Play140 Looks Into the Future of Social Gaming, Sees the Past (Text-Based Games)

The grand ballroom of the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge, MA, was jam-packed last night and had a collective energy that I haven’t felt in a long time. Hundreds of people were on hand for the Web Innovators Group meeting, organized by venture capitalist David Beisel (formerly of Venrock, now with NextView Ventures).

I had to miss most of the presentations from TurningArt (Jason Gracilieri) and AisleBuyer (Andrew Paradise)—both very interesting startups—but I did catch the talk from Shawn Broderick and his new social gaming startup, Cambridge-based Play140. (Broderick also leads TechStars Boston.)

Here’s the idea behind Play140, from what I gather. Social games—video games that people play with their friends on social-network sites like Facebook—are all the rage, what with FarmVille, Pet Society, Bejeweled Blitz, and the like gaining in popularity. But these kinds of games “require a certain level of hardware and commitment,” Broderick said. Namely, an Internet-connected laptop or smartphone, and some time to kill. Play140, by contrast, is about simple, text-based games that can be played via SMS texting, instant messaging, or Twitter.

“Text is sexy, super creative, and a powerful way to have fun,” Broderick told the crowd.

He then unveiled Play140’s new game, called TAG (The Acronym Game), and had the audience play it right then and there via Twitter. The audience was given a category (“elevator pitch”) and an acronym (“LTEP”), and players had two minutes to come up with a witty phrase that the acronym could stand for. Some of my favorites from the crowd, which were projected on the big screen in real-time: Long Talker, Everybody’s Pissed; Little Toe Extender Pads; Let This End Please; and Like Twitter Except Popular. Then everybody voted for their favorite—the winner was the “Twitter” one.

Maybe you had to be there to see why this could be a big deal. It struck me as a pretty disruptive approach to social gaming—coming in with a cheap, easy, non-fancy set of games that can be played on traditional cellphones, say, but still actively engage the imagination of consumers. If Play140 gains traction (always the issue with games), it can then move up-market and add graphics and other bells and whistles. Meantime, it’s an inexpensive and revealing experiment—and a glimpse into the possible future of social games.

Broderick said the startup is actively working on more than a dozen text-based games, and plans to make money through subscription models and licensing deals. After the demo, his Play140 partner, Andrea Shubert, said the company is exploring a massively multiplayer online game to be played over Twitter. This might sound surprising, but Shubert says most commands and actions (even in a game that looks as complex as World of Warcraft, say) are simple enough to convey in short-form text.

Play140 previously talked to Mass High Tech about its approach and its first game, a multiple-choice quiz game called MatchUp. According to that report, Shubert and Broderick worked together in the mid-to-late ‘90s on a gaming startup called Genetic Anomalies, which was sold to THQ for about $8 million in stock in 1999.

Shubert, who previously helped conceive the online multiplayer word game Acrophobia back in 1995, pointed out that social games used to be all about text. So it sounds like Play140 has a bit of “everything old is new again” going for it. We’ll be watching to see how things play out, so to speak.

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