The Rising Wave of Gamification

Gabe Zichermann may have coined the term “funware” to describe applications with game-like mechanics and game-like behavior that really aren’t traditional video games, but his neologism just may be expanding to encompass much more than initially intended — the extraordinary paroxysm of technological advances currently convulsing the gaming industry.

Zichermann, the head of GamificationCo, chair of the Gamification Summit and Workshops and co-author of the book Game-Based Marketing, might have to share a concept that seems to have outgrown its original meaning.

Funware has been associated with the “gamification” of traditional business marketing. Gamification involves implementing promotions that incorporate game mechanics (the choices and challenges inherent in games) and game dynamics (use of positive feedback like points, badges, status, progression, customization, surprises, social factors, etc.) to build up consumer/player motivation and increase both brand loyalty and engagement along with customer retention and monetization.

For example, “Badgeville” and “OneTrueFan” offer services to help publishers add badges, “virtual currency” and other game mechanics features to existing websites and Web services to encourage engagement.

Foursquare, a “check-in” app, is a social media company with a business model that is essentially built as a game designed to help drive consumers (Foursquare users) to merchants (Foursquare business partners). A location-based social networking website designed as a way to reward consumer loyalty, Foursquare is based on software for mobile systems and is available to users with GPS-enabled devices like smartphones. Users become players, earning badges and points for frequenting both new and previously visited merchants, locating/following friends, and broadcasting their own check-in locations. In this way, Foursquare can be considered a social media alternative to mainstream advertising.

More Platforms, More Problems

But funware/gameware can also be considered a class of hardware and software — the manufactured computerized devices and coded programs — that make the US$61 billion global gaming industry a reality.

“One of the largest challenges in the games industry is the pace at which technology evolves and new platforms arise,” said James North-Hearn, CEO of Foundation 9 Entertainment, a game developer based in Irvine, Calif.

“We’re seeing a lot of that now with the emergence of tablets, the dominance of mobile and the proliferation of digital distribution solutions,” North-Hearn told TechNewsWorld. “During periods of transition, established platforms still require support. This means that a publisher or developer developing a new game could be building for several different platforms at once, all of which require resources including talent, technical skills and technology”.

Because the industry is subject to flux — specifically when it comes to the advent of new platforms, noted North-Hearn — it can prove a challenge to plan and scale a company so that development teams are busy.

“Meaning no teams sitting idly, waiting for projects,” he said. “You want everybody working.”

The challenge currently facing the game development industry is “ubiquity,” according to David Perry, CEO of Orange County, Calif.-based Gaikai, a cloud gaming service based on the idea of playing games remotely on a central server, with the video footage fed to the home PC.

“People only carry multi-function devices now and they expect them to play games,” Perry told TechNewsWorld. “They expect them to play GREAT games!”

Greatness in this case begins with microprocessors and programming languages.

GPUs and C++

Central to all gaming are graphics processing units (GPUs), specialized circuits designed to rapidly manipulate and alter memory in such a way so as to accelerate the building of images in a frame buffer intended for output to a display. Typically used in high-end gaming, GPUs deliver an order of magnitude difference in computational power compared with the central processing units (CPUs) found in desktop computers.

C++ is the most popular video game programming language as well as the industry standard because it is object-oriented and compiles to binary (the native language of the target platform). Java and C are also popular (though inappropriate for some projects). Assembly language is necessary for some video game console programming and in some routines that need to be as fast as possible. C# is popular for developing game development tools. Developers new to programming often start off with Python, a dynamic programming language that lets programmers quickly write the code they need. Thanks to a highly optimized byte compiler and support libraries, Python code runs more than fast enough for most applications.

Techno-Topia, the Hardware Way

Game-oriented hardware has now thoroughly blended into our social milieu as more and more digital activities become gamified.

Hoary Windows PCs and Macs and the familiar game consoles — Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation, Nintendo Wii– are being challenged (and often replaced) by mobile tablets (e.g., Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, RIM PlayBook, HP/Palm TouchPad) and smartphones. With gaming-optimized dual-core chips, high-resolution displays and built-in gyroscopes, top-level Android phones and tablets are perfect for playing games — and developers are responding. Mobile game development has meant new games with better animation and gameplay, less boring 2D pixelated art and more 3D and MMO.

The world of 3D video games, dating back to the ’80s, has re-emerged in strength with the Nintendo 3DS portable game console (at $250, priced kind of high for a portable game machine). A glasses-free 3D handheld game player, the 3DS uses technology from Sharp that relies on a “parallax barrier” — ultrathin vertical slits down the display screen that mask some pixels from one eye and different pixels from the other. The 3D technique works only in a limited range of viewing angles and distances from the screen, which is why the technology is being rolled out in a handheld device.

Motion controllers featuring accelerometers (instruments typically used for measuring acceleration in aircraft or guided missiles) are now in regular use as gaming controllers. Nintendo’s Wii, introduced in 2006, was the first wireless motion-capture gaming console — sensors allow players to dictate the movements of their onscreen avatars. Wiimote, PlayStation Move, Xbox Kinect, HP Swing and Asus Eee Stick are a few motion controllers available on the market. The Sixense TrueMotion uses a magnetic field for determining absolute position and orientation.

PC gamers get their futuristic toys, too.

OCZ Technology Group, of Sunnyvale, Calif., offers the Nia (neural impulse actuator), the first commercially available BCI (brain-computer interface) specifically designed to provide an immersive experience for PC gamers. The Nia PC Game Controller with headband and amplifier frees the player’s hands from commonly used game controls to experience realistic game immersion. The Nia translates facial expressions, eye movements and concentrated brainwave activity into PC game keyboard and mouse controls. It can be used with any PC game — shooter, role play, virtual worlds, racing and many more.

Software to the Touch

Applications and games for PCs are typically developed and distributed independently from hardware or OS manufacturers, whereas software for many mobile phones and other portable systems is approved and distributed through a centralized online store.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android continue to rule the smartphone platforms world. Android (a software stack for mobile devices that includes an operating system, middleware and key applications) is the world’s best-selling smartphone platform. Unlike iOS, which is only available on Apple’s iPhone, Android can be found on numerous phones like the HTC Evo Shift, Motorola Atrix 4G, Samsung Galaxy S 4G, T-Mobile G2, and many more.

As of December 2010, according to IDC Worldwide, there were about 200,000 games, applications and widgets available on the Android market, with an estimated 2.5 billion total downloads.

Haptics refers to the sense of touch, and haptic technology is a tactile feedback technology that takes advantage of a user’s sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations and/or motions to the user’s fingertips.

San Jose-based Immersion Corp. develops and licenses haptics touch feedback technology. The company’s TouchSense system provides haptics in mobile phone and gaming (plus automotive, medical and consumer electronics) products. Immersion has formed a studio called Haptify, Inc., to develop a number of immersive and entertaining haptic-enabled apps and games for the Android OS, in addition to offering publisher services to developers interested in technical and marketing support for haptic-enabled games.

Casual in a Flash

The North American market for casual games, typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of a heavy time commitment to play, is expected to grow to $1.15 billion by the end of 2011, according to DFC.

Adobe Flash spawned the online casual gaming industry. Without it, game studios would have found it almost impossible to provide the slick animations, vector graphics and lightning-fast interactivity that online gamers demand. Many games are done in Adobe Flash with Actionscript, an object-oriented language with functionality allowing for the creation of Web-based games and rich Internet applications with streaming media (video and audio).

Alternatives to Flash include HTML5, Microsoft Silverlight and Java applets.

HTML5 is the latest version of HTML and XHTML, and HTML5 games are becoming increasingly popular. Casual Girl Gamer, a blog dedicated to touting the best casual games that can be played online for free, highlights numerous crowd-pleasing titles.

Then there’s the modern Web platform (namely, fast Javascript and canvas), which many game developers are betting big that it will be a productive source of monetization. The advantages that Web gaming offers are huge: no installation required and ubiquitous cross-platform compatibility.

Cloud Games

Cloud gaming, the traditional gaming industry’s version of Web gaming, involves delivering hosted games over the Internet. Gametime is sold on demand, typically by the minute or the hour.

The three companies currently dominating the space are Gaikai, OnLive and OTOY. Gaikai’s proprietary technology runs, in part, by using previously installed plug-ins such as Flash, Java or Silverlight. Gaikai advertises games via a webpage as demos. At the end of the demo, the customer will be given the option to purchase the game or product from a local retailer, online store, direct-to-drive download, or continue streaming the product. If users wish to continue streaming after the free trial, the company will allow them to continue on a pay-as-you-go basis.

OnLive is a gaming-on-demand entertainment service available to users in the 48 contiguous United States (and soon worldwide). OTOY is also a cloud computing gaming-on-demand platform.

Facebook Dominates Web Gaming

The behemoth of Web gameplay is, of course, Facebook — far and away the leading Web gaming platform.

Facebook Platform offers enough access to the social network’s API that third-party developers could potentially create apps that would rival Facebook’s own offerings. Facebook’s engineering team has released and maintains open source SDKs for Android, C#, iPhone, JavaScript, PHP and Python. In May 2010, Facebook reported more than 1 million developers and entrepreneurs from more than 180 countries and more than 550,000 active applications currently on Facebook Platform.

Facebook has become the largest online gaming website on the Internet because, of the 500 million users registered with the service, nearly three-quarters of them play at least one game on a regular basis. Moreover, a majority of the applications on Facebook are games, both small and big.

Social gaming networks like Zynga and Playfish dominate the Facebook platform in terms of engagement by a wide margin. According to an App Data report released April 4, 2011, Zynga leads the social gaming market with more than 269 million monthly active users across its 55 apps, most of which are gaming properties. Gaming publisher Electronic Arts, with a market capitalization of $6.3 billion, is far behind with 36.4 million monthly active users across its 39 gaming apps. Self-funded CrowdStar follows with its 32.3 million monthly active users across 20 gaming properties.

While only 12 percent of Facebook’s user base currently plays Zynga’s games, there are hundreds of millions of additional potential players for Zynga on Facebook alone. And with development costs for a social media hit game estimated at a fraction of the cost of a successful traditional online game, the numbers for a social media game look very attractive to a game company deciding whether to make their next game a social media game or go the traditional route.

Branded Social Games

All of these eyeballs are attracting strong interest from brand marketers. In Game-Based Marketing, Gabe Zichermann notes that brands have lost the ability to tell consumers what their preference is — instead, consumers defining that preference for themselves are now relying on the opinions and calls to actions of their peers. They are engaging via social games played on Facebook, which presents a challenge for game developers and social media marketers alike.

Prospects look good, though, according to John Wantz, creative director and interactive gaming strategist for big brands at Digital Eye Media in Lake Forest, Calif. Wantz noted that per-game development cost and the associated expertise and infrastructure to develop social gaming apps has decreased dramatically over the last three or four years. Leveraging in-browser programming languages such as C, C++, C#, Java and even Flash has opened the talent pool up for interactive agencies, freelancers and a few brands — “to jump into the social gaming environment without breaking the bank,” he said.

“The need for a game or experience to be platform-independent is a must today,” Wantz told TechNewsWorld. “Brands need to align themselves with true partners in gaming/social media and campaign planning.”

Five years ago, few distribution channels for branded social games existed. In order to house games, an associated microsite was necessary and a branded social profile was necessary.

“With application housing environments like Facebook, MySpace, hi5 and others, the lifecycle of branded social games can now live past a seasonal campaign, media buy or even the life of the product or brand being backed,” Wantz said.

It comes down to ROI.

Social + Gaming = “Qualified Brand Engagement” with online users.

“The quantitative metrics and compounding mined data on user demographics, sentiment, qualified engagement, and potential advocacy for a brand are core to the benchmarking of a campaign’s ROI,” he declared.

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