The latter completely eclipsed the former — and just about every other game Disney Playdom released this year, even the Disney-branded GnomeTown and ESPN Sports Bar & Grill — and so we weren’t surprised to hear rumors that the Deep Realms team had been trimmed down early on in the year as the developer shifted its attention to other ventures. Given Deep Realms’ current traffic, it’s unclear at this point if the game will survive Q1 2012.

Rocket Ninja’s Wrestler: Unstoppable Makeover – May
2D wrestling sim Wrestler: Unstoppable had a very outspoken and loyal fan following by the time the game was acquired by Rocket Ninja in 2010. It appears to be these same fans stirring up controversy around the developer’s updates to the title — mainly, the visual makeover from 2D to 3D with Rocket Ninja’s proprietary engine. Players cited numerous bugs and performance issues caused by the new engine as their main complaint and a petition was circulated, calling for a return to the game’s original visuals. Wrestler: Unstoppable went into a sharp decline around the end of September; Rocket Ninja announced a $7.5 million second round of funding in November to put toward scaling its 3D engine in social and mobile games.

Inside Social Games’ Top Ten 2011 Facebook Games by Popularity

As 2011 winds down, we’ve compiled this year’s Facebook games reviewed by Inside Social Games and measured their performance on AppData, our data tracking service.

Below are 2011’s top ten winners, defined for the purposes of this report as 1) Facebook games that officially launched between the start of the year and September 2011, which 2) have the highest current number of monthly active users with 3) current retention rates (DAU as a percent of MAU) of 20% or higher. This list only includes games reviewed by Inside Social Games during that period. Note that these factors distinguish our list from the top 2011 games rankings published by Facebook, which were compiled using a mix of active user counts and user reviews.

10 — Collapse! Blast: 240,000 DAU, 1.2 million MAU
GameHouse’s match-3 puzzle game launched in late July, reached a peak of about 1.25 million MAU before the end of August, and has maintained close to that level of users ever since.

9 — HotShot: 350,000 DAU, 1.4 million MAU

PlayQ’s pachinko-style arcade game that strongly resembles EA PopCap’s download title, Peggle, launched in early May and has enjoyed steady growth and strong engagement throughout its run, with a DAU/MAU rate well above 20%.

8 — GnomeTown: 340,000 DAU, 1.5 million MAU
Disney Playdom launched its fantasy-themed city sim game in July, reached a peak of over 500,000 DAU in September, and has remained close to that level for the remainder of 2011. The game got a significant boost a month or so after launch when the developer added Disney branding to the game’s interface and display ads.

7 — Slotomania – Slot Machines: 1.600 million DAU, 5.5 million MAU
Playtika’s slot machine gambling game actually launched in the final weeks of 2010, but only began showing strong growth toward the middle of 2011. It has maintained strong DAU/MAU rates through the year, even approaching the 30% range for several months.

6 — Zombie Lane: 400,000 DAU, 2.1 million MAU
Digital Chocolate’s zombie-themed RPG launched in March, enjoyed sharp growth from April to June, peaking at about 1.5 million DAU, then began a slow slide of users for most the rest of the year. Its growth finally stabilized around October.

5 — Magic Land: 520,000 DAU, 2.4 million MAU
Wooga’s fantasy-themed city sim launched in August, and has enjoyed strong, steady growth of DAU since then, reaching its current peak this month. A mobile companion game debuted on Facebook’s HTML5-based mobile platform in October.

4 — BINGO Blitz: 880,000 DAU, 2.8 million MAU
Buffalo Studios launched its Facebook-era update to the classic board game around the start of the year, and has enjoyed strong growth and very heavy engagement rates since, with a DAU/MAU rate in the 30-35% range for most of its run.

3 — Gardens of Time: 2 million DAU, 8.5 million MAU

Launching in April, Disney Playdom’s hidden object puzzle game enjoyed sharp growth in its first couple months, a slower growth rate in the next three months, then saw a steady but gradual loss of users starting in September. However, the game’s DAU/MAU rate has remained strong throughout its run, and has fluctuated between 22% and 26% in the last three months.

2 — Diamond Dash: 2.8 million DAU, 11.8 million MAU

Wooga officially launched its arcade-style matching game in March, and has maintained a DAU/MAU rate of about 20% since then. Growth of DAU has also been consistent, with the game reaching its current peak this month. The game went cross-platform on iOS at the beginning of December.

1 — Words With Friends: 5.6 million DAU, 13.5 million MAU
Zynga launched the Facebook component of its Scrabble-like board game in July, allowing Facebook users to play games against users both on desktop and mobile. Growth has been consistently strong since then, with the game reaching its current peak of MAU and DAU this month. Words with Friends has maintained retention of over 40% since October when Facebook debuted its mobile platform with the game as a launch title, making it by the far the most engaging game on this top ten list.

A notable absence from this list is EA Playfish’s The Sims Social, which launched in late summer and still maintains a very large userbase of 5.1 million DAU and 27.7 million MAU. The reason the game didn’t make our top is due to a decline in overall traffic begun in October that brought retention rates below 20%. Similarly, the DAU/MAU rate of Zynga’s Empires & Allies (now with 16.1 million MAU and 3.1 million DAU) has been trending below 20% in recent months. Other prominent absences from our list include 6waves Lolapps’ Ravenskye City (launched in October, 20% retention), Zynga’s CastleVille (launched in November, 21% retention) and Zynga’s Mafia Wars 2 (also launched in October, 8% retention).

Interestingly, no single game genre dominates our list: Three are classified as casual arcade, two are fantasy-themed city sims, and two are gambling-themed with just one RPG and one hidden object game, plus a Scrabble clone at the very top. Also notable: The top ten games were created by nine different developers, with only one, wooga, creating two of the ten. While previous years in Facebook gaming have been dominated by one genre (such as farming sims) or one company (such as Zynga), 2011’s most popular games suggest a growing diversity and sophistication of the market.

Facebook Announces “Top” 2011 Games

Facebook has compiled a list of its most popular games for 2011, as well as lists of other games with notable achievements for the year.

The data was compiled primarily using active user counts and user reviews. Facebook adjusted its methods for counting active users in October, which may have had an impact on the final figures used to compile its lists. Facebook also tells us that, of its monthly gamers, 25% play at least ever other day with the average gamer playing more than three different titles per month.

Here’s the list of Facebook’s top 10 most popular:

Most popular games in 2011

  1. Gardens of Time (By Playdom)
  2. The Sims Social (By EA)
  3. Cityville  (By Zynga)
  4. DoubleDown Casino (by DoubleDown Entertainment)
  5. Indiana Jones Adventure World  (By Zynga)
  6. Words With Friends (By Zynga)
  7. Bingo Blitz (By Buffalo Studios)
  8. Empires & Allies (By Zynga)
  9. Slotomania-Slot Machines (By Playtika)
  10. Diamond Dash (By wooga)

Facebook also broke out special categories for the fashion, sports, and casino genres as well as a category for most popular games with 50,000 to 100,000 users and another for games with highest engagement figures in the 100,000 to 500,000 user category. You can check these out on Facebook’s blog.

Outplay Entertainment Ltd Kicks off Cross-Platform Business on Facebook

Scotland-based newcomer Outplay Entertainment enters the social and mobile game market this month with two games launched on Facebook that will eventually become cross-platform experiences on iOS and Android in the first quarter of 2012.

The term “cross-platform” has been used a lot by developers in the last year as Facebook-spawned devs make their first attempts at mobile games and mobile developers attempt to migrate their apps to Facebook and other social networks. It can mean two completely unrelated games that share a common theme, like CrowdStar’s It Girl for Facebook and Top Girl for mobile. It can mean a game that is identical across all platforms, but not connected by platforms, such as Rovio’s Angry Birds on G+ versus Angry Birds on just about every other device under the sun. It can also mean games that are the same game no matter what device the player users, like Zynga’s Words With Friends — which is what many developers term “true” cross-platform play.

Outplay Entertainment currently falls toward the Words With Friends end of the spectrum with its two games, Booty Quest and Word Trick. When the mobile versions launch, players will be able to initiate games on Facebook and then have that same game immediately available to them on iPhone or Android if they switch devices. For future projects, the developer may lean more toward CrowdStar’s cross-platform model where one platform has the “main” gameplay experience while another platform provides supplemental elements. Similar to what Ubisoft has planned for its upcoming Ghost Recon games, this could take the form of a mobile companion game generating additional currency or experience points for the Facebook main game.

For now, though, Outplay is focused on getting its foot in the social-mobile games door and scaling quickly. Though there is some skepticism that developers cannot use Facebook as a sustainable starting point on which to build a business, the developer feels it has an edge by virtue of experience, compelling gameplay, and ample resources to direct toward marketing. The company was founded by brothers Richard and Doug Hare, two video game industry veterans that have come a long way from 1997 when they first founded a development studio focused on porting Windows games to the PlayStation console. In the following interview, the brothers outline Outplay’s approach to the rapidly shifting market:

Inside Social Games: How two brothers can work together without killing each other?

Richard Hare, Outplay Entertainment Co-Founder (pictured right): It’s probably the fact that we grew up playing games together. It’s been a hobby and then it became a common interest. The first company of scale we created was The Collective, which we formed in 1997 with one other business partner, and focused on console development. We grew that over the course of eight years to 150 people, then we merged with Backbone Entertainment in 2005.

Doug Hare, Outplay Entertainment Co-Founder (pictured right, with child): We merged the companies, created Foundation 9 Entertainment, and then sold the majority of it in 2006. As a result of that investment, we grew to about 800 people in 11 different studios. That’s when we started [researching] Facebook as a platform and at the same time saw the [rise] of Apple with the launch of the App Store. It was difficult to go after those markets from within our company, so it ended up being easier to start a new company. We’re still substantial individual shareholders at Foundation 9, but we have no operational involvement.

ISG: How did you end up back in your native country, Scotland? What’s the development culture like there?

Doug: We started with the idea of doing Outplay in the states as a very virtualized company with lots of different individuals collaborating on the product — after 800 people, we were drawn to the idea of a small company. As we refined our view of the market, it became apparent that games were services rather than products you could fire [off] and forget, so we started realizing that we needed a fairly substantial internal capacity. We started looking at various locations where we could set that up, and [chose] Scotland. We came to that realization around April or May of last year and came back in September to start meeting with VCs and angels investors. We officially opened our doors in April 2011.

We can’t claim to be experts, but a lot of stuff happened while we were away [from Scotland]. But one of the surprising things [about] Scotland is that it’s the home of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto. Those games originated here and Grand Theft Auto is still developed here. [Video games] is not a huge industry in terms of headcount, but in terms of the size of the country — five million people — the amount of relevance is amazing for such a small country.

ISG: We’ve heard some people say that Facebook isn’t the best place to launch a studio anymore now that Zynga dominates the market and cost per install (CPI) is really high. Where do you see opportunity on the platform?

Doug: It’s a question of having the type of product people want to play. Whether it’s the App Store, the Android Market, Facebook, or Xbox Live, they have the same challenges around discoverability — grabbing people’s attention so that they come back. [The opportunity] comes from the quality of the product that we create, the genres that we select, and the part where we can direct a reasonable amount of marketing toward [the games] to get traction. We’re not trying to be Zynga, we’re not trying to compete for the same audience. They’re an atypical outlying phenomenon. We’re making different types of games that will ultimately attract a different audience.

ISG: Booty Quest is a match-3 game and Word Trick is more like more like Scrabble, both very casual older female-skewing genres. Is that the demographic you’re primarily focused on?

Richard: There’s a multitude of reasons why we led with those genres. From our perspective, they’re great games. It’s a style of casual game that we enjoy playing. And because we’re forming a new team in a new country, we wanted smaller scale products with a relatively constrained and focused style of developing. From a market analysis standpoint, they seemed like logical bets to start with [because] even though there are many match-3 games, there’s a large appetite for that style of entertainment. We also felt we could create something that was innovative within those [genres]. These are an exercise in proving out the team and proving out our product. As we move into next year, you’re going to see more complexity in content types and development.

ISG: How do you offset CPI on new games, being such a new studio? Is it all in the marketing or will you integrate an ad platform or hot new viral mechanic no one’s thought of yet?

Doug: We’re moving rapidly and beyond simple raw marketing. We have other secret sauce as to how we [attract] audiences that we’ll be rolling out next year. It’s something along the lines of what you mentioned — only it’s saucier and more secret.

ISG: On the cross-platform side, what’s your approach? Are you using HTML5 or building native apps by platform?

Doug: We built our own technology for cross-platform development. HTML5 is interesting, but the experience that we have on mobile devices is just not something that you’d be able to get on HTML5 right now.

Word Trick and Booty Quest exist very happily on [PC or mobile]; the experience is satisfying regardless of the platform. However, that’s [not the case] for most types of games. Taking another type of game and making the same experience [on multiple platforms], one of them is going to be a pure experience on one of the platforms whether you like it or not. We’re not going to make the games identical all the time; we’re going to have games that you want to play on Facebook, on PC. And then we’ll have another game that’s a different experience [but related to the Facebook game] on a different platform. The two games are standalone, but if you play both, you’ll move faster through the experience. It’ll be a better experience overall.

There are other companies that are doing this. But there will be a change in the patterns that people play [by] and we want to have an approach to where we’ll be there whenever [the player] want us, no matter what the device.

Richard: The key is being sensitive to the context of the platform you’re playing on. There’s certain things that work extremely well or are only possible on mobile. We want to make sure it’s not going to be an exercise in porting between desktop and mobile, but trying to recognize the true experience based on the context. We’re not going to do, “Here’s the Facebook game,” and then a few months later, “Here’s the mobile game.”

ISG: You define your games as “skill-based,” even though they’re not actually related to the concept of gambling — where players compete against one another to earn prizes relative to their skill. What does the term “skill-based” mean in the context of your games?

Richard: One way of looking at it would be that there’s always a level of challenge that can be worked and mastered. That’s something that has a natural appeal and draw over time because it’s not too easy. With gameplay mechanics, we want to make sure that it’s always rewarding and satisfying. It’s finding the right level of skill or challenge. That will be based on the style of product — [Booty Quest] is more reaction-based while [Word Trick] challenges your vocabulary.

Doug: Both games require you to develop [a skill]. It’s rewarding to see your development of that skill, more fundamentally satisfying than games that are based on patience. The term “skill-based” reflects casino gaming, but the idea is really that you’re demonstrating a skill and the evolution of that skill is underpinning the overall enjoyment. There are a lot of games on Facebook that don’t have the requirements for what [we define as] skill. They have behaviors that can be rewarded, but there’s no change in behavior.

ISG: What does the road ahead look like for you, beyond launching new products? Are you in the process of raising funding?
Doug: We raised our seed funding at the start of the year, so we’re not raising money right now. When we pitched the company as an investment opportunity, the idea was that we were going into it [with] the functionality a publisher would have — dedicated community management, dedicated quality assurance, marketing, and public relations. We’re at 32 people right now — we started with two in April — and we grew ourselves in the space of three-and-a-half months. We’ve built these games and mobile versions that are nearly complete. What we’ve accomplished, when you think about it, is quite a lot.

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