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New Diner Dash: Entrenched casual game companies versus new casual MMOs

Update from New York
I’m still alive and kicking in NY – I’m hanging out with some folks from Union Square Ventures, IAC, Massive, BuddyLube, etc. I’m also spending time with some interesting bloggers and entrepreneurs – including Darren Herman from IGA (in-game advertising) as well as Linkshare, and Bronte Media, and some other advertising pepople.

First, an intro to Diner Dash
I had the pleasure of spending about an hour last week to get an early preview of the Diner Dash team – thanks to Gus, Kirem, and John for setting that up. They showed me the new release of Diner Dash that came out this week that incorporates a lot of interesting social features.

First off, though, if you haven’t tried Diner Dash, please go to the site and check it out: Download Diner Dash. It’s a fun game, but more importantly, it’s an example of an extremely successful casual game that generates real non-advertising revenue (whoah!). They’ve had 1 million customers who have paid to play the full version of the game, which is very impressive. I also recall they said they’ve had close to 100 million downloads of the game overall, which is also incredible.

Casual games like this, being targeted at the 30+ women audience, often evade the attention of Bay Area geeks because it’s not really targeted at them, and while a social networking site with 500k non-paying users that generates marginal ad revenue might get a lot of attention, a property like this is ignored. I think that’s a mistake.

Casual games going social
The new features the team showed me go hand in hand with becoming more social overall. As you might expect, they are adding user profiles around the game, allowing people to pick and choose avatars, among other innovations. It’s a good step in the right direction.

They are still keeping the downloadable aspect of their game, although their strategy has been to build a web property around the download. So although you need to run the game to play, you can still do things like build avatars, play around with your profile, etc. This combined strategy will be interesting relative to the soon-to-be onslaught of casual MMOs that are coming out which are 100% on the web via Flash.

Furthermore, their downloadable client strategy is also quite interesting – as many folks know, although the disadvantage of a client is decreased conversion rates, the advantage is that people rarely uninstall applications. It’s often stickier, especially if you can justify getting the app to start up when the computer does. They are updating the game within the client automatically, so that people can go into the Diner Dash world and when new properties are launched, they appear as "NEW!" signs within the world map. That way, they can incorporate dynamic updates from the web while still keeping the download.

Entrenched casual games versus Flash casual MMOs
My main questions I have, after seeing the demo, is comparing their
approach to those of the casual games that are coming out. If you are
building one these days, you are likely to:

  • Choose Flash for the technology platform
  • Start by building an undirected "sandbox" experience
  • Rely on chat, avatars, and messages for entertainment
  • Use advertising and virtual goods as the business model

You can think of Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, and the myriad of other properties as the first generation of these sites.

However, if you’re coming from the traditional casual games market you are likely to have a different situation:

  • Created as a downloadable game built in C++
  • Often a very directed game experience
  • Users play the game as a single player experience
  • Usually pay $20 to have the download

Now, if you are moving from the downloadable games, you are really going bottoms-up: You have a great core game experience, and now you need to layer on social features. This is in contrast to the new casual MMOs, which are typically ALL social features to start with some basic activities, followed by a deepening of that experience.

Which way is the right approach? Only time will tell, but my guess is that long-term engagement will win out – and thus the game designers have a great chance to succeed – as long as they can overcome the user acquisition hurdles of using a downloadable game.

Thanks again to the Diner Dash team for the great discussion, and good luck!

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