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Social game Idle Worship takes Facebook gaming to new level

Idle Games is launching a next-generation social game today dubbed Idle Worship. The title opens up a new genre on Facebook — the once popular “god game” — and it has an interesting and witty approach to social gameplay.

Founded by former ad executive Jeffrey Hyman, San Francisco-based Idle Games is in a “holy war against games that suck or aren’t actually social.” The company’s first game, Idle Worship, tries hard to make social gaming fun, and it is alone in a niche that has proven to be extremely popular with gamers in the past. Hyman’s team has been building Idle Worship for two years with $19 million in backing from Rick Thompson, co-founder of Playdom. Today, the game is finally available to play.

“We looked around and found that social games were derivative, and not truly social, and not aimed at delighting, entertaining, and engaging,” said Hyman, in an interview with VentureBeat. “We decided to create an original game on an original platform.”

If the company pulls it off, it could wind up with a much more engaging mass market game than the Zynga titles that currently dominate the top ranks of Facebook. As such, Idle Games is one of the biggest bets in social gaming.

Thompson said, “Social games are maturing. Idle Worship is the genesis of a new era.”

Playing Idle Worship

In Idle Worship, the player acts as a god with cute little followers on an island. Players can be nice or mean to those followers, much as with the Populous or Black and White god games of the classic PC gaming industry, or the more recent iPhone game Pocket God. The game is as zany and ambitious as Glitch, an online social game made by Stewart Buttlefield’s startup Tiny Speck. Hyman missed playing the early god games and wondered why people weren’t making more of them.

The characters and animations have a hand-drawn, cartoon style that is aimed at both men and women, young and old. The features are intelligently designed and the gameplay is synchronous, meaning it allows for simultaneous play, as well as asynchronous, where you can interact in a turn-based manner with friends who may be offline.

The object is to collaborate with friends and strangers to become the greatest god in the game. You want to build the largest faux religion and vie for the worship of friends, strangers, and a not-so-smart indigenous populace known as Mudlings.

The faith of your followers may rise or wane, depending on your actions. Your Mudlings believe in you only as long as you show your power, regardless of whether you use it for good or bad. You can rule by terror or compassion, protecting your followers from real-time attacks and competing gods.

As a god, you can “flick” a follower, or toss them off of a rival’s island. That’s an example of the cute or sick humor of the game, depending how you look at it. That attack will hurt your reputation, but it will mean your rival player god will have one less acolyte. Meanwhile, the follower will be flicked onto another player’s island. That player may appreciate the gift from you and strike up an alliance.

A smart user interface

The Idle Worship user interface is well conceived. There is no friends bar running along the bottom of the screen, as there is in Zynga games. As a god, you are at the center of the ocean on your island.

You are surrounded by the islands of both friends and strangers. Each nearby island represents the land that your friends are cultivating. But the surrounding islands shift and they change positions based on the gravitational force of your social connections.

If a player becomes inactive, he or she is moved to the outer rim of your archipelago. Those who play frequently and have the most interaction with you are moved closer to your island. The world is not divided into shards, meaning you can play with anyone in the game universe.

That enables you to know at a glance who really wants to play the game with you and who doesn’t. And that stops you from spamming all of your friends with annoying requests. Idle Worship will move strangers close to your island if they interact with you a lot or if they are equally active in the game as you. That helps you make new friends while playing, Hyman said.

In real-time, you can smite your friends’ islands with lightning or cover their domain with harmless bunny rabbits. You can be evil and set your Mudlings’ heads aflame, or rule with compassion. Your Mudlings’ faces will reflect whether they fear you or revere you.

Over time, you can customize your island. You can populate it with creatures such as a Buffaloaf or a Pugapillar. You can build altars to your friends. As a joke, Hyman built an altar to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. You can go fishing to acquire a renewable resource to feed your Mudlings. If you want to play alone, you can put a “shield of cowardice” on your island and friends won’t be able to attack you.

Building an island empire?

The game pays homage to other god games, but it is pretty original. Others may try to copy the game, but Idle Games has patented a number of its ideas. Idle Games has created an underlying platform that can be used to host other games.

Earlier this year, Idle Games hired Michael McCormick, the lead designer for CityVille, away from Zynga. McCormick is working on the company’s second and third titles, which will use the same platform, dubbed the Idle Engine, that can run any number of online game worlds.

“We put as much labor and love into the story, making it both cute and disturbing,” Hyman said. “We are going for a broad audience.”

Thompson is the sole investor in the company, which has 80 employees. The game has been live for six months in the Philippines — itself an archipelago of 7,000 islands — as the team tests the gameplay.

Each island that players have created is unique, and those who play often have multiple islands. The game already has 5,000 daily active users.

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