Social gaming startup Ohai has announced its first project -- Facebook-enabled vampire MMO City of Eternals -- and here, its co-founders Susan Wu and Don Neufeld talk about the design, business, and technology of getting social gamers to engage with "frictionless MMOs that appeal to everyone in the world."
Ohai is currently operating City of Eternals in an invite-only Alpha as it continues to develop the title -- says Wu, "Our game is built on a web services model, and we can make major gameplay changes on a daily basis."
Susan Wu's background is in venture capital at Charles River Ventures, where she spent 12 years working with startups, including Twitter. Neufeld, on the other hand, comes from Sony Online Entertainment -- where he worked on Planetside and EverQuest 2, among others. The company's staff is pulled largely from experienced MMO developers.
Rather than a fantasy game set in a fictitious medieval realm full of elves and dwarves, the game is centered around a modern-day city populated with four families of vampires -- including characters designed to appeal to a wide variety of users -- and drawn from various pop-culture inspirations.
The game itself is a pretty typical looking MMO with customization, combat, and social elements -- but Wu and Neufeld think the difference, beyond setting and the Facebook delivery platform, is in the agility it can be updated. With "10,000 Alpha testers coming in world 10 times a day for seven minutes a session," says Wu, " we can A/B test and test out these scenarios."
The company has already deployed new content based entirely on observations of user play pattern, including a new combat-based zone based on the popularity of existing missions, and "new storylines designed around relationship-building and romance," given the game's current 50/50 split of male and female users. When the team deploys new content, says Wu, "the next day we can see... and tweak it, rework the flow, or just get rid of the area."
The Case for a Social MMO
Social MMOs are of obvious interest, but issues around player time investment, monetization, audience interest, and technology have all been raised. Ohai's platform, which is designed to work with multiple games -- the company has already put its second title into production -- has solutions for some of these problems, and the game designers have the rest, says Wu.
The game rests on the Facebook platform, and players are identified by their real world identities in game -- as they are on the service. Says Wu, "This is a big hypothesis. We're basically trying to get rid of the 'virtual' in MMOs."
"Basically, the company philosophy is that everybody wants to be a hero in their everyday lives. The idea that just by playing games that make you feel good or make you feel accomplished for five minutes a day, you're doing something good for the rest of your day -- the other 23 hours and 55 minutes of your day."
When it comes to matching up Facebook users who may not be as conversant in the MMO genre, says Wu, "We're already doing a lot of under-the-hood instancing the users are not aware of. We have algorithms that check where your friends are and automatically puts you where your friends are, because we're assuming you want to play with your real-life friends."
Though the genre is viewed as hardcore, Wu notes that the game's design encourages short sessions and the Alpha testers are bearing out that play pattern -- as reported above, session duration averages seven minutes. Says Wu, "If you want to do something lightweight with your friends after work, but you want it to be something structured -- there's no reason that people on the internet couldn't play an MMO for 10 minutes."
And Wu thinks that the allure of MMOs will not be lost on social network users. "I've gotten a lot of value from playing MMOs. [They're] for anyone who likes movies, and books, and rich environments. MMOs are another way to experience a rich narrative, with other players." Compared to other online interactions, says Wu, "I'm still doing something with friends, but it allows me to be playful."
Monetization will be taken care of by an engine that allows the developers to sell anything the game engine is capable of delivering as a virtual good. "Every entity, every state," and "relationships between entities" can be packaged and sold with this technology, according to Ohai's presentation -- including convenience, social, and decorative items, among others, like most microstransaction-supported MMOs.
And the team has developed proprietary, patented Flash technology to deliver 30 frames per second gameplay and support 10,000 users on a server. Says Neufeld, "Flash does a variety of things to try and make the experience good for the average application, and most average Flash applications are written by web developers who are not computer scientists. So we've done things to take as much advantage of the Flash platform as we could."
How It Works
Wu says that the game has design that encourages quick play and a theme unlike the genre's heavy hitters, it's still open to being played similarly. "The major play style would be that of the MMO -- in the sense that there's a somewhat linear story arc, and you can play through all the levels like that." There's also quick-hit "instanced" gameplay which delivers quick gameplay. Beyond that, there's "lightweight social gameplay", designed to fit with the Facebook platform. "The whole game has been designed so you can get value out of it in five to 10 minutes," says Wu.
"The whole system has been designed with the assumption that all social games and MMOs are communities, and that we have to be really responsive to what people are actually doing in the game and what the emergent social behaviors are," Wu says.
The game will also hook into other web portals besides Facebook, says Wu, and "deep links" delivered via URLs can send users directly to content better suited to those portals -- with users of gaming websites delivered directly to combat-oriented missions, for example. The game will also be operated from Ohai's own website, with users allowed to log in via Facebook Connect.
The company also has plans to extend the game to the iPhone. The formal launch of the Facebook version will come in the next month; the iPhone app and the company's next product will follow in the future.