"The idea is your family members are currently playing fashion or Mafia Wars on Facebook, and your cousin is playing WoW (World of Warcraft) at school or after school but there is no where for them to meet in the middle," says Susan Wu, the CEO of game publisher Ohai. "'True gamers' scoff at social games although they're fun and addicting and social gamers scoff at MMO's because they think they're in the world of the geeky or the niche. We're trying to build MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) for everyone."
We grilled Wu for more details on this intriguing game, including if the whole vampire vibe was inspired by Twilight mania ("We can have an entire conversation about feminist mythology and how it relates to vampire myths," she says.) Read our full conversation below to find out a ton of details on City of Eternals and see if you really think this game will appeal to geeks and non-geeks alike. (Plus, find out what game developer Ohai plans to release next!)
Can explain how playing City of Eternals works? I'm on Facebook and then what?
There's two ways to play. You can play embedded on Facebook or on cityofeternals.com. If you play on city of eternals dot com, we use Facebook Connect. So you just log in using your Facebook authentication, there is no download because it is all Flash. There is no character creation because we know your name and gender and friends list. You can customize your avatar after the fact. We want to create frictionless gaming. So typically when you play a game like WOW there is a pretty long wrap-up process -- you either have to go to the store or download offline and it takes hours and hours and hours. Then you have to customize your avatar. Then you have to go through this arduous process of deciding what class you want to be. Then you have to research what the implications of being that class are. Then you finally get into the game after multiple hours if you're lucky. Then you have to figure out how to move around the world. Then you have to figure out the menu system and how it works. In our game, you basically log into your Facebook, you're in game within a minute or two and are put right in the middle of some action.
Is it just Facebook and the official Web site right now, or will there be other ways to access the game?
It's just a Flash client; anywhere where you can interact with flash you can embed our game. You just log in, there are no separate servers. We do a lot on the back end to make it easy for you to find your friends to play with. We automatically place you in the zone in which your friends are, and we do instancing based on areas.
So we archive maybe 50 major areas. So whenever you enter an area, we check to see whether any of your friends are logged into the game and we place you near them in the area. So we don't want you to have to make any difficult decisions about which server to enter because that is a lot of technical complexity that casual users don't really understand.
Are you planning to put this game on iPhone (or any other mobile devices)?
Absolutely. Yeah the two mobile channels we're going to be supporting are iPhone and Twitter-based clients. So the entire medium is built as a Web service. What I mean by that is every single place in the world has its own unique URL identifier. So you can share links with you're friends. For example, if I'm in the middle of a dungeon with some zombies and need help, I can share that URL with a friend and people can join you right there. Without having to start at the beginning of the game. Without having to take a long time to travel to where you are.
The difference is your character is persistent and there is a linear and rich storyline as to what the city of New Valencia is all about. Why there are four competing vampire houses, how you fit into the world, so there is a couple different play styles: you can play it linearly, following the storyline and the story arch or you can play it in on a drop in, drop out basis.
Will the iPhone version of the game work with the Facebook version?
It's already on the same back end. So we're playing agnostic so it will run some parts of the game but not the entirety of the 3d game. But stuff like crafting, harvesting, customization can all be done on the iPhone, combat is going to be a little harder.
What's the story behind City of Eternals?
The game is set in modern day times and it is set in New Valencia on the Pacific Northwest coast. It was originally settled as a vampire colony. It was formed after an economist predicted vampires would overrun human kind if left unchecked. So the vampires now live in a voluntary semi-isolation from the rest of human population. They're somewhat civil in terms with how they feed and who they turn into vampires, this is to prevent the entire population from being turned into vampires who would then run out of humans to harvest. There's a lot of little things in between the houses and how they all interplay and what your role is. But ultimately the point of the game is to become a more powerful vampire and grow your house and lead a number of minions under you.
Do you get the usual choice of MMO roles -- like choosing to play as a fighter or a crafter?
Yeah you can fight, craft, socialize, customize your home, form alliances. You can do combat solo or in groups.
Is there PvP (Player v. Player), where players can battle to the death?
That's a good question. What's good about the platform we've created is we can change the content every day. Just like you would write a blog where basically changing levels they add everyday based on what we're observing about how people are flowing through those areas. So as far as PvP, it's something that if we observe people are demanding, it is something we could add within a couple weeks. I don't know yet.
Obviously you decided not to go with the cliche sword and sorcery theme for this MMO. Why did you pick vampires instead?
In order to make an MMO suitable for the mass audience there were a couple things we wanted to do. The game is very deeply integrated with Facebook so we actually use your real-life name and whenever you mouse over a player you see their thumbnail picture. We obey all of Facebook's privacy settings. If you don't want to show that, you can control it on the Facebook side. We wanted to create as few cognitive barriers as possible so people understand what it's like to be in a shared 3-D space. This is a game behavior change from people coming from an asynchronous 2-D game.
So vampires in a contemporary setting are an easy way for us to get people invested in this world. The vampire myth is a fairly popular myth. This is more marketable to mass audience that elves or orcs. And since every single point in the game is a separate URL, we are packaging up the game into different missions that people can access through Facebook. Similar to how Mafia Wars has a number of different quests in a list, so we also package our missions in a list so that if you want to enter into the zombie graveyard you can do that. Or if you want to enter in into the romance storyline where you can help save a young doomed couple you can do that too.
Is it anything like Zynga's Dragon Wars game on Myspace, where certain missions led you into a more traditional 3-D game experience?
It's somewhat similar, except for the fact that Dragon Wars was not multiplayer. All of the Flash missions in dragon wars were single player and there wasn't a lot of character persistency. So this is very much a world: the world map is huge. Most of our players never see the whole world.
City of Eternals is free to play -- I'm assuming the game will also have virtual goods that players can buy. How important will these goods be to the actual game experience?
Our overall philosophy of our business is creating products that people can really get excited and passionate about. What that means for our business model is that virtual goods are things that people should be excited about paying for or passionate about paying for. So to answer your question, it is things that would make your gaming experience better and more enjoyable but aren't' completely necessary.
I heard City of Eternals will not include direct marketing offers, which has been a heated topic of discussion in the social gaming world lately.
No, but we could do that if it's appropriate for the audience. We only have 12 people, so we can't do everything, and so offers are not on our top priority list. My feeling about offers is that if it makes sense in the overall mix of revenue streams its fine, meaning it has to be well balanced.
The three major revenue streams I see for a game like ours is: direct virtual good monetization, advertising and sponsorships for people who are not opting in for virtual goods, and for people who don't have a lot of cash, who have more time or more man hours to dedicate to certain things. Then I could see how some types offers might fit in.
Gambit is doing some really exciting things with offers. They are combining mechanical work with offers. So for example if you wanted to get a dollars worth of value you could do some mechanical work-type tasks in exchange for a dollars worth of value. I don't see that as super intrusive -- if you wanted to do these tasks or fill out these surveys, you're making a choice to do so and opting in for that process.
What kind of marketing do you have in store? Will this game appeal to the FarmVille farmers?
Yes! There are some FarmVille-style mechanics in our game. Every single person in the game has their own home where you can harvest raw materials from. And when you harvest those raw materials you can use them to create items of value in the game like clothing or weapons or bags or other furniture items. So you can make your own furniture. So there is definitely a Farmville mechanic in terms of visiting your friends' home and seeing who has what, and combining all those components into something that is cool and usable. And maybe we'll also include some cute cows (laughs).
What other games like City of Eternals do you have in the works? Any other big themes you're exploring?
Yeah, the goal is to fit many MMO's into the pipeline all at once. This first game took us nine months to build with only three engineers. Considering your average MMO is 20-30 engineers from 3-5 years. I'm proud of our team. But we'll be able to put many more MMO's into production now that we've gotten the first formula.
So you can just skin new games and then launch them?
Well skinning sort of implies some sort of art replacement. Our version of skinning also allows us to customize game mechanics. Our next game is going to be much more family friendly, less hardcore combat. We're putting it in production this month, so it will probably come out next year in the early spring.
City of Eternals: A Facebook Game You Can Sink Your Teeth Into