Posted by Neil Vidyarthi
Casual Connect is over, and it’s remarkable how close the group gets, even at 2,000 attendees, by the third day. It’s almost impossible to walk the floor to see the final day sessions without running into someone who you genuinely want to connect with… casually. Having said that, there were a few topics that kept coming up in my many conversations during the conference, during the after parties and with speakers after presentations. I take a look at the 5 that seemed most popular after the jump.
There’s no doubt that between King.com and GSN (WorldWinner), there was a buzz about the potential for skill-based gaming to take off. King.com has its 15,000,000 monthly active users and WorldWinner’s 30 million registered users, these skill-based gaming sites are equivalent to top sized Facebook games. That said, the concept that keeps them original is the fact that I can ‘bet’ real money on skill-based games to win real money back. This kind of casual gambling makes perfect sense for the game show audience, and kudos to GSN for acquiring WorldWinner in a deal for FUN technologies in 2007.
My personal opinion on skill-based games is that the first movers do have an advantage because of the legal difficulties involved in getting skill-based pay gaming onto the web. There are various tricky situations regarding state law that must be side stepped to have these games running legally. At the same time, if legislation were to pass that eased the laws on online gambling, it’s likely that more companies like Zynga could jump into this space and start eating into the existing market. Time will tell. Look forward to an interview with the King.com General Manager next week.
Samsung made a big splash at this year’s Casual Connect conference as they introduced their BADA platform for their mobile phones. The platform is a high production interface that allows for game development just like any other phone operating system, but it’s backwards compatibility with less featured phones makes it easy for application developers to port to otherwise difficult to hit phones.
What I found interesting at their booth, though, was their plethora of TV applications. They had televisions set up that used wi-fi to connect to the local internet, and you could browse applications and install them onto your TV. The marketing manager wasn’t sure if this is also BADA technology, but it’s definitely Samsung proprietary stuff. We took a quick demo and installed a game with good graphics and sound, and we were able to play using the television remote. Pretty interesting stuff, and she did say that some of these applications will be able to leverage information from what you’re watching on the television itself. This hints to me that the upcoming connected TV wars featuring Samsung and Google TV will be bigger than expected.
Casual Connect started as a conference dedicated to casual gaming. That specifically meant downloadable or purchasable games that focused on puzzle elements and easy, intuitive gameplay. The model depended on try-before-you-buy and was hugely successful. Long time Casual Connecters will tell you that the last few years has seen iPhone and Social Gaming achieve prominence in the conference, and this year there was a lot of buzz about the potential of the iPad.
This was best exemplified when GameZebo’s Joel Brodie hosted his “Hype or Real” panel. In this annual panel, he gives 5 industry experts signs that read “hype” and “real”, and he then brings up topics and asks them to hold up the appropriate sign. When he brought up iPad, it was a unanimous “real”. In fact, Zynga’s Erik Bethke held up “real hype”, but he meant it in a positive way. The panelists were all eager about the ‘living room’ appeal of the very casual device, and also the graphical potential. Looking at some of the games that have been released, I must say I’m excited too, as a gamer.
I swear, I made these notes before I heard anything about the Disney acquisition. Playdom looked fantastic at the show, and the first keynote speech by John Pleasants was probably the best address of the social games industry that there has ever been. In addition to that, a later Playdom speech discussed that they were hypothesizing opening up some of their tools to developers, where they will encourage independent developers to create games for them. Finally, their booth was great and had some of the best swag at the show, with Wild Ones socks and little toys based on all their original IP.
Facebook Isn’t The End
There wasn’t a single social gaming company at the show that wasn’t trying to figure out some way to be less dependent on Facebook. After Facebook turned off the notifications earlier this year, there was a 30 to 40% drop in traffic for applications across the board. This hurts social gaming companies dramatically and with bigger companies like Zynga, Playdom and Playfish in the public investor’s eye, this drop in traffic will hurt their valuations. For that reason, companies like hi5 are smartly positioning themselves as social networks made for gaming companies, as can be seen in my interview with Alex St. John, CTO and President of hi5.
The counter opinion is that Facebook has their own reasons to keep the site free of anything ‘spam’ like, and that they are cutting all notifications but will quickly rebound to give developers an interesting new service that will help them. That said, none of the social gaming companies I talked to even hinted at leaving Facebook, it’s just that for them, they need to have audiences outside of the platform to reduce risk and increase value.