Kung Fu Panda to appear in Zynga’s first CityVille in-game integration

May 23rd, 2011

Late last week, DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., Paramount Pictures, and Zynga announced that the lovable Kung Fu Panda will be making an in-game integration appearance in Zynga’s popular CityVille game. The integration will feature a new in-game item and quest for players, ultimately promoting the upcoming opening of Kung Fu Panda 2, which premiers this coming Thursday, May 26th. And while in-game integrations are nothing new for Zynga (Rango – FrontierVille, Megamind, et al.) the Kung Fu Panda integration marks the first in-game appearance of it’s type in Facebook’s largest and most popular application.

“Nearly a third of all Kung Fu Panda fans on Facebook have also played CityVille, so the integration is a natural fit and something we think our players will love,” said Manny Anekal, Global Director of Brand Advertising at Zynga in a statement. “It’s important that we collaborate with innovative brands like DreamWorks Animation that resonate with and are meaningful to our players and enhance their game play.”

Kicking off last Friday, more than 88 million monthly CityVille players now have the option available to drop a Kung Fu Panda 2 inspired drive-in movie theatre in their beloved Facebook based virtual city. Upon placement of the aforementioned drive-in cinema, players will receive one of five collectable pieces. Once users have collected all five of the kung fu inspired pieces, Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey, an exclusive Po the Panda statue will be unlocked, and is available as a quest completion reward. By doubling the steps needed to achieve the exclusive Panda can be seen as a move from Zynga as a method of further interaction between players and the brand, something both DreamWorks and Paramount are sure to appreciate.

“Our exclusive integration of Kung Fu Panda 2 in Zynga’s CityVille gives millions of players a fun and deeply interactive way of connecting with Po and the Furious Five,” said Jason Alex, Head of Online Marketing at DreamWorks Animation in a statment. “Po journeys on a memorable kung fu quest in the movie and through this online challenge we’re able to reward fans for further engaging with the characters they love.”

Again, as this isn’t a first for Zynga, the Kung Fu Panda 2 in-game integration does have a significant impact on the industry, and is noteworthy. As we’ve seen over the course of time, that “other” form of advertising within video games has gone over like a led balloon. Perhaps is just the delivery method that needed a change? Perhaps it’s the wildly different type of gamer that plays Zynga titles vs. die-hard Xbox 360 Halo players? Either way, Zynga’s found a magic to balance the expectations of both the suits and the market at large. Chances are, DreamWorks has already seen a respectable ROI, as the Kung Fu Panda 2 integration serves as a prime example of the studio’s faith in what Zynga can deliver. And while, for now, this appears to be a one way street, how long can it be until we see a Zynga integration into a DreamWorks picture?

Starz roars back onto Facebook with “Camelot: The Game”

May 17th, 2011

Following the success of their first offering, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Starz Digital Media has now moved on to chapter two, this time around bringing us a free-to-play, Facebook based title based on their currently running television series, Camelot.

The game is presented in association with international distributor GK-tv, and developed by Starz Digital Media, the digital and on-demand arm of Starz. Camelot: The Game promises to enchant users with a unique gaming challenge that focuses on resource management, in combination with turn based battle, all while playing the role of the Lord of their own hamlet within King Arthur’s domain. Naturally, a healthy dose of quests are tossed in, as well as a wide variety of various specialized soldier and building types that may be used to further ones’ army.

Quests are designed to not only bring the player forward within the game, but to also provide valuable gold for successful completion. With this gold, players may build buildings and provide special upgrades for solider units. And as the game is of the free-to-play variety, naturally players may purchase additional Facebook Credits to speed the upgrading and building process along.

Taking a page from Zynga’s playbook, Starz Digital Media has built in a few recruitment tactics that focus on the viral spread of the title. Players may recruit friends to assist in their quests, as well as inviting friends to join that at the council table, thereby pooling their randomly assigned unique leader traits to form a powerful alliance.

“Fans of social gaming, the ‘Camelot’ original series, and the successful ‘Spartacus’ Facebook game, are sure to love ‘Camelot: The Game,” said Marc DeBevoise, senior vice president, digital media, business development and strategy for Starz Media in a statement. “The action, adventure, and challenge of this game is unmatched in the marketplace today and is a beautiful complement and extension of the Starz Original series.”

Starz Digital Media partnered with 6waves (Ravenwood Fair, Mystery Manor, et. al) for the release of this title. Die hard, and eager fans can check in with Camelot: The Game at apps.facebook.com/camelotgame, and enter the password Merlin for a special sneak-peak preview play.

Popcap, now at home in SFO, Booyah brings aboard Jason Willig

May 2nd, 2011

Now that the Royal Wedding has come and gone, we can all collectively turn our attention back to the gaming at hand.  And while Obama’s birth certificate, and the demise of Bin Laden are sure to make headlines for the next foreseeable future, two gaming industry significant events took place over the weekend, both centered around the great City by the Bay; PopCap acquires ZipZapPlay, and Booyah has recently appointed Jason Willig to drive forthcoming social and mobile initiatives.

PopCap

Announced on Friday, Seattle based PopCap Games has acquired SFO based ZipZapPlay.  This acquisition further fuels PopCap’s depth of Facebook games, as well as provides PopCap with a Silicon Valley address, practically a pre-requirement by today’s industry standards.

CEO Curt Bereton and CCO Mathilde Pignol are expected to stay on and continue to drive game design and development.  Likewise, all seventeen original employees will stay on, and presumably become members of a founding team, as PopCap’s expansion of ZipZapPlay’s studios is inevitable.

“The team at ZipZapPlay is one of the best in the social games space, and combined with our existing group in Seattle gives us the opportunity to dramatically expand our development resources,” said John Vechey, PopCap co-founder and VP of Corporate Strategy and Development, in a statement. “While the acquisition creates immediate cross-promotional and operations benefits, this is a strategic move with huge long-term potential; we believe ZipZapPlay can help us further evolve and expand the definition of social games.”

Looking forward, PopCap expects to have four or five Facebook titles by the close of 2011.  Their initial offerings, Bejeweled Blitz and Zuma Blitz are already attracting close to five million DAU’s, thus placing them in third position behind Zynga and Electronic Arts in terms over largest overall Facebook games developers.

Booyah

And speaking of Electronic Arts…while EA’s brain drain is now a common story, it looks like the Redwood City, CA firm has lost another executive.  This time to social, web, and mobile entertainment producers Booyah Jason Willig has recently been appointed to the role of Chief Operating Officer, where he’s expected to drive the company’s expansion initiatives.

“Adding Jason to the Booyah executive team is a huge win for us,” said Keith Lee, CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “His depth of knowledge and experience will help accelerate Booyah’s continued growth and development within in the social/mobile industry.”

Willig arrives at Booyah with over a decade of interactive entertainment industry expertise.  At EA, he oversaw the operating activities and strategic initiatives with the Hasbro unit.  Willig has also been counted amongst the LucasArts, Gas Powered Games, and Vivendi Games rosters, and has a depth of experience in product development, retail and digital publishing, business development, and analytics.

Zynga pulls Mafia Wars from MySpace

April 20th, 2011

MySpace.  A stellar example of what can go drastically wrong when you’re sitting pretty at the top.  While the flailing social network has seen it’s fair share of blows, it would appear that just another nail in the coffin has recently been stuck.  According to notice posted on the game’s MySpace home, Zynga has pulled the plug on MySpace, and is now sending players to Zynga’s own MafiaWars.com; further evidence that the social games maker would like to become less and less dependent on social networks in general.  With that said, Zynga is still relying on Facebook Connect from their own platform.

Significant in it’s own right, this move has particular meaning, as Mafia Wars had been the second most popular game on MySpace as recently as March, according to an Inside Social Games report, counting a healthy 13 million players of the title on MySpace.  Granted, these figures do not include regularly playing members, but still a grande number.

Zynga’s stand-alone title, Zynga Poker is still available on MySpace, however YoVille and Fashion Wars have already quietly exited the platform, while Zynga’s big guns, CityVille and FarmVille have never been available to MySpace users.

So in addition to Zynga’s push to pull users off the social space and bring them home to their own platform, various sources including TechCrunch are speculating that Zynga is simply beating a dead horse by continuing to put time, money, and effort into a sinking ship, i.e. MySpace.

According to a March ComScore report, MySpace’s numbers are in freefall, dropping from 93 million unique users to 63 million over the course of a year.  It would also appear that the MySpace exodus is accelerating, with 10 million monthly users saying sayonara between January and February.

This move by Zynga flies directly in the face of MySpace’s goals, as just last year, the platform took on a Hi5-esque role, shifting their focus from social network to social gaming destination, with little to no success.  Adding insult to injury, just 5 short months later, Zynga was able to attract and hire MySpace CEO Owen Van Natta.  And then there’s that massive layoff this past January, which saw approximately 600 employees let go.

So with the walls crumbling around them, the question remains; what does the future hold for News Corp. owned MySpace?  Remember, the firm paid a massive $580 million for MySpace back in 2006, but can still be seen as a bargain when compared to AOL’s $850 million purchase of Bebo.  So when seen in this light, perhaps a tax write off would make more sense?

Social Gaming to top $5 Billion by 2015

April 8th, 2011

In a new report issued by Parks Associates, the firm forecasts that the social gaming industry will increase it’s revenue by five times between 2010 and 2015.  The revenue increase is fueled primarily by increased advertising revenues and virtual goods sales.  According to Parks Associates, these driving factors have already pushed social gaming revenues north of $1 Billion in 2010, and they see the trend continuing.  The research firm will be presenting the findings of their Social Gaming: Market Updates report at the upcoming Game Investment Conference in Austin, TX on the 13th of April.

“Gaming on social networks has quickly become the most visible category of online games,” said Pietro Macchiarella, Research Analyst, Parks Associates in a statement. “Right now more than 250 million people play games like Zynga’s CityVille and FarmVille on Facebook every month, and both game developers and marketers have taken notice. Big brands such as McDonald’s and 7-Eleven have carried out cross-promotions with existing social games.”

Macchiarella also points to improved user monetization is a factor contributing to the industry’s success.  He notes that early entrants to the field missed key monetization and revenue opportunities, but rapid advancements in gameplay has allowed for more effective incentives for users to purchase virtual items.  Examples include virtual tractors and seed, items that improve or enhance gameplay, as well as rare items (swords, shields, etc.) to build status.

“The most powerful asset of social game developers is the quantity of behavioral data that they can obtain from their games,” Macchiarella said. “The abilities to measure the efficacy of different gameplay mechanisms, to tweak game design in near-real time, and to test new models are advantages that traditional gaming companies will never have. Zynga’s huge market share is the best proof of the competitive advantage made possible by properly leveraging consumer data.”

Parks Associates’ report also addresses the 500-pound Gorilla in the room: In Game Advertising.  The once “Holy Grail” that was to save the gaming industry has all but disappeared, or rather, highly evolved since it’s inception.  A shift in focus towards branded games, sponsored items, communities, and “advertainment” options that are far better suited to their end goal, and have come around to enhancing the gamers’ experience rather than interrupt.  Parks Associates points to this new model as further revenue opportunities for games makers.

As mentioned above, Macchiarella will present the firms findings during the Social Games session on Wednesday April 13th, at the Game Investment Conference.  The session is slated to provide a detailed overview of the social gaming space, and looks at market drivers and inhibitors, competitive analysis, market dynamics, and an investigation of current monetization and payment methods.

Nexon Dungeon Fighter headed to Xbox LIVE arcade

March 25th, 2011

Free-to-play innovator Nexon has recently announced a publishing deal with Microsoft Game Studios to bring the popular MORPG Dungeon Fighter Online to Xbox LIVE Arcade users everywhere.

With over 200 million registered users worldwide, Dungeon Fighter is a heavy weight in it’s own class.  While most of Dungeon Fighter’s audience coming from Asia, the game recently set a new record for concurrent players; registering 2.2 million concurrent players across China, Japan, and Korea.

The Xbox LIVE Arcade version of Dungeon Fighter Online won’t be a simple port, but rather will be co-developed between Nexon and Softmax.  Softmax has an appropriate pedigree, having worked on The War of Genesis and Magna Carta.  Nexon’s dev studio, Neople will take lead on the project, and Microsoft will do the publishing via the Microsoft Game Studios.  Likewise, Microsoft will handle the localizations into Japanese, German, Spanish, Italian, and French, while Nexon will handle Chinese and English language support.

“This agreement is a significant step forward for Nexon,” said Min Suh, Nexon’s chief executive officer. “For some time we have been seeking opportunities to expand beyond online PC gaming and move into new platforms like Xbox LIVE Arcade. With the help of Microsoft Game Studios’ deep development and localization experience, we anticipate that Dungeon Fighter Online will bring enjoyment to entirely new audiences on Xbox LIVE Arcade.”

This announcement arrives only days after Nexon’s <a href=”http://www.fatfoogoo.com/2011/03/a-bit-lucky-lands-5m-in-additional-funding-led-by-nexon/”>investment</a> in A Bit Lucky.  Likewise, SOE just <a href=”http://www.fatfoogoo.com/2011/03/sony%e2%80%99s-free-realms-headed-to-playstation-network/”>recently announced</a> that they own Free-to-Play hit Free Realms will be arriving on the PlayStation network later this year.  Call it coincidence, but it looks like we’re in the middle of a reverse flow of games.  Meaning, free-to-play was born from a number of problems, but it’s always been a bit out there on it’s own, at least in the way of “found on my console.”  Free-to-play and the microtransaction business model have fought a long and hard fight, and it looks like they might now be ready for prime time.  If this in fact the case, and if Nexon has broken into the console market, how long will it be before Zynga strikes a deal, and Wii, PS3, and Xbox owners can farm direct from their console?

A Bit Lucky lands $5M in additional funding; led by Nexon

March 23rd, 2011

Social games developer A Bit Lucky may be enjoying the luck by name only, as their pool of creative talent is obviously up to the challenge, at least in the minds of investors. With only one title out to date, Lucky Train, the Silicon Valley based developer has already garnered the attention of Accel Partners’ Seed Fund, Rembrandt Venture Partners, Blumberg Capital, SV Angel, The Founder Collective, Felicis Ventures, Charles and Kai Huang (Co-Founders of Red Octane), Mark Jung (Co-Founder and CEO of IGN), David Lawee (Head of M&A at Google), Joshua Schachter (Founder of Delicious), Lerer Ventures, and XG Ventures.

If the list reads like a who’s who, you’re not alone. And if the previous $2.6 million from the aforementioned investors was enough to get the ball rolling, free-to-play games developer and publisher Nexon has recently led a second round of funding for A Bit Lucky, resulting in an additional $5 million. Obviously an interesting move for Nexon, as this clearly signals their growing interest in Facebook based gaming. The question is, for the company the practically invented the free-to-play business model, are they a bit late to the Facebook/social gaming party? Perhaps not, as one of A Bit Lucky’s pillars is cross platform social games, with the emphasis being on the cross platform. Given that Lucky Train is one of the higher rated and favored games on Facebook, with the focus on cross platform, the additional audience and revenues via additional platforms is enormous. Furthermore, given Nexon’s scope and existing product offerings, porting them through to multi platform use could expand Nexon’s user base tenfold.

“A Bit Lucky is an exceptionally talented team making this a great investment,” said Daniel Kim, Nexon America’s CEO. “We’ve known Frederic for many years, and the whole team is very talented and understands the dynamics of the market very well. We consider ourselves very fortunate to be part of the trail that A Bit Lucky is blazing in the social media game space.”

From the executive standpoint, Nexon’s new investment also gives them a seat at the decisions table, i.e. the Board of Directors. Likewise, David Lawee (Google) and Andrew Trader (Zynga) will also now hold Board of Directors titles.

”We are very excited to get Nexon’s support to create the new generation of high quality, ubiquitous social games,” said Frederic Descamps, CEO of A Bit Lucky. “Nexon invented Free-To-Play and virtual goods in gaming and we are looking forward to benefiting from their expertise.”

Japanese gaming contributes to disaster relief

March 23rd, 2011

As reported yesterday, social gaming giant Zynga has stepped up, in partnership with Save the Children, to donate proceeds from specialty items to support relief efforts in Japan.  But what about Japanese gaming firms?  While the entire country was not directly effected, clearly March 11th’s fall out has dramatic effects for the country as a whole.  Relief is pouring in from around the globe, but here’s a rundown of how the Japanese gaming landscape looks at present.

Square Enix took the lead when they decided to shut down Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV servers in order to conserve power.  Once offline, a number of other Japanese gaming firms followed suit, additionally announcing temporary suspensions of planned future activities including console games release dates, and maintenance and service upgrades for consoles, etc.

However, this does not mean the business-as-usual has halted completely, but rather, a number of firms are stepping up to the plate, and redirecting their tech efforts.  Below is an outline of who’s doing what, in alphabetical order with no preference given to any one relief effort program.

5pb

The firms Memories Off 6 T-wave for iPhone has seen a dramatic price reduction, down to 250 Yen (normally 2200), with all earnings presented to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Accessport

Accessport’s “Farm Paradise” is modeling a similar program as Zynga, offering exclusive items with all monies going to the Japanese Red Cross Society.  The include:

  • Supportive Kennel – 100 Yen
  • Supportive Signboard – 200 Yen
  • Supportive Processing Plant – 300 Yen

Aeria

Aeria has looked to their graphics department, and is not offering unique and exclusive wallpapers.  All proceeds will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

BANDAI NAMCO

As of March 15th, the company has contributed 100 million Yen (approx. $1.2M) which will be donated to disaster relief in combination with private donations from company employees.

DeNa

DeNa is also offering exclusive items in Mbga Town and Yahoo! Mbga.  As of yesterday, March 15th, DeNA has contributed over 100 million Yen (approx. $1.2M) , and is continuing fundraising and donation efforts.

Dwango/Niwango

All ad revenues derived from NicoVideo have been donated directly to disaster relief funds.  All sub-site platforms continue to solicit donations.

Faith

Exclusive avatars are available in the Rose Online marketplace, with 100% of all earnings to be donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

GP CoreEdge Inc.

Within Alteil.net, exclusive cards and avatars are now up for sale.  Earnings will be donated to disaster relief efforts.

Nexon Group

As of March 15th, the Nexon Group has donated 100 million Yen ($1.2M) to disaster relief efforts.

NHN Japan

Led by GACKT, a “Show your heart” campaign is underway with a number of high profile singers, entertainers and sports personalities lending a voice to encourage those that can to donate.

The company’s Dragon Nest title has stopped it’s DN-1 prize event, with the 10 million Yen now being donated directly to disaster relief efforts.

Nintendo

To date, the Nintendo Corporation has contributed 300 million Yen (approx. $3.7M) to disaster relief efforts.

Sankando

Simialr to other fundraising efforts, exclusive items sold within the M2 Online title will see their earnings donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Signal Talk

All revenues generated on March 11th within Maru-Jan and Fukurofu have been donated to disaster relief funds.

TECMO KOEI Holdings

To date, the company has donated 10 million Yen.  This number is expected to rise, as the company is also taking an internal collection from staff members, as well as upping their own corporate contribution to support disaster relief efforts.

West Inc.

From their flagship title, “Tsumo,” half of the rewards offered in their ongoing mahjong contest, as well as all revenues gained from the in-game item store will be presented to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Zynga launches RewardVille – now with even more addictiveness

March 23rd, 2011

What would SXSW be without significant announcements from all the major players? Such was the case with Zynga yesterday, as the dropped the newest bomb in their seemingly endless arsenal of ‘Ville’s. This time up? – an online rewards program that provides a gateway for Zynga’s 250 million+ players to enjoy the games they love. Or so says Zynga’s PR team.

The premise behind RewardVille is simple enough, participate in a few actions here and there and rack up some network status, earn Zynga-level points and coins, and unlock a number of exclusive and limited edition virtual goods that they can apply to any of their favorite games.

“Our players are at the heart of all we do so our goal is to constantly look at ways to bring them the best and most fun experience when they play,” said Roy Sehgal, vice president, Zynga. “With RewardVille, our aim is to delight players by rewarding them with new Zynga-level points, and exclusive limited edition virtual items. We love that you love our games, so here’s your chance to reap some rewards!”

This is a first cross-gaming rewards program for Zynga, allowing Zynga players to play one title to help out the progress of another Zynga title. Zynga’s breakdown of the program looks like so:

Play a Zynga game of your choosing; City, Farm, Frontier, Yo, or PetVille, MafiaWars, Poker, Café World, Treasure Isle, and/or Vampire Wars, all of which are featured at RewardVille.

Once “in the system,” Zynga offers gamers the opportunity to rack up zPoints and zCoins. These points and coins can be put toward unlocking different RewardVille levels along the way. Players can earn up to 80 zPoints per game, or 300 zPoints per day.

The goods on the goods. Players can then spend their earned zCoins to purchase exclusive and limited edition items. Example: a “Ring of Fire” for FrontierVille is available only via a RewardVille purchase, thus providing a level of exclusivity within the game.

The French Connection. Ok, maybe not French, but RewardVille offers similar social connectivity as all of Zynga’s other titles, allowing users to send mystery gifts to other friends and family within the Zynga ecosphere. Once these players accept the sent gift, they gain zPoints and zCoins, which can then in turn be used at RewardVille.

While this seems like a great internal development and growth plan for Zynga, I’m perplexed as to why they’d begin offering this type of program now? Are they hurting for numbers? Needing to draw more people deeper and deeper into titles? Expand the brand and better utilize under-played titles? And while it’s not quite as far reaching or devious as the < href="http://techcrunch.com/2009/10/31/scamville-the-social-gaming-ecosystem-of-hell/">ScamVille controversy, anything having to do with Rewards and Zynga (and a number of other casual games makers) leaves this author with a bad taste in his mouth.

EA fires back with an HTML5 solution of their own – simultaneous launch scheduled for mobile and Facebook

March 23rd, 2011

Hot on the heels of Disney’s announcement of their acquisition of Finnish HTML5 developer Rocket Pack, Inside Mobile Apps is reporting (http://www.insidemobileapps.com/2011/03/05/ea-dragon-age-legends/) that EA has launched their own counteroffer, promising gamers a dual Facebook and Mobile launch, all revolving around an HTML5 version of Dragon Age Legends.

This HTML5 coding arrives via EA’s EA2D, a smaller and younger (more agile?) studio amongst EA’s arsenal, with a specific focus on cross platform games. The title has quietly been in beta since last autumn, and is scheduled to launch congruently with the console and PC version of Dragon Age II, slated for a March 8 launch. And while this is clearly an “around the horn” marketing and launch strategy, EA states that the Facebook and mobile versions of the game are not designed as an upsell mechanism to the $60 console/PC version.

“This is a standalone game. It’s seen as an extension of the franchise, not as a marketing tool for other Dragon Age products,” said spokesperson Cindy Lum via Inside Mobile Apps. “This game is going to have a life of its own.”

I’m inclined to believe Ms. Lum, as all indicators of CEO John Riccitiello’s previous statements about EA’s shift away from traditional boxed games and digging deeper into the digital download, social, and mobile gaming environments.

Instead of the upsell, EA2D is dubbing the two games “companions” to the console and PC titles, as they’re not quite a full tie-in to the main game. Instead, Dragon Age Legends for Facebook and mobile allow gamers to use their “away-from-keyboard” time, as it were, as a time to work on time-based mechanics. These include crafting 2 – 3 hour potions, or collecting the rent, errr…gold from friends. The apps also include a currency balance checker, however gamers may only check their balance, and not make any purchases. Yet.

So there we have it. If you’re looking for the top three games makers to watch over the next 12 – 18 months, I’d keep my eyes on Disney, Zynga, and EA. Disney because of their faster-than-lightning acquisition of Finnish games house Rocket Pack, and their associated HTML5 gaming engine. EA is clearly heading down the cross platform path with EA2D, and I’m fairly certain that Dragon Age Legend is a testing ground for only further HTML5 based developments. And let’s not forget about Zynga’s acquisition of Dextrose AG, a German firm also specializing in HTML5 based gaming. The time, effort, resource and investment savings in cross platform games speak for themselves, but if you needed any more convincing, have a look at what Kim-Mai Cutler has to say (http://www.insidemobileapps.com/2011/02/09/facebook-html5-mobile/) about Facebook’s HTML5 push.