On Thursday, April 15th, 2010, Women 2.0 held “Social Gaming 101”, which featured founders and CEOs of social gaming startups in Pillsbury’s Palo Alto office. The panel shared best practices, tips, tricks, and even pitfalls of designing and implementing social games. Sue Zann Toh (Co-Founder & CFO, The Broth) told war stories from her startup’s early days of fixing bugs and keeping servers running. Sue Zann Toh reminds attendees that you can compete with the “big guys” even if your startup is small by launching early, and developing from there. The Broth’s Barn Buddy, which launched before FarmVille, has grown to 1.7M active daily users amid stiff competition.
Mari Baker (President & CEO, PlayFirst) followed up by demonstrating that the players who enter the market first aren’t necessarily the ones that win the end. “Does anybody remember Netscape or Excite?” Mari Baker asked the crowd. One of her tips was to check out the worst performing games for problems to avoid. Also, Mari Baker added that having a great product is the biggest key to going viral.

During her presentation, Amy Jo Kim (Co-Founder & CEO, Shuffle Brain) shared how she put her PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience to good use in Shuffle Brain to build games that exercise the brain and prevent dementia. Shuffle Brain explored a few monetization models but finally settled on merging with a subscription game site aimed at 50 to 70 year-old users. Nevertheless, Amy Jo Kim believes earned and purchased currency models are the most promising ways to monetize social games this year. With “the free to play/virtual goods [model], you monetize your most avid players the most,” Amy Jo Kim said. Having created some of the most popular social games on FaceBook including Causes, Zombies, and Vampires, panelist Blake Commagere agreed that dual-currency models have brought the best monetization opportunities to his games. “Ads… paid for your servers and kept you from starving.” By acclimating users to purchasing in your game using earned currency, the up-sell to purchasing $1 digital goods is easier.

The entire panel agreed that social games require a different work structure than traditional game titles. Mari Baker reminded the audience that in social games, you will spend more “man hours after launch than before.” Sue Zann Toh agrees, “the real work starts after launch.” Blake Commagere quipped that if “you’re not embarrassed by your product on day one, then you launched too late.”

This Women 2.0 event on social gaming was open to both women and men. Special thanks to Pillsbury for sponsoring this Women 2.0 event, and Shirley Lin (Founder, YoXi123) for driving the program and panel. Julie Blaustein provided event photography, and you can find pictures from the event here.

Watch a video of Women 2.0’s “Social Gaming 101” panel highlights on YouTube here.
Panelist Bios:
Mari Baker (President & CEO, PlayFirst)
Mari is president and CEO of PlayFirst. Over 500M have played PlayFirst’s Diner Dash. Prior to PlayFirst, Mari was CEO of Navigenics, a company she helped incubate while an engineer-in-residence at Kleiner Perkins. Mari has been recognized in the San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame, Fortune’s list of Silicon Valley’s Most Influential Women, and Advertising Age’s Top 100.

Mari answers some questions submitted by “Social Gaming 101” attendees:

How would you address the cynicism in the social gaming industry?
“The industry is still very early. There is still lots of opportunity ahead. The “easy” days may be gone, but great products and innovative ideas that tap into consumer needs will still prevail. They always do.

How do male and female users differ in their gaming behavior? How does age affect gaming style?
Rather than focusing solely on demographics – i.e. age, income and gender – it is more helpful to overlay this with psychographics and understand the motivating reason why somebody is playing a game. Clearly people play games for entertainment, but just as there are many different types of TV shows (from sitcoms to reality to documentaries), there are many different types of games and reasons people play them. Some people seek competition, others seek escape, some seek individual challenge, and so on. Some types of game play have larger audiences (just like reality shows have more viewers than documentaries), but there are clear fans of each. Social gaming taps into some new emotional cues that prior casual games did not, which has opened up a vast new audience.

Do you have any advice on finding programmers? Any overseas experiences with outsourced options?
Tap into references, offer incentives to your current team to help find great new employees (it’s the best source of new talent), try to really understand what the advantages are of working for you vs. elsewhere, and make sure you highlight that for people. Over the past six years, PlayFirst has worked with over 40 developers in 15 countries, along with art houses and other service providers to create our games. This can be a great option if managed well.

Attendee Question: What are your thoughts on the iPad and how it is changing social gaming?
We are very bullish on the iPad as a fabulous mobile entertainment device. Mobile entertainment is a large category today (radios, MP3 players, portable DVD players, handhelds like DS and PSP, etc.), and we believe that the iPad provides new innovation into the category which will ignite further expansion. For social gaming specifically, it will make it easier for people to play and engage while “on the road”, and given the 2-player nature of the device it may also help spur new types of game play.

Amy Jo Kim (Co-Founder & CEO, Shufflebrain)
An expert in online community architecture, Amy Jo is co-founder and CEO of Shufflebrain, a company developing smart games for social networks. She has helped design social games/architecture for companies such as Electronic Arts, Digital Chocolate, Viacom, eBay, Yahoo, and LimeLife. Amy Jo holds a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington, and a BS in Experimental Psych from UC San Diego.

Sue Zann Toh (Co-Founder & CFO, The Broth)
Sue Zann is a social application developer with a focus on monetization. She joined TheBroth to help develop social games like Barn Buddy, a farming game Sue Zann helped shape and grow to 1.7M daily active users. Most recently, Sue Zann has gained a reputation as a fierce competitor within TheBroth’s latest game, Hoop Fever Live.

Blake Commagere (Founder & CEO of a stealth company)
Blake was previously co-founder and CTO at Ohai. Before that, he was a co-founder at Mogad, lead engineer at Causes (Facebook Causes), and a senior engineer at Plaxo. Blake was the creator of some of the most popular social games on Facebook – Causes, Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, Slayers, etc.

Rebecca Weeks Watson (VP of Business Development, gWallet)
Rebecca leads Business Development for gWallet, a platform that helps publishers and social game developers monetize their audience through high-quality branded offers and ads. Previously, Rebecca was the director of business development at Real Girls Media. Prior to that, Rebecca was director of content for iMedia Communications and, before that, an investment banking analyst.

Rebecca answers some questions submitted by “Social Gaming 101” attendees:

What monetization techniques are on the horizon in gaming?
Social game developers have achieved great success through virtual currency and virtual goods. In addition, you’ll start to hear more about developers integrating brands into the game design and viral aspects of the game. These sponsorship deals are typically large and lucrative revenue for developers, but usually require a third-party’s expertise and close relationships with advertisers (i.e. companies like gWallet or WildTangent).

What are your thoughts on companies like Zong and Boku?
These vendors allow users to purchase virtual currency by charging the transaction to their mobile phone account, instead of having to enter in their credit card information. I believe an increasing percentage of users will choose this format, but I doubt it will override traditional (credit card) or alternative payment (participation in ad-supported activities to “earn” currency).

What growing pains do social gaming companies go through in terms of infrastructure growth in every sense?
Since the barriers to entry are so low, there are thousands of developers building social games and apps ever day. Once they launch, they seem to have difficulty balancing the need to enhance the game play and generate more users. I hear from many developers who complain they don’t have the resources (budget and knowledge) to market their game. This is why we launched gWallet Ventures, an investment fund that selects the most promising young development companies to invest between $100k and $1 million in their business to support their growth and scale their audience.

What are possible roles of non-programming women in social gaming startups?
Lots of non-programming roles are available: marketing, product management, business development, PR, recruiting, etc. You can learn about open positions and opportunities if you attend events including Women 2.0, Social Game Fest, F8, Inside Social Apps, GDC, LOGIN, and various Meetup groups.


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