Interview

How OpenFeint plans to become to mobile social gaming what Facebook is to web apps

How OpenFeint plans to become to mobile social gaming what Facebook is to web apps
If you think gaming on iPhone and iPod touch has been a big deal to date, just wait until the social networking revolution builds up momentum. That's the cry following the release of the 3.0 OS upgrade that will enable features such as push notification and micro-transactions.

But handling such technology can be fiddly, which is why we've seen an explosion in service companies offering tools to make the process easy.

OpenFeint, the technology originally created to make the Aurora Feint II: The Arena role-playing game, was the first successful product in this area. Over 400 developers are using it and, to date, it's been included in games downloaded over 3 million times, including Pocket God, MyBrute and Stick Wars.

So we caught up with creators Jason Citron and Danielle Cassley to find out how the idea for OpenFeint came about, how it will change the way we play games, how they expect to build a business, and what they think about the competition.

Pocket Gamer: When did you decide the online technology you were building for Aurora Feint II could be spun out more widely?

Jason & Danielle: Around January of 2009. We had released AF II: The Arena with all the social and online gaming features in November 2008 and were amazed by how popular they were in the few weeks.

We realised that EVERY game, online or not, probably has a community, but nobody was enabling these player communities. We also knew that games on Facebook had access to profiles, walls, chat etc... and Xbox Live had leaderboards and achievements, so we thought: What if we brought social features and gaming features together for every game? That could be huge!!

Have you been surprised at how quickly it's been adopted?

Yes and No.

Yes, because we didn't realise how many developers are out there who simply don't want to have to build all this themselves, especially server features. For example, the OpenFeint 2.0 launch has added 300 more registered developers. It's pretty mind boggling.

No, because we are the only company with a real social gaming platform available TODAY... and now that big hits are on it, we also have the largest network: so I guess we have a pretty good market position.

How does the fact you're supporting a portable device change the required features, compared to something like Xbox Live?

The key is to make sure that we deal with features such as single identity and interrupt driven use seamlessly. Single identity means an OpenFeint user does not have to keep logging in each time they play an OpenFeint-enabled game.

You can also bring your Facebook friends with you wherever you go on to your iPhone. That is social portability. Our servers simply recognise the user and provide a seamless experience.

Interrupt driven use is the fact that you may be in a chat room or lobby, and have to leave because of a phone call for five minutes, but when you come back we will put you in the exact room as when you left. So again, it's seamless.

In the same vein, how you mitigate the fact that half of the devices you support are always-on cellphones (iPhone) and half are wi-fi-only devices (iPhone touch)?

We make sure that when you are connected, you have access to all of OpenFeint's capabilities. When you are not, we clearly indicate that you are not connected, but we are regularly checking in the background to see if you have entered a wi-fi zone and are now connected. If so, there is an indicator at the bottom of the screen which says "Now logging into OpenFeint".

The iPod touch is not "never connected" so automatically and seamlessly connecting when it IS in a wi-fi zone is the key to provide a clean user experience. Also, not being connected doesn't mean any data is being lost. It's always on the servers, so when you do connect, you can "catch up" with OpenFeint and social events that have occurred.

How important do you expect the affiliate game selling model to be for the OpenFeint business, and more generally, how can you sustain a business built around an maximum eight cent per user one-time fee?

The central thesis of OpenFeint 2.0 is social discovery. We know from other content like music and Facebook apps that users choose content based on friends' recommendations. We know that we are solving the problem of a cluttered App Store where discovery is very hard.

So as long as we execute well on social discovery, people will purchase using our One Touch Purchase feature in OpenFeint and the affiliate fee should provide a great business model.

The few cents per user one time fee is more to cover server hosting costs than anything else. I mean you could pay a few cents for a user once for OpenFeint, who then recommends your game 20 times, and even if only 20 per cent of those recommendations result in purchases, the developer has just sold four games through this user.

Even at the lowest game price point that's four bucks. I'd say that's a pretty good ROI for the developer, and we've made 28 cents on this user, and with our user base growing to three million with OpenFeint 2.0, I'd say that's a pretty good business model.

How will you handle the different tasks of being a game developer and being a tools and services provider?

We'll see. I think that we are not a "middleware" company. We are a cloud services company. Nobody looks as Facebook or Twitter as a "middleware company". Sure there is some software running on servers, but we aren't providing game engines here.

As for the games side of the business, we are focused on our games division to provide the direction for the use of OpenFeint in innovative ways as we did with The Arena. So our games division is going to very much focus on multiplayer and social games regardless of genre, as opposed to puzzle or action or whatever.

You will see 2-4 titles per year, micro-transaction-enabled content in our games, virtual goods, massively social contests and challenges, all based on continuous innovation in OpenFeint and high quality production value in our games.

I don't think there is any comparable model out there because both in games AND in our platform, the key words are "mobile" and "social" and "asynchronous" and frankly this is new territory.

OpenFeint is an open source project, so how does that work in terms of custom changes developers make to the code?

Everything is released back as open source. We really don't want the developer to have to "license" OpenFeint. It's not our vision as game developers ourselves. That's what I meant by we are not a "middleware" company.

The market for social networking services is now hotting up with ngmoco now offering similar services to OpenFeint as part of a publishing package for developers, so do you think such all-inclusive packages will be more attractive than your more hands off option?

First of all, we're not that hands off. We build our own games and we constantly share our advice and our best practices.

Having said that we believe developers are very capable of building games on their own. Their biggest fear is to get a little bit of added platform value and in turn give up a huge amount of revenue as with the traditional publishing model. Whereas, in the affiliate model that we are adopting, we are getting paid from Apple and the developer keeps their whole share. Fundamentally, we have a better business model.

How do you expect the addition of ex-Facebook exec Net Jacobsson will strengthen the OpenFeint business going forward?

Net has joined our Advisory BOD and is actually pretty involved in our OpenFeint discussions with strategic game developers. Net is very well connected: For example he is heading out to China this week to give a speech at Ten Cent's annual conference: this is a company that is doing $1 billion in micro-transactions.

He has mobile industry experience from Sony/Ericsson and of course social application experience from Facebook. So, its a pretty unique combination: perfect for OpenFeint business development.

What's next for OpenFeint?

We just announced OpenFeint 2.1 with OS 3.0 feature support and Stick Wars and Pocket God will bring out push notification-based features using this in July.

Going forward there are lots of exciting things: we want to become the de facto platform for mobile social gaming as Facebook has become for web social apps. So we are hiring more developers, and we are even looking at new mobile platforms other than the iPhone although we have not developed anything on them yet.

Also, we ARE publishing a new title this summer which will take advantage of ALL OpenFeint 3.0 features including push and micro transactions. Look out for more details on that.

Thanks to Jason and Danielle for their time.

You can find out more about OpenFeint, include the SDK download from OpenFeint.com.
Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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