WIM Q&A: Linking People On Coobico Casual MMO

Worlds in Motion spoke with co-founder Lutz Winter of Hong Kong-based Linking People about the ideas behind Coobico, a casual multiplayer game targeted at players in their 30s and 40s, and Winter discussed the challenges and potential unique to dev
Worlds in Motion recently found out about Coobico, a new, free-to-play flash-based strategy MMO being developed by Linking People, a Hong Kong-based developer founded by a trio of German Web developers. Slated for early 2008, it's self-described as "MySims meets Habbo Hotel meets the Settlers," casting players on a deserted island and charging them with building a neighborhood, collaborating or competing with others. That doesn't sound so revolutionary in and of itself. But what's interesting about Coobico is that it's not geared towards the usual suspects that many companies are rushing to appease these days -- the kids and 'tweens. Instead, Coobico is a casual MMO for adults age 30-44, the core of the casual gaming market. We spoke to Worlds in Motion co-founder Lutz Winter about Coobico and creating an MMO for a different audience, and asked him what elements he thinks make an MMO "casual." Traditional Elements for a Traditional Audience "The genres of brainteasers, strategic games and collect-and-build stick better with the casual market than shooters and hardcore-RPGs, because they don't require a steep learning of eye-hand coordination and endless hours of grinding and leveling up a character," Winter explains. "[With] World of Warcraft and the like, you can't compete if you are not spending enough time for leveling. According to a recent study from Electronic Arts, Jung v. Matt and German GEE Magazine, some 79 percent of the German gaming-market shares this opinion. This is not a niche market, it's an emerging trend." An audience of players in their 30s and 40s is looking for something a little different in their multiplayer experience, then -- what is it, and how have they been underserved by other products on the market? "'More' is the typical game-industry's approach to everything: more levels, more graphic power, more customization and even moreso, intertwining features. Here is a lesson that the game-industry can learn from the Web 2.0-world -- less is more, really," Winter opined. "Less is what a casual audience of above-30-year-olds are looking for. They don't want to waste their time and money on upgrading graphic-hardware just to play Crysis in all its beauty. They are looking for some thirty minutes of ease and challenge besides their working-life, their family and hobbies, instead of spending endless hours of grinding in an online-game." He continued: "On the other hand, our target group are people who feel underwhelmed by casual titles like puzzle games, which miss appeal and [lack] replay value because they are just a bit too non-immersive; it doesn't earn me a lot of bragging-rights to beat level 30 of Tino's Fruit Stand." Avoiding Community 'Culture Shock' Communities are the key to online worlds, Winter says -- and the current community within MMOs currently reflects, he notes, the industry's "max-out principle," where the learning curve to fully engage in the virtual society is steep. "This doesn't mix well socially with the casual market," Winter says. "Such social discrepancies -- almost like culture shock -- are among the biggest shortcomings of recent multiplayer-products." Winter recalls a story that illustrates his point: "I remember, I once followed a flame-war in a Final Fantasy XI forum, where players were bashing each other because the healer of a group had used the wrong spell to protect the group's tank against a certain monster (which he obviously didn't know enough about). One of the wranglers concluded that he wanted to make the online-life of that healer as miserable as possible from now on. Can you seriously imagine that above-30-year-olds have time or interest to engage in such bunk?" Catering to a New Target Group How does Linking People plan to reach, engage and retain this audience? "We will be winning a lot of contests, and thus make ourselves heard of," jokes Winter. "No, really, I recently read (Guild Wars co-founder) Jeff Strain's presentation on "How to Create a Successful MMO", and I quite disagree with him on a multitude of facts -- he seems to never have heard the term 'Long Tail Market'! I second his opinion that people will not easily adopt new MMOs if they are already enganged in one or two of their choice -- but I beg to differ with his bottom-line." The "bottom line" Winter cites is this Strain quote: "You must make a game that is so overwhelmingly superior that it can actively break apart an established community." Winter disagrees. "Instead, how about catering to a new target-group which never stuck with a traditional MMO in the first place?" He suggests. Blending Social Networking With Massive Worlds Winter goes on to describe Coobico as a "genre mix" of an MMO and a social network. "Alongside, we've got some additional viral features up our sleeves which will hopefully turn into a nice multiplier," he adds. "Word-of-mouth is a very strong medium to us: we will be offering a great product for free, and giving it a try will be a breeze. Coobico's quality will make adopters stay." Are there any MMO games or social worlds providing a good example? Though Winter stresses that his aim is to create a unique mix of genres, he allows, "There are titles offering a similar gameplay, like The Settlers and MySims, but collect-and-build-games are typically not massive social worlds at heart. Social worlds like Habbo Hotel and Gaia Online, on the other hand, resemble other aspects of Coobico, but they are essentially just boosted chat-environments enabling you to play minigames, not real multiplayer-games." However, Winter explains, socialization lies at Coobico's core -- the community must build settlements together, form groups and quest together. "Coobico will actively match settlers with their surrounding neighborhoods," Winter adds. "Neighbors are not an abstract concept in Coobico -- they are players running settlements close to your own estate; you can visit their village, and compete or collaborate with them." Players will have a full-blown set of social networking features at their hands: they can keep a profile, take and collect pictures, pull in their favorite blogs and feeds, invite their friends and connect and communicate with each other as they play. Exploring Coobico's Business Model What about Coobico's revenue model? Winter says it's free to play, as subscription fees and club models "do not suit our market well." He explains, "Coobico will be free and sponsored by advertisement-partners through various forms of in-game-advertisement. Players will be able to purchase in-game currency to buy virtual gear, but this is just an option for those who don't like to earn their inventory and income through in-game-activities." "We chose a revenue-model of in-game-ads because some of our asian core-markets don't offer mature micropayment-solutions and markets," he adds. "Especially in our Asian markets, we are going to launch additional premium services once we established Coobico as a brand name there."

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