Sunday, March 1, 2009

From the Frontlines of Georgia’s Gaming Community


FNG Co Hosts Glen Martin (L) and Bobby Blackwolf

How can a few thousand dollars in equipment and software, Skype and an Internet connection help build a local gaming community with global reach? In the hands of Bobby Tamburrino aka Bobby Blackwolf, perhaps a great deal.

Bobby is the host and producer of Friday Night Gaming, a new weekly Internet TV show about video games.  Launched in January, it’s broadcast live from the Computer ArenA, a gaming center in suburban Atlanta.  

A software developer and systems administrator by day, Blackwolf believes his show is one of the only Internet TV programs broadcast from an actual gaming center. It’s a natural extension of his weekly podcast the Bobby Blackwolf Show, which airs on All Games. It’s also example of how a relatively low cost social media solution is transforming content distribution.

Friday’s show featured the debut of just released PlayStation®3’s Killzone 2. An “in studio” gamer got to demo it with others online.  In another popular segment, co-host Glen Martin (owner of CC Gaming) took apart and repaired a PlayStation2 console.  

Granted the Internet can be unpredictable, and there are always technical hiccups, but Blackwolf can produce and broadcast a live video program around the world. A live video feed is offered on the FNGLive website with streaming video via Ustream.tv and an audio-only simulcast is available on All Games Radio. The chatroom is on chat.allgames.com.

It’s essentially community access with a worldwide distribution. One caller on Friday was from Sweden.

Building Community

Friday Night Gaming is another example of how technology is helping to build Atlanta’s gaming community.  People come into Computer ArenA to observe and participate, call in or chat and play online. Last week they had over 300 viewers and had 150 chat room participants.

In time, Bobby hopes his broadcast will be a fixture in the community and a showcase for local talent and companies.  Previously, Atlanta-based Cartoon Network and its new game Fusion Fall was featured.  Well-known Georgia video game composer Chris Rickwood wrote the theme for the Friday Night Gaming.

So as the State of Georgia offers tax credits and local companies like Hi-Rez Studios launch new games, folks like Bobby Blackwolf along with the Georgia Games Developer Association at the community level are also trying to put Georgia on the map as a gaming hub.

The show airs live at 8PM Eastern/5PM Pacific on Friday nights, and will run around three hours.

Let me get back to you.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gaming and Hi-Tech: So Much in Common, So Little Overlap

Last night, I attended the Atlanta Game Development Meetup Group up Highway 400 in suburban North Atlanta at the Computer ArenA – an arcade for gamers. A handul of game developers and aspiring game developers were on hand — networking, sharing ideas, and helping build Atlanta’s gaming community.

I met Matt Schwartz, a content designer for FusionFall – Cartoon Network’s recently launched browser-based kids’ MMOG.  I also met Bobby Blackwolf, host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show- a weekly Internet radio and podcast discussing the latest news in video games. I also caught up with Clinton Lowe, president of the Georgia Game Developers Association and talked about the SIEGE conference.

Today I attend a different type of community - Startup Riot a forum for investors (institutional and corporate VCs and angels), entrepreneurs, individuals looking for startup jobs, and large companies looking for partnerships and/or M&A opportunities.  Hoping as I may, I would be very surprised if any gamers present — which is surprising given the growth in gaming opportunities and gaming’s increasing reliance on the social web.  UPDATE – I AM GLAD TO REPORT THAT TWO COMPANIES PRESENTED TODAY FROM THE GAMING WORLD — REINVENTED TECHNOLOGIES AND GOOD EGG STUDIOS/ELF ISLAND. IT’S A START.

In time, perhaps WE WILL SEE MORE PRESENTERS AND these two technology communities will commingle creating a much more vibrant Web community here in Atlanta.

Let me get back to you.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Video Game Global Agenda Underscores Value of New Media


I have been kicking around the idea of going to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco especially as I try to help raise the visibility for Georgia Game Developers Association and the SIEGE conference.  Gaming has gotten so big that it is difficult to ignore its impact on marketing.

To me gaming is social media on steroids.  It underscores the importance of community, word of mouth and fan culture in driving awareness and attracting subscribers.


Hi-Rez Studios Designers


That’s why Hi-Rez Studios caught my attention.  They are an independent gaming company here in North Atlanta trying to make it big with their massively multiplayer online (MMO) game Global Agenda.  Expected to go beta in the second quarter of this year, Global Agenda features a spy-fi world of advanced technology and player-driven conflict.   

The responsibility of marketing Global Agenda falls primarily in the hands of Public Relations Specialist Michal Adam and Vice President, Game Operations Stew Chisam.  Their task is not easy.  Success rates are low.  Development costs are high and so is the failure rate for most MMOs.

Once more, games like any form of entertainment are a tough sell. They must compete for people’s free time.  The challenge is to be a person’s first or perhaps second choice for fun.  But as Stew points out, “There is a heavy reward for being the best.”

So it’s interesting to see how they are using traditional and new media in their marketing strategy.

Traditional Media

Timing and Opportunities
Launching a new game is never easy.  It’s important to manage expectations. Hi-Rez Studios made the decision to stay under the radar for the first three years.

Getting reporters to write, post and link is hard enough — in Atlanta it’s even harder; we are not yet a gaming hub and have to work harder – kind of like Avis Car Rental.  Where I have generally found tech reporters wanting plenty of lead-time, Michal notes that game journalists tend to stay away from pitches that are too far out in front or release dates that are not yet determined.  That makes building buzz more difficult.  

Sometimes you need to be opportunistic like when Hi-Rez Studios offered to insert a local DJ’s voice and body into the game after learning the DJ from Q100 had made a New Year’s resolution to be in a video game.  The result – lots of air time and visibility outside the gaming community.

New Media

Traditional media has its limits.  That’s where new media and community building come in.

Fans Base
A Blessing and a Curse:  Effective gaming strategy needs fans to help establish a brand. They drive buzz. They are web savvy, loyal, and willingly spread the word for you.  They are also highly opinionated and won’t hesitate to criticize – openly and loudly. The same fans that make a game a mega hit, can also sink it.

Using fans to help disseminate is challenging; you want to keep up momentum and feed fan hunger for information. But you need to move slowly to avoid disappointment.

Recruitment
Start Small:  Hi-Rez Studios is currently running an Alpha test for about 1000 gamers.  Before going public they wanted to give a handful of gamers a chance to look under the hood.  They reached out to gamers that are part of Clans, engage in Lans parties and play similar games like Tabula Rasa.

But there is a fine line in engaging like-minded gamers.  It helps that gamers have affinity toward the game, but at the same time you open yourself to comparisons as this discussion on the MMORPG gaming news site shows.

Management and Rewards
Management over Support: A well-run community can support itself. It’s more about management not support.  As the community grows, it gets formalized.  There are do and don’ts, but the guiding principle for Hi-Rez Studios is “we are here to have fun; don’t spoil it.”  Since trash talking is part of the fun, they won’t police everything.  They want players to stay long enough to become part of the community.

Sustaining Interest: Recognition is huge.  Consequently, regular contests are held.  One winner got his face on a character.  Players can also win pieces of flair and rare accessories.   

Measurement
ROI: In a subscriber based game, the goal is determining lifetime value based on such metrics as cost per user, number of users sustained, and revenue per user.

Short and long term success: Short term success is understanding online behaviors such as how long and often members are online:  Long term success is growing a healthy community of the right size and level of satisfaction. 

Over the long haul, Hi-Rez Studios hopes to be more than a one hit wonder.  It will take 4-7 years to justify the cost. This is an important year, but it seems to me that beyond the game itself, the key to their success will be based on how well they sustain their community.  And the lessons from the gaming industry can clearly help non gamers with the care and feeding of their social networks.

Let me get back to you.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

An Interactive Gaming Tutorial


The Quest Begins:  My First Video Game

Yesterday, I continued my quest to get a handle on interactive gaming.  A combination of art and technology, gaming and the principles of gaming are playing a critical role in the future of marketing and my understanding of social media.  They help build brand and community.  They are highly interactive, immediate and lend themselves to hours of engagement.(Check out a previous posting on gaming that I did.)

Earlier in the day, I sat down with Hector Pages, COO of Brandmovers.com (blog), an online games, contests, sweepstakes and loyalty promotions firm here in Atlanta.  He showed me an interactive game for a wireless communications provider.  This “advergame” asks users to look at two very similar pictures and pick out the differences,  The goal is to build customer engagement.  These games yield a great deal of customer data, email lists from users who opt in, and a small cadre of very loyal brand ambassadors.

While it goes without saying that the game needs to be fun, it also must be consistent with the brand and part of a wider marketing strategy to be successful.  As Pages said, “Games don’t live in isolation.”

Crossing the Divide


Thrust Interactive Developers


In the afternoon I met up with Lukas Bradley in the refurbished garage behind his house, which also serves as the home for Thrust Interactive, a gaming studio.  As his team of developers looked on amusement, Lukas gave me my first gaming tutorial.  A bit disoriented at first, I burned through a an hour of Portal,
a single-player first person action/puzzle video game.  It was immersive and yes addictive.  It makes me wonder how I will find the time to do everything else I want to do in life.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Gaming and Social Media – Further Reflections from SIEGE


Believe it or not, social media is changing the face of gaming.

In keeping with the Halloween theme from this past Friday…Heeee’s back, or rather I’m back.

After a two-week break, I have cleared my head and hopefully have sharpened my blogging strategy. But before I turn to other planned postings, I wanted to wrap up my thoughts from my previous posting about last month’s Southern Interactive Entertainment & Gaming Expo (SIEGE) conference held here in Atlanta.

Key Takeaways from the Post
  • Aided by social media, marketers are using non-traditional games to engage new audiences.
  • A game to be a game requires modeling, simulation and role-playing in a prescribed context.
  • Games must be compelling first, brand extensions and promotions second.

Based on feedback from gamers at SIEGE, it is clear that gaming is evolving and increasingly integrated into marketing strategies. But what is the social media angle?

From a user standpoint, they are highly interactive. Results are immediate, and they lend themselves to extended periods of engagement. They also build community. From a marketer’s perspective, they can build brand. While ROI remains elusive, games are sticky. Marketers can track traffic and measure their usage. If compelling, they can be viral. Users will devote time competing with themselves as well as with others, collecting points, downloading badges, rating and inviting friends to participate.

In short, gaming is an ideal platform in a new media strategy. Once more, gaming is dynamic; its user base is expanding, and its functionality is evolving especially with greater emphasis on downloadable, browser based games.

At SIEGE, I spoke with Danny Miller (blog) a GA Tech student and president k2xl.com. He believes there is a paradigm shift taking place. The gaming market is attracting more non-traditional gamers who are increasingly engaged in games tied to political campaigns, marketing efforts, and education initiatives.

Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Celia Pearce spoke with me about gaming’s widening social demographics. The core group of 18-24 year olds is saturated. In the U.S market, there has been less focus on older and younger users, but that might be changing. Habbo Hotel, aimed at teenagers, is now the biggest virtual world attracting 90 million users. On the other end of spectrum gaming continues to attract Baby Boomers. I was surprised to learn that the percentage of Baby Boomers in the gaming population is greater than the percentage of Boomers that make up the overall US population.

Gaming…Toward a Definition

So what actually is a game?

Ian Bogost (blog) is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech and a founding partner at Persuasive Games. He believes that games require modeling, simulation and role-playing in a prescribed context. As opposed to toys, Kevin O’Gorman on the Game Art and Design faculty at the Art Institute of Atlanta believes that games must have prescribed rules, in a prescribed space with prescribed goals.

These definitions are useful as games evolve and take on new roles. These new types of gaming include:

Casual GamesVideo game targeted at a mass audience and are typically distinguished by their simple rules. They require no long-term time commitment or special skills to play, and there are comparatively low production and distribution costs for the producer. Casual games typically are played on a personal computer online in web browsers, although they now are starting to become popular on game consoles, too.

Serious Games
– A serious game is a term used to refer to a software or hardware application developed with game technology and game design principles for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Serious games include games used for educational, persuasive, political, or health purposes.

Alternate Reality Games
(ARG) — An alternate reality game is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions. The form is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time. An ARG evolves according to participants’ responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game’s designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG or simply MMO) – is a video game, which is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously. By necessity, they are played on the Internet, and feature at least one persistent world. MMOGs can enable players to cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale.

Gaming and Marketing

Whether a game is a game or merely game-like, it can be your “most successful or your most risky marketing strategy,” says Lukas Bradley, president of Th.ru.st Interactive who sat on a SEIGE adverigaming panel. Th.ru.st specializes in multiplayer games, virtual worlds, and Rich Internet Applications.

Companies are using games as promotions to attract customers, as content to engage visitors, as viral campaigns to generate buzz and as tools to train employees.

But over and over again the gamers I talked to stressed that games must be compelling first, brand extensions and promotions second. And just because the game is compelling, doesn’t mean it serves to extend the brand. In considering a gaming strategy, you need to ask yourself whether the tone and content of the game fulfill the brand promise or is it a game for a game’s sake.

In the end, the link between gaming and brand building has grown stronger for two reasons. One is technological. Web 2.0 is making it easier and less costly to create and distribute games. The other is cultural. In our entertainment focused society, it is only natural that marketers look to “playing” games to engage customers and extend the brand.

Let me get back to you.

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