Inside Social Games starts scoring game reviews

Inside Social Games is changing its reviews policy today to include a three-point ratings scale organized by three simple words: Play, Skip and Wait.

What It Looks Like

The scale is based on time. The most important piece of information ISG can provide is whether or not a game is worth a reader’s time. It takes time to get into a new social game — setting up the permissions, going through the tutorial, adding friends, etc. Even the simplest games with the cleanest interfaces and shortest tutorials take a good five minutes from first click to actual gameplay — and with so many social games launching on Facebook and Google+, that might be time our readers don’t have.

A Play rating means it’s worth the reader’s time to play the game.

A Skip rating means that a game isn’t worth the reader’s time.

A Wait rating indicates that the game might not be worth the reader’s time right now, but it has the potential to grow into a game that earns a Play rating.

Our reviews will still provide gameplay analysis, screenshots, currently monthly and daily active user totals as tracked by our AppData traffic monitoring service and any context the developer can provide if we’re able to reach them. As almost all games now monetize in the same ways and leverage the same social features, we won’t make mention of these components unless a game does something new or interesting with them. We will share a bit of opinion on a game based on our personal response to it — but our reviews are intended as interpretive analysis rather than stand-up comedy.

How It Works

How we pick a rating for a game is based on our approach to social games overall. In contrast to consumer-facing video game publications like Games.com or Gamezebo, we’re analysts that cater to an audience of developers, investors and other industry insiders that need information to make informed decisions — not just about what they’ll play for fun, but what they’ll do with their own companies.

From this perspective, we judge social games based on one question: “Will this work?” That can mean several things for a game: It monetizes, it finds traction on its platform, or the developer is supporting a game so thoroughly that we can expect to see it everywhere for the next year. Notice that we don’t bother to say that a game is “good;” that term is too subjective to have any meaning to our readers. We’ve seen plenty of “good” games on Facebook fail to monetize, fail to attract an audience or go offline after barely six months. Being “good” isn’t a guarantee that a game will work.

The flip side of that is that we won’t tell you a game is “bad” based on the fact that we don’t like it. Plenty of games do things we don’t like such as spamming us, hitting us with pay walls right after the tutorial, playing repetitive sounds, cloning a different game we’ve already spent months playing, etc. Games may also just fail to appeal to us because of art style or genre. None of these things would necessarily stop a game from working, however, unless something is bad enough to be distracting or damaging to the core gameplay experience.

We will tell you when a game isn’t ready. Many times in 2010, our reviewers would encounter games in the early beta stage where graphics are missing, social features aren’t optimized and sometimes monetization isn’t even implemented yet. In 2011, Zynga started providing hands-off press demos of new games just days before launch, sometimes with content that we couldn’t expect to see when the game went live because the developer would decide to cut it based on early user feedback. We could wait these games out and return to them when we think they might be ready — like when a developer “officially” launches the game or once it hits a certain number of monthly active users. But so many games get lost in the shuffle as new titles launch that this approach is sloppy. It’s better we see the game in the conditions we found it (via social discovery, word-of-mouth or sudden spike in AppData activity) and report back to the readers in a timely fashion.

Why We’re Doing It

We’ve gone back and forth over the concept of scoring games since the blog launched in 2008. At first, we used a 10-point scale derived from scores in sub-categories like “graphics” or “sound” that resembles the old methods used by traditional video games press. Sometime in 2009, the then-lead writer scrapped scores after deciding that the practice didn’t make much sense because most of the leading games came from the same pool of developers and each had relatively similar themes and standards of quality. We brought it back briefly at the end of 2011 in the short-lived “What we’re playing” articles; but these pieces lacked context and focus.

We’re trying it again because we feel social games deserve recognition beyond what they can earn for themselves in terms of traffic. The quality bar is higher now for social games than it was just 18 months ago and barriers to entry are rising on Facebook and Google+. While most of the leading game developers still hold top spots in traffic, some developers are taking risks in game design instead of just following whatever trend is hot right now (today, it’s casino games — this time last year it was citybuilders). There are also games that will never break the top 25 in MAU or DAU but can still be counted as successes because they find their audiences and monetize them well. Even without investor funding or hope of a successful exit, a game might still be “worth it” to our readers and a score the easiest way for us to help readers find those games.

The decision to avoid numbered scores reflects an overall attitude in video games journalism — numbers stopped having meaning when journalists stopped using all points on the scale. Score aggregators like Metacritic further obfuscate the actual quality of a game as it relates to the score. Also, as we’ve said before, social games change rapidly and a numbered score can’t possibly keep pace.

Scored reviews will start appearing on ISG today. There are currently no plans to apply the scoring system to mobile games on our sister site, Inside Mobile Apps. As always, we invite reader feedback in the comments or via email at mail (at) insidesocialgames (dot) com.

Facebook Updates Credits Payflow, Adds International Payment Methods, and Updates Transfer Policy

Facebook has announced several updates to Credits today with changes that resolve a known pay flow issue, add additional payment methods for international markets, and restrict applications from transferring Credits between each other without prior authorization.

The pay flow issue deals with one of the three callbacks generated by the Pay Dialog. A recent change to the callback status=settled resulted in some cases in which users were not getting the item that they paid for. To avoid this problem, Facebook is now asking developers to fulfill orders on the callback status=placed instead of waiting around for status=settled. To completely eliminate confusion, Facebook is removing the status=settled callback 90 days from now.

Next up, Facebook Credits now supports additional payment methods in Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Latin America. The new methods added are:

  • ELV (Germany)
  • MyCard Mobile (HongKong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan)
  • Visa Electron (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand)
  • WebBilling Online Bank Transfer (Austria, Germany, Spain, Switzerland)

Find the full list of supported countries and payment methods here.

Lastly, Facebook has updated its Credits policy to restrict apps from transferring Credits between one another without prior approval from Facebook. The new policy:

2.14 You may not accept Credits in one application and deliver or transfer the purchase to the user in another app without our prior authorization. For example, an app solely designed to facilitate transactions is not permitted.

This will affect dubious apps that facilitate illegal gambling, and may also affect certain game developers that attempt to use one type of premium currency across more than one game running on different app IDs — but it sounds like Facebook is willing to make allowances for cases like that if the developer presents them.

Facebook also notes that developers should keep their company info up to date in order to receive payouts. The Facebook Credits documentation has also been revamped to address developer feedback.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Inside Facebook.

Facebook Finally Releases Official iPad App with Multi-Conversation Chat, Photo Browser and More

Facebook has just released its official iPad app. The tablet device was unveiled in January 2010, but development and negotiations with Apple stalled the release of Facebook’s app until now. It should become available in the App Store soon.

A slide-out navigation bar will allow users to briskly move between the app’s many features. Persistent access to notifications, messages, and requests means users can check for new alerts without having to losing their place as they do with Facebook for iPhone’s dedicated navigation grid screen. Other features include multi-conversation Chat and a full-screen photo browser.

With the iPad app available, Facebook today also announced the launch of its mobile application platform, which you can read more about here. Users will be able to access third-party apps and games from the official Facebook for iPad app, with bookmarks opening previously installed native apps or leading to the App Store where users can download them.

> Read the rest on Inside Facebook.

Facebook Makes Its Move: Brings Viral Channels to HTML5, iOS Apps

Facebook finally unveiled its long-awaited effort to help mobile developers market their native and HTML5-based apps through its platform today. iOS developers will get to take advantage of bookmarks, requests and the news feed in the same way that Facebook canvas developers do.

The interesting parts of today’s launch are:

Facebook is playing nice with Apple on viral distribution for native iOS apps, not just HTML5-based ones: If a developer wants to distribute a native application, Facebook’s notifications will send users to the iTunes app store.

So Facebook is not pressuring developers to build HTML5 apps in order to use its viral channels. This is a big deal because it means Facebook’s mobile platform will have greater adoption by iOS developers who don’t want to split their limited resources between developing natively and on HTML5. While promising, HTML5 apps still have a noticeable performance disparity compared to native iOS applications. It’s especially pronounced with games, which are the largest revenue driver on both platforms.

It’s unclear if Facebook will get affiliate revenue for the downloads it drives like other mobile-social gaming networks such as GREE’s OpenFeint do.

Parallel viral channels on Android will be coming soon. There’s no official date though.

Facebook Credits have arrived for mobile web apps (as was widely anticipated): HTML5 developers that want to use Credits as their payment mechanism must use it exclusively. Native iOS apps have to use Apple’s payment system, however. This split in payments between web-based and native apps is expected given that Apple is unlikely to give up revenue from in-app payments and paid downloads.

We were the first to report that Facebook might use an HTML5 platform as a way to extend Credits to mobile back in February, four months before any mainstream outlets wrote about it. And we also correctly reported the launch date as three weeks away from f8 while other blogs incorrectly said this would launch last week at Apple’s event.

And here are the key viral channels for mobile developers:

Requests: This may be the most effective new viral channel for iOS developers launching today. If a user gets a request from a friend to join an app, they can respond to it from their iPhone. Then they’ll be sent to either the app’s mobile website or to the iTunes store where they can download the native version.

News Feed: Users can click on news feed items and be directed to the HTML5-based app or the iTunes store, where they’ll be able to download the native version.

Bookmarks: Like on the web, users will get to save bookmarks to app they use. If users tap on a bookmark, Facebook’s iPhone or iPad app will launch the app if it’s installed or they will send the user to the iTunes store. (Given that bookmarks are already buried one layer deep in the Facebook app, we suspect users might be more inclined to launch apps directly from their phone.)

Google+ APIs Launching Today

Google is launching the first batch of its Google+ APIs to developers today, allowing them to play around with public data already available on the platform.

The Google blog announcing the release walks developers through a few of the simpler API calls that retrieve profile information and recent public posts (a full list is available here). All apps need to be registered before they can send requests to the Google+ API. Apps can collection this information from first-time users with the plus.me OAuth2 scope that generates a dialogue box:

As far as the game-building aspect goes, Google is providing open source libraries for several game-friendly languages, including Java, Python, Ruby, PHP, Objective C, and .NET. Documentation, terms and policies can be found on the Google Developers site.

The Google+ Games platform currently only has a handful of titles available from developer partners including Playdom, Zynga and wooga. Two titles were also developed by Google in-house outfit LabPixies, which was acquired last year. We had hoped to see some games from Slide — which was also bought by Google — on the G+ Games platform, but the studio shut its doors late last month.

Developers Uncertain After Changes to Apple’s iOS Rankings, Incentivized Install Rules

It has been an intense week for freemium game developers on Apple’s iOS platform — and the drama has yet to be resolved, as we’ve been covering over on Inside Mobile Apps. By last Sunday, a number of service providers for iOS developers were reporting odd changes in Apple’s top apps rankings in its iTunes App Store.

Some apps rose to the top after months of lower rankings for no apparent reason, while others were buried. Facebook, for example, suddenly became the most popular top free application on iOS despite not having made any recent changes and not having been #1 since at least July 2009 — which suggested that daily and monthly usage could be newly important factors. At the same time, some games lost their ranking spots. But as of Tuesday, the rankings changed back to favoring new games that apparently had high downloads rates. It’s not clear what factors Apple is considering now in the rankings.

Meanwhile, developers began receiving rejection notices starting late last week from Apple for new submissions that contain offer walls where users can get rewards for downloading other developers’ games. The rejection notices argue that offer walls have an “excessive influence” on the chart ranking.

Apple has been mum and many service providers have also gone quiet as they try to come to up with solutions. We’ll be covering these changes as we learn more, over on Inside Mobile Apps.

In the meantime, we’ve been leading coverage of the issues over the past week. In case you’ve missed it, be sure to check out the following articles, in chronological order:

Facebook’s Big Credits Push Shows Itself in CityVille, Other Top Social Games

Over the past year, Facebook has steadily worked to make Credits the only payments option on its platform, but has given few specifics details on what it’s doing during the transition. Below, we take a fresh look at Facebook, its top developers and the platform providers to help clear up where Credits will go in 2011.

Although it has never said so explicitly and publicly, Facebook has required, one by one, all major developers to sign five-year agreements agreeing to use Credits exclusively. That’s instead of the direct credit card payments, third-party offer walls, game cards, and other payment options that have until now been the main ways to buy virtual currency for social games and apps on the platform.

Facebook’s initial plan was to fully transition to Credits by the end of 2010, but the results might not be obvious today. For example, the two largest games on the platform — CityVille and FarmVille — show an offer wall, game cards, and a variety of other non-Credits payment methods.

Yet these two games, along with most others from leading developers, have already integrated Credits as the only method of paying using credit cards. As you can see in the screenshot below, you’re directed to spend your Credits, not buy the City Cash game currency directly. And that means Facebook is already beginning to make a significant amount of money from virtual goods revenue in social games.

Direct payments currently account for over 80 percent of revenue in most social games, as we cover in our Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming report, and that proportion has been increasing steadily over the last few years. So, because Facebook takes a 30 percent cut of all Credits revenue, it  is now beginning to pull in a large portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on virtual goods on the platform.

Where Credits Are Still Missing

Credits are visibly missing from some locations in games. Yet from what we’re hearing, that won’t be the case for much longer.

In the past year, companies have been pushing alternative monetization ahead on their own, keeping existing revenue streams intact during their transition to Credits. Many invested a significant amount of their own money in payment systems before Facebook began pushing the Credits requirement, which they have still been capitalizing on.

The most striking example of missing Credits is in CityVille — the largest Facebook app ever. Since launching at the beginning of December, half a year after Zynga agreed to sign on to Credits, CityVille has featured a wide range of the other options, including a non-Credits offer wall from Tapjoy. Zynga’s previous hit, FarmVille, also still has the Tapjoy offer wall that it has had for years (since back when Tapjoy was Offerpal).

As we wrote last week over on Inside Mobile Apps, Tapjoy is still seeing significant revenue from Facebook, while other offers companies have told us that their revenues on Facebook have been growing by around 20 percent every quarter in the past year.

Zynga was also busy adding other non-Credits payment options over the course of the past year: It announced programs with American Express and Citi nearly at the end of the year, allowing users to exchange their card loyalty reward points for virtual currency, even though Facebook has been building out its own loyalty exchange program over the same period.

Beyond Zynga, the usual variety of non-Credits payment options are also still live on established hits like Playfish’s Restaurant City and Playdom’s Social City, even though those companies have also already agreed to the five-year Credits deal.

How Long Until It’s All Credits?

Facebook, then, seems to have prioritized moving all direct payments over to Credits before messing with the variety of alternative payment options. That progression allows it to get Credits in front of the bulk of paying users while giving developers more flexibility around the switch. Since the larger companies were upset about their investments in their own payment structures going away, this slower rollout gives them some more time to monetize some of what they’ve built.

Meanwhile, although some developers have previously said that Credits make less total revenue than other methods, many have been saying that it works at least as well if not much better. The promise of Credits isn’t just a bigger piece of the revenue pie for Facebook but a bigger pie for all — with Facebook’s branding, promotion in the interface, site-wide usage, its own alternative payment options, everyone could make more money.

That seems to be happening more or less as the company has hoped, although there are still some potential problems in the system. For example, some developers report that over half of the Credits spent in their game are promotional Credits that Facebook does not pay them for. This problem is most severe for games with low-priced virtual goods, which may have led other developers to raise their prices. We’ve heard that these promotional Credits may slowly be washing out of the system, but as long as Facebook still offers promotional Credits, developers who don’t design with this problem in mind may find their revenues to be more diluted than expected.

We’ve also been hearing that Zynga is planning to move to Credits-based offers in all of its games within the next couple of months, and we expect other developers to do the same. That should bring most of the rest of the outstanding revenue in to Facebook, too.

We asked Zynga for comment its transition to Credits, and here’s a spokesperson’s response:

We are fully committed to Credits as the payment method we employ in our games on Facebook. We’re working closely with Facebook on transitioning offers and alternative payment options to Credits in our game interfaces over the course of the next few months. We can’t comment on specifics but are committed to extending all of the options for players to ensure the best user experience possible, including Zynga game cards.

We expect other developers are on a similar schedule. Look for the transition to be over soon.

For more, we’ll be discussing the ins and outs of Credits with Facebook and leading social game developers at our Inside Social Apps conference in San Francisco on January 25th.

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, January 3rd, 2011

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

With a Focus on Monetizing Mobile Apps, Tapjoy Leaves Its Scamville Past Behind

It’s hard to forget the shouting match that put an end to Offerpal’s heady days more than a year ago. The company, now known as Tapjoy, had become the prime target of Michael Arrington’s Scamville campaign for serving offers in Facebook games that signed up unwitting users for recurring charges.

At an industry summit, founder Anu Shukla ripped into Arrington’s accusations, calling them “Shit, double shit and bull shit,” in a now infamous exchange. Less than a week later, she was out. Soon after, the wild, early days of rampant growth on Facebook’s platform came to end, making way for a tougher, more expensive era in social gaming.

But one more CEO, a name change and a year later, Tapjoy has turned the corner by diversifying onto mobile platforms and keeping its offers clean with brands like Gap and Netflix.

It’s on track to have its highest total revenues ever on all platforms this quarter, says the company’s CEO Mihir Shah, who joined the company after Shukla stepped down. That’s on iOS, Android and Facebook. We’re also hearing from several sources that the company is close to announcing a third round of financing.

> Continue reading on Inside Mobile Apps.

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, December 6th, 2010

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Friday, December 10th, 2010

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