Building Social MMOs for Facebook: Q&A with Max Skibinsky, CEO of Hive7

hive7logoWhether you’re a knight of the feudal era, gangster in a mob, or a zen-like gardener, Hive7 has brought to the Facebook platform quite the variety of games for you. Each of these social MMOs, as they describe them, has engaged millions of users and demonstrated the game developer’s agility within social game genres.

Nevertheless, and despite early successes, Palo Alto based Hive7 is just getting started. As the industry evolves, so are they. What is next for Hive7?  We sat down with CEO Max Skibinsky to learn more about the company’s vision and how it sees the social gaming market over the coming years.

[Inside Social Games] Thanks for your time Max. Before we get started, I wanted to talk a bit about the company perspectives as a whole. For starters, what is social gaming to you? What is your standpoint on this booming industry?

[Max Skibinsky] What’s happening is long-awaited creative rebirth the of gaming industry. Until recently the little secret of traditional game development was that it’s a boring place to work despite all external glamor. Typical teams would be around 100 people working for 2-3 years on a big project with a massive budget. Given the money involved it was all about avoiding risk. No new ideas, no risky design, no experimentation. Just redoing last year’s hit with new skins and better assets. While there was lots of frustration about big publisher domination and copycat sequels, there simply wasn’t any viable alternative.

Social gaming just blown the doors wide open on that stagnant status quo. Instead of spending years doing same thing on legacy team before ever seeing your first player, now a small team can put games right in front of millions players after just a few months. Social gaming models decreased the costs so much its not prohibitive anymore to experiment and try new ideas. Which is what all game developers wanted to do for years, but were unable to due to the economics of the legacy model.

Social gaming changed, all at once, many traditional rules of game development. It spawned an entirely new industry with its own rules overnight. A much healthier and pleasant one too, in my opinion.

[ISG] So how does this influence the design and production process over at Hive7? What is a typical development cycle for you guys?

[MS] We are closer to a web 2.0 startup then to legacy gaming company. We are trying to keep our cycles fast; 3-4 months is typical for a new game. The first rule is to avoid overdesigning the game, trying to keep it as simple as we can and put it in front of players sooner. The day you launch the game for live players is the day game development really begins. Everything prior is just a warm up. Start simple, listen to players and evolve games further based on that feedback.

knighthood[ISG] Currently, you have a handful of titles for social platforms, especially Facebook. Of all of them, Knighthood is easily the most popular. Why do you think that is?

[MS] Let me start with a brief description of Knighthood for these who still haven’t played it.

Knighthood is social war game. Every player is a medieval lord who maintains a feudal pyramid beneath him. The lord uses his vassals to build up his kingdom, protect it, and invade other kingdoms. The top prize for every lord is capturing other lords’ vassals, which make him more powerful. However, these vassals are players just like yourself. They can rebel from your rule, and you can try to bribe them with gold, advice, or even bikini photos in some extreme cases! Social skills are very important, and diplomacy plays an equal role to war gaming.

The key in any game is to find that magic combination “easy to learn, hard to master.” I think we managed that in Knighthood very well. The core mechanic of the game is nothing more complex then moving vassal tokens between various areas. The combination of diverse tasks, such as building, defending, attacking, doing diplomatic deals and all related forum activity created a very fun and non-repetitious experience for the players. Our “world,” in the MMO sense, is not populated by NPCs, its populated by million of other players who obviously will react on any of your actions. This inherited unpredictably is what makes everyday gameplay so much fun.

[ISG] Knighthood has certainly been a success for Hive7. So how do you monetize it? What sort of business model is behind your games? Knighthood, or otherwise.

[MS] We using virtual economy in all our games. In Knighthood, that is the sale of in-game gold, various services, and NPCs with special powers. It works extremely well.

[ISG] What trends are you seeing in terms of monetization of social games in general?

[MS] I hope when Facebook and/or MySpace launches their monetization platform, it will be another watershed event for the industry. Right now, all monetization is done via custom in house solutions or 3rd party providers. When a payment system gets integrated with platform itself, it may double or triple the number of users we monetize in each game and therefore revenues of whole industry.

[ISG] Let’s talk about future titles for a moment. In a recent interview you mentioned an upcoming game about zombies. I’m sure you realize you can’t go throwing concepts like zombies around and not shed a little more light on the matter.

[MS] Indeed, with each zombie comes high responsibilities! First, lets calm down the population: There will be no flood of zombie bites this time. In our zombie game it will be all about the fun of creating defensive bases and sending waves of attackers against opponents on the social network.

As it typically happens, humanity suffered catastrophic civilization shattering event – cue in “Maybe” music. You and handful of other survivors managed to scrape a living since you were lucky enough to be in underground base at the moment of the catastrophe. The fact you happen to be Mad Scientist, Evil Cultist, Zombie Lord, or Military General explains why you had that base in first place.

Alas, the wasteland is cruel place. What you have, other survivors want, and they will send wave of zombies at your base to steal it. You job will be to build and fortify your base, put your own zombie defenders, while trying to send your own “resource redistribution” zombie squad to your friendly neighbors. Except lots of decapitation and dismemberment via various scientific, military (or even outright cultist!) implements on this trade. And of course, when two zombie armies meet in underground base things don’t go well.

Humanity Apocalypse is currently scheduled for early August.

kickoff[ISG] Another new game from you guys is a sports based title. What can you tell us about one of your latest releases?

[MS] Kickoff is an MMO built around soccer. The player becomes star player (Forward, Middlefield, Defense or Goalkeeper) as well as manager of his own team of players. Teams can play friendly matches against each other or participate in high stakes tournaments. When two teams meet, we run a full virtual simulation of the match with ball actually going from player to player for the whole match! There is sophisticated skill system, which determines how successful each field player action is during the match. Pretty often that means fighting another player for the ball, and if a player’s aggressiveness overtakes his real skills he will get a red card!

Besides managing his own team, a player can help friends who invited him as field player. As he gets experience as player, he gets skill points to distribute, which let him specialize in offense or defensive areas. Finally, as player specialties become valuable, just like in real soccer, there will be a market for top level players, charging fees for their participation in your team. They in turn can use they personal fees to spend on acquiring better players for own teams.

[ISG] Just to play devil’s advocate for a minute, you define both of the previous games as MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games. How does Hive7 define the concepts of MMO and social, and do you think that you can have one without the other?

[MS] Let simply take MMO at it literal abbreviation. “Massive:” The game should somehow involve a lot, certainly thousands, of players. “Multiplayer” implies interactivity: All these players should have an option, as part of core gameplay, to interact with each other. Thousands of players playing and interacting as part of play will be an MMO. Singe player flash game downloaded by 1M players at same time is not.

Social can add certain power to the “massive” part of the MMO engine, yet they are largely independent. The key is interactivity, and that is big factor in design. You can have massively popular single player games on social network, just like you can use same community to fuel a full MMO.

[ISG] How do you balance the solo, group-based, and social elements of game play in your MMOs? In fact, are there any concepts, in general, that you try to emulate or translate from the “hardcore” MMO titles?

knighthood2[MS] There is certainly no direct 1:1 translation. The similarity is only at very high level, in overall concepts of player behavior and rewards. Details become platform specific and tricky very fast with implementation on specific project.

By the way, some of hardcore MMOs decisions are just “dumb legacy,” which made sense back then for very narrow reasons. We certainly are not going to encumber ourselves with this kind of baggage. As an example: Forcing players to painfully schedule and organize for 4 hours just to have 30 min of actual fun is certainly not something I would put in our MMOs.

[ISG] Obviously, all of this reflects a larger shift in the industry. In the past few years there’s been a deluge of new online games: Countless MMOs, web games, social RPGs, and dozens of genres more. How do you see this shift playing out in the end? And what does this mean for Hive7?

[MS] Social games attract much bigger audiences then traditional gaming. We see lot of people coming to our games. People who never considered themselves gamers before. The web delivery is so ubiquitous that every person on the planet knows how to interact with a website. All these people start to play web games as natural extension of their regular online activities.

Now lets take a look at traditional gaming. You need to have expensive special device and buy games in a store. The cycle of going to the store, picking box, unpack, dealing with all installation issues, then finally (maybe) playing the game creates huge entry barrier. And that’s putting aside all the 3D graphics cards and “find drivers” fun on PC gaming side. Despite all these barriers, that industry is producing close to a thousand games every year.

If we look at social gaming landscape, in contrast to that number – how many good games we seen so far? That would be around 50-100 games top across all of them. I think we have a marketplace five, if not ten, times bigger then legacy gaming and currently with a, ten times, smaller supply. We are seeing visible part of that shortage (explosion of new innovative web games) without realizing how much appetite exist in first place for this type of entertainment.

That explosion of “countless MMOs” demonstrates its an explosion in largely vacuum. Its still a virgin market.

zengarden[ISG] Let’s change topics. Last month, we took a look at a recent game, Zen Garden, in which you partnered with both Socialsoft and Susan G. Komen for the Cure in order to fight breast cancer. What is the nature of your relationship with Socialsoft and Komen? Also, why did you decide to use a virtual space creation game like Zen Garden for this endeavor?

[MS] One of the exciting things about social gaming is that we are constantly surprised by new ideas and designs showing up in the space. For example Causes and Little Green Patch introduced that amazing concept that players may not only have fun while playing the game, but they can benefit society as well while doing so. That was our inspiration in Zen Garden. Besides having a bit of tranquility and calm while designing your own virtual garden, players will help fund research to fight breast cancer. We are very proud to have Komen foundation support on this project.

[ISG] Are there any other charities that you might be considering for future games?

[MS] That is wide open for consideration in future games. For the record, one team member did suggest looking up organ donor charity for zombie army game…

[ISG] When we first reviewed Zen Garden, it was already doing pretty good after a very short period of time. However, Knighthood is your backbone, so how do other Hive7 games compare? Also, what sort of monthly traffic are you seeing come from them? Monthly uniques, new users, number of plays, etc.

[MS] Knighthood is our breadwinner at the moment, with bulk of our traffic and revenue coming from that title. Our other games are smaller then the Knighthood juggernaut, yet obviously Knighthood benefits from almost 2 years of uninterrupted growth with over 6M installs. That trend is changing with all the new titles we recently launched and climbing both in numbers and revenue generation. Just going to have to wait and see which one will be the first to beat Knighthood.

[ISG] Thanks for your time Max. But before we go, are there any final thoughts you would like to share?

[MS] As everything else, the gaming industry goes through its own boom and bust cycles. Starting from first Atari cartridges, we went into computer games, 3D gaming and most recently MMOs. Social gaming is certainly is its own distinct epoch on that timescale. It’s very exciting to watch industry unfolding in front of our eyes from the front seat. And when it inevitably goes bust sometime in the distant future, that’s ok too. After all, it’s just a game.