CrowdMob’s Mafia Location Game Harnesses Facebook Places to Drive Downloads

Even though Facebook likely has around 700 million users now, it actually isn’t often that we hear the social network is a major driver for user acquisition in mobile gaming — at least compared to FreeAppADay or having an inside connection to Apple.

But a veteran team from the social gaming world is trying to disprove this with its first app Mob Empire, a Foursquare-meets-Mafia Wars game. CrowdMob, which was co-founded by LOLapps’ former creative director Damon Grow, Alex Han and Matt Moore, is among a handful of startups that are trying to build location-enabled mobile games that are genuinely social.

The app, which the company has intentionally kept quiet about since its April 1 launch, pits friends and strangers against each other in a quest to gain control of venues in their city. The game has a modest number of users at the moment with just over 17,000 Facebook monthly actives on AppData, but that’s because the company hasn’t really publicized it to date. Grow said the company is focused on getting engagement of existing users up and ensuring the back-end can scale before marketing or promoting the title.

Akin to one of Booyah’s first titles MyTown, players check into different places and can do various criminal “jobs” like jack rides, beat up bums or freeze assets of an enemy. They earn experience points and income from them. The in-game currency can later go toward buying weapons, armor or vehicles like switchblades or black vans. They can battle the “Godfathers” of various places based on their relative experience levels, weapons and armor.

While there have been earlier attempts at location-based social gaming like Booyah’s MyTown and Nightclub City DJ Rivals and Shadow Cities, a role-playing game that just launched in the U.S. this month from Index Ventures-backed Grey Area, Grow says there hasn’t been a game that really nails it quite yet.

“It seemed like a natural fit. It was low-hanging fruit to merge the Mafia Wars concept with Foursquare,” said Grow, who was also behind a Facebook RPG with a similar theme called Yakuza Lords in 2009.

What makes Mob Empire’s Facebook integration different from most other mobile-social games is its use of Places. Whenever users check-in with the app, it shows up as attributed to Mob Empire on and in the social network’s mobile apps, giving the game another viral channel on Facebook. This is familiar to anyone that’s used Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt or Yelp to check-in, but it hasn’t been widely used in mobile gaming to date.

The company’s experimenting with new kinds of social mechanics too, like asking friends to help defend locations in the game against rival Godfathers.

There is, as one might expect from veterans of the social gaming world, aggressive posting on Facebook walls for every check-in and level up. It’s vintage Blake Commagere, the name of a contractor helping out with Mob Empire who was behind those infamous zombie, werewolf and vampire biting games that went viral when the Facebook platform first launched in 2007.

“Every action taken in our game is a viral action,” Grow said. “We use Facebook single sign-on, and automatically publish check-ins and actions to feeds.”

Of course, moving to mobile devices from the Facebook platform is no easy jump. Many of the biggest social gaming companies are nowhere to be seen among the top-grossing games on iOS or Android. Zynga has only recently been able to crack the Top 5 grossing games through a combination of virtual currency sales and acquisitions of successful studios like Newtoy.

Grow said the company had to rethink how players use games on phones and cut the average engagement time to 30 seconds from several minutes. “You have to be able to do a bunch of missions and hit monetization points within 30 seconds,” he said.

He adds that his intention is not necessarily to be a gaming company in the long-run. Mob Empire is the first experiment in what may be a series of apps and the company has raised some funding but isn’t disclosing investors yet.