Casual Games Maker WorldWinner Falls into Facebook’s Orbit

When I visited WorldWinner back in March 2008, executives at the Newton, MA-based game developer were excited about the company’s ongoing integration with the Game Show Network (GSN) and by its success attracting huge numbers of people—some 26 million each year—to its tournament-based online casual games. But chief technology officer Michael Enright, answering a question about life for game developers in the Boston area, closed on an ominous note. “One of the things about the gaming industry here is that it can be a struggle to find companies that have good business models and long-term jobs,” Enright said. “The models are always evolving, which makes it really challenging for people who want to make this a profession.”

How right Enright was. Just two years later, WorldWinner has changed owners (its former parent company, Liberty Media, sold its share of GSN to Sony Pictures and DirecTV last May) and significantly altered its business strategy. It still offers arcade games, card games, and word games where players compete for cash in fee-based online tournaments. But that’s not where the real audience growth is these days. Today, casual gamers by the tens of millions are flocking to two places: Facebook and mobile devices.

“Like every other part of the digital world, the game industry has been turned upside down in the last nine to 12 months,” says Peter Blacklow, president of WorldWinner and executive vice president of GSN Digital, of which WorldWinner is a part. “If you are not figuring out how to leverage these platforms where the distribution cost is zero, you will be out of business. That is a huge difference for us. Instead of thinking about how to drive consumers to our destination site, we have to think about putting our tournament competition business where the consumer is going, which means inside a Facebook app or inside a game on your cell phone.”

Dumbville Splash ScreenOn April 1, GSN Digital launched its first major social game on Facebook, called Dumbville. It’s a timed trivia game where players compete against their Facebook friends to see who’s smarter (or dumber, as the case may be), earning points called “oodles” that can be redeemed for cash and prizes. The interesting twist is that players win oodles not only when they answer questions correctly, but when their friends get answers wrong. When I checked yesterday, the game already had 42,000 players—which sounds like a lot, but it’s only scratching the surface of the overall Facebook population, which is somewhere north of 400 million.

Blacklow says opening Dumbville was smart strategy for WorldWinner in several ways. First, it drives players to sign up for accounts on the GSN and WorldWinner destination sites, which is the only place they can redeem oodles, and where the company earns revenue through a combination of premium advertising and tournament fees. The game is also a proving ground for the developers on the company’s “GSN Labs” team, who will launch two more big Facebook games this summer, based on famous game-show titles that Blacklow says he can’t yet name publicly.

Finally, WorldWinner and GSN hope to sell their technology for setting up cash competitions to other casual game publishers active inside Facebook, such as … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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