Disney, Playdom find growing success with Kitchen Scramble on Facebook

kitchen-scramble-650-finalImage via Disney

Disney’s Playdom has created a new hit on Facebook with Kitchen Scramble, a game that capitalizes on the growing popularity of food trucks by allowing players to take over their own food truck, bringing healthy food to people all around the world.

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Disney City Girl combines the Disney brand with the lasting appeal of social fashion games

Last week, Playdom’s Disney City Girl officially launched on Facebook, following a few weeks of it appearing on our weekly lists of emerging games. The game was developed by Playdom’s studio in Eugene, Oregon. Inside Social Games sat down to chat with Product Manager Rachel Nordquist, Senior Producer Alex Swanson and Lead Designer Martha Sapeta about the game and Playdom’s upcoming plans for it.

All three are social gaming veterans who have been with Playdom for quiet some time. Before this, Nordquist and Swanson worked together on Social City, while Sapeta cut her teeth at the company with Blackwood and Bell Mysteries as well as Sorority Life. For all three, Disney City Girl represented an opportunity to combine different genres into a single title. Even though it can be argued the appeal of lifestyle management games has passed based on the decline of more high-profile titles like The Sims Social and The Ville, Nordquist points out the game is the logical next step for Playdom.

“When we were originally looking at designing this game, that was one piece of the puzzle: the life management,” she tells us. “We have expertise in the builder space, as well as the fashion genre. So when we were looking at the genre as a whole, we saw a gap. There’s definitely some fashion games out there, but they just didn’t fulfill the need that we felt the need we could combining our expertise in the two spaces.

“We were looking at making a richer experience.” (more…)

Disney City Girl review

Disney City Girl is a life simulation Facebook game from Disney Playdom. It first came out in November, and has been showing up on the Emerging Facebook Games charts recently. It’s also available to play on Playdom’s web portal.

Disney City Girl casts players in the role of a girl who has graduated from college and decides to move to New York in an attempt to make something of her life. There is no option to play as a male character — unsurprising, given the title, but there is very little in the game that is not relevant to both genders. It is therefore somewhat surprising to see Playdom limiting its audience like this — the game is clearly heavily inspired by The Sims, which ably caters to players of both genders and all sexualities rather than limiting itself to the narrow stereotype of the shopping-obsessed girl.

It would not have been too much of a stretch for the game to be called something along the lines of “Disney City Life” and provide the ability for both genders to represent themselves as they saw fit, but sadly it is not to be, it seems. According to the developers, this is because the “paper doll” mechanic of dressing up an avatar is supposedly more popular with female players, and that female avatars get more interesting clothing. While this may well be true, it seems unnecessarily exclusionary and feels like pandering to stereotypes. (more…)

Full Bloom review

Full Bloom is a Facebook game from Disney Playdom. It has been around since April of this year but has recently undergone something of a growth spurt, showing up as the No. 19 top gainer by DAU at the time of writing.

Full Bloom starts up by loading its main screen and then immediately asking the player to click on a button to load another screen as part of its tutorial. It doesn’t give any context as to what the game is about, doesn’t give an introduction sequence and doesn’t introduce who this character issuing orders is. This doesn’t set the best first impression, particularly when following the instructions appears to throw the player into yet another very conventional-looking level-based match-3 puzzler. (more…)

Marvel gears up to launch Avengers Initiative for iOS and Android

Marvel Comics is getting ready to roll out its new episodic mobile game, Avengers Initiative. The game is a high-production value action adventure designed to appeal to core Marvel fans and will also see the first steps towards connecting all Marvel games with the live service Marvel XP.

Starting where Avengers Alliance leaves off

Avengers Initiative is set in the same universe as Disney Playdom’s Facebook game, Marvel: Avengers Alliance. The game is planned to be episodic, with the first episode taking place after “The Pulse” (a kind of super EMP blast) sweeps the nation and knocks out power everywhere. Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. calls in every super hero available and starts sending them out to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Gameplay is similar to that of Chair Entertainment’s Infinity Blade, providing a third-person perspective and gesture-based combat. The Hulk’s progression is determined by tapping on various waypoints, allowing him to take a somewhat open-ended journey through the game. There are a number of minions to fight in between various boss battles starring classic Hulk villains like Wendigo, Zzzax and the Abomination. Winning battles earns experience points, and when the Hulk levels up players can increase his attributes. Likewise, there are also a number of purchasable costumes — providing different types of combat bonuses — that are based on some of the more famous alternate versions of the Hulk, including Maestro and the recent makeover the character received during the Fear Itself storyline.

The game’s developed by Disney-owned Wideload Games, which created the critically-hailed Guilty Party for the Nintendo Wii. According to Patrick Moran, director of production from Wideload Games, the game’s been in development for 14 months and has had 36 concurrent developers working on it.

Moran acknowledges the influence of Infinity Blade on Avengers Initiative, saying the play mechanics allowed Wideload Games to create a fun game based on the Hulk, something that has only been done once or twice in the character’s 28-year history in the video game industry. “When that game came out, it opened up this whole genre and there are all these different ways you can expand into it. We wanted to do it in a way that spoke to the Marvel characters.”

Players can acquire ISO-8, the in-game currency, through battles and picking it up as they wander through the game. Both IS0-8 and experience levels can be bought as in-app purchases, but the game was specifically designed so it can be beaten without spending any money on it outside of the $6.99 price tag.

The Triangle of Success

According to Marvel’s Vice President of Game Production TQ Jefferson, Marvel is re-devoting itself to creating quality games across all platforms, including consoles, mobile devices, social networks and the open web. Each of these games has to adhere to three core principles, nicknamed the “triangle for success”: deliver fun/engaging gameplay, a compelling story and true-to-character experiences.

Marvel is in the process of linking its various games together with Marvel XP, the live service currently in place with Avengers Alliance. Avengers Initiative will also allow users to access Marvel XP from within the game. According to Jefferson and Moran, if a player is active in both Avengers Alliance and Avengers Initiative and has connected to Marvel XP, the service will track that player’s progress and unlock special rewards in connected titles. When asked for specifics about what type of rewards could be expected, we’re told that this hasn’t been finalized but each developer will determine the reward content within their own games.

The implementation of Marvel XP doesn’t end here, either. When we were at the Penny Arcade Expo over the weekend, we chatted with developers working on the upcoming massively-multiplayer online role-playing game Marvel Heroes and ngmoco’s Marvel: War of Heroes. We heard from both of these groups that they were in discussions with Marvel about how to use the service and what kind of rewards players will be able to expect from logging into it. The people we spoke to couldn’t go into specifics, but it definitely sounds like Marvel XP will be implemented in many more titles in order to create a single gaming universe based on the comic company’s intellectual property.

Avengers Initiative will be available for iOS and select Android devices on Google Play on Thursday, September 6.

Threads of Mystery review

Threads of Mystery is a Facebook-based hidden object game from Playdom. The game has been showing activity since May of this year but has been enjoying some significant gains recently, as well as a spot in the “Trending” section of Facebook’s App Center.

Threads of Mystery is a narrative-heavy game in which players are tasked with investigating the murder of a young woman named Rose. The ghost of Rose assists the player in the initial stages, but a number of additional characters show up as the narrative progresses, giving the game a strong “adventure game” feel rather than being a string of seemingly unconnected hidden object scenes loosely tied together by a weak story. This feeling is further enhanced by the fact that the hidden object scenes are presented as “hotspots” around various locations, giving the player a real sense of actually moving around and investigating rather than simply picking scenes to play from a menu.

The hidden object scenes themselves are very conventional, with players receiving bonuses for finding items accurately and in rapid succession. Up to five “stars” may be accumulated in each scene, and some quests require players to achieve a particular star rating before progressing — though these “grind-heavy” objectives are actually kept to a relative minimum compared to some other examples of the genre — including those from Playdom. Instead, objectives often demand that the player locate a specific clue or material in the scene to advance the story, which provides some good context to what the player is doing while they are rummaging amid all the teacups, peacocks and discarded candlesticks that are scattered around Paris.

Outside of the hidden object scenes, players have a “fashion house” to build up. Like in Playdom’s other titles, purchasing decorative items for this personal space not only allows the player a degree of self-expression but also contributes to a “spirit” meter — when this levels up, new scenes are unlocked in the story.

This isn’t the only way progression is managed, however. Threads of Mystery is a somewhat unusual example of the hidden object genre in that it also includes a crafting component. Certain questlines require that the player have particular items in their possession, many of which can only be acquired by constructing crafting equipment in the fashion house and then using various materials to create the items. For example, relatively early in the game, the player needs to get into the Moulin Rouge, but is unable to do so if they are not wearing a cocktail dress.

Some materials are hidden in the normal hidden object scenes, some may only be acquired through gift exchanges with friends and others may only be found by visiting friends’ fashion houses. Once all the materials have been collected, the item takes a period of real time to complete — a period which, as usual, may be bypassed using hard currency. Indeed, most of the material collecting and quest objectives may be bypassed with hard currency.

Notably, though, while these “social” objectives are in the player’s quest log, there always seems to be something else they can also get on with doing by themselves, minimising downtime and frustration at friend-gated content. This is a good implementation of social mechanics that encourages players to invite their friends to play while ensuring they always have something to do. Disappointingly, this doesn’t preclude the game from regular popup nag screens to invite friends and send gifts, most of which cause the game to switch out of full-screen mode any time they are clicked.

The game monetizes through hard currency and an energy system, both of which are relatively unobtrusive. The energy allocation the player gets is relatively generous, and relatively frequent level-ups tend to refill it before it empties, at least early in the game. Premium items, meanwhile, allow the player to customize their fashion house as they please, and also provide a significant bonus to the “spirit” score, allowing for more rapid progress through the story.

All in all, then, Threads of Mystery is an excellent addition to the hidden object genre. Its gameplay fits well with the narrative, the “building” component carries the interesting new crafting mechanic to elevate it above its rivals, and the story itself is compelling enough to keep players coming back for more. It’s a strong offering from Playdom that deserves to enjoy some success.

Play

A good addition to the hidden object genre; while not overly revolutionary, all its systems mesh well together to create a much more coherent experience than some of its rivals.

Pilarina Estrada comes to Amazon Game Studios from Disney Playdom

Pilarina Estrada is no longer at Disney Playdom and her LinkedIn profile shows she is now at Amazon Game Studios as its Head of Product, Social Games Platform.

Estrada began working at Playdom in May 2010 and most recently served as the company’s Senior Manager, Monetization and Strategy. An industry source says she was instrumental in getting the recently-launched subscription program for Facebook apps off the ground. Playdom was one of the beta partners with Facebook for the program, offering in-game gold and exclusive items in its popular hidden object game Gardens of Time for $15 a month.

Although Amazon’s Game Studios only has one game out, one thing that its parent company knows backwards and forwards is e-commerce and how to manage payments. The company came out of stealth last week and launched its first title on Facebook, the “moving object game” Living Classics.

We’ve been aware of Amazon hiring for game development since May 2011, but Estrada is the first big name hire for the division. Likewise, Amazon’s been increasingly focused on games in recent months; in June, it was revealed the company was planning to release tools for mobile developers to add social features to Kindle Fire games.

Playdom invading core gamer territory with Mobsters: Criminal Empire

Disney Playdom is once again returning to its organized crime roots, launching Mobsters: Criminal Empire on Facebook today. The game’s was stealthily rolled out on the social network this weekend, and it’s getting a widespread launch today.

Mobsters: Criminal Empire is the third entry to Playdom’s “Mobsters” franchise, following Mobsters and Mobsters 2: Vengeance. The game is a resource management/real time strategy game that casts players as members of an organized crime family taking over their home city and waging war on their neighbors. This time around, Playdom is adding some high-gloss production values and also making battles a more hands-on affair.

Gameplay mainly takes place on city maps broken into blocks, each of which contains different buildings that generate different kinds of resources like currency and troops to train. Players can take over the blocks in just about any order they want, allowing them to build a custom criminal empire. Although each city will contain over 100 buildings, only a small selection of them can be seen at the start of the game due to a fog surrounding the map, though the fog is pushed back as the player’s territory expands.

One of the biggest additions Mobsters: Criminal Empire is providing to its series is its player avatar. Players choose a custom avatar that they can use to help lead the charge when attacking other users’ cities. As players level up, they can unlock and purchase new weapons and armor for their avatar to use during battles.

Playdom is incorporating more strategy mechanics into its game, something Executive Producer Adam Prewett says should help the studio acquire a share of the oft-desired core gamer audience.  We were given a demonstration of how this worked in both the player-versus-environment and player-versus-player gameplay.

In order for players to take control of different buildings in their city, they have to defeat the structures’ defenders. Players can send out smaller strike forces tailored to take advantage of the defenders’ weaknesses, or they can direct an entire army to overwhelm the building. This seemed pretty basic, but strategy becomes much more important during PvP battles: An invading player can choose what side of a target city to invade from, so if a targeted player only has defenses placed on one or two sides, they can be circumvented with a fair degree of ease. Player avatars can be directed around an opponent’s city, while it looked like friendly minions were controlled by the game’s A.I. Meanwhile, players will also want to make sure their own defenses are solidly in place, putting things like roadblocks and dumpsters in the streets and snipers in the buildings, else they get wiped out by an opposing army.

Many PvP games — social and mainstream — often feature guilds for players to join. Prewett says Mobsters: Criminal Empire doesn’t contain guilds at the time of launch, but the feature is being worked on and should launch sometime within five to six weeks.

Prewett says Playdom is expecting to acquire a player base of a few hundred thousand daily active users, which is in keeping with the number of users genre leader Kixeye has with its games (War Commander is its most popular title with 430,000 DAU). While this is certainly a possibility — especially considering how Playdom has a 3.3 million DAU audience to promote the game to — the mob genre of games isn’t at its most popular on Facebook and the Mobsters brand has faded from the public eye, especially once Zynga and Playdom settled their year-long lawsuit that alleged former Zynga employees stole trade secrets when they joined Playdom.

Mobsters 2: Vendetta is down to 30,000 DAU, but its peak level in November 2009 was only  704,000. Zynga’s Mafia Wars franchise isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. The original Mafia Wars, which peaked in November 2009 with 6.9 million DAU, is now hovering around the 350,000 mark. Mafia Wars 2 is even lower; it’s fallen far from its November 2011 high point of 2.8 million DAU and now only has 50,000.

At the moment, there are no plans to bring the game to mobile devices (like it did with the original Mobsters), but Prewett tells us the title could very possibly go  cross-platform if it’s a success on Facebook.

Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers takes players on a hidden object safari adventure

Disney Playdom is taking its third foray into the popular hidden object game genre with its newest release Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers, an “edutainment” take on this particular style of puzzle adventure. Players will find themselves exploring African, Asian and American habitats in order to track down a variety of real creatures while learning facts about them.

Disney Playdom has previously enjoyed a great deal of success in this genre, with Gardens of Time being named Facebook’s number one title of 2011 and recent title Blackwood & Bell Mysteries picking up over 2 million monthly active users. Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers doesn’t deviate significantly from the format established by its predecessors — the tutorial follows the exact same sequence of events as in the other games, and the screen layout is identical — but the educational angle adds a welcome twist which makes the game particularly appropriate for parents and children to enjoy together.

As with most other hidden object titles on Facebook, gameplay alternates between the hidden object scenes themselves and decorating a personal space in order to earn enough points to unlock new levels. In the case of Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers, the player is building up a nature reserve and populating it with animals, trees, plants and tribal huts. All of the animals and trees are real species, and the quests which guide placement of them teach players about various creatures’ habitats and feeding habits. Visuals in this part of the game are rather cartoony and clash a little with the more realistic depictions seen in the hidden object scenes, though it does at least keep things clear. The isometric perspective occasionally causes problems, however, as it becomes impossible to click on completed building projects to unveil them if objects have been placed in front of them.

The hidden object scenes come in two distinct flavors — animal-spotting and story-based. The latter scenes present more traditional hidden object gameplay, with players searching through mountains of discarded junk in order to inexplicably locate a wrench, an African mask, a rainspout and a clock — though the story does often at least attempt to justify why players are searching through the garbage, which is more than some rival titles do. In one level, players might be cleaning up a village after a poacher invasion; in another, attempting to recover items of lost luggage. Players unlock powerups over the course of the game which help them locate tricky objects. These are useful, though the game is a little too hasty in nagging the player to use one, with a large and very distracting green arrow nudging them in the direction of the powerup panel after just a few seconds of inactivity.

It’s the animal-spotting hidden object scenes that are the highlight of Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers, however. Players are presented with a list of different animals to find in the scene, and are provided with additional hints on how to find them alongside the other powerups. Clicking on an animal’s specific hint option shows a picture of the animal as it appears in the scene and also provides the player with some trivia about the creature in question, thereby enabling them to learn as they play. The narrative context of the animal-spotting scenes is also educational — for example, in one early level, players are invited to witness a mass migration of animals following heavy rainfall on the African plain.

There is a lot of content in Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers already, with the game’s story unfolding across six chapters, each featuring five regular hidden object scenes and one “Premium” scene to unlock with hard  currency. Social features are a little underdeveloped, however, with visiting friends’ preserves being a largely non-interactive process that simply rewards players with soft currency and experience for turning up. There is a robust leaderboard system for each scene, however, encouraging friendly competition between players — though it would perhaps be nice to see some sort of global leaderboard as well as just for Facebook friends.

There’s very little that is new or innovative in Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers — it’s very clear that the game is pretty much a reskin of Gardens of Time and Blackwood & Bell Mysteries — but the educational angle gives the game a distinctive flavor and makes it particularly family-friendly. Its recognizable Disney Animal Kingdom branding will also ensures it finds some a loyal fanbase among those who have visited Florida’s giant zoo.

As a new Facebook game, Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers is not yet listed on our traffic tracking service AppData at the time of writing. Shortly you’ll be able to follow the progress of its monthly and daily active user counts along with audience estimations and other data, so check back soon for the latest analysis.

Play

While its core gameplay may be totally unoriginal, the educational content of Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers makes it worthy of note.

Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers mixes hidden object gameplay and wildlife education on Facebook

Disney Playdom looks for a second Gardens of Time-style success in the next few weeks with Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers, a Facebook hidden object game based on the Florida theme park of the same name.

Eric Todd, VP of product and creative director, and Lead Producer Patrick Hsieh walked Inside Social Games through a demo of the game. Developed by Disney’s Studio 24, Animal Kingdom Explorers is billed as a spiritual successor to Gardens of Time (which Studio 24 also created), though it very obviously has little in common with Gardens of Time spin-off Blackwood & Bell. The new game’s story will follow players as they join the Global Wildlife Research Team, visit locations around the globe and work with different nature specialists. Each nature scene contains animals to sort through and identify, as opposed to random items. Todd explained that players enjoyed learning about history in Gardens of Time, and so Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers will use the same kinds of techniques — like lists of animals’ names and pop-up facts —  to teach nature trivia.

Playing the demo for ourselves on Facebook reveals additional animal lessons hidden within Animal Kingdom Explorers. Players are given a list of animals to identify at the bottom of the screen, ranging from well-known creatures like chimpanzees to obscure critters like okapi. Puzzle tools include the usual magnifying glass and goggles, plus a a thermometer that indicates how “hot” or “cold” the mouse is to listed animals — which comes in handy if the player doesn’t know what an animal looks like.

Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers also includes a version of the garden decoration feature from Gardens of Time. Players build a nature preserve around the Tree of Life, the iconic centerpiece of the real world Animal Kingdom park. The screens that Todd and Hsieh presented included a wide variety of plants, animals and structures to place, though there was also a nod to Disney animation with Pride Rock from the Lion King on display. The preserve also generates bonuses when players put animals in environments they would normally be in, such as giraffes appearing next to the acacia trees from which they eat.

Although the Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers loading screen logo includes a dragon and a triceratops, Hsieh stated that only real world animals will appear in the game for the time being. He noted that fantastical elements and creatures may be included later on, citing how Tibetan yetis were known to be “real” for hundreds of years before becoming a part of modern day cryptozoological lore.

Hsieh also pointed out that players might occasionally see characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse wandering through their preserves from time to time. We’ve seen Playdom implementing Disney branding to great effect in GnomeTown and ESPN Facebook games, but this is the first Facebook game that we know of to feature Disney’s most sacred mascot.

Even without the Disney name at launch, however, Gardens of Time sets the bar high for Animal Kingdom Explorers. The game hit peaks of 17 million monthly active users and 4 million daily active users since its April 2011 launch, it currently brings in 6.4 million MAU and 1.4 million DAU. Whether or not Animal Kingdom Explorers is able to see similar success remains to be seen, but the game certainly looks like it’s got the potential thanks to the elements that made its predecessor so popular.

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