MobiSocial‘s Omlet Arcade social network didn’t really take off until it became the defacto social layer in a very popular game. In July, Pokémon Go launched and was downloaded more than 500 million times in two months. But it didn’t really have a social layer, where friends could share things and talk to each other. So people started using Omlet Arcade as an in-game social overlay on top of Pokémon Go.
Now the Android and iOS app has been downloaded more than a million times, and it is building an engaged community that extends beyond Pokémon Go, as Omlet Arcade can be used with any mobile game. That’s a pretty good result from a team that started as a research project for computer science graduate students at Stanford University.
Monica Lam, a computer science professor at Stanford University, started the research project to create open social networking systems out of a concern that privately owned companies such as Facebook were beginning to control social networking and the internet. Grad students Ben Dodson, Ian Vo, and TJ Purtell (CEO) joined the project.
“We really wanted to take on Facebook,” Lam said. “The world of social should be pervasive. Instead of having one company create this social experience and owning all of the relationships and intermediating between everybody and their fans, that is insane. Social should just be everybody participating.”
The team started its work in 2012 with a grant from the National Science Foundation. It concluded that real-time messaging infrastructure was the key layer of the social experience, and they did so a few years ago before phenomena such as What’s App and WeChat exploded with mobile messaging platforms.
The team spun out a company, MobiSocial, to create an open social platform. On top of that, it started building a social network geared toward mobile game players.
When it saw Pokémon Go take off, the MobiSocial team created a custom social layer for the game in just four days. It turned out that was the right move to dramatically boost downloads of Omlet Arcade.
“We launched a week after Pokémon Go did,” said Vo, the vice president of product at MobiSocial. “It just exploded.”
The team created an app that looks like a social layer on top of a game, such as Pokémon Go. You can use the social features while you are still in the middle of playing. You can use it to chat, livestream a game to other players or to social networks, and share tips and hacks. Some players may be interested in accessing locator maps for creatures while others upload videos to a community page.
Omlet Arcade can tell you how valuable a particular Pokémon creature is and how that value will change if you choose to evolve it.
Niantic Labs, the maker of Pokémon Go, didn’t include such features in its initial game. But it is clearly benefiting because players who engage socially with an app use it more, Lam said.
“We are totally helping them,” she said. “The more we do, and the more our community does, the more we help them spread the app.”
Lam believes that the app stores are doing a “disservice to gamemakers and players” because discovery of new apps is so difficult.
“As a player who wants to find games, I open the app store, and it is totally discouraging,” she said. “I see the top-grossing apps, and they don’t change. Game developers have to spend money to push their apps upward. What we see is an opportunity to help developers and players.”
For players, MobiSocial makes it easier to find friends who like the same games.
“If I catch a cool Pokémon, I don’t want to post it on Facebook,” said Vo. “It’s the wrong social network. But if I post it on Omlet Arcade, I get likes for it.”
Once you download the Omlet Arcade app, it appears in all of the games you play. You can discover new communities and games from inside Omlet Arcade. Eventually, the company believes it can get money from helping developers get new installs. So far, Omlet Arcade produces one app install for every 100 times an app is shown off. Normally, that ratio is maybe one in 10,000. MobiSocial can verify that games are installed, and it knows how much various games are being played.
MobiSocial has raised an initial round from New Enterprise Associates, and it was recently highlighted in the Samsung app store. Samsung is promoting the Omlet Arcade app in places such as its smartphone app store in India.
Omlet Arcade isn’t limited to games. It can be used on any app. But Lam said, “Gaming is the most important social experience on social devices.”
Vo said, “About 75 percent of people are playing games. And games need social. Pokémon Go is a prime example of a franchise that was all about going outside and meeting people. But there was no social inside the game at all.”
MobiSocial plans to steadily improve the social features it has in games such as Pokémon Go.
“We are still in a period when we are tuning everything,” Lam said.
Very quickly the company had to learn that it had to have the community police itself when it comes to sharing inappropriate content.
The company has some big distribution deals in the works that will get it out in front of a lot more people. MobiSocial already has communities for numerous other games, such as Clash Royale.
Some mobile game companies might develop their own social features. But MobiSocial doesn’t make any calls on server data in games such as Pokémon Go. That means there’s little risk that Omlet Arcade will be banned by the game companies. It certainly looks like it is part of the Pokémon Go app.
“Some people think we are part of the game company, and they ask us for technical support,” Vo said.
MobiSocial has 30 employees between Palo Alto, Calif., and Taipei. Rivals include Facebook and Twitter on social and Mobcrush and Kamcord in streaming.