Today, Conduit Labs launched the public beta of Loudcrowd
, its online music game-social networking hybrid.
Developed by a staff with a mixed web and game development background, Loudcrowd hopes to blend the social aspects of a music site like Pandora or Last.fm with the gameplay appeal of a Rock Band
-- while leveraging the design concepts behind hardcore MMOs, Conduit Labs' CEO Nabeel Hyatt says.
"I would call it more of a music games channel than I would a single game," says Hyatt. While the Loudcrowd dance game is a "a very quick 30-60 seconds" of gameplay, according to Hyatt, "the DJ game has a competitive leaderboard mode similar to the way you might be competitive in Rock Band
or Guitar Hero
or any Xbox Live game."
Tracks from artists like Cut Copy, Santigold and The Twelves are included, and special items can be unlocked and stored with the player's persistent character. While there is no navigable virtual world in this version of the game, players can network and exchange info, tracks, and playlists. The game will support microtransactions for both music tracks and character items.
Hyatt, who characterizes himself as a "serial entrepreneur" formed Conduit Labs with game designers "mostly" from Harmonix, as well as MMO front and back end engineers and designers, many from Turbine. The Harmonix ex-pats are "focused on trying to make games that fairly universal, the way that you really try and make kind of a Guitar Hero
or Rock Band
appeal to both a hardcore gamer and the casual gamer," says Hyatt.
On the other hand, the MMO vets' skills are leveraged for their expertise in using "game mechanics to encourage community development," he says. "And that's kind of our approach. I don't think most people who would ever play this game would say, 'Oh, this is an MMO I'm playing?' And that's certainly not what we were going for. But I think we've used a lot of those lessons."
Interested to find out more? We present here a full Q&A:
You have people with backgrounds in both the game industry and also on the social web space. Why is the composition of the team important to Loudcrowd?
Nabeel Hyatt: I think the core of our team is a mixture of understanding the fundamentals of game mechanics and how to use that to grow a community and to get people to interact, and then the kind of universality that comes with the social web. So, our backgrounds are from building consumer web start-ups. They're also from building launch titles for the PlayStation 3 like Resistance
. And they're from building somewhat universal games like Guitar Hero
and Rock Band
And I think it is those combinations that are the strength of the company. We have constant discussions about where we should lie in a certain area. "Should we lean more on a consumer community in this service? Should we create more game mechanics around this situation?" I think it actually allows us to draw from more lessons than just say what I would have learned from just building websites or what I would have learned from just building Xbox 360 games.
Do you find these kinds of collaborations offer more give-and-take in terms of shared knowledge? Was it surprising?
NH: Yeah, and differences, too. I think there's a little bit of tension between the way a web company is built, where you build this tiny little nugget, and then you put it out there and try to grow it, and grow it, and grow it.
The opposite, which is the way most games are built, which is you built a whole package over a certain amount of time, and then you try and release it to the public. We definitely had a process that was kind of like that where our vision for what Loudcrowd is as a product is still not complete, and we're going into public beta.
We went into private beta with probably five percent of the features that we thought would really make the full product, but we felt like it was a compelling enough offering that we wanted to get feedback from our consumers early. That's very much along the line with what you do with a web product. That's certainly, for some folks who had come out of the game business, an adaptation.
You talked about people having MMO backgrounds -- what role do those skill sets play when they're translated to a new medium like this?
NH: I think it's really the core of the kind of product we're building. We're first and foremost building a community, but I think you hear people who build music websites, like imeem
say that. And then you hear people who are building World of Warcraft
say that. And yet, they go about that process very, very differently.
Yeah, it's been incredibly enjoyable to have people like Dan O'Brien talking about the lessons they learned from when they were building Asheron's Call
, and the way certain types of game mechanics went awry and messed up the community. We learned from that -- on my side, I learned from that.
The hallmark of an early web community is the amount of freedom they're given to shape their own community. The idea around user-generated content is that the community really is shaping the product in a way that people talk about MMOs, but don't really execute on. And that's a scenario of cross-pollination in both directions.
When you went in beta, you said that about five percent of the features were available. Now that you're on the other side of the beta and about to launch publicly, are you planning additions over time?
NH: Yeah. It's a very large-scale product vision that we have, and this is not a small product by any stance. I think it's not completely unheard of in a game. In game development, people do talk a lot about getting to first prototype as quickly as possible, having something within a couple of weeks in some cases where you can do internal demos so that everyone can find the fun fast.
That said, it's usually only for internal demos, right? I think the big difference with the path that we walked was, "How about if we polished it up a little bit, and we get it to a point where we can actually get direct feedback from users from day one, and start building the product with the community?"
So, I think at this point, it's a really solid product. There are multiple types of interactions that you can have with users. There's a real depth to the amount of music content that we have on the site. Certainly, we're seeing now users logging in twenty, thirty times a month; they're logging in daily.
People in a web context versus a game context seem to have very different expectations. Can you talk about working within those expectations?
NH: Exactly, exactly. And we also think about the lifecycle of a customer differently. Having them involved early and help shape the product is only going to keep them more engaged for a longer period of time.
You know, I was a very early user of Flickr, and watching that product evolve over time, watching them engage the community and shape the product based on community feedback, made me all the more loyal to that product. And we've seen the same thing.
We started out with something that was very overtly more competitive in the early dance game days, and it became very apparent that people were really enjoying the music an awful lot, and in some cases wanted to play with more light social type of interaction. And so we ended up kind of augmenting the dance game and the scoring in that direction.
We ended up programming a lot more music and a lot more variety of music to kind of listen to the community and grow with the community in a way that we would never have gotten if we had decided to build the whole thing for two years and then released it to the public.
There's a big question about monetization with a product like this. You could sell tracks, you could sell avatar updates -- am I on the right track here?
NH: It's a completely free to play game, and we rely on virtual goods.
I think that aligns us with the customer in the right way, which is to say our job is to make experiences interesting enough and engaging enough and fun enough that you want to buy music to use on the site. That means we continue to try and make more interesting and engaging experiences to try and reach that threshold. You can earn music tracks through playing the game, but if you want a very specific music track, very soon you'll be able to buy that track.
There are also areas of the game that will be blocked off, that you'll need to pay to get access to, but never in a way, of course, that will allow somebody to get more powerful by paying their way to get more powerful. The way you grow in the game is always through gameplay itself and skill.
It's interesting that you say "more powerful" because we're talking about the evolution of developers with MMO knowledge applying it to a game that has a very different feel. What does "more powerful" mean here -- like, "Are you the most disdainful hipster on the block?" (laughs)
NH: (laughs) Well, you know, power is really two things in an MMO. There's status, and then there's game effect. I might want to wear the fancy red cloak because everybody knows it's a rare item when they see me. I also might want to wear the fancy red cloak because it does more damage to the ten rats I'm about to kill.
So, I think the analogy is that you want to make sure that when you see somebody in any kind of community, if they have a position of respect in that community, that they've earned it, they haven't bought their way to it. And that's just a sense of justice that isn't really from MMOs necessarily, but certainly you can see it there.
That's just from the offline world, that's from our real life. The debutante who didn't do anything in real life but somehow became a celebrity is someone who usually isn't seen with high respect.
Gee, who could you be talking about?
NH: (laughs) Yes, exactly. No need to name names. The person who has scrimped and saved, and worked their way from the garage up to starting a major corporation is someone who's seen in high esteem. A lot of I think what MMO design has done is that it surfaces things that already exist for people. It puts them down on paper.
I'd say that a primary difference [between Loudcrowd and an MMO] is -- you can probably see it from the site -- we think of ourselves first as a community and as a game, not as a virtual world. In other words, I don't think that our primary value to users is that we have created a virtual space, which you can navigate in 3D.
Which means that despite the fact that we're actually using some very unique proprietary 3D in Flash software that we build and patented, we didn't actually create an environment that you can walk around in because I don't think it added anything to the experience.
The interesting thing about being in a space is that sense of presence that you have with other people, that sense that you get in instant messaging as well, where you know you can do something and immediately get a reaction. You get that same thing when you're playing online in Rock Band
as well, and you don't have a virtual space you're walking around in either.
And so, for us, we wanted to focus on the gameplay. We wanted to focus on the interaction with people, the feedback that helps build relationships and make you have fun, and less on the hard to navigate interfaces that MMOs and virtual worlds bring along with them.