Photo Phrase LIVES

I am ecstatic, excited, and exuberant to announce the launch of Double Coconut‘s first game: Photo Phrase. The idea is Pictionary meets Charades meets Hangman. No… it’s Draw Something meets Instagram. No, wait… it’s…

Well, what it really is, or at least intends to be, is a way to get people out of their shells and getting creative within the shared hallucination of sacred silliness.

We give you a witty caption. You then get to use a set of easy tools to craft an instant masterpiece to fit that word or phrase, using either your camera, digital fingerpaint, or a collection of stickers. Friends can then get your picture and guess the answer via a simple but slick game of Scramble or Hangman.

You can also just flick through the gallery of other people’s images, seeing how people of all stripes from around the world, for instance, interpret the phrase “pole dance.”

Photo Phrase is definitely inspired by all of the excellent games and apps mentioned above… but I hope you agree the experience is something fresh. We’re all very proud of the outcome. Our hope is that the game becomes a meaningful new way for you to crack a smile each day with the people you like, love, and/or barely tolerate.

It’s currently available for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch. Android coming soon!

A Howl and Two Coconuts

The very first Ferris Wheel, built for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893.

A lifetime ago (2008) I gave a talk at the GDC titled “Beyond the Box.” The central image was a lonely Ferris wheel standing in the middle of a trash-strewn, dusty field. The point? Even the best digital games at the time lacked context, relevance, and human connectivity.

The talk was tepidly received, and rightly so, because it had a tepid conclusion. I said that the world needed a special place where people and their fellows could seamlessly interact and play… but I couldn’t quite paint a coherent picture of what that place would look like.

Then Facebook  happened. The lone Ferris wheel suddenly became a small feature of a rollicking, Rick-Rolling carnival.

Even a longer lifetime ago (2000), I co-founded a company called iWin with the belief that games were for everyone, not just teenagers who loved head-shots. iWin helped pioneer simple, addictive, all-embracing play via games such as Jewel Quest and Family Feud with philosophies such as making it impossible to really lose. People started calling the types of games we made ‘casual.’ Casual games were more than a market opportunity to me, but a real chance to make the wonder of digital play  relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Then, from that fertile substrate of Facebook and Casual, the behemoth called Zynga was spawned, mastering the ability to beg, build, or borrow the best mechanics and all but take over the  social channels.

And so it came to be: 88.4 million people playing CityVille.

Everything I’d been preaching about and hoping for and working for had reached fruition…

It should have been a transcendant moment.

But I was disillusioned. I had gone way wrong somewhere, many twisty paths ago… and couldn’t figure out where.

The comparison gives me too much credit, but I suppose I felt a bit like Trotsky watching all he helped painstakingly build with the most humanistic of ideals become bastardized as the power structures grew to take advantage of what was most base and weak about humanity.

It was the unfunniest of Marx Brothers who said, “[History repeats itself,] the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

I didn’t really care, as so many industry vets did, that there’s hardly any true challenge or meaning in mass market games anymore. Experiments were tried. The mainstream has rejected the old paradigms of challenge.

Nor did it bother me that profit came from honing in on the deepest pathology of the most addicted — get bored onlookers to try. Get triers to use. Get users to share. Get sharers to spend. After all, the vast majority enjoyed these games absolutely gratis. And even the most cynical of these bejeweled Skinner Boxes are brightening an otherwise dull day.

My father trying to draw SWIG (when the word was actually SWAG). That’s so him!

No… what really stung was seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, nakedly a-cloning, fast-following, and pretending to grasp and control the almighty metric. It shamed me to see high-IQ analytical pattern-spotters, max-frame-rate programmers, edgy artists, and seasoned polyglot designers — working in unison with the noble goal of making a “gift wall” more viral….

It made me wonder for a time if the the right answer was to tear myself away from the carnival and retreat with the Hobbits back to the hard-core ghetto, where the Ferris Wheel rides are at least damned fast and fun.
Or get out of the games industry entirely and do something meaningful with life.
And it wasn’t just me having these thoughts. The massive Facebook audience that had, just months ago, so contently click-zen’d through CityVille felt the shallowness, too. Many argue that Facebook gaming’s audience decline was due to tightened newsfeed algorithms, but having lived through many market cycles before, I believe it was more audience saturation and then maturation.

Then the most amazing thing happened: Words with Friends came out. And I started playing it… a lot… with my mom. Who suddenly had an iPad. It was so friggin’ simple.. “just” another Scrabble clone. But the format fit perfectly and made the game into an accessible and ongoing layer of daily life.

Then Draw Something took over. And after a brief lesson, my dad got on board. We speak more genuinely through sketches and the game’s rudimentary chat feature than we do even the few times we get together in person. The game has made us laugh at, appreciate, and even better understand each other.

And so the howl of anguish turned to one of laughter.

Because as awesome as this new crop of truly social games are, they are missing a few important magic ingredients.

That’s why I’m extremely happy to announce the launch of a new mobile game startup called Double Coconut.We’re just a few souls at this point, but with the passion and know-how to make big things happen. I think we’ve finally cracked the code on achieving that perfect nexus of casual and social — and can’t wait to show you.

More to come soon!

Family Feud

For those who care about big brands, social games, or the legacy of Richard Dawson, the Social Times has published an interview about my company’s involvement bringing Family Feud to Facebook.

In designing the game, we pretty much had to break every dearly-held rule of social gaming. Family Feud is long-form, text-based, American-only, and losable. And yet it seems to be a hit — we’re nearly at 4 Million monthly users after 6 weeks out. Here are from slides from a talk I gave at the Social Games Summit:

What this means for me personally is that Family Feud has had more social and cultural impact (by most forms of measure) than any other project — game, writing, movie, or otherwise — I’ve ever toiled on. Knowing that so many people are spending so much of their leisure time on something you help pull the levers on is a tremendous feeling. This was (and is) an exhilirating ride.

Life, she is a funny beast.

Hotel iWin Lives!

roombrowsershot

I can finally crow about something! For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a stealthy little project within my own company, a project neither quite game nor web app. Huddled in the dank corners of our office I worked with a lean but mean world-tossed team and finally… it lives!

It’s a (what else?) casual-game virtual-world social-network insert-your-own-buzzword-here!

And it’s called Hotel iWin.

We decided on a grand luxury hotel as the theme not because we wanted to rip off Habbo (perish the thought), but because we actually talked to tons of people who use our site regularly and noticed a few trends:

  • There is no true virtual world or social network geared primarily for our audience (mostly women from 25 to 65).
  • Our audience is highly social, but there are very few places online they feel comfortable socializing. Facebook is overwhelming. And MySpace is just, like, whoah!
  • People want to escape from their daily lives, but in a mentally and emotionally stimulating way (i.e. not TV).
  • Players enjoy forming intense, open, but fleeting relationships — very similar to ones formed on vacations.

So the idea behind Hotel iWin is to really make folks feel like they’re checking out of the daily grind and checking in to a brief but very relevant vacation.

  1. Play any downloadable casual game on iWin’s site (over 500 of them are free for at least an hour to try, many of them are ad-supported and free forever).
  2. Earn a virtual currency called Opals for every minute of play.
  3. Spend Opals on avatar and hotel room pimpin’, mixing and matching over a thousand common and not-so items, with the ability to drag things anywhere you want and “paint” your own scenes.
  4. Meanwhile, meet other players and maybe even make a few not-so-casual friends.

A tour is here in this lovely 70’s infomercial-esque video.

Much like operating a real-life hotel, building the darn thing is one joyful headache — keeping it actually humming and exciting and populated by happy gamers is a different beast entirely. Can’t wait!

Five Casual Game Sequels I’d Love to See

1. Death Dash. Flo helps Uma the Undertaker start a new recession-proof business: Taking over her Uncle’s mortuary! Too many residents of Dinertown have fallen prey to the diner’s reliance on saturated fat. Dearly departed souls roll in through the loading dock and you need to drag them to the embalming station, makeover station, fashion cabinet, and coffin-o-matic. Upgrade your funeral home by adding nice touches such as lace curtains, orchids, and industrial-strength air-freshener. Be careful not to accidentally cremate someone meant for a hearse!

2. MCF: OCD. In Mystery Case Files: Obsessive Compulsive Detective you play a police officer with OCD. A demented serial killer/interior decorator is on the loose, turning normal locations into strangely-cluttered altars of surreal chaos! The killer seems to have raided every garage sale, rumpus room, and bargain bin in town, repainting all of the junk to match the gaudy fabrics in the rooms he victimizes. He even used some infernal dark magic to make some objects ten times their normal size, making them confusing to spot at first! Given a list of items to clean from the clutter, you must find some things (but not others) and then randomly try to use those randomly-found objects to do random things in random places, things that could’ve been done a whole lot more intuitively with different objects. Only you can catch the killer and bring order and cleanliness back to the poor, miserable world!

3. Virtual Villagers: Mallrat Edition. You control a group of teenagers who become stranded in a mall when their mom leaves them off and drives away as fast as she can to get “some hard-earned me time, god damn it.” You must drag each child around the mall, performing tasks such as shuffling through merchandise and putting it back in the wrong place, trying on outfits you’ll never buy, cruising for hotties, preening, giggling, grimacing, and getting yelled at by store proprietors. Work your way through the food court and upgrade your skills of coolness, radness, awesomeness, and like-totallyness. When you leave the game, your characters keep growing and changing so that when you come back to play they are, like, waaaaaay more mature.

4. Build-A-Little. Now that real estate has crashed, go around town and buy forclosed houses, giving them cheap paint jobs and a sod lawn. After your renters stiff you and sell off all the copper wiring and PVC piping, try to flip your property. When you fail to make your sale, forclose on the houses yourself before the bank can catch up with you. Try to make the neighborhood a rich and pleasant one by building nuclear power plants, corporate campuses, and garbage dumps in close proximity to the houses. Special bonus mini-game: Invest your earnings in the stock market and watch them plummet into a fiery abyss.

5. Jewel Quest: Gold-Digger.  While exploring the ruined temples of a long-lost civilization deep in the South American jungles, Rupert encounters his most horrifying nemesis yet: A mail-order bride name Svetlana Sassy. She will constantly nag, harrangue, and insult him until he can match three million jewels in a row and earn enough fur coats, diamond-encrusted jewelery, and gold-lame gowns to calm Svetlana down.

Any sequels on your list that I missed here?

The Wis-Dumb of Game Review Committees

As a died-in-the-wool game developer who has become a bit of a suit, I’ve been on both sides of game review committee meetings.

These sessions usually involve the producer, designer, and sometimes all team leads, sitting at one end of a big, shiny table while representatives from marketing, sales, tech, art, and other various “stakeholders” analyze the latest build of the game and fire off questions.

This is life and death, folks. The unspoken truth: Every high level review is an opportunity to terminate the game in question.

Amazing producers can face this firing squad calmly, demo cogently, answer questions accurately, and promise clear next steps and deliverables.

Lesser human beings sweat heavily, get red-faced angry, and rant rudely. After all, this is their life here, not just the game’s. They have just invested countless late-night hours and dream-juice into the game and now it’s being flayed in front of them — prodded and poked without mercy.

Everyone has their story about how review committees suck.

I’ve seen committee members that didn’t “have a chance” to play the game in question — their first look at the game is watching someone demo it on a big screen. And having not experienced the gameplay, they make comments and decisions that just aren’t appropriate.

I’ve seen committees cow-tow to stubborn designers or over-invested producers and push through a lemon of a game that should have been killed dead.  (I’ve been that designer.)

I’ve very often seen committees redo the design of games on-the-fly and turn them into mishmashed messes or bland pleasing-everyone-actually-pleases-nobody crap.

I’ve seen committees say to make Game X “more like Game Y” and force the development team to force a rhombic-spirallohedra-shaped peg into a round hole.

I’ve seen review committees become feeding frenzies with execs one-upping each other trying to go for the jugular with spit-fire questions that are rhetorical, insulting, obvious, or downright cruel.

I’ve seen game designers and producers get so disgruntled after a review that they lose all passion and interest and let projects slowly fail.

But… Suck as they do, there’s a lot of necessary good in them there reviews.

For I’ve seen review committees make the painful decision to terminate games that otherwise would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly led to bankrupting the company.

I’ve seen committees completely redirect games turning also-rans into hits.

And I’ve seen committees help chisel the feature list of out-of-control projects into solid but smaller games that got done on time and budget.

I hate to admit it, but in the balance committee reviews are essential to run a successful game publishing business.

(I guess I really am a suit.)

Product Review Committees DO know:

  • What they don’t like.
  • What isn’t working.
  • How much money there is to spend.
  • How much money the game needs to earn.
  • When the game needs to ship.

They generally DO NOT know:

  • How to find fun in a game that currently isn’t.
  • What is placeholder art (even if it has the letters “PH” stamped on it).
  • The synergy and cohesive vision of the perfected, polished game in the designer’s head.

As such, the ideal review committee should follow these ten commandments (five positives and five negs):

  1. Thou shalt kill the game if it is bound to fail.
  2. Thou shalt actually play any playable game presented to you before a review.
  3. Thou shalt actually read game design documents and make clear notes (not just look at those pretty pictures).
  4. Thou shalt know thy market and have played competitive games.
  5. Thou shalt point out what is working well in a game and praise the individuals involved.
  6. Thou shalt not redesign a game on the fly, but should register specific shortcomings then let the team come back with a better shot.
  7. Thou shalt not ask to see better art or audio before a game’s schedule calls for those assets to be created (but may and should insist on seeing sample art direction of interfaces, character sketches, or animation clips).
  8. Thou shalt not let the fear of failure get in the way of instinct. If a game is feeling fun, thy track is righteous.
  9. Thou shalt not nitpick small issues in a review forum. That can be done with QA’s help later, via a bugbase.
  10. Thou shalt not kill until a game has had three chances. If thou catchest a major failure with the current team dynamic or game mechanic then give the developers a reasonable chance to prove they can reverse the trend. If, after a fair period of time the game is better but still fails, try once more. If it still fails, three strikes and yer out.

If more committees took such commandments to heart, it would make for stronger games, happier development teams, and more profitable entertaproduct.

How Casual Games are like American Idol

  1. There are vociferous judges. Sites like RealArcade, BigFishGames, Yahoo Games, and my own company iWin vet (audition) which games we think the audience will like. I’ll leave it to you to match which companies are the Randys, Paulas, or Simons of our industry.
  2. It’s Darwinistic. A fledgling game must immediately get to the top. If you miss the Top 10 list, you might as well have not competed.
  3. It’s all about what the people want. Ultimately, it’s pure democracy (albeit with multiple votes by hormone-laden Sanjaya-loving girls). The masses vote for the tolp games with each purchase. Money talks.
  4. It’s not about who is strictly the best. Because of the weekly elimation format of American Idol, two similar but equally talented gospel-based singers will fight for the same audience and one will eventually lose out — even if she is ultimately more talented than other contestants. Casual games rely on the the same timing and positioning. If two time management epics come out at the same time only one will earn everyone’s dollars and attention.
  5. It’s all about being accessible. Simon will cut you to pieces if you try to sing a song you may love but that nobody has ever heard of. Additionally, exceptionally talented singers with narrow appeal will sink like an unrolling stone. Likewise, most new or experimental mechanics in casual games crash and burn, no matter how polished or innovative the game may be.
  6. Cloning breeds accessibility. Archaeologists in bejeweled jungles, plucky young women starting menial businesses, or mysteries in cluttered old mansions. Enough said.
  7. Too much cloning fails at a certain point. As with Idol, the audience knows when they have a pure rip-off on their hands — no matter how slickly produced a game it is. Ultimately, a game needs soul and a spark of originally to win out.
  8. Everyone thinks they can do it. For every game published on the portals — even the ones that distribute a game a day — there are dozens that don’t make it. Maybe someone can create a site to showcase exceptionally bad games, which may be as funny to play as it is to watch as William Hung sing. Or not.
  9. Personality matters. Notice those little Roman Numerals on most site Top 10 lists? We’re even seeing some Vs now. Sequels of popular franchises all sell because the audience wants more of a proven good thing. Star power is huge and become self-fulfilling.
  10. Both are crown jewels of our pop culture. Casual games are no longer fringe. While they may not yet garner the audience of American Idol, more and more people are spending more and more of their leisure time with them. Now if only we can produce the game equivalent of Carrie Underwood.