WorldWinner Helps Keep Boston in the Game of Casual Games
Poor Flo. She’s the only hostess at the diner. So she has to seat the people coming in the door, serve them coffee, take their orders, seat more people, serve the first table’s order, pour more coffee, take more orders, seat more people before they get impatient, take dessert orders, clear tables…and, if she’s lucky, collect a few tips when the lunch rush is over.
It’s a nickel-and-dime life. But apparently, millions of women want nothing more than to be Flo—at least for a few minutes at a time.
Flo, of course, is the heroine of Diner Dash, a hugely popular online “casual game” introduced by San Francisco-based PlayFirst four years ago and recently adapted by Newton, MA-based WorldWinner, one of the country’s leading casual-game publishers, for its tournament-style online competitions. While you might not think that playing a beleaguered waitress would be most women’s idea of fun, PlayFirst says women actually make up Diner Dash’s primary audience—something that’s also true of the larger casual-gaming genre. In 2006, in fact, 74 percent of all paying casual gamers were women, and Diner Dash was one of that year’s top five titles in the category, according to the Casual Games Association.
WorldWinner attracts a similar demographic mix, according to Christian Meyer, the company’s chief marketing officer, who hosted me at the company’s offices last week. “The majority of our players are working moms who play from home in chunks of four or five minutes, when they need a mental break,” Meyer says. “It’s a competitive outlet for a demographic that doesn’t have an outlet elsewhere in their lives.”
Casual games are distinguished from traditional video games by their generally simple rules and brief, self-contained play. WorldWinner is the country’s largest publisher of prize-based casual games, which also makes it one of the hidden giants of the Boston online media scene: with a jaw-dropping 26 million unique visitors a year, it competes on a level with news portal Boston.com (which reports that it has 4 million unique visitors per month, but doesn’t release annual figures). It’s also one of the newest parts of technology-and-media-mogul John Malone’s Liberty Media empire, which happens to include GSN, formerly known as the Game Show Network—of which more in a moment.
WorldWinner’s visitors earn some $250,000 a day in prizes, paid out of entry fees that average a dollar or two per tournament. The site features a unique style of competitive-yet-solitary gaming, pitting users against other people playing the same games at the same time, but without immersing them in common online spaces that demand social interaction, the way an online poker tournament or a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game like World of Warcraft would. “The experience we hear from our players is that this is their ‘me time,'” says Meyer. “It’s personal and cherished. There’s a ‘together-but-alone’ feeling to it.”
That feeling, and the way games like Diner Dash, Bejeweled, and Solitaire help players blow off steam and fill up interstitial moments, may account for the massive success of the casual gaming industry as a whole over the last few years. Over 200 million people play online casual games regularly, spending $2.25 billion a year, according to the Casual Games Association—which also reports that investors poured over $200 million into casual games between mid-2006 and mid-2007. The industry’s unofficial capital is Seattle, which is home to Microsoft and Real Networks (which both have hugely successful casual-game portals) as well as specialized publishers such as GameHouse, PopCap, Big Fish, Sandlot, Movaya, and Oberon Media. But Massachusetts isn’t far behind, with WorldWinner, Boxford’s Funkitron, Boston’s Mocospace and Floodgate Entertainment, Framingham’s Imaginengine, and Cambridge’s Conduit Labs anchoring the local casual-gaming scene.
WorldWinner was founded in 1999, and its pay-for-play business model—90 percent of revenues come from the company’s cut of the entry fees, according to Meyer—probably saved its skin during the downturn in online advertising after the dot-com crash. “It’s an interesting example of a venture-funded startup that survived because they found the right model that wasn’t ad-dependent,” says CTO Michael Enright, who left Westwood, MA-based MMO company Turbine for WorldWinner last summer. “The company survived and grew—not wildly, but it persisted, which gave us time to work on refining the entertainment experience, which is now very sophisticated.”
One of the keys to WorldWinner’s success, according to Enright, is “skillification”—algorithms that make sure each player in tournament games like Spades, Royal Flush, or Cubis is confronted with a roughly equal challenge, reducing the chances of one player winning just because they happen to be dealt the equivalent of an inside straight. “It ensures that the results are based on the skill of the player, and less on chance,” says Enright. “For any given game, there is an appropriate way to create a tournament that’s equal and fair.”
WorldWinner also works to make its games easy to grasp, yet challenging. Certain games are based on familiar classics, but with a twist that “infuses them with emotional electricity,” to uses Meyer’s words. Scrabble Cubes, for example, is like a combination of Scrabble, Rubik’s Cube, and Tetris; the “board” consists of lettered tiles on a 3-by-3-by-3 cube, and as players click on the tiles to form complete words, the faces dissolve to reveal more letters inside the cube. Getting started is easy. The tricky part, as I’ve learned, is building words longer than three or four letters, and saving letters for high-scoring words before they disappear. (So far, I’m a rank amateur, scoring in the site’s 4th percentile.) “Part of the model of a casual game is that it has to be easy to learn,” says Enright. “But the mechanics should be sophisticated enough to have a lifetime of mastering the subtleties.”
Scrabble Cubes is also a good example of a WorldWinner game that’s been deliberately designed to prevent fraud and tampering—which, as you might imagine, is an ever-present threat in an environment where millions of dollars are changing hands every week. “If the game were just flat and 2-D, bots could scrape it and solve it,” says Meyer. “But when we make games 3-D, we reduce that threat.”
“We create a safe place where people know it’s fair,” adds Enright. “It’s a continually evolving process and a struggle, but happily we’ve been able to stay ahead of it.”
In 2006, SkillJam Technologies, a subsidiary of Toronto-based FUN Technologies, bought WorldWinner for $23 million and folded its own games into the WorldWinner platform. At the time, more than half of FUN’s shares were held by Liberty Media, the media and entertainment conglomerate that owns QVC, Expedia, IAC/Interactive, and large stakes in News Corporation, Time Warner, Starz, and the Atlanta Braves. Liberty acquired the remainder of FUN’s shares last November, making WorldWinner into a Liberty Media subsidiary. The acquisition has been “very beneficial” for WorldWinner, according to Meyer—particularly because it gives WorldWinner a connection to a Hollywood property, GSN, which is jointly owned by Liberty and Sony Pictures.
GSN has already evolved from a cable network concentrating on vintage “Family Feud” and “$25,000 Pyramid” reruns into a cross-media property that allows TV viewers to play online versions of some of the same games they see on TV, such as Corbin Bernsen’s nightly show “How Much Is Enough?” (GSN occupies channel 267 on the Boston Comcast lineup and 106 on RCN, by the way.) Enright and Meyer say that under the direction of WorldWinner, which now has responsibility for all of the game content at GSN.com, visitors can expect to see even greater integration between broadcast and online content in the future. “Liberty, WorldWinner, and GSN have designs on creating a world-class cross-platform games company,” says Meyer.
Speaking of cross-platform: There’s good news about WorldWinner for Macintosh users. Up to now, all of the company’s games have required Microsoft’s DirectX interactive graphics package, meaning they only work inside the Internet Explorer browser on Windows. That hasn’t held back the company much, according to Meyer, since WorldWinner’s target demographic is overwhelmingly made up of Windows PC owners who connect to the Internet through IE. But Enright gave me some news he says the company hasn’t announced to anyone else: it’s developing a new graphics architecture for its games that will work across browsers and operating systems. (Given how downright unnatural it is to hear the Windows chime coming from the office’s dual-boot Mac, we here at Xconomy are grateful.)
Enright says he’s enthusiastic about WorldWinner’s future—and that of the Boston gaming scene in general, as big companies like Liberty Media and Viacom (whose MTV subsidiary bought Harmonix Music in 2006) provide some stability in a historically turbulent industry. “It’s a great time for Boston in digital entertainment; the area has hundreds of companies involved in online gaming, as you’ll notice if you attend any of the Boston Post Mortems,” Enright says, referring to the area’s monthly gathering of game developers, usually held at The Skellig pub in Waltham. “But one of the things about the gaming industry here is that it can be a struggle to find companies that have good business models and long-term jobs. The models are always evolving, which makes it really challenging for people who want to make this a profession. But some companies are over the threshold of being risky and new—and we are clearly one of them. It’s exciting to be part of a company that has the ability to provide a persistent ecosystem”—and maybe earn a few tips in the process.