Playdom Co-Founder’s New Facebook Game Inspires Faith In Flash, Innovation

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By AJ Glasser Comment

Playdom Co-Founder Rick Thompson puts a lot of faith behind original intellectual property in the social games space. So much so that his investment project, Idle Games, spent 18 months and four cloud gaming-related patents crafting a God game for Facebook unlike anything the platform has seen so far. The title, IdleWorship, is due to go live in June.

Inside Social Games met with Thompson and Idle Games CEO Jeff Hyman in the developer’s San Francisco office for an early look at the game. The only exposure IdleWorship had prior to this showing was at stage demo from Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch during an Adobe MAX 2010 keynote last year (see video below). In our demo, Hyman showed us video captured in-game as well as brief selections of gameplay actions from the closed beta version of the game.

At the outset, we marked a similarity between IdleWorship and Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield’s browser-based game, Glitch, which we previewed yesterday. Both games put high value on art and on player-created environments, and even have a similar development history having both been in development for about 18 months before entering closed beta. The key difference here is that IdleWorship is for Facebook while Glitch is not.

Core Gameplay

IdleWorship puts players in the role of an actual god overseeing a society of primitive island people called Mudlings. Through traditional city-building tools, the player can impact the lives of the Mudlings by creating structures, wildlife, landmarks, and even new islands for them. The primary goal of player interaction with the Mudlings is to inspire Belief, which is used as the game’s default virtual currency. Players spend Belief on the city-building component of the game, on premium decoration items, and on “God events” that directly affect the Mudlings — such as lighting strikes or healing.

Players have the option of being a benevolent or a malevolent force in their Mudlings’ lives, but the game does not directly penalize players for morality choices the way good/evil dichotomies in traditional console games sometimes do. If a player neglects interaction with the Mudlings, they become agnostic and eventually atheist, making it harder for the player to order the Mudlings to perform tasks. At the other end of the faith spectrum, a player that interacts with Mudlings frequently and on a large scale (think inflicting a natural disaster) will inspire god-fearing Mudlings with nervous facial tics. No matter how the player interacts, the world is balanced in a way that does not allow higher level players any special gameplay advantages. For example, you can build the best boats to collect the most fish — but your Mudlings will get fat eating the fish and eventually starve when they run out of fish altogether.

Social Features

All of the above is the asynchronous aspect of IdleWorship; but the real sell for the title is the synchronous gameplay among other “God” characters. Players can visit a friend’s island and interact with their Mudlings, either benevolently or malevolently with the previously mentioned God actions. These visits can turn competitive as players can “steal” Belief from each other by converting Mudlings of wavering faith. Alternatively, players can set up shrines of their friends within their own Mudling populations to award their friends free Belief.

Many of these actions are coordinated such that players can actually see another player’s interaction with their Mudlings in real time when they log in instead of just receiving a in-game notification screen. For example, you would log in to the game and actually see a giant hand come down from the sky to flick one of your Mudlings off your island as opposed to only seeing a pop-up window with the words “AJ flicked your Mudling! Would you like to smote one of hers?” There is a window that does keep track of these God interactions and clicking on it will either take you to a friends island or open up a real time chat window with that friend (if they’re online).

By far the most intriguing thing about IdleWorship is its technical advances in network-building and friend-finding. Rather than peopling a friends bar along the bottom of the screen with your actual Facebook friends, the game interface only displays your island at the center of a vast ocean filled with other islands ruled by other “God” players. Some of these players will in fact be your friends, but the game’s friend-finding technology also peoples the landscape with players that engage with IdleWorship in similar ways. In other words, a 45-year-old woman who generally plays a benevolent role in her Mudlings lives will find islands of players within her demographic and her play style around her, as opposed to being introduced to 19-year-old malevolent college players that like dropping Mudlings in volcanoes.

IdleWorship breaks the ice between unacquainted Gods through its social features. For example, a Mudling you flick off your island might land on the island of another player not on your Facebook friends list; that player then has the chance to meet you by thanking you for the additional Mudling or by visiting your island to try to convert your Mudlings away from this mean God that flicks them. The islands of players with whom you interact the most will drift closer to your island over time while players you rarely or never interact with will drift to the edges of the ocean and eventually disappear, thus visually representing your social graph.

Design and Art

Aside from the technical advances made toward friend-finding, IdleWorship also built custom technology to support cloud gaming and persistent environments. The game is an unsharded experience, meaning that all players play in the same world at the same time as opposed to being divided by various servers the way many traditional massively multiplayer games are. This increases the efficacy of the friend-finding mechanic and makes it possible for players to impact multiple other players through a single social interaction (e.g. summoning a sea monster that ravages dozens of islands at once).

The final feature that separates IdleWorship from all other Facebook games live to date is the visual quality of the experience. The art is all handcrafted 2D cel-shaded animation with an incredibly high level of detail that scales effectively when zooming in or out, or toggling full screen mode. Players still view the game from the fixed “God” angle perspective typical of social games, but the details are still visible in tantalizing flashes that prompt the player to replay actions over and over again looking for more visual treats. For example, during the video portion of the demo, we watched two Mudlings go inside a hut to procreate. When the doorway expanded to let the two lovers in, we caught a brief glimpse of what looked like a heart-shaped bed and a disco ball.

Monetization

Monetization, as it turns out, is one place where IdleWorship is similar to other social games on Facebook. The game uses Facebook Credits as its premium currency, which players can spend on Belief, on premium items, and on reducing the amount of cool down time on God powers. Idle Games hopes that players will invest Credits mostly in customizing their Moai, the idols that represent the player’s God status on their islands. This seems like a reasonable assertion as some of the Moai are very desirable; one of the ones we saw was an arcade cabinet idol that actually displayed an animation of a Donkey Kong-style game cast entirely with Mudling characters. IdleWorship plans to use both Frictionless Credits and Buy With Friends as part of its monetization system. The developer is also considering releasing the title on mobile and other social networks outside the United States.

IdleWorship is a significant title for Facebook, pushing the boundaries of what developers think is technically possible with Flash and pushing our conceptions of what goes into a social game’s development. Should the game be successful, it will mark a shift in social games away from the quick copy model Thompson isn’t fond of to the creative-driven studio model that gave rise to modern Hollywood that he envisions the social games ecosystem becoming.