Mobile Mavens

An ode to OpenFeint: The PocketGamer.biz Mobile Gaming Mavens close the door on social gaming's star platform

An ode to OpenFeint: The PocketGamer.biz Mobile Gaming Mavens close the door on social gaming's star platform

 

The PocketGamer.biz Mobile Mavens is our panel of experts drawn from all sectors of the mobile gaming industry.

Last week saw GREE call time on OpenFeint, the social gaming network the Japanese giant originally acquired more than a year and a half ago.

Many developers were angered by the short notice – GREE giving studios a month to remove OpenFeint from their apps – although others also noted that OpenFeint rarely featured in recent releases.

And so, we asked the Mavens:

What will OpenFeint's legacy be? Was it a force for change in the mobile gaming scene, changing the way gamers take on titles, or was it a grand pipe dream that was never truly realised?

David MacQueen Executive Director Strategy Analytics


Surely it's not surprising that, after the acquisition, GREE is only going to have one platform moving forwards. 

GREE's own platform has or will have much of the same functionality, so I don't think the OpenFeint ideals are going to disappear.

The timing and one month notice seems very odd though. Acquiring OpenFeint to, essentially, acquire developers and titles, then annoying those same developers by giving them very short notice during the critical holiday season to rewrite games, seems like GREE shooting itself in the foot. 

This poor timing could see quite a few developers abandon OpenFeint/GREE to other networks. If you have change the code, why would you now necessarily choose to use GREE, especially after they just have made life hard for you?

Oscar Clark Evangelist Applifier

As Evangelist for Applifier’s Everyplay platform, Oscar spreads the word on the game discovery benefits of gameplay recording & sharing, how opt-in video advertising can help convert non-paying users, as well as bring in direct revenue.

He has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also currently working on his first book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games, expected in March 2014.


Personally, I'm not surprised. GREE has been quite vocal about its plans to move to a single SDK for a long time, although I guess it did take a while to come out.

In my opinion GREE also needed to create good reasons for people to move over rapidly - as otherwise the firm would have the costly exercise of maintaining two code bases and service infrastructures for longer than necessary.

However, that does come at a cost and forcing a transition may end up causing more damage.

Seeing the last days of OpenFeint is a sad occurrence and I think the platform showed us how important playing with others can be. Howver, I think that time has now moved on and instead we need to find other reasons to play and share together.

It's not easy creating and maintaining a social platform and doing so is very dependent on new content releases. For me the question is whether GREE can take enough developers with it to the new platform, or whether it will need to look for new ways to attract an audience.

One of the reasons I left Papaya was to look for new reasons for people to socialise that were integral to their gaming experience, rather than supplementary tools that complement the game. For me the user generated content possible through the video capture of the game play could become one of those reasons - hence my move to Everyplay.

Nate Ahearn Xbox Content Planner - Third-Party Games Microsoft


I don't think it's a secret that OpenFeint was never the darling of the development community. 

On paper it was a massive achievement in the mobile space in terms of bringing gamers together in a relatively cohesive community complete with achievements and multiplayer functionality. It really opened the door that Game Center is still trying to walk through.

I would've really liked to see OpenFeint mature more than it did beyond the GREE acquisition. I think it could've forced Apple's hand a bit in terms of innovation had it begun to offer many of the services that Game Center didn't and, in some cases, still doesn't.

Sadly, we'll never know how far OpenFeint could've pushed the conversation forward, as it was never given the chance to fully mature and go from "that awesome idea that made tons of sense" to "that awesomely refined product that every single game just had to have."

Grand aspirations that were never quite the polished, pristine reality we all wanted them to become.

Scott Foe Entrepreneur In Residence


OpenFeint has left a very subtle, very impacting legacy here in the Silicon Valley investment and exit scene. 

I have heard quite a few investors and entrepreneurs talk about "OpenFeint Strategy" - doing one tiny thing that everybody wants (in the case of OpenFeint, leader boards), making it inanely trivial to implement, sucking up customers like a vacuum, expanding the Trojan Horse offering over time, selling the company for many multiples on investment.

Eros Resmini Head of Marketing Studio9


I would hope that, despite all of OpenFeint's shortcomings and things we didn't do right - trust me, for us early guys that list is long and detailed - we helped move mobile gaming forward just a little bit.

We always felt that if we could help developers make great games by giving them access to tools and audiences that we could make an impact on the content we all loved - and hoped - to see in our pockets.

The OpenFeint strategy, for lack of a better word, was to help make great games. Period. I suppose it worked on in some senses.

Of course, it's hard for me see it come to an end like this. I'm sorry that the tough business decision to shut down early had to negatively impact developers. Business is a pain in the ass sometimes.

I just hope OpenFeint's vision can continue with companies in the space who care about great games. If Jason [Citron, OpenFeint founder] was on this, I think he'd say something like "Keep connecting people - keep creating great experiences people can share." 

You can read more of Eros' views here.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

Oh man, this is quite some topic. It is near and dear to my heart - I wrote that before I read Eros' response.

A little bit of history. Pocket God was the fifth game to use the OpenFeint SDK. We were the last seat in its five app beta program. I am usually very sceptical of third party add-ons, but there was something about Jason [Citron] and Danielle [Cassley] that made me want to give them a chance.

I could also see its potential and thought it was a great service for devs. The idea that another company would handle the online aspect of my game was too good to pass up.

I personally worked very hard with Jason and hia engineering team in order to develop things like their challenge mode, their offline storage, etc. I spent a lot of late nights being the first app to implement and debug many of these features and I know their source code pretty well at this point. 

Because of the success Pocket God was having at the time, I would also regularly take part in their press outreach in order to help them succeed. I really like the people from the original OpenFeint team. I enjoy hanging out with Eros, I was happy for Jason when the acquisition occurred.

Alarm bells rang in my head when Jason left OpenFeint one month after the acquisition. I never quite got to the bottom of what was really happening but I could sense there was some poor decisions being made by the new owners.

The new GREE platform came out and that confirmed that the firm's new owners were planning on getting rid of the old SDK and burning bridges with their old developers. 

The new GREE SDK doesn't implement things like challenges or online storage so developers using it have to rip out a lot of their OpenFeint implementation with no clear replacement strategy. Plus, who in their right mind would implement GREE and work through the growing pains of a new platform when Game Center gives you the exact same functionality?

This last summer, our developer rep from GREE took us out to lunch to say that the firm will be completely transitioning off OpenFeint in the near future and shutting down its servers.

It could be by the end of 2012, maybe early 2013, but he said the company would give people plenty of warning and would only do it once the traffic to the OpenFeint servers was small enough that it would not impact anyone. 

Now, I'm sure that there are other devs that have this level of communication with OpenFeint, but I'm sure the vast majority didn't even get this pre-warning before GREE sent the take down notice on November 16th.

I find a couple things interesting about the way the firm is handling the take down notice.

First, it might seem like it's easy to remove OpenFeint on paper. Just remove a couple lines of code and that's it. However, OpenFeint is in a lot of older apps, and many of those apps still have a lot of users.

Things change rapidly in the world of iOS development. XCode changes, SDKs change, even your own code libraries change, and it can be an effort to take an older app that you haven't worked on in a year, make sure it even compiles properly, remove OpenFeint and then replace it with something else.

It's not trivial in a lot of cases and that doesn't even touch on cases where an app has a more advanced implementation of OpenFeint. I was lucky that my summer meeting influenced me to swap out OpenFeint last month. Originally I was trying to hold off until 2013 because we have a very ambitious holiday update and a new app that we need to finish ASAP but something in the back of my head told me to bite the bullet. 

It ended up taking about three weeks to remove and replace with game center because of some of the challenge features we were using in the old SDK and the fact that there is no one-to-one correspondence with Game Center. It still needs a lot of work to make it more user friendly, but it's a good-enough job for now until I have more time to get back to it.

Second, GREE is doing this right before the holiday season.

I'm sure every developer in the industry is busting their butts trying to release a holiday update or new app. The holiday season is the most important time of the year for developers and we need to use all our resources to make it meaningful. We do not need a distraction like this. 

The 14 December cut-off for OpenFeint makes it seem like we have a month, but when you factor in approval time you only have two weeks.

Also, it's very unlikely that you can submit an update or a new app after the first of December and expect it to be approved by the holidays. If there is an unexpected problem with your update, there is no opportunity to release a bug fix until the new year. 

This is simply irresponsible of GREE.

Thirdly, the firm's take down notice sounds rather threatening. This is an excerpt from the email:

"Note that failure to remove the OpenFeint SDK on December 14, 2012, violates the terms of the OpenFeint Developer Agreement."

This is a huge laugh because they just posted a new developer agreement before they sent the email. Nobody read it. Nobody agreed to it. It's hardly something that is enforceable.

There is also this gem from the new developer agreement:

"If, following the termination of the OpenFeint Platform, OpenFeint (or its Affiliate) is obligated to continue providing the OpenFeint Platform (for example, by law or court order) on or after December 14, 2012 (or such later date as determined by OpenFeint), Developer shall pay all of OpenFeint's (or its Affiliate's) ongoing hosting fees attributable to Developer's games ("Hosting Fees") as calculated by OpenFeint (or its designee), in its sole discretion, on the basis of the percentages of log-ins attributable to such games.

"Any Hosting Fees shall be invoiced to Developer on a monthly basis, and paid by Developer to OpenFeint (or its designee) not later than fourteen (14) days following Developer's receipt of invoice."

Can you imagine? If developers somehow get a court to extend the operation of the OpenFeint servers, then the developers will need to pay for it at GREE's discretion?

I know many people from the old OpenFeint team and they would never do something like this to their fellow developers. I have to imagine the decision to pull the plug in a way that screws over developers at the worst time possible came straight from Naoki Aoyagi who is acting as CEO for international operations.

He clearly has no clue how to run a business that is dependent on developers trusting in your product. Who's to say that the GREE SDK won't go away next year at a moment's notice?

Who's to say that GREE won't suddenly change its developer agreement at a moment's notice in a way that is not favourable to you?

Naoki Aoyagi has made it clear that he can't be trusted with the future of your app.

Volker Hirsch Co-Founder / Board Member Blue Beck

Alongside multiple industry roles, Volker is the co-founder Oystercrowd, Blue Beck, and Digital M. Former posts at BlackBerry and Scoreloop add to an enviable CV, which also includes the co-founding of Connect2Me


The following is my personal opinion and should in no means be construed to be the opinion of any company I may or may not be affiliated with, including the long-deceased neighbour of my second cousin's great-great-grandmother, etc.

I think there are two separate issues here.

Firstly, GREE's product and business case is quite different to the one OpenFeint had (or morphed into). 

GREE is and has been visibly keen to export its own tremendous success from Japan to the world. Will that work? I am not sure, and GREE doesn't seem to be sure (anymore) either, which might be the short answer to this. I think it's a mistake (not only because of what some others outlined) but, hey, who am I to judge?

Secondly, I think it's more interesting (if perhaps more academic) to take a wider look at the tools and model the platform used.

OpenFeint had - presumably in search of revenue - moved from its early iteration of relatively free-wheeling tools (which had - as Eros put it - "enabling great games" at its centre piece) to a model where their "cross-promotion" became the centre piece - with the rest almost bait to make it a little richer. 

But that, I believe, is not very compelling.

It creates bursts of downloads for very, very few and has absolutely no impact on others.

This has impacted perception but also forced a need to jump into your face ("do you want these awesome features?") at every occasion (it is a model driven by pure volume, not sensible contextual connections), which is pretty much anathema to their original mantra. 

From a user perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever: why do you think I am interested in someone's score in a FPS when you know my preference is sports games? Only because I clicked on "these awesome features"?

It is akin to why the so-called "social" games on Facebook etc are going through a trough of disillusionment at the moment, too. These games use a social layer – i.e. Facebook - to commit what you could term 'social networking rape': flooding your friends with FarmVille invites, irrespective of whether they are 'farmers' or 'urbanites', does not create engagement or social context but abuses a social connection that was created for different reasons (because you're friends, related, went to the same primary school, whatever).

Context is at the core, and without it, social gaming cannot be sustainable! If you are playing that FPS, you want those scores right there, in context, with perhaps the 2 or 3 of your friends that are also into this but not with the world at large (friends or not) as that is just kinda annoying - or at best meaningless (unless of course you're Kim Dotcom and lead the Modern Warfare charts globally... :p).

This second mistake is what we always tried to avoid at Scoreloop. On the surface, we allowed devs to customise their screens. That means that in many (and indeed in the most successful) games that use it, you would not be able to tell that Scoreloop was in there - even if it powered some central bits of the "engagement engine".

It highlights what I believe is crucial for the "social" gaming angle - namely that you put the game at the centre (context, doh!) and not some cloudy "really large group of people who have only one thing in common and that is that they have, at some stage, also played a game that uses our tools". 

In our vision - and I believe this to be true still today - passion and the willingness to share, preach and be vocal about a game would only ever come from, well, the game that that user is playing. And the user needs to be the starting point of social engagement - not network effects; they presume that the users are there already, which may well be a fallacy in gaming terms!

I would love to see more games make use of tools that centre around their own experience rather than trying to latch on to some quick-hit, flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that may (or may not) boost downloads quickly only to die reasonably quickly thereafter (because it is not fueled by passion but by opportunistic "metrics".

Yes, if you put out x million impressions, you will get 1-2 percent clicking through, but does that really mean your user base is engaged? No? I thought not.

The challenge with this model is, of course, that it is like a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb: it takes time. The timing factor increases risk. 

In OpenFeint's case, it led them to divert to a "cheap" get-rich-quick-promise - the "cross-promotion". In Scoreloop's case it meant that, whilst our metrics tracked as we wanted them to, we never could exhale because the commercial proof was still around the corner.

Mind you, the metrics DID track, so I would still love to give it a try! 

I hope the core OpenFeint team is fine but, given its record, I have no real doubt.

A final word on those "valley legend" fallacies highlight by Scott: almost everyone who tries to "build to flip" will fail, and I know of very few entrepreneurs indeed that succeeded with such a cynical approach.

If in doubt, read this.

Paul Virapen MD Big Pixel Studios

OpenFeint was a great service, especially for small indie studios like ours. If it wasn't for OpenFeint's platform, Big Pixel's early games probably wouldn't have had any online or social components at all. 

It just wasn't feasible for a small team like ours to dedicate the kind of time required to develop our own solutions for leaderboards, achievements, user profiles…etc.

And I'd have to agree with Eros that OpenFeint's "strategy", at least from our point of view, was to help developers make great games and help them get discovered. We worked closely with the OpenFeint team from an early stage, and similar to Dave with Pocket God, we helped to test and show what was possible with the latest features of the platform. 

We had iOS games running asynchronous multiplayer challenges and cloud syncing between different devices in 2010, all because of the tools OpenFeint provided. It's nearly 2013 and there are still a number of large high profile studios and publishers who struggle to provide that kind of service to their end users. 

And one thing that sticks out about the OpenFeint days is the quality of its developer support team. I remember several occasions when we'd come across a problem or bug with the platform, and even with the time difference between London and San Francisco, we'd have a solution delivered within a matter of hours!

It's a shame for many developers that the service is being terminated early,- a bit more notice would have been helpful. Luckily we spent some time over the past two months getting two of our titles (Land-a Panda and Piyo Blocks 2) prepared well in advance of the intended switch off date. 

But now we are in a situation that we don't have any development resources available until at least early 2013 (we are a small team and we're fully booked with work-for-hire projects until then), and as such we have no choice but to pull our remaining titles from the App Store which is a shame. 

It isn't always easy to remove a platform like OpenFeint by just replacing a few lines of code - some of our titles have a very deep integration of OpenFeint that takes a long time to strip out and/or replace.

It's a sad day, but OpenFeint's legacy will be remembered. It was a great company full of extremely talented individuals, who developed a platform that was well ahead of its time in mobile gaming.


Editor

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. As PocketGamer.biz editor, he has the pleasure of monitoring the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.

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