With Electronic Arts' recent $400 million purchase of Playfish, social games are all the rage in today's tech industry. That's no surprise: lightweight games on social networks (which people usually play while they're goofing off at work) and social games have attracted huge player numbers with the biggest titles boasting 20 million to 60 million regular players.
But here's the worst kept secret about the genre: most social games aren't very, well, fun. They offer limited interactivity, game play challenge, and graphics. Consequently, players aren't invested enough to spend much money on them, especially compared to "hard-core" massively multiplayer-online (MMO) games. Even with the better social games, average revenue per users is less than a $1 per person.
By contrast, millions of World of Warcraft players willingly pay $15 a month in subscription fees alone. But, what MMOs like WoW have in revenue, they lack in growth due to the high technical hurdles and subject matter. WoW seems to have tapped out at around 12 million players, far less than the largest social games. And while the sustained revenue is great, attracting new players remains a challenge.
Enter City of Eternals, a Web-based MMO with a modern vampire theme from a new start-up called Ohai. After a long conversation with company CEO Susan Wu, a pioneer in the online gaming and virtual goods space, there are a number of reasons I think Ohai has the potential to succeed in the sweet spot between social games and hard-core gamer MMOs, and why the shift to social connection could become gaming's next big thing.
Ease of play
The biggest game platform isn't the Nintendo Wii or the iPhone, it's Flash, a browser plug-in installed on more than 99 percent of the world's PCs. An estimated 200 million people already play casual Flash-based games.
And while most MMOs require a huge client install, Ohai CTO and game industry veteran Don Neufeld (Everquest II, PlanetSide), and his development team (Free Realms, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Dungeons and Dragons Online) have re-engineered Flash into an MMO platform that pretty much anyone can play, without having to install additional software or hardware upgrades. As Wu put it, this means Ohai can build "Games for your aunt who plays FarmVille on Facebook and your cousin who can't play World of Warcraft on his school PC."
Deep social network integration
City of Eternals is fully integrated with Facebook and soon Twitter, but that doesn't mean the game is only playable within the social network. Players' Facebook profiles follow them into the vampire world, so whenever you're curious, you can click on a fellow vampire, and check their Facebook profile. This is the first time I've seen this feature in any MMO, and it brings in some new possibilities--making it much easier to socialize (and of course flirt) within the game. Wu told me City of Eternals' gender spread is 50-50 (extremely rare, compared with male-dominated MMOs), so I wouldn't be surprised if it became a major online hotspot for socializing. Especially since the game isn't about geeky elves and orcs, but far more popular vampires--see below.
The Twilight book series has sold more than 85 million copies worldwide; the Underworld movie franchise has brought in more than $300 million in theatrical sales; and TV's True Blood and Vampire Diaries both have huge cult followings. Vampires are obviously pervasive throughout popular culture, but there's yet to be a full-fledged vampire MMO.
Still in Alpha stage, Wu told me that players average 12 logins per day in the game, with an average session length of 5 to 6 minutes, fulfilling one of the company's goals of making a "bite-sized MMO."
City of Eternals is Ohai's first of many of what they call "MMOs for everyone." Of course, there's still a lot of unknown variables. The vampire craze may wane too soon, and as the Electronic Arts purchase suggests, the competition is huge. Maybe I'm crazy, but by next year, I think there's a good chance the most popular MMO on the market won't be World of Warcraft, but City of Eternals, or another game that crosses the boundaries between MMO and socialized gaming.