Roundup: hi5 Restructures Around Games Portal Model, Strikes Payment Partnership with Paymo

Hi5 LogoLast week, major global social network hi5 reportedly laid off about half of its 100 person staff after a potential large funding round fell through at the last moment. From the sound of things, hi5 kept the groups that have been working on its virtual currency system in tact, and is essentially reorganizing around a gaming portal business model. It appears that hi5 is betting it can monetize its international audience much better through transactions than it ever could through advertising.

It was just last month that hi5 announced that it had created a universal virtual currency, hi5 Coins, for its application platform. Any developer can integrate hi5 Coints into their applications. Meanwhile, in February hi5 also launched a Flash games portal from developers like Arkadium and others. However, unlike other Flash portals on social networks, hi5 has integrated the games directly into the site’s communication channels and virtual currency system.

paymo_logo_tm1In order to make it easier for users to purchase the new currency, hi5 also recently partnered with Paymo, a global mobile payments network. Now, Hi5 users can purchase hi5 Coins via their mobile phones without the use of a credit card in 24 countries. The move reflects a general industry trend: purchases of online goods without the use of credit cards have grown significantly. In fact, Paymo reports that more than 75 percent of Internet users worldwide do not even have a credit card. By contrast, Paymo says, approximately three billion consumers own a mobile phone.

With mobile payment services like Paymo, Zong, and Mobillcash, users do not need to have a credit card or purchase currency cards to acquire virtual goods. Instead, these mobile payment services allow users to simply enter their phone number on their website and reply to a text message sent to them. Assuming they respond to the text, the charge is then placed on their monthly phone bill.

Though this payment method is easy, such convenience comes at a price for users. In addition to the price they pay for the virtual currency, users must cough up an additional 10 percent service fee that Paymo charges them. Paymo justifies the charge by noting that cell phone carries have their own transaction fees, ranging anywhere from 20-40 percent. Assuming that these statistics of credit card versus mobile phone consumers is accurate, even a small portion of that three billion would render this partnership worthwhile for both companies.

Paradise Paintball is a 3D FPS Inside Facebook

Paradise PaintballAs social game developers become more sophisticated, 3D games are beginning to surface inside Facebook and MySpace.

Paradise Paintball is one such 3D game. This game puts the player into a paintball match on a gorgeously created tropical island against other players. Essentially, the game play is that of an older First Person Shooter’s multiplayer mode. Long story short, you join a game of up to eight players, pick a team and attempt to “splat” (basically kill) as many enemy players as you can in the time allotted.

Grenades Own AllEach player is granted two weapons: a machine gun/sniper rifle and what looks to be a grenade launcher. However, the weapons hardly seem balanced as most people just roll around with the grenade launcher since all you need to do is pull the trigger, and you will probably hit something. The machine gun is all right, but doesn’t quite hold up to a good grenade, and the sniper rifle feels more or less useless since you cannot even crouch down in order to hide. Even in the flat map (Lost Paradise), where it is used more, it just turns into a “spawn camping” fiasco as all you have to do is point at the name that popped up (you can see enemy names from quite a distance) and you will probably hit someone (assuming you didn’t get shot before getting your bearings in the first place).

The FPS title that comes to mind first with Paradise Paintball is Delta Force by Novalogic. However, unlike the old mainstream game, Paintball so far only has two smaller levels. For a Facebook game, this app is fun to play with your friends (or with just random people if you want) occasionally, but while it looks good, it still needs some design work.

In most shooters, the players get to choose their own weapons in one way or another, and if it is well balanced, each gun will have its own strengths and weaknesses. This is one of many key elements that make multiplayer FPS titles fun. While incomplete, some of the balancing is there all ready for Paradise Paintball: The machine gun is only really good at short range, the sniper is slow and long range only, and the grenade launcher can hurt anyone in range, including the shooter. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of the second element to exploit these strengths and weaknesses.

Sniping is FunLevel design is another critical feature in an FPS map. Each level needs to be carefully crafted in order to prevent dominant strategies (strategies that everyone uses). Sniper players should have areas with high ground where they can safely hide and not be noticed until the shot is fired, while the others should have ample places to take cover. Grenadier style players should have less available ammunition, long reload times, and a shorter range mixed with open areas where they would be weaker, and enclosed areas where they are stronger (assuming they don’t blow themselves up). And machine gun players should fall, more or less, in between these two types (at least in regards to this game). The more weapons and levels you add, the more you need to consider these delicate balances and designs.

None of this is to say that Paradise Paintball is bad, it just feels “unfinished.” In fact, the game is on the right track and could very well be an extremely fun game (especially if they allow more than eight players per game at some point). Yes, it could use more levels, and yes, more weapons might be interesting, but more than anything, the game needs better balancing and level design. No one weapon should be dominant on any map, and every map should have some elements that cater to each weapon. This alone will provide players a means to create their own strategies and their own unique ways of play.

Appdata for Paradise Paintball 3D

Paradise Paintball App Data

Virtual Greats Acquires NBA License for Branded Virtual Gifts in Social Network Apps, Virtual Worlds

NBA Jerseys - Image from Virtual GreatsVirtual Greats, a long time developer of licensed branded virtual goods, has recently expanded into sports with a multi-year licensing agreement with the NBA. Under the license, the company will be granted the rights to produce any number of NBA branded items (many launched already) across various social networks and virtual worlds.

At the top of the list are two virtual worlds for kids, WeeWorld and Planet Cazmo, where users will be able to give any number of items such as jerseys, pompoms, giant foam fingers, and even furniture. However, also getting a piece of the pie will be social network app developer RockYou, who will be distributing the virtual goods across major social platforms such as Facebook and MySpace. In fact, RockYou’s Facebook app SuperPets (now RockYou Pets) already has virtual goods available.

The timing works out perfectly for Virtual Greats as well, as the company expects tremendous success to coincide with the coming NBA Playoffs, describing their fans as “passionate and numerous.” The company intends to promote the items throughout the playoffs season.

“NBA-branded virtual merchandise affords our fans yet another platform to express loyalty to their favorite teams and players,” said Victoria Picca, Senior Vice President of Licensing & Business Affairs at NBA Entertainment. “Virtual Greats will extend our reach to the rapidly growing number of NBA fans in the digital world.”

In the past, many athletes has been covered by a company named Beelya. However, Beeyla has always dealt with individual players, while Virtual Greats received its license directly from the NBA itself.

[via Virtual Goods News]

The Top 25 Facebook Games for April, 2009

top25_aprilfacebook

With the exception of the Top 3 Facebook games, this past month has not been as “positive” as those recently. Nearly half of the apps in the top 25 lost monthly active users in March. However, the number of losses did allow for a few titles to make impressive jumps in popularity. The highlights:

  • Former #2 app Pass a Drink fell to #5 after losing over 2.5 million active users in March, giving up its spot to Playfish giant Pet Society which gained around 1.3 million active users.
  • Zynga’s Mafia Wars is holding strong at #3, pulling in a total of 9,135,999 active users, with Bumper Sticker rolling in at around 7 million.
  • YoVille from also continued to overtake the bulk of the Playfish titles, appearing at #7.
  • Poker Palace from Playdom seems to have lost some steam as its drastic rise through the rankings each month has halted, falling from the #15 spot to #18 loosing over 400,000 players.
  • Two games made a huge leap in the rankings: #16 Street Racing (previously #22) and #19 Vampire Wars (previously #23) rose significantly with over 900,000 and 800,000 more users ,respectively.

As was the case last month, Zynga continues to grow within Facebook and is waging a battle with Playfish as the top Facebook game developer. Although they have very different games, these two have come a long way. Who will make the next game? And will it be evolutionary or revolutionary? Either way, you’ll see it here.

Sparkle to be the First Virtual World for the iPhone

sparkleSparkle, a new virtual world from Tokyo-based Genkii, is about to make it easier for iPhone users around the world to connect and interact. Rather than connecting people locally like most apps, Sparkle is taking the MMO approach and hoping to connect thousands of users across the globe.

At the moment, the app is nothing more than a communication app (Sparkle IM) that connects users to Second Life and OpenSim grids (chat, IM, etc), but this is only the beginning. The final version of the game will be a full 3D world complete with its own internal economy, virtual goods, games, and support for multiple languages.

CEO Ken Brady states that the company is looking beyond just the Apple platforms. Genkii may be looking to integrate Sparkle 3D into non-mobile platforms as well, including PlayStation Home and the Nintendo Wii. There are about 40 million iPhone and iPod Touch devices in the market, and about 48 million Wii’s worldwide and around 21 million for the PS3. Nevertheless, expansion to other platforms is not the top priority for Genkii. It is certainly something they wish to do, but are currently more focused on the iPhone and optimizing the viral potential with the Apple system in order to increase monetization (i.e. through virtual goods sales).

Already in production for about a year, Genkii is also seeking investors to raise a round before increasing product development.

[via TechCrunch]

Offerpal Partners With Outspark, Aeria Games

Offerpal MediaOfferpal Media announced today that it is bringing its offer platform to Outspark, a portal that combines free to play games with “personalized social experiences.”

Outspark will now enable its 4 million users to purchase SparkCash by participating in sponsored offers. Users can then spend their SparkCash in any of Outspark’s games, like Fiesta, Wind Slayer, and Project Powder. Outspark has garnered its greatest usage from users 15-25 in the United States and Europe.

Aeria Games - Shaiya

Offerpal recently also announced a new partnership with Aeria Games (creators of titles such as Last Chaos and Shaiya). Aeria caters to around 5 million players who are offered their own unique virtual currency dubbed “Aeria Points.” Much like SparkCash, players can earn Aeria Points by participating in offers.

Incentivized virtual currency is proving to be an increasingly successful way to monetize social applications. Because players don’t have to go through a payment flow, incentivized offers from leading managed offer providers like Super Rewards, Peanut Labs, and Offerpal give more players access to more virtual goods and thus they return to play more often – and that’s a good thing for developers and advertisers.

The Attack on Glowbuleville: Whack-o-mole Comes on Facebook

GorbsNo, it’s not the onset of impending invasion. No, it’s not another bad Sci-Fi serious either. Actually, The Attack on Glowbuleville is the third release (currently in beta) from Facebook game developer Gogogic. The company has previously released very simple games Stack’Em and Who’s Your Friend?

Glowbuleville is a simple, high production value game with a familiar mechanic that emulates the well known arcade game of Whack-o-Mole. When starting up, the player enters the “cutesy” town of Glowbulevile and must enter each hut to defeat the Gorbs. Upon entering the hut, the are presented with a 3×9 grid in which Gorbs appear and the player must beat them down with their trusty stick (using the mouse or the number pad) before they run off and you start loosing health.

At first the game is actually quite easy, but as expected, each level comes with increased difficulty. As the player progresses, the Gorbs become tougher, “hostages” (so-to-speak) appear, and bonus items sprout out of the ground like candy. What is curious, however, is that the tougher Gorbs aren’t tougher in the sense that they need to be hit more often, but that they actually use simple abilities to make timing more important (i.e. some have shields, and you can’t hit them with shields up).

GorbsThe only real problem with the game is that the effort to proceed becomes a bit tiresome (due to the fast and constant twitch reactions needed to win). However, other than the changing enemies, you are simply repeating the same action over and over again. To a casual gamer, this might not be a bad thing, but such repetition usually lies in puzzle based games (like Bejeweled) or at least games a little slower paced than this one.

In the end, all you get for your efforts is a higher score, and some money to buy new whacking tools, which, for all intents and purposes, do the same thing as the original stick. Even with the original Whack-o-Mole, you could win tickets (usually) in order purchase fun little plastic prizes. However, the game is still in beta, and there are some grayed out items in the game’s shop that look like they could add some depth. The only question is: Will these rewards be enough to compensate the effort it takes to earn them?

The Attack on Glowbuleville is okay right now, but its quality after beta will hinge directly on how well the player will be rewarded for their extraneous efforts in defeating the Gorbs. Will Gogogic add more items to the shop? Perhaps different game modes? Or maybe they could even make swatting the baddies more gratifying. Regardless of the path they choose, it will certainly affect the longevity of this application.

The Fellowship is a New Turn-Based Facebook RPG

The FellowshipIt seems like every day there is a new text-based-RPG on Facebook. Unfortunately, for many of them, if you’ve played one (like Mafia Wars, for example), you have more or less played them all. Each game has a similar game play that consists of doing quests to level up and limitations imposed on how many you can do via a passively regenerated stat that is usually dubbed “Stamina.”

The last text-based Facebook RPG to really stand out was Hammerfall (in which you could manually influence boss battles as opposed to simply clicking “Attack” and getting a randomly generated outcome). Well, The Fellowship by Appsorama has taken what Hammerfall started and taken the level of interactivity one step forward.

Turn Based BattleThis RPG contains most of the familiar elements of the classics (stamina, equipment, gold, currency gained through offers, etc), but what stands out above everything else is the combat system. Essentially, when a player starts a quest, they are given a little storyline and prompted to actually do something for the quest. If you have to fight something, you fight it in a turn based style. You choose who to attack, what to attack with (magic, melee, etc), to use potions, or to defend.

Furthermore, each quest can become more than just a single encounter. You may often find yourself slaying half dozen monsters before the quest is actually done. Of course, you don’t have to stay on the quest if you do not wish. If it is your desire, you can take a break from questing and complete it later, or just abandon it altogether.

Another great feature is that you can have up to six playable characters (like in most mainstream RPGs), plus any Mercenaries that you choose to hire. As you may have guessed, however, this number is directly correlated to the number of friends you invite to your Fellowship. While this is the same idea in almost every other social RPG,  in the early levels there isn’t a drastic need to desperately mass-invite players. The only real limiting factor to not adding members seems to be difficulty, which is a nice way to avoid force-feeding the necessity of that “invite” button. Instead, they just provide “convincing persuasion” once you get stuck on your own as you, ahem, “learn the hard way.”

Unfortunately, the game has some annoyances too. Perhaps the chief irritant is the fact that you start a quest, engage in battle, click an action, wait for your page to refresh, and repeat. It might seem minor, but with a slower connection and a long battle, this gets old very quickly (not to mention the constant clicking sound and flickering refresh of the browser window).

Visit Town When Not QuestingThere are other issues to consider too: For example, stamina takes a lifetime to recharge (30 minutes for one stamina, which seems like a way to strongly coax people into using the ads page), and there are a number of complaints about many quests being far too difficult, as well as the general lack of quests. Luckily, the developers are more than aware of the latter two issues, and have stated they are hard at work on fixing it. This is certainly a good thing, and not merely because the game is still in development: for any online game, especially an RPG, to be successful, the game should change from time to time in order to keep the experience fresh and interesting.

Granted, game is reminiscent of a watered-down, mainstream RPG, but it is still a step in the right direction. That’s not to say that the older Facebook RPG titles are bad. On the contrary, they are most certainly successful, addictive, and fun, but for a new title coming down the pipe, a little uniqueness doesn’t hurt.

Despite its short-comings, The Fellowship is still quite the interesting, highly interactive game that tries not to force-feed any features to players.

AppData for The Fellowship

fellowship

InComm Reporting Growth in Game Currency Cards

A World of Warcraft Game CardWhen it comes to making payments for MMO and virtual world items or subscriptions, game cards are proving to be an increasingly popular way of purchasing virtual currency – especially for those too young to have a credit card. You have seen them before, hanging by the cash registers of video game, grocery, and convenient stores. But just how popular are they?

Atlanta-based InComm recently released a report saying their game currency card business grew 200% in the past year. The company did not release sales figures, but it says it handled over $8 billion in retail transactions in 2007. Incomm says it has relationships with over 60 different game partners, and retailers are benefiting from the trend as well. InComm says its game cards are available in approximately 145,000 different stores around the world.

Since cards are small and sold in public places, the issue of theft is obviously a concern, so the cards must be activated at the register before use. InComm says it has partnered with Playspan for card activations.

Although game cards have not been very widespread for games on social networks yet, we expect to see more convergence soon – we’re going to be increasingly following payment trends in social games and virtual worlds.

[via VentureBeat]

In Brief: Virtual Goods Updates from hi5 and OutSpark

Hi5 Logo

In addition to the launch of Facebook Connect for iPhone this past weekend at SXSW in Austin, social network hi5 and online MMORPG operator Outspark made interesting announcements during a panel discussion on virtual goods.

During the panel, hi5’s Andrew Sheppard announced that the company was opening a new API around its hi5 Coins virtual currency which launched late last year. Now, any hi5 app developer can employ hi5 Coins in their apps – neither Facebook nor MySpace have implemented this kind of shared “universal currency.”

OutSparkAlso during the panel, OutSpark’s Susan Choe announced that OutSpark had achieved a $50 average revenue per user (ARPU) “monthly through virtual goods sales.” Some people thought she misspoke, according to Virtual Goods News, with most assuming she meant “average revenue per paying user” (ARPPU). Even if that is the case, $50 is an impressive figure.

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