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Social Gaming Summit panel writeups June 23, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in social games, social gaming.
2 comments

I moderated two panels at the Social Gaming Summit 2009 today. The first was about building social games at scale and featured the CEOs/COOs of the top three social game companies; Mark Pincus of Zynga, John Pleasants of Playdom and Sebastien de Halleux of Playfish.

Gamasutra has an excellent writeup of the panel. Inside Social Games also liveblogged the panel.

Second panel was about social games “in the wild” – i.e. off of social networks. Andrew Bussey of Challenge Games, Daniel James of 3Rings, Matt Mihaly of Sparkplay and Jim Greer of Kongregate were the panelists. I haven’t see a writeup yet, but some notable paraphrased quotes from the converation include:

– Many games on social networks not actually social. Players playing alone, together. Interaction not really with friends but with a “cardboard cutout of a friend”.

– Many MMOGs have much higher degree of true social interaction between players than Facebook games. “Playing” with your friends vs Making friends with the people you play with.

– Facebook games the “gateway drug” for the rest of the gaming industry, attracting players who would not consider themselves gamers. Destination game sites draw a harder core player

– “Manipulating users to spam their friends” is less powerful and effective than building a game experience that users will willingly tell their friends about

– All this being said, games companies built on social networks have seen phenomenal growth that far outstrips growth of game companies built on the open web.

I may have gotten some of these wrong, but I was moderating to it was hard to take good notes. If anyone has seen a good writeup please link in comments

Also Siqi Chen, CEO of Lightspeed portfolio company Serious Business, gave an excellent presentation on metrics for social games with David King of lil green patch that shared a lot of live data from their games and was very insightful.

“Wars” style social games placed in context of other web based massively single player games June 19, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in games, games 2.0, social games, social gaming.
2 comments

Worlds In Motion plays Mafia Wars and compares it to other web based massively single player games, including ForumWarz, Kingdom of Loathing and Urban Dead:

There are plenty of other MSOs … but the successful ones all have some attributes in common:

–All are based on stats, money, loot, rank, and clans or guilds
–The best extent to which players can communicate with each other is through messages, forums, or chat, all of which don’t occur “in game”
–All require alternative and creative revenue streams, and must be free to play. Methods include microtransactions, merchandising, and donation requests
–Actions or turns are limited so as to reduce server loads and costs. Some regenerate slowly every few minutes, others simple reset every 24 hours
–Must have interesting or popular content, especially if merchandising is a revenue model
–They generally prohibit multiple character creation
-They encourage player-banding by heavily rewarding group associations in order to recruit new players to expand the player base and sustain merchandise sales.

This last point is ironic, since these are essentially single player games, but it forges communities based around the culture of the game. In the case of Mafia Wars, that culture is Facebook, which partially explains why player interaction is limited.

Quests are the new grind in social games, and that is why they are a good idea June 1, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, games, games 2.0, mmorpg, social games.
10 comments

The first generation of MMOG apps on social networks rely heavily on level advancement as motivation for players to keep playing. In the Mob Wars/Mobsters/Mafia Wars genre, the grind is driven by doing jobs to gain money and experience, and hence to level up.

We’re starting to see the introduction of quests into the social network based MMOGs as a way of alleviating the boredom that can set in with a primarily level advancement based game dynamic. But this can lead to a different sort of grind. There are a couple of good recent posts that are worth reading for people building MMOGs on the social networks that look at “quests as the new grind” in World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and other MMOGs.

Wolfshead first raised this topic last August when he wrote about the unintended consequences of quest based MMOs, primarily that:

* MMOGs become much more single player experiences
* There is a loss of community
* When the quests run out, players find themselves at a loss for what to do

His post is much more eloquent and considered than this summary and is worth reading when you have some time. He bemoans that the addition of rails (via quests) dimishes replayability. He revisited and updated his thoughts on the topic in March.

Over at Brighthub, Michael Hartman agrees with Wolfshead and says that quest based MMOGs are anti-group, repetitive and immersion disrupting. He says that quests change games into simple to-do lists.

Psycochild examines the grind in light of these perspectives and finds something to like about the grind of questing. Firstly, repetition is not inherently a bad characteristic of games. As he points out:

…games are all about repetition. Playing a simple game of Klondike Solitaire is pretty much all about repetition: looking for place to play a card, flipping over more cards, finding more places to play cards, eventually trying to win. Boring, right? Except people are eager to point out that solitaire is likely the most played games in Windows.

The truth is that most games are about repetition, even offline and non-computer games. Games usually have a set of rules that intentionally limit the options in the game. Klondike wouldn’t really be much of a game if you could just go through the piles and pick out the cards you need. So, you apply the rules repeatedly in the game to reach the eventual goal. From this perspective, “repetitive” describes 95% of games out there.

Secondly, he describes ways that the negative aspects of grinding can be mitigated through game design:

* Encourage players to do varied things
* Discourage boring behavior
* Provide alternative gameplay
* Encourage socialization

His post gives more detail on each of these points.

Ultimately, I think that we’ll see a lot more quest based game design in social games. Wolfshead sees World of Warcraft as the epitome of the quest based grind and says in his updated post:

It’s evident that WoW was designed to attract non-MMO gamers all along. Here are a few points that demonstrate this:

the simplicity of the interface (as noted by one of the interviewers)
the focus of quests for herding the player into new areas
the lack of challenge in the enemy encounters
the story revealed to players via the quests

In retrospect it’s almost as if WoW was designed to be one big tutorial for gamers new to MMOs. A MMO so easy and attractive that it’s greatest strength would always be in attracting new players (defined in industry parlance as “churn”).

Yet here we are 5 years later and all is not well. Eventually new MMO gamers become veteran gamers.

He is right from the point of view of an veteran gamer. But WoW is the biggest commercial success that the MMOG genre has ever had and indeed the biggest commercial success that the game industry has ever had. It succeeded precisely because it could entice new players, non-MMO gamers.

The social networks offer an opportunity for a huge number of non-MMO gamers (indeed people who would not consider themselves gamers at all) to be converted into MMO gamers. The social games so far have raced to far higher player numbers than any MMOG has in the past, precisely because they have gotten non-gamers to play. As a result, quests will be a very important component of game design on social networks for some time to come. It will be a long time before these new gamers become veteran gamers and become dissatisfied with quests.

Social Gaming Summit coming up in June May 4, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in conferences, games, games 2.0, gaming, social games, social gaming.
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Last years Social Gaming Summit was well received so Charles Hudson, David Sachs and I are doing it again this year. The Social Gaming Summit 2009 is a one day event focused on the intersection of games and the social web. This year’s event will focus on helping social games developers build, monetize, and grow their social games. We’re bringing together the leaders in free-to-play games, social networking, and payments infrastructure for a full day of panels and talks.

The event will be on June 23rd at the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco.

I’m moderating a terrific panel with Mark Pincus from Zynga, Dan Yue from Playdom and Sebastien de Halleux of Playfish, the three biggest games publishers on social networks.

This will be the first time that Playdom has spoken at a conference. We’ve also got the first game conference appearance from Xiaonei (the Facebook of China) and Challenge Games, plus a few speakers that you won’t have heard speak much sharing their game industry expertise.

The rest of the agenda is shaping up really well, and we’re considering adding a separate track or day of practical workshops as well. Here is what it looks like so far:
_____________________________________________________________
8:30 AM to 9:20 AM Breakfast and Registration
Join your fellow attendees for a light breakfast and some pre-conference mingling. Register in advance to save money and time at check-in.

9:20 AM Welcome and Opening
Charles Hudson

9:30 AM Social Gaming Industry Overview and Update
Justin Smith, Inside Social Games

10:00 AM – 10:50 AM Panel: Building Social Games At Scale
Mark Pincus, Zynga
Dan Yue, Playdom
Sebastien de Halleux, Playfish
Moderator: Jeremy Liew, Lightspeed Venture Partners

11:00 AM – 11:50 AM Panel: Social Games – A Platform Perspective
Jason Oberfest, MySpace
Gareth Davis, Facebook
Andrew Sheppard, hi5
Joe Chen, Xiaonei

12:00-1:15 PM Lunch
We’ll have lunches available for everyone from Noon to 1:15 PM. Grab a bite and take advantage of the opportunity to catch up with friends, check your Blackberry, or recharge your batteries.

1:15-2:00 PM Panel: Monetization Infrastructure for Social Games
Erikka Arone, Zong
Adam Caplan, Super Rewards
Rob Goldberg, GMG Entertainment
Renata Dionello, PayPal

2:00-2:45 PM Panel: Customer Acquisition and Retention for Social Games
Jia Shen, RockYou
Anu Shukla, Offerpal Media
Greg Tseng, Tagged
James Currier, WonderHill
Moderator: Sean Ryan

2:45-3:15 PM Afternoon Break
Need caffeine? How about a cookie or a snack? We’ll have refreshments on hand to keep you going through the rest of the day.

3:15-4:00 PM Expert Talks
“Getting the Most Out of Your IP: Extend or Prepare to be Cloned” – David King, (Lil) Green Patch

4:00-4:45 PM Panel: Social Games in the Wild: Living Outside of Social Networks
Matt Mihaly, Sparkplay Media
Andrew Busey, Challenge Games
Jim Greer, Kongregate

4:45 PM Closing Remarks
Charles Hudson

5:00 PM Reception
After a full day of conference sessions and conversations, join the group for a beverage before you head out for the evening.
_____________________________________________________________

Early bird rates are available until May 23rd. If you’d like to come but early bird rates are all gone, use my registration code, JEREMYLIEW, to get a 15% discount.

Hope to see you there.

Future of social payment platforms April 16, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in payments, social games, social gaming, virtual goods.
14 comments

Inside Facebook reports 35% quarter on quarter growth for social media payment provider platforms. Incentives social network offer platforms such as Offerpal, $uperRewards, Gambit and the like have enabled the phenomonal revenue growth in social games. Payments has always been the friction point for free to play games in the US, and these platforms significantly increase players ability to pay for virtual goods.

The future is bright for these platforms, but there are some clouds on the horixon. Andrew Chen’s blog has a terrific guest post from Jay Weintraub on the likely future of the incentivized social payment platforms. If you’re building games or otherwise monetizing virtual goods and using one of these platforms, go read this post and come back.

Jay points out that incentive marketing has been around a long time, and follows boom and bust cycles where initial advertiser enthusiasm for a new source of leads is dampened when lead quality ends up being poor. I agree with his prognosis that revenue through this channel will come under some pressure in the future but will not go away. Some points worth noting:

1. Because many of the leads are being filtered through at least one intermediary and mixed in with other lead sources, it will take a while before the advertisers figure out what these leads are really worth, so pricing should hold up for a couple of quarters yet.

2. Unlike the free ipod model, the value of the payoff has been reduced by 1-2 orders of magnitude, so far less actions need to be completed (usually only one) before a user gets a payoff. As a result there will be vastly less breakage and vastly fewer unhappy users, [so long as the offers are adequately explained] so the risk of state and federal investigation is much lower this time around.

3. There is a roughly 50:50 split for the payments platforms today between direct payments and offers. Even if the value of offers were to fall in half, this would still mean that revenues would hold up at the 75% level

4. Offers are the gateway drug towards virtual goods purchase. Typical new players split 30:70 direct payments to offers, but hard core players split 70:30. As a result, game publishers will have an incentive to support offers even if margins drop as it teaches players to pay for goods.

What do you think?

Social gaming is a tactic not a category March 25, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, games, games 2.0, gaming, social games, social gaming, viral, viral marketing, virtual goods.
10 comments

I’ve been blogging a lot about social games over the past couple of years and have been a big proponent of the space. However, over the last few months I’ve started to question whether social gaming is a separate category at all. I now believe that the true category is free to play gaming, and that social gaming is simply a tactic (albeit a very important and differentiating tactic) within this category. Although I’ve been saying this in private a fair bit recently, I brought it up at the VC panel at Gamesbeat yesterday and I hear that it caused a bit of a stir. Rather than being quoted out of context in 140 characters, I thought it would be helpful to explain how I came to this view.

At the most basic level, free to play games (with a digital goods or subscription upsell model) need to focus on only two metrics, Lifetime Player Value (LPV) and Player Acquisition Cost (PAC). If LPV > PAC then you’ve got a business. If not, you don’t. This applies to flash MMOs, virtual worlds, facebook games, asynchronous text based MMOs, client downloadable games, myspace games and a whole host of other games, with the key unifying element being the business model, and the importance of those two statistics, LPV and PAC.

The term “social gaming” has been used in two main, and related, ways. I think that both of these definitions are potentially limiting. The first has been to describe games that are played (and spread) on social networks. The second has been to describe games that spread virally, with a PAC of zero because current players invite new players with a K factor above 1.

Let’s start with games played on social networks. This is a terrific distribution tactic as open platforms and distribution are opposite sides of the same coin, and as I’ve said in the past, in the early stages of a new category distribution is the key driver of success. Free to play gaming is certainly in it’s early stages, with many games having to create demand versus simply fulfilling demand. But there is no reason why these games have to be limited to only social networks, and indeed companies like SGN and Zynga have already started to port their games to other platforms including the iPhone and the open web. Social networks offer an easy starting point for new free to play games because of the large concentration of potential players, but there is no reason for free to play games to stop at social networks.

Now lets address viral growth for games. Obviously, this is a wonderful characteristic. It is the cheapest possible channel for player acquisition as with a PAC of zero, you can make money at any level of LPV. However, once again, there is no reason to limit your player acquisition channels to viral growth. You should acquire new players through any channel where your PAC < LPV. For some game developers this is a religious issue; viral is best and nothing else is acceptable. I disagree with such a fundamentalist approach. If your LPV is high enough to allow you to buy users through advertising, distribution deals, search marketing or any other channel, then you should. Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, has been preaching this approach since early 2008. Here is an excerpt from my blog post from the social games panel that I moderated at the Graphing Social Patterns conference in March 2008:

We next talked about how social games can grow. Viral growth has obviously been the key driver of growth up to this point for all the panelists. Shervin noted that they had seen a strong positive correlation between App Rating and rate of viral growth – high quality games spread faster. Mark talked about the importance of supporting a game with advertising, especially at launch.

One reason that Zynga is the largest social gaming company today is that they have been able to afford to promote their games on both Facebook and Myspace, and have done so aggressively.

Obviously, building social factors into games is increasingly important. Multiplayer is the “user generated content” of games, and social interaction is a key part of that. Furthermore, even if your K factor is less than one, it can be a very important force multiplier on your player acquisition. Buying one player if your K factor is 0.8 means that you will generate 5 new players, and this can dramatically average down your PAC, even if it doesn’t take it all the way down to zero.

In conclusion then, I find the term “social gaming” to be limiting. The best publishers and developers of free to play games will make frequent use of social gaming tactics, but they will not refuse to go beyond social networks and viral channels to grow to their full potential.

I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Social games need endgames September 22, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in endgame, game design, games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg, social games, social gaming.
6 comments

At AGDC last week Bioware’s Damion Schubert spoke about end-game design in MMOs. Massively notes:

Endgame gameplay, elder gameplay, is a mandatory and compelling part of the genre’s equation. In fact, in Damion’s opinion complex elder gameplay exemplifies what makes the massive genre what it is…

In reality, says Schubert, MMOs are generally really easy to play. Comparing the learning curve of an MMO to a single-player game is ludicrous; MMOs are like ‘popping bubble-wrap’ in comparison. This is because of the challenge of tuning leveling to every class and every build. The result is an experience that’s fairly mundane. The real challenge, the ‘worthy experience’ is the endgame encounter.

While endgame may seem like a strange or meaningless thing, it’s actually really important for every player. Even low level players are aware of powerful guilds and raid progression. Damion references the cutscene that happens when Kael is killed and a quest is turned in; this feels, truly, as though the world is advancing and changing. That’s vital for a vibrant community.

The most thing about elder gameplay is that is one of the few things that is actually massive. Massive gameplay is the one thing that this genre of games has to offer.

IGN reports that Schubert considers there to be two forms of endgame, PvP and PvE:

In order to pull players through the sometimes dull leveling process, Schubert says it’s necessary to give an indication of what’s going on at higher levels. In games where the endgame revolves around player versus player territorial control combat, for instance, a good game will let players view a territorial control map. On World War II Online’s site, for instance, the main page prominently displays the line of contest between the two sides and which side, the Axis or the Allies, are pushing forward. It’s, in effect, an advertisement for the dynamic, high level activity that most new players might not necessarily be aware of.

He went on to talk specifically about the advantages and drawbacks of territorial control PvP and PvE raiding. For territorial control, you need a few basics. You need affiliated teams, either pre-set (World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online) or more freeform. You also need a physical location within the game world that players can fight over. Once that’s established, you need to consider the logistics of battle, like far do players need to run to rejoin the battle after death and how long the battles will last. Schubert says that having some way to actually schedule fights is a solid notion, but you should also have a way to specify when that fight will end. Whatever the structure of the PvP conflict, Schubert says it’s a concept that needs to be slowly introduced to players early on, like with the territorial map, to give a player an idea of what the strongest in the game world are up to…

[PvE] Raid encounters are another major form of endgame content, and center around the idea of players working as a team to essentially solve a puzzle. Raid encounters center on boss fights. The draw, naturally, is the loot, but Schubert says there’s also the draw of solving the puzzle of the boss’ attack patterns. Bosses can have a number of different attack routines, from predictable patterns to randomized attacks to the summoning of minions. These types of actions work to engage players in a number of ways. It requires those in the raid to coordinate their positions and movement on the field of battle, manage their health, and also generates different sub-types of player classes outside of the standard tank, healer, and damage dealers.

Gamasutra notes some specific observations about PvP endgames:

“If your endgame is PVP, you need to think about how PVP is introduced to characters at the low levels,” Schubert cautions. “If players decide along the way to the endgame that they don’t like your PVP, they will decide the endgame is not for them.” Argues that you should protect players more at the lower level, so they have a positive PVP experience.

“People don’t pay money to suck. People do not want to pay $15 a month to be the Washington Generals.” This is something he learned when making Shadowbane – “the winners now had lots of resources and the city could thrive, and the losers had nothing. So what happened is eventually the losers stopped logging on, and the winners eventually had nothing to fight.”

“We had one server where one guild was so in control, that they banned a player class so they’d have somebody to fight,” said Schubert. Players woke up in the morning and found that they were “wanted.”

The solution, he says, is to be able to hit a button, in the game (so to speak) to indicate that one group of players have won, and that they can begin again.

Many of the social games on Facebook and on the web today don’t have any endgame at all. The gameplay more or less stays the same no matter how long you play Texas Hold’em, Owned, Lil Green Patch or Bowling Buddies, to name just a few. This is going to create a challenge for long term retention. Even for free to play games, it is your hard core users who pay you the most money. So it will also create a challenge for long term monetization.

The good news for web based games is that there is no need to develop an endgame at launch. You can afford to wait until you have a critical mass of users before developing an endgame as there is no need to solve this problem until you have “elder players”. And since you are a web based game, you can switch on an endgame at any time without having to worry about updating a client.

Often times, endgame play will emerge organically from the users. For example, Fluff Friends endgame play has become more focused on creating elaborate fluff art. Friends For Sale endgame play has become about collecting “sets” of people and other quest like achievements, often challenges set up the players themselves. These social games have developed endgames that are neither PvP nor PvE, but are instead more social in nature.

While it is great when endgame emerges on its own, social game designers can be more proactive in developing endgames to keep their best players engaged, and give their new players something to aspire to.

Game developers on social networks can expect $1.20/mth/Daily Active User August 29, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, business models, games, games 2.0, gaming, social games, social gaming, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
3 comments

Inside Facebook has a terrific interview with $uperRewards, one of the two major CPA ad networks for social networks (and increasingly outside of social networks as well). [Offerpal is the other major CPA ad network for social networks]. In the interview the $uperRewards team give some great stats and advice for game designers:

On who to focus on when thinking about monetization:

You should support all kinds of players well, while remembering that your hardcore users will generate 90% of your revenue….

…Also, keep in mind at that a majority of the revenue generated per user is generated early in the lifetime of the users’ interaction with the games. People spend money developing their characters, climbing the leader board, and unlocking new elements of the game. Once their character is strong, they have many prizes, and have unlocked all the levels – naturally there is less desire to complete offers and pay. It is those top guys though that motivate the little guys to climb and thus spend.

On what monetization a game developer can expect:

The core metric we use is dollars per click. We hope our developers can get 25% of their daily active users through a Super Rewards page at some point. Of those, if the economy is balanced correctly, you should see a 40-50% click through rate, and ultimately a net 8-10% conversion rate. Developers get about $1.00-$1.50/conversion for US users, but less for international users. We’re lucky to get $0.06/conversion in China, but we have games operating in Europe and other parts of Asia at $0.25 and up.

So assuming all of a developer’s traffic is US traffic, the developer could see up to $83 per day per thousand DAUs. However, on an average basis across all geographies, we are about half that number. It goes without saying that there is a wide distribution around the average based on quality of app and balance of virtual currency economy.

$83/day x 1/2 x 30 days = ~$1200/mth per thousand DAUs, or $1.2/mth per DAU. That sounds like real opportunity. When Facebook rolls out an API for micropayments, this number will likely go up even further.

Promising numbers for game developers.

Read the whole interview.

How to design a reputation system for your social media site or social game June 30, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, reputation, social games, social gaming, social media.
7 comments

Bokardo has an interesting interview with Bryce Glass of Yahoo, about Yahoo’s social design pattern for reputation. Building reputation systems can really help drive high quality engagement on a social media site, but is also fraught with danger and unintended consequences if not done thoughtfully:

What are the biggest hurdles in designing for reputation?

I think it’s probably the number and variety of unintended consequences that little design decisions can have further down the line. I’m fond of the article—so I cite it a lot—but Ben Brown, who founded the dating site Consumating, has a great blog-post about the ‘ill-fated points system’ that they used for that site, and the variety of… um… less-than-ideal behaviors that those incentives gave rise to. Early on, Slashdot struggled with many of these same issues, and they’ve re-jiggered their comment karma system several times through the years.

A big hurdle—and if you can solve this, you’re halfway there to having a well-designed and effective reputation system—is appropriately marrying the incentives that you offer your users to the appropriate set of goals that you have for your community. You want to be sure that you’re rewarding folks for behaving like good citizens, and not just rewarding them for no good reason. (Or for vague and misguided reasons like “to keep them engaged” or “so we can have a leaderboard.”)

Earlier this year, Glass gave a presentation on designing your reputation system at the IA summit outlining eleven different reputation systems:

    > Named Levels
    > Numbered Levels
    > Identifying Labels
    > Points
    > Collectible Achievements
    > Leaderboard
    > Top X
    > Temporal Awards
    > Statistical Evidence
    > Peer Testimonials
    > User to User Awards

and how to select between them depending on questions including:

    > What are your business goals? [Engagement? Promote a specific feature? Acknowledge top contributors? Increase content quality? User Retention?]
    > What community spirit do you want to encourage? [Caring? Collaborative? Cordial? Competitive? Combative?] More detail on the competitive spectrum in Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library.
    > What motivates your community members?
    > Which entities will accrue reputation? [People? Things? Collections of Things?]
    > Which inputs will you pay attention to?
    > How transparent should the rules be? [More transparency is more likely to affect behavior]

He also notes that reputations should always decay over time to prevent a log jam at the top that can discourage new members and make a community appear stagnant.

Yahoo has done a nice job of categorizing some of the various reputation systems available to social architects and how to think through choosing one. I would highly recommend reading the interview and presentation and reviewing the material in the design library.

How casual MMOs benefit from hardcore players June 18, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, social games, social gaming.
2 comments

One of the take aways of the social gaming summit last week was that even casual MMOGs need to focus on their hardcore players as that is their source of paying players. David Perry of Acclaim noted in one panel that the players of Dance Online monetize far better than the players of “traditional” MMOGs that Acclaim operates:

As for who’s paying, Perry (Acclaim) expected most microtransactions to come from hardcore MMORPG playerskitting out the avatars with fancy armor and such. Instead, it comes from Dance. The game is a simple dancing activity, but because users spend so much time looking at their avatars, the appearance and identity becomes even more important.

Corroborating evidence comes from this great multipage review of Audition on the Escapist. Audition is a free to play dance themed game, published by Nexon in the US.

Audition isn’t a casual game, despite the presence of numerous casual markers: short play times, transparent rules, continuous save-free play, an item-based advertising model. Although the rules can be learned in minutes, mastery requires about a month of semi-serious dedication; “pro”-level skills take significantly longer. And, like a standard fantasy-based MMO, if you drop out of regular play, you’ll return to find that all of your friends are 10 levels ahead of you and worlds ahead in ability. Your reflexes can atrophy as quickly as embouchure for a musical instrument.

When you find the beat, however, the feeling is incredible. Your keyboard becomes an instrument through which you “play” a pounding, intense rock song. When you claim the highest score, you slide into the lead dancer position, supported by the other players worshiping at the altar of your groove. Whether you’re playing backup or lead, Audition reaches deep down into the shared performance experience that has driven homo sapiens to make music and dance since the birth of the species. Beat Up, performed well, closely replicates a creative “flow” state that is almost nirvana – if you release thought and embrace the physical pulse of the music, you’re carried along in a fast and furious musical flow that you share with your fellow performers. The game’s mechanics encourage this mindset with visual cues and flourishes that reward a steady, flawless performance; you achieve “beat up” status by sustaining 100+ perfect “moves.” Once I’d tasted a little Beat Up success, there was no going back.

I am a big fan of causal MMOs branching out beyond the fantasy, FPS and sci fi themes towards genres that have potential for much broader, mass market appeal. As I’ve noted before, there is increasing evidence that women drive viral growth more than men do, so if you want to see viral growth in games, it makes sense to make games that will appeal broadly to “non gamers”. Games like Popomundo, Parking Wars and Friends For Sale all do this well. (Friends for Sale is a Lightspeed portfolio company)

Another important lesson to take away from the review is that real world context can have an impact on gameplay:

When I first started playing, I was convinced these high-level hot stepper kids had something I fundamentally didn’t. This is partially true: They did have something I didn’t, and not just endless patience or time to spare – they knew the songs.

This actually makes a significant difference in your performance. Hardcore Audition players identify desirable songs by their speed and difficulty, but a significant number of the game’s “mainstream” players actively seek music that they already listen to outside the game. (And it works both ways; players have reported purchasing music they first heard in Audition.)

…Once I started playing Audition, however, a new aural landscape opened up before me. Rather than semi-sullenly tuning out environmental music at the mall, I started to recognize bands and individual songs. And because I associated them with the feelings of accomplishment and socialization I absorbed in Audition, I actually enjoyed hearing them. Whereas I had actively disliked – to put it mildly – the repetitive beat and high-pitched vocals in Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” after mastering it in Audition I found myself tapping along with it on the radio. Audition is, among other things, an as-yet unmatched music marketing engine.

I think we’ll see more of both of these trends as social gaming continues to evolve. I’d love to hear examples from readers of games that are leading these trends.