Draw Something Now Officially a Zynga Title

Draw Something

Just as recent reports suggested, social game behemoth Zynga has acquired OMGPOP, the developer responsible for the smash hit Draw Something.

The company is not talking about how much it spent, but it’s said to be around $200 million — AllThingsD claims it’s a deal worth $180 million, plus about $30 million in employee-retention payments. That is a huge sum of money for the New York City-based OMGPOP, which was founded in 2006, considering that, prior to Draw Something, it was not a big-name company. CEO Dan Porter said during a media briefing today it had racked up only 20 million registered users prior to the launch of Draw Something about six weeks ago.

Its latest game has already dwarfed that, racking up 35 million downloads and quickly topping the iOS App Store charts. It’s also got more Daily Active Users than any other game on Facebook, a fact that was sure to catch the eye of Zynga whose Words With Friends and CityVille would ordinarily take the top spot.

It was widely believed Zynga would attempt to acquire OMGPOP to bring Draw Something under its corporate umbrella or, failing that, create its own Pictionary-style game. The latter is what allegedly happened with Tiny Tower, where Zynga expressed an interest in buying developer NimbleBit before releasing what amounts to a Tiny Tower clone when the deal didn’t pan out.

It’s possible OMGPOP was concerned about potentially being faced with a similar situation: Zynga comes out with an extremely similar competing product and spends millions to make it bigger. Simon Khalaf of analytics firm Flurry told Business Insider that OMGPOP could have ended up being worth a great deal more — perhaps even a cool $1 billion — which would be a remarkable accomplishment. With the game reportedly bringing in $250,000 in revenue daily, maybe it could have gotten that high, but the threat of a competitor (or the next big thing) coming along and putting a dent in Draw Something’s growth makes this the far safer move.

Draw Something

With Zynga’s assistance, the developer says it can now bring the features fans are demanding to the game faster, which will help to ensure its growth is sustained. Porter talked about fan-requested features like chat and the ability to save drawings as things we’ll likely end up seeing, and with Zynga’s support we shouldn’t have to wait as long to see these as we otherwise would have. (Considering these were among my few gripes with the game, I’m all for this.) Surprisingly, it was said there are no plans to change the name to fall in line with Zynga’s other asynchronous “With Friends” titles; I presumed an acquisition would mean we’d be playing Draw With Friends before long, but at least publicly that is not in the cards at the moment.

I’ve heard some people say they’re disappointed with the news and will stop playing the game. People are certainly entitled to do so if they don’t wish to give Zynga their money (and even playing the free version does result in Zynga getting money, as that version is ad-supported), but I don’t see myself suddenly stopping. It’s a really fun game that is deserving of the success it has amassed, and while I don’t like some of Zynga’s business practices (demonstrated by Dream Heights) the acquisition is not enough to chase me off.

If I were an investor in Zynga, however, I might feel a bit worried about the acquisition. While it’s exciting to get your hands on such a hot property, shelling out in the neighborhood of $200 million for a company with only one hit is a potentially dangerous business model. Words With Friends’ popularity has taken a hit recently, presumably as users shifted to playing Draw Something, in which case a chunk of Zynga’s enormous purchase fee is reacquiring some of the same users it once had and may have regained before long. Picking up this one developer isn’t going to break the bank for the company, but continuing to acquire any independent company with a big hit may prove to be unsustainable in the long run.

In the interest of ending on a brighter note, Zynga has shared some fun facts about the way people play, including the fact that people need to brush up on their art knowledge:

  • The most popular words in Draw Something are: Starfish, pregnant, hangman, six pack, boom box

  • The least popular word in Draw Something is latrine
  • The best guessed words in Draw Something are: Rainbow, catfish, sun, fish, house, god tornado
  • The least guessed words in Draw Something are: Oar, Metroid, Warhol, pounce, polaroid, meathead, Autobots

[Images courtesy of Facebook.]

By Chris Pereira

Disney’s Lucasfilm Acquisition Makes the Future of Star Wars Games Unclear

Star Wars Disney

The Walt Disney Company made a major acquisition this week, purchasing Lucasfilm from George Lucas in a $4.05 billion deal. Along with Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, this puts the Star Wars brand in the control of Disney, which has already announced its intention to release a new Star Wars film trilogy, the first entry of which is scheduled to arrive in 2015. LucasArts, Lucasfilm’s videogame subsidiary best known these days for its Star Wars games, also now finds itself under the Disney banner, a move which could turn out to have a profound effect on the videogames we see coming out of it in the future.

As far as Star Wars itself goes, I find it difficult not to be at least somewhat optimistic. Most people would agree the series’ high points have come when creator George Lucas has been less hands-on — just look at The Empire Strikes Back as compared with the prequel trilogy. This new deal reduces Lucas’ role in the new films to that of a “creative consultant,” which reminds me of the honorary chairman role that the ‘Father of PlayStation,’ Ken Kutaragi, once filled. Without knowing what the new movies will be about or who will direct them, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty how they will turn out. It’s been noted that Disney’s acquisition of Marvel resulted in this year’s excellent Joss Whedon film The Avengers, which bodes well for the future of the Star Wars films. And, as the Penny Arcade Report points out, “We have nothing to lose by Disney making more Star Wars films, and it’s not like they can get any worse.” The prequels really put the film series in a position where things can only get better from here.

Where things have generally been positive quality-wise for the Star Wars franchise, especially over the past decade-plus, is the videogame business. BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic is arguably the single best Star Wars game to-date, but there have also been many other quality titles released since 2000: the Rogue Squadron series, The Force Unleashed, the Lego games, Jedi Knight II, Battlefront II — even The Old Republic was okay, if too derivative for its own good. Going back further, you can also cite the likes of TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as examples of strong Star Wars titles. Although there have been duds in the mix, too, LucasArts has been able to deliver high-quality Star Wars videogames in the past.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

While that may remain true in the future, the manner in which we play those games could dramatically change — and in a way which is unlikely to sit well with many fans. During a conference call regarding the Lucasfilm acquisition, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked about plans for videogames going forward. According to TechCrunch, he said the company is “likely to focus more on social and mobile than we are on console.” Gulp.

This perhaps should not come as a surprise; it fits right in with the trend we’ve seen from Disney Interactive Studios in recent years. Videogames are an important part of Disney’s future, but not necessarily in the form we typically think of them. DIS has made a concerted effort to shift from traditional, console-based games to the increasingly popular social/mobile space. It has acquired developers like Wideload Games (makers of the recent iOS title Marvel Avengers Initiative) and Tapulous (Tap Tap Revenge) while laying off staff at, and then outright shutting down, studios such as Black Rock (Pure, Split/Second) and Propaganda Games (Turok, Tron: Evolution).

Look at DIS’ website and the types of casual and mobile games it features — Where’s My Water, Where’s My Perry, Kinect Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure, Kinect Disneyland Adventures — tells the whole story. There are some exceptions to this, with DIS publishing the upcoming Epic Mickey 2 and Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, but it stands to reason that what we can count on most is seeing more of a social- and mobile-games presence from Star Wars going forward.

Iger didn’t completely rule out the possibility of non-social/mobile Star Wars games being made. In fact, he said console games would be looked at “opportunistically,” but that external studios would be used to develop such titles. In addition to those it makes itself, this is something LucasArts has done previously, turning to developers like BioWare, Pandemic, and Traveller’s Tales to develop Star Wars games. Rumors in the past have suggested LucasArts would put an end to internal development (fueled by multiple rounds of layoffs), while others said it would begin handling all development internally.

Internal development has continued in spite of all this, and LucasArts is currently at work on one of the most promising (at least visually) Star Wars games in years, Star Wars 1313. If Iger is intent on having all development of Star Wars console games handled externally, that puts 1313 and LucasArts development staff in an undesirable position. Asked about the status of the game and any others it may have in the works — last year it was hiring for an FPS, an aerial combat game, and an action-adventure game, the latter of which may be 1313 — the company told IGN, “For the time being all projects are business as usual. We are excited about all the possibilities that Disney brings.”

The qualification that statement starts out with is not the most reassuring thing in the world. Disney may very well deem it more cost-effective to rely entirely on external developers for console games, in which case it will hopefully recognize the potential 1313 has shown and allow development to continue. Epic Mickey 2 is, after all, being developed at the Disney-owned Junction Point Studios, and that may indicate Disney is not completely against the idea of internal development of non-social/mobile games. What may end up happening is development on 1313 continues but LucasArts begins to primarily rely on external developers for any future console-game development (Star Wars and otherwise), including what may be the inevitable Star Wars VII tie-in.

An interesting point that could easily be missed in all this excitement over Star Wars is the fact that LucasArts handles other properties, too. In addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, it also has a treasure trove of adventure games, including Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. It has shown some support of its adventure games in recent years between the re-release of certain titles on Steam and the revival of Monkey Island with the Special Edition releases of the first two games and the Tales of Monkey Island series.

That said, while it’s easy for gamers to not realize this acquisition means new ownership of these classic properties, it’s even more likely Disney itself will pay them little, if any, attention. It’s clear Disney sees Star Wars as the big prize in this purchase, and with its videogame ambitions focused primarily on the social/mobile space (and external development of any console games), adventure games with limited mass-market appeal are unlikely to have much of a future.

The only thing that seems clear at this point is that more Star Wars games are coming. Whether any of them end up being the sort that gamers with no interest in social or mobile games care about remains to be seen. With a renewed emphasis on delivering new movies and leveraging the Star Wars brand across the board, I would expect to see more games, not fewer, and that includes core-oriented console/PC games — it just may be that it’s up to developers like BioWare to make them happen.

By Chris Pereira

Can Americans Still Make SimCity?

SimCity


EA may announce a new SimCity game at the Game Developers Conference next month according to rumors spurred by the publisher’s announcement of a live-streamed event on March 6, where they promise a new Maxis game will be revealed. A related post on Facebook posed the question, “How can we change the world together? Find out when EA hosts the Game Changers event at GDC. What would you do if you had the power to change the world?”


When paired with descriptions of the game lifted from Maxis job ads looking for, “a highly talented and experienced team on an upcoming triple-A simulation style game,” the evidence seems to point to a SimCity announcement of some kind coming from the event next week. That same job ad also states that the developer is looking for someone with, “knowledge of the Xbox 360 and PS3 rendering architectures and APIs,” suggesting that the title will appear on consoles. No American developer has ever produced a console or otherwise “simplified” SimCity game that was actually playable or enjoyable.


Fans still fondly remember the Nintendo-developed SNES SimCity — particularly in Japan where few players had the chance to play it on a PC — because it managed to add a much needed layer of humor, character, and style to the iconic yet slightly bland original now known as SimCity: Classic. The series went on to inspire console and handheld sequels from Japanese developers, including SimCity 64 (N64DD), SimCity DS, and SimCity Creator (Wii). All of these titles take their immediate inspiration from the SNES version and capture at least some of its magic.


Meanwhile, in the West, EA hasn’t produced their own PC SimCity game since 2006′s disastrous SimCity Societies, which, like all other EA attempts to dumb-down the series, failed to excite fans, critics, or anyone else. In retrospect, the game ranks somewhere between SimTown and SimRefinery in annals of the franchise’s history. Even excluding Societies, EA’s treatment of the series hardly gives fans reason for hope; the publisher’s willingness to port shoddy versions of the game based on the aging SimCity 4 hardly qualifies as inspiring.


EA spent the last ten years giving SimCity fans ill-considered spin-offs and unplayable cell-phone games, why should they give this new game the benefit of the doubt? It could turn-out to be the best game yet in the series, as the unambitious (but still entertaining) Japanese SimCity games prove that it’s a matter of design and skill and not something inherent to bringing an older title with older mechanics to modern players. However, the possibility of a console SimCity only heightens concerns, as the problem the series spent the past 10 years failing to overcome stems directly from trying to simplify the game’s mechanics for the sake of reaching a wider audience like Societies, or fitting into a non-mouse/keyboard control scheme like SimCity on everything from tablets to feature phones. Nearly a decade’s worth of failures — especially in the face of the relative success of Japanese takes on the series — easily justifies preliminary skepticism towards whatever EA reveals next week.

By Ryan Winterhalter

SmartGlass Already Facing Trouble If It Launches Without iOS and Android Support

SmartGlass

With the Xbox 360′s latest dashboard update out for everyone this week, there remains just one of its components to be launched: SmartGlass. The companion application for tablets and phones has the potential to be a significant feature for Xbox 360, and I was excited to try it out for myself once it became publicly available. Microsoft announced this week that SmartGlass will be launched alongside Windows 8 this Friday, October 26. I had my copy of Forza Horizon readied to see how well SmartGlass works in a first-party game, which should provide a good glimpse of what SmartGlass can realistically offer right now. Unfortunately, by all indications I — along with most people — will be unable to try it out this week because it inexplicably and unforgivably lacks support for iOS or Android right out of the gate.

In expressing my thoughts on how SmartGlass could give Wii U some trouble following its E3 reveal, I made note of what was probably the single most-important detail announced that day: support for non-Windows devices. By providing support for iOS and Android devices alongside its own line of products, Microsoft ensured SmartGlass’s install base would be significantly larger than it otherwise would have been and that it had a chance at being something more than a poorly-supported Windows Phone-only feature. Better yet, in many people’s case it meant all you would need to do to get a Wii U-style experience is download the SmartGlass app. Sure, it may not be a perfect stand-in for games designed specifically for Wii U’s GamePad, but not everyone necessarily needs that. Whatever the case, the availability of SmartGlass could only help the Xbox 360 this holiday season.

As it turns out, this critical point which Microsoft was universally applauded for is not indicative of what to expect from SmartGlass at launch. Joystiq reports Windows 8 devices will be the only ones capable of making use of the new feature on Friday; iOS and Android support won’t be coming until sometime next year. While these details weren’t made explicit in the official announcement, the company has not denied them, and, frustratingly, it isn’t offering specifics of any kind when pressed for more information.

Launching SmartGlass as a Windows 8-only proposition for the time being makes little sense. Support for SmartGlass is hardly what you would call extensive at this point — Forza Horizon and Dance Central 3 are among the only available games to make use of it, along with a handful of apps like HBO Go and ESPN. In other words, SmartGlass is not some killer exclusive for Windows 8 devices. Unusual as it may have looked, Microsoft would have been better off delivering SmartGlass support for iOS or Android first, considering their respective install bases dwarf that of Windows 8 devices and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s impossible to predict how the new Microsoft Surface will sell for sure, but the newly announced iPad 4 and iPad Mini aren’t going to do it any favors.

By failing to bring SmartGlass to a substantial user base from the start, Microsoft has put it in a difficult position going forward. Software support being soft isn’t troubling now, but if SmartGlass is going to remain available only to a small number of people (it requires having both an Xbox 360 and a Windows 8 device, the latter of which shrinks the number greatly) until an unknown point in time next year, what developer will bother developing support for it in the meantime? Setting aside first-party studios and those which Microsoft provides incentives to for doing so, the answer is likely to be “very few,” and it would be hard to blame them. Extensive SmartGlass support for a game released prior to iOS and Android coming on board would simply not be worth it for a developer. And even if a developer can be assured those devices will be SmartGlass-capable by the time its game comes out, Microsoft is losing this early opportunity to demonstrate gamers’ enthusiasm for SmartGlass and learn exactly what it is they like about it. (It’s also blowing its chance to use SmartGlass to attract consumers unable to get their hands on a Wii U this holiday.) By the time more devices can function with SmartGlass and developers begin to consider getting behind it, it could be that no one cares anymore.

This is frustrating to me as an iPad and iPhone owner who was interested in making use of SmartGlass at launch. Not only does this mean having to do without features I planned to make use of in Forza, NBA Game Time, and HBO Go, it also possibly kills any shred of hope that may have existed for Madden NFL 13 being patched with the SmartGlass functionality shown off at E3. The Wii U version of the game is generally inferior to the version on 360 (and PS3), but I would still like to have the ability to draw hot routes on my iPad screen.

All hope for SmartGlass is not lost just yet. While official indications point to having to wait for iOS and Android support, sources have told the Penny Arcade Report that iOS support could still be delivered on Friday. If that’s a possibility, it’s perplexing why Microsoft has yet to clarify that iOS owners don’t have a months-long wait ahead of them. The fact that it has not done so fails to inspire much confidence in this initiative, and all of this leads me to wonder if SmartGlass is being rushed out the door either so it can beat Wii U to market or be another bullet-point on the long list of products and services Microsoft is shipping this week. These can’t be the kind of things it hoped would be on people’s minds as it releases SmartGlass to the public.

By Chris Pereira