Wanna Be My Friendster?

Wanna Be My Friendster?
Attack of the Parasites

Allen Varney | 28 Feb 2006 07:00
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Many online game "communities" feel like those housing subdivisions spreading around every American city like carcinomas on a pancreas.

I live in one such suburban wasteland in northwestern Austin, Texas. Milwood has no mill and few trees. After five years here, I know the names of the couple next door, but nothing about anyone else on this street. No one knows anybody. There's nowhere to meet, and no reason; the nearest market/bar/bus stop/anything is two miles away. The streets are twisty mazes, the houses endless reshufflings of a dozen bland elements, their plans generated randomly in some nameless architect's CAD/CAM program. A Texas subdivision looks like Connecticut, which looks like Idaho and Georgia. Built by developers without taste or imagination, these soul-dead burbclaves ignore the human-centered design principles in Christopher Alexander's landmark A Pattern Language. Such ugly, sterile, crass 1950s Chamber of Commerce concrete-asphalt provincial whitebread booboisie burgs count as "communities" only if you believe their marketing literature.

You get the same vibe off the most popular gaming sites in the English- speaking world, the casual game portals: EA's Pogo, Miniclip, Yahoo! Games, Microsoft's MSN Games, RealNetworks' GameHouse, Big Fish Games and many more. These lookalike sites are "portals" because they aggregate dozens or hundreds of casual games from many indie designers. Some big portals are mere front ends for faceless distributors like Oberon Media or Boonty.

The portal formula can work like crazy. On the big portals, at any hour, day or night, tens or hundreds of thousands of players gather to play Hearts, Spades, Canasta, chess, backgammon and a zillion shareware match-three games. No one knows how big the casual downloadable market is, but it's growing. RealNetworks just announced record fourth quarter and 2005 results, including year-on-year games revenue growth in Q4 of 52%, to $15.7 million; annual games revenue was $56.3 million, a 63% increase over 2004. Miniclip claims 27 million unique users each month. Club Pogo has 780,000 paying members. Some other companies are growing the same way, like all those housing sprawls. Phil Steinmeyer [a href="http://www.philsteinmeyer.com/50/top-10-top-9/" target="_blank" title="Top 10 -] Top 9">estimates[/a] today's market at around $200 million annually.

Leaving aside the unadorned shopping sites, a few portals make cosmetic attempts at community building: chat, buddy lists, forums, profiles and avatars. Sometimes, these use off-the-shelf middleware like GameFrame. Grab.com does better, with player blogs and pages of kid and dog pictures. But portal social scenes are, at best, low-key. You can't tell one community from another.

And increasingly, you can't distinguish the games they sell.

Volume, Volume, Volume!
Casual games look alike, not just because all the portals carry the same games (though they do), but because the portals encourage straight knockoffs of current hits.

Of course, every new game builds, to greater or lesser degree, on earlier designs. And of course, category leaders inevitably spawn imitations. Everyone recognizes the virtues of studying precursors, fixing their mistakes, and making a clone to try out new wrinkles on established ideas. But more and more casual look-alikes zoom beyond "imitation as sincere flattery" and screech to a halt just inches short of plagiarism. They're not clones but parasites. The portals love them.

Last summer, an upstart three-person French company, FunPause EURL, made an attention-getting business case for parasitism. FunPause scored two quick successes with exceptionally blatant clones: first, Atlantis, a copy of MumboJumbo's mega-selling Luxor (itself a close imitation of Zuma, which derives from Midway's 1998 Puzz Loop); next, Fairies, an unashamed point-for-point re-skinning of Raptisoft's successful Chuzzle. Each copy took FunPause about two months to engineer, start to finish. (Saves time when you don't have to playtest.) For Fairies, they even lifted their fairy model straight from a free-software rendering app, DAZ|Studio. Both games show considerable polish, though saying so is, as Comics Journal writer R. Fiore remarked in another context, like complimenting a shoplifter for her taste in clothes.

Atlantis and Fairies each hit the portal bestseller lists. This in itself was a big payoff for four months' work; a bestselling casual game can earn many thousands of dollars a month for years, though the portals typically pass on only 20% to developers. But FunPause really struck it rich last month, when it was acquired by the fastest-growing portal, Big Fish Games.

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