Monday, April 28, 2008

Where are the avatars on Facebook?

It doesn't appear that the Facebook audience cares much for avatars. While there are quite a few avatar applications, none have much traction. Avatar sites like (over one million unique visitors a month) have a massive and loyal following, so clearly it's not that avatars lack appeal. So why hasn't there been a breakout hit on Facebook?

Before I speculate on that, here's a list of the avatar-related applications I was able to find (from most popular to least popular):

Custom Cartoon Personality (7,063)
The most popular of all Facebook avatar apps is nothing more then a lead generation page for Zwinky, the notorious avatar software/spyware.

StyleSlam (5189)
From Ebay? Who knew that eBay was building Facebook apps, let alone avatar creation tools. To be honest, I couldn't test this because the Flash client never finished loading.

Burn Alter Ego (1504)
A very nicely done advergame from Coke. Coke has really been at the forefront of the virtual world phenomenon (Virtual Coke Studios), so it's no surprise they've created this stylish avatar application.

Meez Roomz and Games (201)
From Meez, a company that has combined casual games with 3D chat. This is purely a lead generation tool, its pushes you out to the Meez site as soon as possible.

IMVU Avatar (36) -
Another lead generation tool, this time for IMVU, the 3D chat application. I've always liked IMVU, it offers a rich 3D environment for chatting - basically a virtual world, without all the useless space.

Gaia OMG (616) -
Yet another lead generation tool, this one for Gaia Online, basically, a virtual world without the virtual(though that's changing as they have a full-blown casual MMO in the works).

Mini Me (136)
Despite myself, I liked the simple cartoony feel of this app's avatars. Evidently, not many other people did. Feels homegrown, and not just another lead-gen tool. But not very compelling.

I'm sure, I missed some, so feel free to add reviews of ones I missed in the comments.

All right, now for some speculation:

So why hasn't there been a truly successful avatar application on Facebook?

1. You're really you on Facebook. In most situations where avatars are successful, users are masking their identities. From virtual world to forums to chat rooms, users opt to hide behind pseudonyms rather then use their real names. If you're trying to remain anonymous, yet still reveal your personality, customizable avatars are an excellent mechanism. On Facebook, the vast majority of people provide their real names and use real pictures to represent themselves. Avatars are unnecessary.

Having said that, even in the absence of utility, avatars can be a fun way to express yourself, and self-expression is a key value of socnets users, so while I don't see an avatar app reaching Top Friends levels, I would expect some more traction. The following reasons address why the current crop of avatar apps haven't seen much success.

2. Avatar applications don't encourage repeat usage. I customize my avatar once and I'm done. Unless, I'm motivated to repeatedly update my avatar is some way, I will rarely return. Unlike a turn-based game, I don't need to return daily to check in on my avatar. This problem is easily solved by adding elements from the virtual pets type games. If your avatar needs to be fed and taken care of then you'll return frequently.

3. It's all lead-gen. The goal of most of the well-done avatar apps is to drive you from Facebook to another property. That's not the way to grow a Facebook app.

4. No virality. None of the existing avatar applications have any viral hooks build into them, except the common "Here's 50 coins if you add a friend" invite page. It's not surprising that they haven't gained a larger reach.

Someone will get this right eventually, there's too much money at stake, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on avatar customization worldwide this year.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Transcript of Games 2.0 panel from Web 2.0 expo.

Like most liveblogs, it's a bit messy, but it'll covers the gist of the panel.

No way to direct link to the post, but currently it's the most recent blog post.

If anyone else knows of good transcripts of the Games 2.0 panel, let me know. Or links to the slides. thanks!

UPDATE: Jeremy Liew just put up a link to the slides over at his blog.

Possible Funding for the creators of Friends For Sale clone, Owned.

With Serious Business, getting a $4 million dollar round on the strength of their game, Friends For Sale, it seemed someone should look into their clone, Owned!, a game whose userbase of 600,000+ DAU equals Friends For Sale.

Unlike Serious Business, whose CEO, Siqi Chen is a popular speaker at tech events out here in the Bay Area, coolapps, the makers of Owned keep a extremely low profile.

Turns out that coolapps is a subsidiary of Insider Guides, Inc, the parent company of, a social networking site for high schools that gets ~3 million unique visitors a month.

This is a similar relationship SGN had to its parent company,, a free website creator, before spinning off and becoming a standalone company.

With the social gaming space still white hot, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw coolapps being spun off from its parent company as well. At ~600,000 DAU, coolapps has the same amount of traffic as SGN had back in December when it was peaking (well before SGN's recent acquisitions that provided the recent boost in users).

One advantage that coolapps has over many other game developers is that their games are featured prominently (upper left quadrant of the homepage - it doesn't get more prominent than that) of, providing them with exclusive access to an audience of 3 million users monthly.

A current audience of 600,000 DAU and exclusive access to a userbase of 3 million other users, I imagine that could be worth a few million in funding, my guess ~6-8.

Friday, April 18, 2008

SGN v. Zynga Round 3 - SGN buys 1 million active users

I have a suspicion that brand advertisers don't really get the social networking app arena. Why? Because Zynga and SGN have both been buying up apps with lots of dead installs. Dead installs are only useful for two things, cross-promoting your others app via email (against Facebook's TOS), or pitching to advertisers as reach. You know, "reach", how many users engage with your site/app in a given period. For instance, SGN is pitching 50 million installs, though I doubt less than 10% of those user will interact with a SGN game in the next six months. However, advertisers might well read 50 million installs and get excited. It's like politics in Chicago, even corpses count.

Regardless, SGN needed to do something. Their core game apps: WarBook, Jetman, Fight Club, and Street Race have seen massive dropoffs in usage since their peak, losing more than 70% of their traffic - from 700,000 DAU in mid-December to just under 200,000 DAU as of today. It's hard to pitch yourselves as a traffic acquisition method to other game developers if you don't have the traffic.

The recent acquisitions (esgut, Nicknames, Friend Block, Oregon Trail, Free Gifts) have added over 1 million active users to their core userbase. Wow. Did I say dead installs, because that's some LIVE traffic.

However, SGN made some excellent strategic purchases that add more value to their company then just traffic.

The guys as esgut make apps that show a clear understanding of the nature of social networks: Entourage, Superlatives. These apps are about showing off your connections with your friends which is really at the core of social network usage for anyone under the age of 21. Nicknames shares this understanding as well.

Until Friends for Sale! came out, not many people realized the value of linking friendship display and games. SGN clearly does, and I hope with the guys at esgut and Nicknames on their team, we'll see some games coming from them that connect more deeply with friendship values.

However, the brilliant move was acquiring Free Gifts. I'm sure that Shervin (CEO of SGN) is looking to create a virtual goods economy. Free Gifts is Facebook's top gifting app, making it a great launchpad for premium virtual goods integrated into SGN's game network.

Games+friendship+virtual goods. Now we're getting somewhere.

Bunchball raises another 4 million bucks.

Mashable broke this a few days ago, but I missed it amongst the SGN acquisition news (which I have yet to comment on). Anyway, Bunchball raised 4 million in its series B. Seems kinda low, considering Zynga and SGN both raised 10 million in their Series A.

But then again, Bunchball isn't fighting to become the dominant social game network. However, in many ways, Bunchball is much further down the path than either Zynga or SGN. Bunchball has an amazing product, a complete game platform and analytics suite, complete with avatars, currency, leaderboards, etc.

Rather than focusing on attracting eyeballs with hopes to get acquired by EA, Bunchball has sold their services to large media brands like NBC. Check out the customized games site they've created for the Office, it's really impressive.

With a team of 11 developers, I imagine they're profitable, so why the need for more money?
I suspect they're going to push into the social games space in a major way. Their first foray failed: Karma Games and Avatars was the first game launched on Facebook, attained a massive install base and now has only ~4000 active users. That's a fail, if you ask me. However, the social games space is too hot for a company with great technology to not take a second chance. Besides in the current climate I'm sure they got a great valuation.

Recently, they've joined the Zynga network, which suggests they're trying some new approaches to the Facebook market. However, I think as long as they're focused exclusively on real-time games, they're going to be stuck with low daily active user numbers.

Having said that, their games are much more engaging then those of Zynga. The average visit length for Bunchball is 10:40 minutes vs 2:40 minutes for Zynga. (thanks, Compete!) That's the thing about real-time games, they keep users around longer.

It seems to me that the key to the whole enchilada is combine asynchronous with real-time games (like Zynga wisely has done with Scramble). The asynchronous part gives you the virality, and the real-time part promotes longer periods of engagement.

Just my two cents. In any case, good luck to Rajat and his team at Bunchball, they truly are pioneers in the social gaming space, having been at it since 2005, and have taken many arrows in the back. I encourage you to read Rajat's post on the history of Bunchball if you want to see what it's like to enter a market that just isn't ready yet.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Scrabulous v. Scrabble - Why Mattel and Hasbro Have No Case - A Law Professor's Opinion

Wendy Seltzer, visiting assistant professor at the Northeastern University School of Law, has an excellent blog post about the lack of merit behind Mattel/Hasbro's legal position in their fight against Scrabulous. She breaks down the three possible legal arguments that Mattel/Hasbro might have and summarily dismisses each argument. It's a quick and enjoyable read, i highly recommend it.

If you don't enjoy the finer points of copyright law, here's her summation, and I don't need to tell you kids why it's relevant:

The Internet provides a host of new opportunities to reimplement classic games, without the barriers of physical distribution. As entrepreneurs rush to capitalize on the opportunies, they shouldn’t be scared off by vague legal threats. Hasbro and Mattel may have their trademark, but we all have the right to cross words.
So, great, the door is wide open for more board game clones, how exciting.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Zynga's Texas Holdem Poker: Five Reasons Why It Succeeds Despite Conventional Wisdom

Zynga's Texas Holdem Poker has always astonished me, it defies the conventional wisdom that real-time games can't succeed on Facebook. Also, amazing to me is that in less than a year, we've already developed conventional wisdom about games on a brand new platform. But I digress...

So why does Texas Holdem Poker succeed where all other real-time games fail? Here's five reasons.

1. You don't need your friends to have fun. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you need your friends playing with you to have fun, then you need them to be online. Most friends are not available to play games whenever you feel like playing. It's the core problem of real-time games. Online poker, however, is nearly as fun to play against strangers as it is with friends.

2. People normally play online poker with strangers. Not only do you not need your friends to play with you, but you wouldn't even expect to play with friends. People having been playing online poker against strangers for years, it's the rule, rather than the exception.

3. Critical mass. Zynga launched Texas Holdem Poker during the those hazy golden days when Facebook first opened the platform. You know, back when people still responded to invites. The early launch combined with the acumen of Zynga's CEO Mark Pincus allowed Texas Holdem Poker to acquire a massive userbase fast. As a result, there was (and is) always someone to play with, which is the key to have a successful real-time game.

4. It doesn't require direct communication between players. Playing online poker with strangers doesn't require you to directly interact with the other players. It's possible, but not necessary. As a result, people can treat it like a single-player game. And believe me, not everyone likes to interact with people, especially with strangers.

5. It's bottable. Meaning that you can have bots as players without the other players knowing. Bots ensure that there is always someone with whom to play. For the record, I'm not saying Zynga uses bots, especially not now that they've reached critical mass, but it would have helped them in the past had they chose to use them. I want to be clear here because when it comes to online poker, bots are a HUGE no-no, and I don't want to paint Zynga with that brush.

Conclusion: In my mind, Texas Holdem represents the opposite of the design principles that people (including myself) are espousing as necessary to have a successful social game.

You don't need your friends. The social graph is unnecessary. It's real-time. Communication is optional. It's essentially a single player experience.

Further evidence that nobody really know what games are going to work on Facebook. It's still a brave new world, kids.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Virtual Goods and the Community values of Facebook

Above: The most popular sticker from Bumper Sticker, Facebook's most popular self-expression/gifting app.

For all practically purposes, virtual goods cost nothing to create, they're infinitely reproducible at no cost, and distribution costs are nil. To put in other words, their marginal cost is zero.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, is fond of saying:

Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.
So, virtual goods, in theory, should cost nothing. Except, they don't.

Why? Because marginal cost applies (mostly) to commodities. Virtual goods are not a commodity. They are luxury goods. Exactly like a Gucci handbag. Or a Rolex. You buy these things to show off your status, usually wealth. The more expensive an item is, the more perceived value it has in the community. However, you can't simply declare that a urinal is worth a million dollars and expect someone to buy it...unless you're an artist. The item's worth has to be aligned with the value of the community.

With traditional luxury goods, craftsmanship and uniqueness are the value that the community uses as justification for prices 100x greater than marginal cost. I say justification, because the luxury goods purchaser is primarily seeking the status value of the object, because goods of equal craftsmanship and uniqueness can be had at near marginal cost.

With virtual goods, craftsmanship is irrelevant - no one really cares if Susan Kare created your icon. Yet. I imagine as the virtual goods market matures, we'll see brands emerge based around rockstar designers. Especially, if virtual goods become portable among virtual communities.

But until then, uniqueness rules the roost. People want something special that gives them status and allows them to express their unique identify. Rare items serve both. So a virtual community creates artificial scarcity, by limiting the copies of a virtual good.

But it's easy to imagine a virtual good that no one wanted no matter, despite its uniqueness. For example, I just created a 75x75 orange square in Photoshop. I'm selling it for 250,000 dollars. I doubt I'll find a buyer for this unique virtual good (but I'm hopeful).

Each virtual community has different values and for a virtual goods to have value, it must reflect those values. In World of Warcraft, players value things that help them kill more monsters. The item's core value is functional (it helps achieve a task). However, the color of the item is equally important because it signifies status. For instance, in WoW, orange armor is "legendary". In Habbo Hotel, furniture is valuable because decorating your room, it the primary means of differentiating yourself, as well as the core single-player activity.

It's easier for individual games/sites to define the value of the community. After all, those communities are largely self-selecting. If you didn't value armor, you wouldn't be playing WoW. If you didn't like decorating your room, Habbo Hotel is much less interesting.

So what are the core values of the Facebook community? People in the know, will tell you that self-expression is a core value of the social network crowd. Great, but what values do they want to express?

Let's look at the top gifting apps on Facebook to get sense of the values expressed.
Bumper Sticker (938,239 DAU, 72% female): female friendship, humor/wit, sexuality, love
Lil Green Patch (358,095 DAU, 77% female): concern for the environment
Free Gifts (159,487 DAU, 66% female): random, but cute. Couldn't pin down values
Hatching Eggs (146,761 DAU, 69% female): cuteness (all cute animals), holiday events
Growing Gift (189,817 DAU, 75% female): holiday events.
Pieces of Flair (117, 176 DAU, NA): humor/wit
Stickerz: (103,593 DAU, NA): humor/wit

Looking over the list, purely gifting apps (Free Gifts, Hatching Eggs, Growing Gifts) all resemble Hallmark cards: warm, funny, emotional, cute event-driven. Values uses to describe the relationships we have with others. Unsurprisingly, these apps are dominated by women who traditionally value interpersonal relationships more than men.

The self-expression/gifting apps (Bumper Sticker, Pieces of Flair, Stickerz) appear to be wittier, darker, yet still cute. But at the core, Facebook users are trying to express how funny and intelligent they are. I think that makes sense for a community dominated by college students and the college educated.

Bottom line: Facebook users value intelligence and humor...and cuteness. If you're creating virtual goods for Facebook, you'd be advised to design with those factors in mind.

Wow, that was long post. I should have just said, if you want to understand Facebook users, go to Hot Topic.