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Going dark until the new year December 22, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Uncategorized.
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Happy holidays!

Games 2.0: The Facebook app Zombies is a huge MMOG December 21, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, casual games, facebook, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg.

As I mentioned in my last post, you can think of Zombies* and its Monster app brethren (Vampires, Werewolves and Slayers) as an asychronous massively multiplayer online game. It is essentially a PvP dueling game, not unlike duels.com, but much lighterweight. Many of the core elements of a game are already there; experience points, the ability to level up etc. In an interview with Virtual World News back in August, Zombie co-developer Blake Commagere said:

… the game play element is just a new form of interaction.

“Facebook serves different purposes for different people,” he said. “For some people, it’s a business contact site. They probably don’t want zombies on their pages, but a large number are looking for something to do. They’re looking for ways to interact. They use it to message their friends and organize parties. This is just one more way to interact with friends.”

In a random sampling of the users, Commagere found that the app draws slightly more women than men, mostly between 18 and 30. That’s a slightly younger and more female-biased demographic than Second Life or many of the other MMOGs.

In May the average visit time for a user to Facebook was just about 13 minutes, though they visit frequently. So Zombies works as a sort of casual MMO built on the social network. Commagere credits the app’s success to being simple, fun, and tied to a sense of community.

“You can build something for people on social networks,” he said, “but if you don’t leverage the social aspect, it’s just not as interesting. Then you’re ‘Oh, here I am with a widget on my page, all by myself.’ If you can see it on other people’s pages, that’s when users get into it. One of the things that’s compelling in the games we’re making is that you can see ‘Oh, here’s my friend John, and he’s got more points than me.'”

Arguably, the Monsters app are only proto games right now. They certainly derive more of their popularity from their social aspects than from their game design today. Biting someone or attacking their monster is a lightweight way of saying “I’m thinking about you” without having to actually compose a message. It also opens up the opportunity for reciprocity, one of Cialdini’s six weapons of influence). But collectively they have over 18m app installs and 700 daily actives. That is an impressive number for any MMO. As gameplay improves (and it will) you can expect to see daily active rates go up. Scrabulous has shown that with a good game dynamic, a game on Facebook can get up to 30% daily actives which suggests a lot of potential upside.

Watch this space!

* Zombies and the other Monsters apps are part of the Rock You family of Facebook Apps. Rockyou is a Lightspeed portfolio company.

Games 2.0: Social gaming on Facebook December 20, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, casual games, facebook, games, games 2.0, gaming, social gaming, social networks.

As I spend more time investigating games 2.0 and asynchronous gaming, I keep getting drawn into the area of asynchronous mutliplayer casual gaming, perhaps with friends. One of the emerging leaders in this space is Social Gaming Network, part of webs.com.

Earlier this month the Mercury News put up a good overview of what the Social Gaming Network is doing.

While the rest of us have been socializing on Facebook, Webs.com has been building a very interesting business. It has been creating free games on Facebook that have garnered a huge number of page views. WarBook, a role-playing game with no animated graphics, and other Webs.com games have generated a billion page views since the first game launched 90 days ago in August. The games are generating ad revenue with just about every view…

“We launched it and it’s exploding,” said Pishevar. “WarBook is getting 15 million page views a day.”…

… Street Race is a new SGN game that has no graphics. You simply sign up, get $1,000 in play money, buy a car, then race. In the race, you click on another user. Then nothing happens. Nothing. The next screen that comes up tells you if you won or lost, how much money you earned or lost, and the skill points you earned. As your skill points grow, you win more races and get more money to spend souping up your car. The social part comes in where you can get more money by inviting 20 friends to join…

It’s simple and easy. That’s why the game has gotten more than a million page views on its first day. You can play a round in about one second…

“We’re leveraging the social graph,” Pishevar said. “It’s gaming on tap. You use it as you need it. We are building the first social gaming network on top of the Facebook social operating system.”

The top three games on the Social Gaming Network are Warbook (a RTS game of empire building in a fantasy world), Streetrace (managing a racing car) and Fight Club (a PvP dueling game that they acquired), but they also have some single player games Blocky and Supersnake.

Others are also building out networks of social games on Facebook, including Mark Pincus‘s Presidio Media (Texas Hold’em, Scramble, Attack!, Blackjack, Diveman, Triumph, and probably others – I stopped after the 4th page of Gaming apps in the directory) and Scrabulous.

Even single player games like Jetman, with good “high score challenge” integration, can get millions of installs, despite having an almost archaic game play mechanism.

If you think about social networks as platforms for distribution, with existing social maps making distribution that much easier, then it becomes clear why these companies are so aggressively going after the platforms.

The payments program that Facebook is beta testing will be a huge boon for these social gaming sites. In addition to the advertising opportunities, it will greatly improve their ability to build an additional revenue stream from digital goods (both for self expression and for “power ups” within games).

For another post, why Zombies and the rest of the Monsters apps (part of the Rockyou* family of apps) can be considered one of the most popular online games in the world.

* Rockyou is a Lightspeed portfolio company

Social Media: Culture = f(UI) December 19, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in culture, facebook, game mechanics, interaction, Internet, myspace, social media, social networks, UI, web 2.0.

Lightspeed hosted a summit for portfolio companies and friends of the firm in the fall, focused on consumer internet user acquisition. One of the panels was about building community on a social media site, and on that panel Angelo Sotira (CEO and founder of deviantART) noted that for social media sites, culture is a function of UI. (deviantART is the leading community for artists and their fans on the web, and is an Alexa top 100 site. [Disclosure: my wife did some consulting for deviantArt.])

I was reminded strongly of this when reading Judith Donath‘s paper on Signals in Social Supernets that was published in the special theme issue of JCMC on social network sites guest edited by dana boyd and Nicole Ellison:

Variation in the design of SNSs promotes the development of different cultures (Donath & boyd, 2004; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2007; Lenhart & Madden, 2007b). On a site where creating a link involves little cost, users may amass thousands of “friends,” but an observer has no way of knowing which, if any, of these links represent a relationship between people who care about or even know each other (boyd, 2006; Fono & Raynes-Goldie, 2007). On Orkut, for instance, one simply clicks on a profile to request a connection, and being connected provides no special access or information.

On sites with higher costs for creating a link, the observer has reason to believe that the links represent genuine relationships. Members of aSmallWorld are careful to request connections only with others whom they are sure wish to be linked to them, since they can be banished for having a few link requests declined (Price, 2006). On LiveJournal, making the link is easy: It is one of the few sites in which this can be done unilaterally. However, linking is generally done to give someone access to part of one’s journal, and linked members’ posts appear on one’s own space. This makes “friend” a relatively significant signal, as friending someone both reduces one’s privacy and publicly connects one with that person’s writing (Fono & Raynes-Goldie, 2007).

The meaning of these links is also personally subjective. For some people, listing someone as a “friend” on a social network site is an indication of personal and positive acquaintance. Others are far more casual, willing to add friends indiscriminately (boyd, 2006). This has ramifications for the reliability of the profile itself. Viewers may trust the self-created content of a profile if they believe that its links are to people who know that user well, while links that they believe have only minimal connection add little credence.

SNSs are designed for different audiences. LinkedIn is for professionals. It has no photographs, the profiles are resumés of education and work, and the comments are in the form of testimonials from co-workers. Identity is firmly tied to one’s professional self, and there is limited ability to explore other people’s networks. MySpace, popular with young people, has a very different atmosphere. Its profiles feature photographs, music, and embedded programs, and users can explore the network far beyond their own acquaintances (although they can choose to make their profile visible only to direct connections). This open interface makes it a rich environment for the jokes, links, and software that function as information fashions (discussed below).

Identity in MySpace is fluid. Some profiles are real people, presenting themselves much as they would offline. Some are commercial entities, such as bands, charitable organizations, or celebrities; still others are fictional personas, made for creative experimentation or as fronts for spam. No single design is ideal for all sites. What is important is that designers be fluent in not only the fonts and colors that make up the graphical design of the site, but in the social costs and benefits that shape its emerging culture.

Once a culture takes hold on a site, it is very hard to change. People building social media sites should be careful to think through the implications of their UI (including such mechanics as keeping score and exposing popularity) as their choices will likely have long term implications that can’t be easily reversed by a subsequent tweak to UI.

I’d love to hear other examples of sites where the dominant culture is a function of UI.

UPDATE: Bokardo has a good related post on how changes to Digg’s UI changed its culture

NY Times reports research findings on Facebook December 18, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in facebook, myspace, social networks.
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Interesting article yesterday from the NY times that outlines some of the research findings on Facebook users (spotted via Bokardo).

Some interesting quotes from the article:

Researchers learned that while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate “too many” friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure…

Eszter Hargittai, a professor at Northwestern, found in a study that Hispanic students were significantly less likely to use Facebook, and much more likely to use MySpace. White, Asian and Asian-American students, the study found, were much more likely to use Facebook and significantly less likely to use MySpace…

‘Tis the season to… buy furniture online? December 17, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce.

Bear Stearns and Comscore recently put out a report on ecommerce for the holiday season. While overall ecommerce sales were up around 20% year-on-year, this average hides significant variability between categories.

This slide shows annual growth rates ranging from 10% (music, movies and videos) to 138% (video games, consoles and accessories).

I found the second fastest growth category to be most interesting. Online sales of Furniture, Appliances and Equipment are almost 70% higher than last year.

This really underscores the changing nature of online retail. Conventional wisdom a few years ago was that only easily shipped items would be sold online. Indeed, books (Amazon), jewelry (Blue Nile – a Lightspeed portfolio company), shoes (Zappos) and other relatively small and light items led the early surge of ecommerce.

But more recently we’ve seen a much broader set of products sold online. According to Internet Retailer, the two fastest growing Ecommerce sites of 2006 were Lumber Liquidators and Diapers.com. When pets.com and Webvan failed, conventional wisdom was that ecommerce could only work for goods with a high value-to-weight ratio. Neither hardwood floors, nor diapers, fall into that category. And in the Webvan category of groceries, Freshdirect does hundred of millions of dollars in sales in the NY/NJ area alone as a pureplay groceries etailer, to say nothing of Safeway and Peapod (owned by the same parent company as Stop and Shop and Giant).

As consumers become more willing to make large purchases online, and as “last mile” delivery logistics improve to residential addresses, we’re seeing a real surge in the online sale of items like claw footed bathtubs, rowing machines, trampolines and jogging strollers that we might never have imagined in the 90s. This was the thesis behind our investment in Mercantila earlier this year (which operates all the stores linked to in the previous sentence) and is also the driver behind the growth of its competitors including Netshops and CSN Stores.

There is still time to buy your big holiday gifts online – shop now! 😉

Social Media: Why social network “friends” are not necessarily friends. December 16, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in attention, facebook, myspace, social media, social networks, structure.

Two interesting posts recently address the issue of the number and strength of online relationships within social networks. Andrew Chen notes that friendships are complex:

…friendship networks are actually very complex, and are poorly approximated by the “friends” versus “not friends” paradigm, or even the “friends”, “top friends”, and then “not friends” paradigm…

… in fact, once you have this social map drawn out, one of the most interesting questions you can ask people is how they figure out in what situations they should:

* call someone
* text someone
* e-mail someone
* poke them
* write on their wall
* write them a message
* meet them in person
* etc

…there’s a steady progression of “commitment” that it takes to go from writing on a wall (the least burdensome thing) versus meeting them in person (the most burdensome thing). In fact, one of the really useful things that social networks provide that e-mail doesn’t is a range of expressiveness in your communication such that you can use it for more things than sending notes or data across the wire.

danah boyd reaches related conclusions as she thinks about the value of inefficiency in communication.

Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page.

Andrew found that sending or accepting a “friend” request was one of the least effort ways of communicating online (especially now that sending friend requests has largely been automated via email import tools). This leads to “friend” lists quickly growing to a size well over 150, Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship. So interestingly enough, marking someone as a “friend” in a social network is not a terribly good test of whether or not they are actually a friend.

Mining implicit data on behavior to create this structure is actually a better indicator of the real strength of relationships. Xobni does this via email; do any readers know of any third party systems that do this for social networks?

Games 2.0: Ian Bogost on Asynchronous Games December 13, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, business models, casual games, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming.
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As I dug more into asnychronous gaming, I found this great paper by Ian Bogost titled Asynchronous Multiplay: Futures for Casual Multiplayer Experience, which he presented at a conference in 2004.

Bogost notes the following four characteristics of asynchronous games:

1. Asynchronous play supports multiple players playing in sequence, not in tandem.
2. Asynchronous play requires some kind of persistent state which all players affect, and which in turn affects all players.
3. Breaks between players are the organizing principle of asnychronous play.
4. Asynchronous play need not be the defining characteristic of the game.

It is a thoughtful history and analysis of multiplayer asynchronous games and has proved to be remarkably prescient in its predictions for casual online MMOGs. The historical perspective in particular is quite useful. Worth reading the whole thing.

Games 2.0: Bringing games to non gamers December 12, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg.

After reading Raph’s presentation at GDC Prime, I’ve been thinking more about Games 2.0, and in particular how to bring games to people who wouldn’t typically identify themselves as gamers. As I’ve noted before, I think asynchronous multiplayer games may be one way to address this much larger market.

I’ve since stumbled across a couple of relevant posts that address the issue. A couple of years ago at Lost Garden, Dan asked a friend who loved board games why she doesn’t play video games. She gave two reasons:

1. Mastering the learning curve: Most video games require learning complex reaction-based skills in order to player competitively. The required investment in these skills creates a large entry barrier.
2. Lack of social elements: Board games are social and therefore time well spent. Many video games have very limited social interaction and are therefore worthless

Also a couple of years ago, over at Gamasutra, Rich Carlson notes:

Which would you rather play, a computer game that takes forty hours to complete or one that lasts just a few minutes? Don’t be too quick to answer. The former asks for a serious time commitment. The latter says come and go as you please. One is a ball and chain. The other is a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Well, it’s not exactly that bad but considering all of the things you have to do today, which type of game do you really have time for?

Also, isn’t it peculiar that when you complete a complex or lengthy game you rarely want to replay it, yet short games are often endlessly replayable? After you finish a long RPG or story game, the box goes back on the shelf to gather dust and remain unremembered until the next garage sale. A short game, if it’s good, usually doesn’t suffer that fate. It stays on your hard drive for years.

Both of these posts speak to the opportunity for aysnchronous multiplayer games:

1) Short interactions
2) Played with friends (social aspect)
3) With short learning curves

As I’ve mentioned before, Scrabulous and Attack! are great examples of this, although both solve the learning curve problem by relying on well known board games as their basis. Warbook and Triumph are attacking the problem with new games but with less of a “played with friends” angle (most “turns” are against strangers).

Where do readers see the most innovation is this area?

Games 2.0: Raph Koster at GDC Prime December 11, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in asynchronous gaming, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, web 2.0.
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Last week Raph Koster was a last minute substitute speaker at GDC Prime. You can get a copy of his (long) presentation here.

Some choice quotes from his presentation – slide 93 (The game has changed):

The hot platform is the net
The hot audience is the non-gamer
The hot feature is other players
The hot technology is connectivity
The hot game is a mini-game

and slide 49 (Successful mass market interactive entertainment):

* Asynchronicity
* Indifference to rendering
* Minimal controls
* Platform agnostic

Model first – The system is the game
Universal inputs – Any button will do
Long phases – Take your time
Short decisions – Be done fast
Massively parallel – Side by side
Extended accumulated state – Save your profile
No roles – Classless
Representation agnostic – Draw it however
Open data – Change it however

For those of you interested in games 2.0, it is well worth reading the whole thing.