Urban Rivals Makes Microtransactions Less Micro

urban rivalsYou may have noticed that the term “microtransaction” has been used less and less in recent months. While it describe the purchase of virtual goods that have, in the past, been around the cost of a dollar (sometimes less, sometimes a little more) it has given way to a term we prefer to use, “virtual goods transactions.” And with games like Urban Rivals selling virtual goods that cost $9.99 on the iPhone, you can see one of the reasons behind the change.

Urban Rivals, created by French publisher Boostr, is actually a freemium, online multiplayer CCG (collectible card game) that has players battling some very distinctive characters, leveling up, collecting more power, and vying for supremacy against one another. Starting only with a single set of eight characters, players must purchase booster packs to improve their deck. Up until now, however, such packs were purchased using an in-game virtual currency called Clintz that worked for both the web and mobile renditions of the game. Now, like many successful games in the past (i.e. Mobsters), Urban Rivals is looking to also expand to the iPhone.

character shopThis is where the pricing come into play, as Urban Rivals’ US and UK Marketing Manager Nick Witcher told PocketGamer. The traditional cost of cards cost anywhere from $0.99 to $40 worth of virtual currency based on the number of card packs you wanted to buy ($1 is one pack of three cards). This was all purchased through the Clintz currency, but Apple doesn’t actually allow for virtual currency purchases through its applications, even if it can bought for other renditions of an iPhone-connected title.

This difference forced Urban Rivals to get around the restriction by creating a storefront that made use of Apple’s in-app transaction system — charging for the cards directly using real money rather than utilizing the virtual currency to make purchases like it did in the web version. Obviously, such a system was needed to allow for fair play amongst all the different available game platforms. However, the $9.99 offer, a set of 11 booster packs, will be an exclusive deal to iPhone users, but will be coupled with only three character pack purchases for $0.99 as an alternative. Not to worry though, as players of game will still be able to earn all the in-game credits, through play, that they could before with Urban Rivals’ older platforms. They simply can’t buy them the same way.

Oneforty’s Twitter App Store Makes Games Easier to Find

onefortyThe prospect of Twitter as a social gaming platform is something that’s been touched on numerous times in the past, but it wasn’t until last week that that concept really felt plausible. Author of Twitter for Dummies, Laura Fitton launched a brand new platform called oneforty that will act as an actual app store for the Twitter network.

Okay, granted, Twitter does have a directory for its apps, but this is a mere list of what can be found. What makes oneforty stand out is that any user can tag, sort, and review over 1,300 different applications such as Tweetie, Bit.ly, twitterfeed, and CoTweet. Furthermore, and like a Facebook app’s splash page, each application gets its own space where users can add comments and screenshots. Sounds a lot like a wall on a Facebook Page, doesn’t it? Of course, this page needs to be managed — thus any of its developers are able to register with oneforty and “claim” an app so they can manage its page. With this new listing of games and apps already ranked and containing user reviews, the usefulness behind it is already significant. However, oneforty is dubbed an “app store,” and as such, some form of monetization is expected to be involved.

While most Twitter apps are free, there really isn’t much to monetize from them. However, if a Twitter app does have a cost, then oneforty will keep a small share of it. In addition to this, the new platform is looking to offer premium promotional locations on the site for developers. Said placement is similar to where sponsor advertisements would be placed on most web pages. Considering the increased distribution success that has stemmed from other application directories and stores containing ratings and user reviews (iPhone, Facebook, MySpace, etc.), this cost may turn out most worthwhile.

Wrought with social mechanics, rankings, and even monetization features, oneforty marks a huge step forward for Twitter as it continues to evolve into a greater space for both games and apps.

[image via VentureBeat]

New Games Portal: Arcade Warfare

arcadewarfareA new games portal launched on Friday for all those online gaming connoisseurs. Arcade Warfare is the name, and is a platform focused around not only those that love games, but those that love to make them as well; allowing for competitive prizes and user uploads.

As it stands, the games portal hosts over 4,000 different types of games that span every type of genre and time period. Primarily Flash or Shockwave based, titles vary from 2D fighters such as “The Incredibles,” to shooters like “3D Swat.” Perhaps most interesting, Arcade Warfare contains a myriad of older, more classic titles such as Duck Hunt, Asteroids, and Contra that are mixed together with newer, web reditions of modern games such as Call of Duty 2.

The portal certainly has a nice selection of games, but if there is any one issue with it, it is that finding a game initially is rather obnoxious. All of the games are sorted by category (action, adventure, shooter, etc.), but each category can only be browsed, and so that impressive 4,000+ games now becomes a devastating hindrance.

incrediblesThe problem is that virtually no user is going to browse all 4,000 games. There is no way to sort them by times played, ranking, or when it was added. Thankfully, at least there is a section for “Top Rated Games” and “Newest Additions” on the home page at least. Yes, the site does have ranking systems for games, as well as user comments, but the rankings are only on the game page, so the user has to click on each game to see if other users have said if its any good. It might seem nit picky, but with thousands of games, and around 15 or so seconds needed to load the game’s page and go back, you can only look at four games in one minute, eight games in two minutes with eight, and so on. There are roughly 48 games on one page. So, that means 12 minutes to look at all of them. The company should focus on making navigation faster. For example, it could offer a thumbnailed view of dozens of games in one page. Remember, on average, websites have under one minute to interest a user (10 seconds for the initial splash page).

In terms of social features, the site is okay. Not great, but okay. The big draw is that developers can upload games, but with its distribution problems, that is more or less shot until it becomes more user friendly. There are, however, discussions forums, site statistics, and the aforementioned comments, but none of these really stand out. Frankly, it is the friends lists and ability to earn points and win prizes that is most interesting. Even still, the former is highly unintuitive compared to something like Facebook (in the game, you friend directly from their profile pages, it seems). While you can see what games they’ve played, it is only on their profile and not in a visible location like a news feed would be. As for the latter, points and prizes: The points are earned from playing games, but at the moment no prizes seem to be available (of course, that’s probably due to it just being released a few days ago).

Overall, Arcade Warfare has a fantastic selection of games that would appeal to a very wide range of individuals. Unfortunately, it’s just too hard to find the good ones. Nonetheless, if the usability issues in question can be fixed, then this games portal could very well take off.

Digital Chocolate Creates New Virtual Goods Platform

logo_digitalChocolateBack in May, Trip Hawkins, founder of Digital Chocolate (not to mention Electronic Arts), made the comment that the way to monetize iPhone games was with virtual goods. Well, it looks like that statement has taken life, as the company has just announced the creation of a new virtual goods platform and game project, NanoStars.

What is most curious, however, is that NanoStars does not look to feature virtual goods in the traditional sense (weapons, furniture, clothing, etc.). The project is slated to revolve around 100 virtual characters that people can buy and use in a myriad of games titles, the first of which, NanoVerse Castles, is scheduled for release in Q4 of this year.

According to Hawkins’ statements to ME, the project will be cross-platform (likely iPhone and Facebook) in order to encompass a greater breadth of users as well as increase the variations of purchasing methods (i.e. credit cards, the Apple App Store, carrier bills/subscriptions, and offer completion). However, what is most curious about the announcement is that the virtual goods are described as “living, breathing life forms.”

As was said, each good will be a character, but it is the objective of Digital Chocolate to have players form a sort of “relationship” and connection with the ones they buy. As such, the goods have been conceptualized as pop culture and historical references such as Octomom, “IDidNotInhale,” and Robin Hood. Furthermore, each character will encompass different benefits for each NanoStar game.

NanoVerse Castles makes for a good first example. For clarity’s sake, it is a card game, and based on the ME post, using a character — say, Robin Hood — in the game will allow a player to exchange a low card of their’s for a high card of the opponent. However, Robin might equate to something else in a different type of game, such as unlocking a better player in a sports game, or becoming a cool piece of furniture or weapon in another.

Currently, Digital Chocolate has not revealed any specifics beyond initial announcements, so it is unknown as to which platform NanoStars will first appear on. Nonetheless, Hawkins says that this idea has been a long time coming and is leveraged off of the publisher’s earlier games, DChoc Café and Party Island, so whichever platform it releases on, you can bet it’s going to be successful.

The Road to Dictatorship: Dictator Wars

GameLayers, founded in 2007, has a fairly young role-playing game called Dictator Wars. Currently the game sits at around 17,000 monthly active users and has been growing at a somewhat steady rate. It’s a Facebook app of your standard mafia game design, albeit with an entertaining theme — and, there’s an interesting backstory to this game’s creation.

Dictator Wars

It comes with a few new features such the separation of single player and group missions (Missions vs. Foreign Affairs), and some improvements to usability. For example, if you need an item for a mission, it will pop up for purchase without having the player go to the in-game store. However, this is something we have been seeing more of lately in other games as well. Overall the standards are all the same: Do missions, level up, fight other players, consume energy, and buy land. Discounting its satirical art style and RPG improvements, it all looks very familiar. But is this a bad thing? Over time, that answer has evolved to “no.”

dictator wars missionsThis conclusion was driven home by a post by GameLayers’ CEO Justin Hall regarding the history behind Dictator Wars. For those unfamiliar with GameLayers, one of their early projects was an internet browsing MMO called PMOG or “Passively Multiplayer Online Game” for the Firefox browser. In a nutshell, players used a toolbar to find treasures and traps left behind by other players as they browsed the internet. As an example, one could go to CNN’s website, and leave something behind for another player who visits the same website to find.

It sounds like an interesting idea, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there were a number of problems with PMOG (beyond just the dull name, which was later changed to “The Nethernet”). Perhaps the most prevalent of all issues was that the game had no clear goal. The game was too open ended, and with no direction, a new player, especially a casual one, isn’t likely going to play for very long.

the nethernetThe game was also built on Firefox, a mere budding browser at the time. Not only that, but GameLayers had decided to try and build out its own social network around PMOG. Though that sounds like madness now with the distribution power of Facebook and Twitter, consider that this game was started back in 2006, a year before GameLayers was even officially founded.

As for monetization, according to Hall, that came late too. GameLayers had intended to utilize virtual goods transactions, which was an excellent call considering where that market is today, but it he says it was integrated too late. By 2009, the monetization growth was just too slow, and PMOG was shut down.

As disheartening as shutting down a game can be, this whole process is what led to the creation of the steadily growing Dictator Wars. From the drawbacks of PMOG, GameLayers learned that if there is any one thing to take away from the experience it is that the casual player, the social player, is going to want to know what to do within five minutes or less. They want to know how to play and where to go, which leads back to the earlier commentary on familiar RPGs.

With Dictator Wars on Facebook, players have clear goals in an environment that they already understand. This made the game more user friendly, and with the social features like messaging and friend connections that GameLayers had previously tried to create. Moreover, this time around monetization was included right from the start, allowing for fiscal growth from day one of launch.

The experiences of GameLayers has taught a lot of lessons to the social space, and the resilience and drive of the company is certainly one to be respected.

You can check out all the opinions of Justin Hall here.

Two Brothers Design Facebook Game for Cat Lovers

shivering kittensShivering Kittens is a simple new iPhone and Facebook app from brothers Terence and Tim Goggin of GiantCrayon Games, a subsidiary of Information Appliance Associates. And the game feels a lot like a cross between Tetris and Dr. Mario.

In an interface reminiscent of those games, blocks of ice, kittens, and frozen kittens slowly fall from the top of the screen in the classic Tetris shapes (Z’s, T’s, L’s, etc.). The objective, however, is to rescue as many kittens as possible from the “Minnesota winter.” In order to do so, players must connect five or more kittens in any pattern.

This leads to two challenges for the player. First, there are the frozen blocks and frozen cats that can block a pending connection of five kittens, and second, they have to be removed differently from each other. In order to unfreeze cats and remove ice blocks, a full horizontal line must be formed like in Tetris. However, unlike that game, the shapes do not maintain their integrity. Each block of a certain shape is its own entity and will continue to fall; filling in any gaps beneath them.

Removing kittens, frozen or otherwise, counts as “rescuing” them, and actually, this plays a big part in not only one’s individual score, but multiplayer as well.

Multiplayer mode isn’t that different from a standard Facebook challenge mode either (pitting two players’ scores against one another), but it does utilize “rescuing” to add a small element to the classic concept. There is actually a scoring mechanism called “Best Rescue” that consists of how many kittens were removed in a single move. After both players have played a level, the person with the higher “Best Rescue” is allowed to make a move on a Tic-Tac-Toe board. Players continue to play levels until someone creates a row of three kittens.

Though the game is not wholly unique, Shivering Kittens does make for an interesting blend of two very popular, older games. Since the game is tailored toward cat lovers too, its quirky style adds for a significant level of cuteness from simple visuals and overly cute kitten noises. While this does not feel like enough to break any new social or design boundaries, this simple puzzler is at least a good way to kill some time on either Facebook or the iPhone.

Mafia Wars Expansion – Welcome to Mother Russia

mafia wars moscowZynga’s Mafia Wars has been the most dominant RPG within the social space for many months. But this summer, it has been beaten out, on Facebook, by other games — specifically, Zynga’s hit farming game Farmville. However, the game is still growing fast, with nearly 30 million users as of today. And now Zynga is starting to push it as a franchise, releasing a new expansion called Mafia Wars: Moscow, tomorrow.

As far as we can tell, the core game play is just the same as it has always been: Players level up, fight others, complete missions, and buy gear to make their mobster stronger. However, the game does come with a new Russian look, and according to Senior Product Manager David Kahn in comments to Games.com, Mafia Wars: Moscow “will be much harder than other expansions we released before, more geared to higher level players, level 70-plus.”

In line with the new look and feel, players are already offered with a brand new choice for game play as well. Just as when a new user chooses what sort of mobster they want to be, a newcomer to Moscow must decide whom they will fight for. From what we know, the two sides are either the older, more traditional Russian mob, the Vory v Zakone or the ex KGB/military group, the Mafiya. While little can be said about the details of these two factions as of yet, there will be different rewards from missions based on whom the player chooses.

moscow itemsSpeaking of new rewards, the game will also have a new set of weapons and munitions for players’ syndicated wars, with over 50 new Russian weapons and items ranging from the Автомат Калашникова 47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova 47) or the AK-47 to other well-known Russian exports such as the nesting dolls. In additions to this, Zynga has also said that the new expansion will contain six new achievements, five new businesses, and six new collections.

Of course, to earn all of this players may have to complete the new missions as well, which will also be a little bit different. This time around, missions will be divided into chapters. However, each chapter ends with a boss, and the following one cannot be viewed until said baddie is defeated.

Why the Moscow theme? Not just because of the increasingly popularized image of the Russian mob in action movies and the media. Zynga actually asked its players where they wanted the next theme to be, and the Russian capital was their answer, Kahn said in the interview.

Also slated for development are two other Mafia Wars expansions for Asia and the Western United States — also user picks. Unfortunately, anything beyond that is currently unknown. In the meantime, Mafia Wars: Moscow will be available on September 24th.

[images via Games.com]

My Fishbowl: A Fast-Growing Facebook Aquarium World

duckacquariumAs more foreign games make their appearance on Facebook, one of the latest gainers has been a quaint little virtual space app by the name of My Fishbowl. As the name suggests, this title from TwoFishes Interactive has players creating virtual aquarium, and in a somewhat similar fashion to the booming farming genre, raising fish and decorating your own personal aquatic realm.

The game is available in Chinese and English, but seems to be mostly used by Chinese speakers. It is really exceedingly simple, but as with all virtual space games, complication is never necessary. It’s all about how much socially-fueled creativity one can employ, and based on some of the screenshots from more advanced players, there is quite a bit to be had. It was one the fifth-fastest growing game on Facebook last week, among developers with between 100,000 and one million users. When we looked on Monday, it had reached 3.30 million monthly active users, having grown by 1.57 million in the previous week alone. The growth continues, as today it is at 3.76 million.

piratefishbowl However, to get started, one needs money before decorations can be bought. So how is it earned through an aquarium? Through its fish of course, and what sort of fishbowl has no fish? Players are able to buy any number of different types of fish; each of which has its own personality when interacting with others. When you purchase them, however, you have to feed them, and as you feed them, they grow. Yes, it is the circle of life, but what is more important is that every day, the fish magically produce random pieces of treasure that can be sold for more “Shellbucks,” the games currency

With Shellbucks, players are able accomplish the primary point of My Fishbowl: Decoration. They can buy decorations like coral, rocks, seaweed, backgrounds, and even some more creative objects like teddy bears or ice cream. The list is actually quite long and some of the more creative fishbowls have made rather bizarre designs such as spaceships, ducks, and even pirates.

1 shellbuck item vs 9 gold itemsUnfortunately, this vast selection of decorations leads to one very obnoxious issue. Like most games of this nature, monetization is through virtual goods transactions. While there is nothing wrong with that, it feels like 80% – 90% of the decorations you can buy (and even a lot of the fish and pets – pets like sea horses) are bought with “Gold,” the currency that is purchased through real money or by completing advertising offers. Here’s the thing, the problem isn’t that there are items using Gold, nor is it that most of the items are bought with it. No, it’s the fact that there doesn’t seem to be enough Shellbuck items for new players, or players not wanting to acquire gold, to really be creative. As such, there might not be enough to really suck most users into the game to the point where they would want to spend that extra cash. However, that doesn’t seem to be holding back the app’s growth.

Arkadium and Lifetime Digital Expand Partnership

Casual games builder Arkadium is expanding its partnership with Lifetime Networks’ digital arm. Continuing Lifetime’s focus on women’s entertainment, the new partnership will feature new series of Lifetime-branded iPhone titles, and the integration of prizes and sweepstakes for myLifetime.com’s existing online games portal.

Online Games | myLifetime.com

In August, we looked at Arkadium’s efforts to further monetize advertisements in games by enhancing its community gaming portals, dubbed “Arenas,” through improving user loyalty. This included publisher options to drive traffic to revenue-based activities such as rating systems for existing games, user reviews, and player profiles. Also added were social elements such as mailboxes, messaging, friend activity notifications, avatar creators, and leaderboards. Even before these additions, however, Arena sessions lasted an average of 20 minutes, as of August, across major online sites (ABC, ESPN, CBS, etc.) and saw over 120 million page views per month.

As a partner of Arkadium, Lifetime Digital’s myLifetime.com games platform experiences a good portion of these perks. Perks that have led to a 20 percent increase in visits since the games section’s launch earlier this year. With over 3.6 million women visiting the website each month (ComScore Media Metrix – May 2009), 20 percent is no small number. Suffice to say, Arkadium’s loyalty improvements look to be paying off.

NumberJumper: A Puzzle Game That’s Harder Than It Looks

NumberJumper ScreenShot1 NumberJumper is a deceptively simple new puzzle game, launched on Facebook earlier this month. For casual gamers who want a challenge, it’s worth a look.

In the game, players are presented with a grid of blocks, numbered 1 – 7. The objective is to line up four of the same number horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Here’s the trick though: Every time you make a move, two new numbers appear, so each one needs to be planned very carefully.

Also, the numbers slide across the grid, so if there is no path leading to where you try and place it, then you cannot make that move. So, again, this means that very careful movements as well as some patience is needed.

NumberJumper ScreenShot2But, one cannot be too careful as the developers have incorporated a time limit. To balance this out, removing consecutive groups of numbers adds time back onto the clock. More often than not, however, space on the board is what seems to run out first, and if there is not enough real estate left for new numbers, the game is over.

As one can probably imagine, the game includes a simple scoring system with leaderboards so you can see how you’re doing versus other players.

When you first start playing, it feels a lot like a matter of just survival and is somewhat difficult to devise a working strategy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the game a little annoying at first.

Curiously enough, the game was strangely alluring, despite annoyances. At first it merely feels like bad luck when blocks appear right where you were planning to place a fourth number, but there are ways around it. Eventually, a strategy does begin to formulate as you end up trying over and over and over again to beat your last score until you realize, “hey, wasn’t I doing something more important?”

Though it is bad for time efficiency, NumberJumper’s addictive nature certainly makes for a fun, deceptively simple game.

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