Given the success of titles like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and Words With Friends, it’s hard to dispute that mobile gaming is hot. That’s one reason HeyZap — a web gaming network that syndicates casual games to over 460,000 sites — is launching a new service that lets people check-in to mobile games. Yes, it’s Foursquare for games.
The company, a Y Combinator startup which scored $3 million in funding from Union Square last year, has just released the product (also called HeyZap) for Android and says an iPhone version will be coming soon.
“There are two things people ask: ‘what games are my friends playing?’ and ‘who’s playing Angry Birds right now?’,” says Jude Gomila, the company’s co-founder and president. “We’ve done some alpha testing and already have 250,000 check-ins.”
Here’s how HeyZap works: Players log in to see which games their friends are playing or what games are popular overall. There’s the chance to post scores, tips, questions about a game or achievements or to win badges — all the stuff you’d expect. Once you’re signed up, this activity can be either implicit (running in the background, as a layer separate to the games) or explicit (developers can use the HeyZap SDK to build check-in facilities directly into their own games. This, for example, allows players to update their status each time they complete a level.)
Gomila argues that HeyZap is more than just another check-in app because it allows for social discovery of new games. Whether it’s seeing that your friends are all playing a game you haven’t downloaded yet, or simply watching an unfamiliar title hit the top of the chart, it’s a different way to direct people to new titles.
This is definitely something mobile can benefit from, and perhaps an alternative to the app store model, where a single shopfront and point of control can make or break a game. And although Gomila says he has big ambitions — that HeyZap wants to be in mobile as well as web games — the company has a scalable revenue model: HeyZap earns money on each game sign-up it brings a developer on the web, and it could use similar models for mobile.
HeyZap demonstrates how casual gaming is heading into mobile territory. For many casual web gamers, Facebook used to be where discovery happened. But it’s not really built for finding new things on your phone, and even on the web, it’s becoming less useful as a place to discover games, where titles like FarmVille seem to spam people’s feeds.
“I don’t put my gaming activity on Facebook because it annoys the people there,” Gomila says. “We’re building this system where everyone is down with it.”
HeyZap faces several challenges. First, although users can import friends from Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, it’s yet another social graph they’re required to create. Second, couldn’t Apple just kill it on iPhone through improvements to Game Center? Gomila downplays both concerns, insisting people will love HeyZap enough that they won’t mind yet another social graph and that Apple is unlikely to launch a similar service.
It’s early days, but since mobile gaming is such a huge growth area, I suspect this idea is more solid than most check-in services. In addition, though, I think it demonstrates at least a couple of things worth thinking about:
It’s easy to dismiss the whole market as simply a gimmicky set of services that could easily be replicated and outgunned by bigger services; see Facebook Places, for example. But I suspect it’s unfair to throw all these companies in the same bucket since a few might have lasting value.
Separating the wheat from the chaff is actually pretty easy: Ask two questions. First, is there a reason to start using this service and keep using it? Second, how will it find revenue? The successes here are likely to be fast, nonintrusive systems that don’t require much effort from the user and give them something back to everyone, so there’s probably money in travel tips and localized offers or games, but not so much elsewhere.
Build for Android first, then iPhone. Until now, because Apple’s ecosystem has generally been more profitable for developers, they’ve tended to build for iPhone, then port to Android (or other systems). But as Android handset sales ramp up, Gomila believes that the opposite will become increasingly common model for mobile development.
It’s not just about volume, either. Because the Android release loop is faster — developers can push their own updates, rather than wait for somebody to approve it — they can start out with a raw product and iterate quickly, modifying it to meet demand and then release for iPhone once it’s evolved a little further. “This is something we’ll see more of,” he suggests.