Facebook’s Viral Hit Game: The Brains Behind the Brain Eaters

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If you joined Facebook recently (and really, who hasn’t?) chances are your profile includes a walking corpse like the one on the left. Launched in mid-June, the Zombies game is already among the social network’s most popular widgets, boasting well over 2 million users.

It’s essentially a mini-MMORPG designed for maximum viral power: you level up your zombie character by biting friends and converting them into zombies (which only happens after they also install the application.) Which leads to the inevitable question: can you monetize the undead?

“By far the main intent is to entertain and make people laugh,” says Blake Commagere, the indy developer who did much of the coding. “It’s just supposed to be a quirky, fun way for people to interact.”

A horror fan, Commagere and some friends were talking over ideas for a fun Facebook app; seeing the cult zombie movie Fido was the coalescing inspiration. Fortunately, his friends were uniquely suited to the task: Cameron Ring (co-founder of Plaxo), Sandy Jen (co-founder of Meebo) and AJ Olson (an early Meebo employee). “All of these people have created very viral and scalable applications,” Blake tells me, “and I’m certainly in their debt for how generous they were with their time, as they all have real jobs.”

So far, the game’s only business angle has been indirect marketing: the game is hosted by RockYou, a huge (if sometimes controversial) Facebook widget developer founded by Jia Shen, another friend of Commagere. Though Zombie’s isn’t a RockYou app*, he tells me, “[T]hey had the infrastructure to run a fast growing app, so in exchange for letting me use some of his resources, Zombies is part of the cross-promotion that they do.” [See update below]

Another organization enjoying synergy: The Living Dead Girlz, an alt-burlesque troupe who let them use photos of the show’s ghoulish babes on Zombies’ page, in exchange for promotional consideration.

And though they insist it was primarily developed for fun, Commagere says they are aware of the commercial opportunities: “Like any product that grows quickly, there is some monetization potential– but I think if the primary focus shifted to that, the product would lose its charm. The approach I really admire is the one that the Craigslist team has taken– they have some revenue streams, but they don’t do as much as they could because they don’t want to dilute the user experience.” (Then again, like Craig Newmark, maybe they’re just refreshingly taciturn about their actual revenue plans.)

Blake says more Zombies functionality and features are coming soon. (They also just launched Vampires, a similar Facebook game.) Trouble is, they’re short on developers. “If I had twenty people, it wouldn’t be enough!” So you have to think they’ll need to roll out a business plan sooner rather than later. In any case, Zombies’ rapid growth powerfully demonstrates the potential of Facebook as a game platform.

In the meantime, I’ve noticed an interesting side benefit to playing: it strengthens the social network utility of Facebook itself. After all, people don’t usually just go around biting everyone on their Friends list, like business colleagues and casual acquaintances they’re not actually close to. So if you want to know who someone’s real friends are, you might want to check whose brains they ate.

*Update, 7/29: Commagere just wrote in to clarify the relation between Zombies and RockYou: “[A]t this point I’ve partnered with them on the app and they are contributing far more resources than just infrastructure. It’s eased my pain of looking for more programmers and I’m now enjoying being able to focus more on the creative aspect of it.”

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