Sunday, January 20, 2008

Zynga Raises $10M From Usual Suspects For Gaming SocNet

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zynga.png has been an also ran in the social networking space, but its founder Marc Pincus has street cred for being among those who got it early on. was sold to Cisco, moreover, Pincus was an early investor in Facebook.

Pincus has moved on to launch Zynga Game Network, which has just raised $10M. Fred Wilson's Union Square Ventures led the round along with LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, VC Brad Feld, Bob Pitman, Andy Thiel, and Avalon Ventures.

Zynga has launched a number of games on MySpace and Facebook and as you might expect they found good uptake - Zynga's poker app claims 5.5M users. This is not hugely impressive given that other simple Facebook game apps like Pirates vs. Ninjas also found huge audiences. But Zynga has ramped up quickly with a headcount of 27 so its well positioned to capitalize on this growth.

Zynga got some early love in the press when the New York Times wrote them up.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Top execs leave Tomb Raider games firm, SCi Entertainment

UK computer games firm, SCi Entertainment, has lost its CEO along with two managing directors a week after takeover talks for the company collapsed. CEO and company founder Jane Cavanagh stepped down, as did Cavanagh's husband and MD of publishing, Bill Ennis, and the MD of studios, Rob Murphy. The departures reportedly follow shareholder and board pressure after the firm, which has been struggling financially, announced last week it had failed to secure a buyer. The departures also follow news that release of the firm's new Tomb Raider title has been delayed by six months.

The departures heralded an almost 50% up-turn for the company's share price, which had reportedly dropped 90% since Aug 2007. According to a report in the Guardian, the company has also been looking, in the last few days, at "various opportunities" to increase its revenue streams. Replacing Cavanagh as CEO is current CFO, Phil Rogers, who joined SCi in Mar from rival games firm Electronic Arts.

SCi Entertainment Group was formed in May 2005 when two of the UK's largest video games publishers, SCi Games and Eidos Interactive, merged. Cavanagh had founded Sci games in 1988. The firm is most famous for its 'Tomb Raider' line of computer games, which were also made into two spin-off Hollywood films, starring Angelina Jolie. The firm has, however, been struggling of late at a generally strong time for the games industry. It was announced this week that the computer games industry grew 47% in the US during 2007.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nintendo Power Brings First Sonic RPG Details

It was August of 2007 when some very strange news broke: a new role-playing game was in development for the Nintendo DS, and it would star none other than SEGA's long-legged mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. What's more, it was being made by Canadian developer (and more recently, EA subsidiary) BioWare, makers of Mass Effect, Jade Empire, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Other than this, nothing was really known. And, in spite of the high praise received for their prior works, fans and gamers have remained largely skeptical, as the general consensus is that Sonic... well, simply put, his games aren't what they used to be.

Speculation began, as people wondered about everything from the gameplay (would it be action-RPG? Like Paper Mario? Something else?) to the story (based on the comic? The other games? The cartoons? All-new?), and even if Sonic would be crowded out by his ever-expanding list of costars. But over the past several months, BioWare's lips remained sealed, with not so much as even a title for the project.

Until now.

Nintendo Power, via the NeoGAF forums, has finally released a nice chunk of information about the title, now known as Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, which appears in their latest issue.

According to the NeoGAF post, the images seem to imply a more hand-drawn, water-color style, along with remixed classic tunes and "fully animated cut scenes" (their quotes).

In terms of gameplay, the control is said to be performed completely by the touch screen, not unlike Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, including Elite Beat Agents-styled special attacks which consume "Fatigue Points," rather than Magic Points.

There will be 11 party members available in total, including all the main heavy hitters: Sonic, Tails, Amy, Knuckles, Rouge, Shadow, and Big the Cat (they don't get much heavier than that), each with their own special abilities, such as Tails' flight. The party will have up to four characters in use at a time, and at certain points, you can even split the group into smaller teams.

As for more basic in-game mechanics, the article reveals that battles will indeed be turn-based, though the commands for all party members will be chosen before they follow through as a part of an attempt to keep the action moving fast, as befits Sonic. Battles won't be random, however, as you will be able to see enemies on the field, much like any of the Mario RPGs. Battles will also feature the option for Team Attacks, such as those featured in Chrono Trigger.

When it comes time to level up, players will be able to choose which attributes they would like to raise. In addition, new special moves can be purchased using rings, the game's currency, and subsequently leveled up as well.

Chapters of this title will feature two acts, the first taking place in more familiar Sonic-styled scenarios, and the following act in a darker world, presumably the home of the Dark Brotherhood. As with most RPGs, there will also be side quests, and speaking to NPCs will feature simple dialogue trees, perhaps mimicking those seen in Mass Effect.

Finally, most any RPG that hopes to be worth something has a story, and this game is no different. As this one unfolds, Sonic is on vacation after defeating Eggman two years ago, when he gets a call from Tails that his friendly (if a bit tempermental) rival Knuckles has been kidnapped by a mysterious new group who call themselves the Marauders. What's more, six of the seven Chaos Macguffins--er, Emeralds, are missing. And for once, Dr. Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik isn't the source of the mischief.

However, that's not to say the bad egg is out of the picture entirely, quite the opposite in fact. BioWare states they want to make ol' Julian a credible bad guy again, which makes sense; ever since they went 3D, most of his plans have gotten out of his control, leading to him working with rival Sonic and his friends to save the world. If he ever had any pride as a villain before, it's got to be curled up in the corner, sobbing by now. But BioWare says something about some sort of "twist" between the Doc and Sonic that goes back to the earlier games, though no other details are offered.

Other notes mentioned from the article are that they "want everyone to love Big the Cat," which is no doubt going to cause some degree of wincing among those reading this. Nintendo Power also asked about any possible Wii development, after which BioWare broke out the brooms and chased NP off the property. Or not. In either case, it doesn't sound like they're ready to test the waters of motion control just yet.

If you want more visual representation, be sure to grab the next issue of Nintendo Power and support this sort of thing. Or if you're a cheap tightwad (or maybe just impatient), you can sneak a peek here.

Disney Offers Pirates-Based MMO to Casual Gamers

Disney is demonstrating its new Pirates of the Caribbean Online game, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMO) aimed at casual gamers, for Mac and PC at CES. The game is built within the world of the popular film franchise of the same name, and utilizes the same engine powering ToonTown, Disney's online world for children.

In Pirates, players not surprisingly take on the role of a pirate, and interact with the characters from the movie. Your goal as a player is to advance in level, increase your weapon skills, and rise in notoriety. You increase your skills with hand-to-hand combat (think sabres), learning and using Voodoo, and performing quests. The game also utilizes pirate ships, which can be crewed by your friends, and hunt down other player-controlled ships and corrupt Navy ships.

The game environment currently encompasses much of the Caribbean Sea, with real-world islands that have been made around the movies' themes. Players can interact with NPCs, get quests, form in-game guilds, gamble by playing poker and blackjack with in-game money, and it's even possible to cheat -- and to get caught cheating (beware having your Ace of Hearts be the second one in play).

While much of this sounds like any other MMO, Disney wanted to make sure Pirates was as accessible as possible. To do this, they took some of the simulation-like elements found in hard(er)-core MMOs out of the game. For instance, when you die, you get taken to prison, where you can simply kick your way out (as in the movie). No having to get your body back, and you can just get your sunken ship repaired, even though it was sunk by your opponent.

In addition, characters are not tied to specific servers, and can hop back and forth from server to server to run with friends as needed. The game also allows players to instantly travel to each other once they have learned how to teleport via a Voodoo quest, taking out any tedium associated with long travel-times in-game.

We asked the developers on-hand at CES demonstrating the game why the emphasis on casual gamers, and they pragmatically said, "Because we're Disney." In addition, with the broad appeal of the movie franchise, the company felt that a casual environment would better match the movies' fan base.

Disney has also lowered the barrier to entry with the game by making it downloadable-only. There is no retail box to buy, and thus zero up-front cost to try the game, and users can play the game as long as they want for free. Rather than limiting the trial account by time, you simply can't progress past a certain point without a subscription.

Speaking of subscriptions, Disney is also making Pirates a bit less expensive than other MMOs like World of Warcraft. The first month is US$4.95, and subsequent months are priced at $9.95. The company is also selling subscription cards for those (casual gamers) who might not feel comfortable putting their credit cards online.

The game launched for Mac and Windows in October of 2007, and Disney plans on periodic content expansions that will be included in the subscription cost of the game. The Mac Observer will be reviewing the game in the coming weeks.

WorldWinner Delivers Cash Competitions to

WorldWinner today announced an exclusive deal with iWin, Inc. that calls for WorldWinner to manage the Tournament Games component of WorldWinner is a subsidiary of FUN Technologies Inc. and the leading provider of online game competitions for cash and prizes. iWin is a leading developer and publisher of casual games.

As part of the agreement, WorldWinner has developed a co-branded site, available via hyperlink from the Tournament Games section of iWin's Web site. All of WorldWinner's popular games are available as cash tournaments via the co-branded site, which offers users all of the functionality, look and feel of WorldWinner's innovative site experience. iWin players can now compete against millions of players comprising the WorldWinner network, including those from WorldWinner's partner sites, AOL Games, MSN Games, and

"Partnering with iWin is yet another step in our strategy of identifying and partnering with the world's most popular games and lifestyle sites to substantially increase our reach," said Peter Blacklow, president of WorldWinner. "Providing WorldWinner cash competitions on iWin will allow hundreds of thousands of iWin players to discover a new way to experience their favorite casual games."

"WorldWinner has a reputation for offering superior tournament games and we're pleased to deliver that experience to iWin players," said CJ Wolf, CEO of iWin. "iWin players can choose from hundreds of popular casual games available for free or download, and now they can test their skill level in dozens of games by competing for cash and prizes."

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