Aiming to do good with a good game, game startup Talkie is rolling out its Facebook game Ecotopia today in a private beta test. This game has some extra oomph from its allies: actor Harrison Ford and nonprofit Conservation International.
The game will test whether a social game can become more viral if it has links to Hollywood and a green cause. The whole point is to make people feel good and do good while they’re playing a fun game, said Chris Swain, founder of Talkie and director of the video game design study program at the University of Southern California Games Institute.
Ecotopia is a city-building game that starts in a fairly pathetic city that needs your help. You can start cleaning it up little by little, turning polluted tracts into sustainable plots. You can do tasks such as converting a power plant into a wind farm. Swain said in an interview that the game has much more story than a typical social game, even as it respects the fact that social game players don’t want an extremely deep and time-consuming game.
But the story does introduce villains into the mix. The story takes into account the fact that people may play it for a short time every day. Rather, the point of the story — such as tracking down a new species of frog in the rainforest — is to keep players challenged enough to make them come back every day. One new feature lets you earn rewards in the game by doing good green deeds in the real world, like switching to rechargeable batteries or carpooling.
Swain said the company hopes that Ecotopia will be a next-generation social game. He says that while games such as Zynga’s FarmVille and CityVille have accumulated huge audiences, they have barely scratched the surface when it comes to challenging gamers with imaginative game play.
“We are just at the beginning of socially enabled games,” Swain said. “The question is, how do you tell stories in this new media? How do you take what works well on TV and put it into a light interactivity with short play sessions?”
The Los Angeles company got started a year ago building its platform and started work on Ecotopia in the past few months. Swain said the team knew it wouldn’t beat Zynga if it created just a clone of CityVille.
Actor Harrison Ford is involved because he is also vice chairman of the nonprofit Conservation International. You can expect Talkie to take advantage of those relationships to help Ecotopia take off. Talkie has an in-game television channel (pictured right) that features videos from Conservation International, Best of the Green Web, and user uploaded contest videos.
Swain has assembled a team of 35 game developers around the country to work on the game. Many of them are his former students. He will continue to work at USC even as he tries to get Talkie off the ground. After Ecotopia launches, Talkie hopes to launch a couple of more games this year.
The name Talkie refers to the transition of films from silent films to sound, and it suggest that games are becoming more social.
It’s not going to be easy getting attention. Green-themed games are getting to be common. MiniMonos is debuting a kids’ virtual world with green missions today. RockYou recently acquired TirNua, which was making a 3D social game where the theme was “play green, live green.”
Swain recognizes there is lots of competition out there, but he says the audience is huge and the market is likely going to sustain a number of successful game companies. He thinks he will have the upper hand because players will want to associate with a good cause while playing a game.
Talkie won’t just take your word for it when you say you did a good deed in the real world. Rather, it will use a verification system called “social proofing” that has friends verify that the user performed some kind of good act.
Swain said the company hopes to sustain interest in the game by releasing monthly content packs such as a new story, contest, and new real world green acts.
The company has angel investors from Los Angeles and Hong Kong but it has not identified them or disclosed the amount raised. Its chairman is Larry Bond, who is chairman of the privately held investment firm Bond Companies, which has more than $2 billion in projects.
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