Social games pundits have been claiming for years now that as far as Facebook games go, we haven’t seen the Mario of Facebook. In fact, we’re more akin to the early Atari days, and are waiting for the next revolution. That said, one of the obvious claims for the future of Facebook gaming is the idea that branded games are going to take over the world, and while the idea does seem attractive, so far there haven’t been any Top 40 hits that leverage branding towards their success.
Enter Embassy Interactive, a talented development/design house who’ve recently partnered with THQ and the UFC to launch UFC Undisputed Fight Nation, a Facebook game attempting to leverage UFC’s powerful brand and the mechanics of a great Facebook social application. I had a chance to discuss the challenges of developing solid branded content with Gary Kanazawa, President of Embassy Interactive, Ryan Donaldson, Embassy’s co-founder/Chief Product Officer, and Mike Doyle, Executive Producer of Social Games at THQ.
The game kicked off as a “collaborative, creative effort between THQ, UFC and The Embassy Interactive to extend our existing partnership in games through to the broader context of social media,” according to Mike Doyle. This is standard practice for social games development, with a developer like Embassy getting on board and helping THQ and UFC work out what they want out of the game.
Gary and Ryan then explained that the initial process had several creative steps.
We knew we couldn’t recreate the console product on Facebook. We talked about everything from instant fighting a la Mafia Wars to 3D playbacks to comic book style still images depicting the action. We wanted the player to get a sense of training and fighting, building up rivalries, and constantly working towards being the best fighter out there. The combat mechanic in particular went through many iterations on paper, and then several more during production, before settling on what players are enjoying today.
Interestingly, the game itself does not use animated fighters in its gameplay or visuals, but rather takes a collectible-card-game style effect, where players gain ‘moves’ as cards, and are able to stack their deck with those moves in preparation for a fight. When the fight launches, the two fighters attack each other using moves from their deck until a victor is assumed. The appeal here, though, is that the animations and sounds during the fight are pleasant and engaging. There’s also been care taken to make sure fights last the right length, and overall the experience feels deep while not feeling overly complex or long. Ryan Donaldson, Embassy’s Chief Product Officer, explained that “We expected players to skip the fight after trying it a few times, but surprisingly about 85% of players watch the entire fight.”
The game had some strong viral success early on in its run, and during beta, “the game grew to nearly 100K MAU with around 18K DAU” and is now at 206,000 MAU. The UFC is planning to launch some commercials to help support the game in the coming weeks and months, and those should have a strong effect on the numbers. So just how has it been for Embassy to work with big brands like UFC and THQ? Gary explains:
“THQ, UFC and Embassy approach the game as a collaboration, with each bringing unique value add to the table. Embassy brings a deep understanding of Facebook games and what makes a good social mechanic and UFC/THQ bring their deep experience with the UFC brand as it appeals to gamers.”
Gary later mentioned something that we’ve been seeing from this end a lot, as well: branded social games have some major advantages and challenges that unbranded games don’t. When working with a big brand, a game developer doesn’t have the ability to iterate in the same way as a small publisher, because the characters and art assets in their game need to be handled with care, and decisions need to be approved by licensors. That said, branded games have the bonus of having recognizable, quality assets. Embassy had to work with this in mind when creating UFC Undisputed Fight Nation, and overall, it fits into Embassy’s strategy of working with both branded and unbranded content:
Embassy has had success with both branded and unbranded content. Embassy created IP includes Tangram Puzzle Pro for iPhone, which reached the #2 spot in the US app store. As seen with UFC, Embassy has shown an ability to combine strong FB social play with AAA rich graphical look, making it a good fit to build games with top brands. Embassy is also working with other top entertainment brands, which we are not able to share yet.
When talking with Mike (pictured to the right with an awesome prop gun from Dictrict 9) about branded content, he explained that there is a “great opportunity for THQ in the social space and this year has been about making careful, forward looking choices and deepening our knowledge of the medium… We do have additional games in development. Notably, Saints Row: Total Control is now in beta on Facebook. The early success we’re seeing with UFC Undisputed Fight Nation can’t help but make us feel optimistic both about the space and our ability to move within it.” He also went on to explain that “I don’t think one can say in general terms that using brands provides a competitive advantage in the social space or not – it’s a very subjective thing as certain brands lend themselves intuitively to this space more than others.” It’s interesting, and certainly proving that using brands on Facebook has proven more difficult in general than anybody thought a few years ago. We’ll be keeping an eye on Embassy in the future, and recommend you give their game a spin and let us know in the comments your impressions and predictions about branded games.