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Spooky Cool Labs: What happens when arcade vets take on Facebook Exclusive
Spooky Cool Labs: What happens when arcade vets take on Facebook
January 30, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Can a group of arcade, console, and casino veterans change social games? Spooky Cool Labs hopes so.

CEO Joe Kaminkow worked for arcade greats in the 1980s and has the Donkey Kong and 1942-fueled anecdotes to prove it -- and has spent the last 13 years working in the casino space at industry leading manufacturer IGT.

He now hopes to shake up social games by bringing in the same elements that shook up those spaces: better graphics and gameplay depth (for arcades) and better licenses (for casino games).

The studio's first title, The Wizard of Oz -- officially licensed from the classic film -- hasn't made major waves just yet. Graphically impressive and complex for a Facebook game, it's only captured 500,000+ monthly active users since it went into beta late last year, after a year and a half of development.

Still, the team is confident about its strategy. When he and his team started investigating the social game space, "We felt a little bit like when we got into the arcade market -- when games were black and white and we started to put color on them," says Kaminkow. "We think we can take this genre of gameplay to the next level... better graphics, better sound, a better caliber of entertainment."

Unity + Facebook = Better Games?

Using Unity for 3D graphics and allowing players to zoom down and into their version of Oz and interact with the munchkin citizens -- the game is a city-builder -- was a necessary step to making the black and white to color leap, the team says.

Chief creative officer Brian Eddy, a Midway veteran, has a background in pinball, arcade, console and mobile games, with credits as diverse at the Medieval Madness pinball table and John Woo's Stranglehold for current-gen consoles, concurs.

"We all had the same vision. I was in the same space they were and wanted to do something bigger," he says. "We thought the user was ready for something next-level -- the next step up in graphics and presentation."

"These gamers who play these games are just as dedicated as the hardcore gamers who play Halo and Call of Duty," he says, of Facebook's city-builder audience.

"We have our equivalency of a smart bomb -- but it's a Glinda smart bomb to kill a bunch of flying monkeys," Kaminkow adds. "We're taking some tried-and-true play mechanics and exposing it to a whole new audience of players who'd never seen anything like this before."

According to Eddy, this strategy is paying off: "We're seeing players saying it's hard to go back to those other games now."

But it's not just visuals, argues Chuck Hess, the company's CTO. The advanced tech (for a Facebook game) adds depth of play, too. "It's not a game where the inhabitants are window dressing -- they're real living entities in the world... if you want to look a little deeper you can get some extra strategy. There are things to find you normally wouldn't."

"People who love making a real creative world can go down and experience it," says Eddy. "We don't want super-hardcore, really difficult games, but these really fun elements... have really brought people to get attached to the game."

The Future: Casino Games?

Even if The Wizard of Oz never attracts CityVille-style numbers -- or even close -- the company is ready to move on to its next challenge. Given the undercurrent of excitement around real money gambling on Facebook, and Kaminkow's background, can we expect casino games from Spooky Cool?

"I think when my noncompete expires in Feburary, I will begin to embrace that segment of the marketplace," the CEO says.

With custom client and backend architecture built from the ground up, Hess is confident that the developer has what it takes to continue to develop new high-end games for Facebook (and, eventually, mobile and tablet).

"We want a variety of games. I think we can build a great brand around Spooky Cool Labs," says Bob Holtzman, the studio's director of marketing.

With "full metrics, full backend, full customer service," says Kaminkow, Spooky Cool is akin to "a standalone publisher" -- and an attractive acquisition target, he half-jokes.

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Brandon Sheffield
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I wonder how many more times we'll have to hear these exact same arguments before someone either proves or disproves it conclusively.

Michael Ruud
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For a group of arcade, console, and casino veterans proclaiming to want to change social games, they sure did a bang up job of producing something that changes... nothing.

Nooh Ha
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This is what happens when traditional, hard-core games developers try to apply their old-school console game thinking to Facebook.
"FarmVille looks crap; let's make FarmVille with high poly 3D graphics"
"Why use Flash when there's Unity. Everybody loves Unity"
"FarmVille doesn't have any proper gameplay; let's make FarmVille with deep, immersive gameplay"

Yes, FarmVille looks crap but 1) it is constrained by what Flash can do and 2) the middle-aged female audience that dominates games like FarmVille don't want realism or need a hugely detailed 3D virtual world. They want simple, accessible escapist fun and are more than happy with the simple graphics used in every one of the most popular Facebook games.

Unity is awesome for mobile games development but is wholly inapprpriate for a casual Facebook game. Not one Unity-based "browser" game on Facebook has ever gained significant traction (more than low millions of MAU) as the vast majority of users don't have Unity pre-installed and, when faced with the Unity download request, will simply click away. I once saw under the hood of a Unity Facebook game's user numbers and it was truly shocking. They lost almost all of their "users" at the Install Unity prompt.

FarmVille's simplistic (non-)gameplay is used for a very good reason: it works and, given the consistently huge user numbers games of this sort get, clearly the massed Facebook gamer ranks like it too. Old-school designers may rail at this but even the most superficial assessment of this casual (and older female dominated) userbase's gaming tastes over the last decade (Big Fish Games, Game House etc pre-Facebook) would reveal that their gameplay tastes have always been radically different to hard-core gamers'.

Spooky Cool Labs is not the first to make these mistakes and certainly won't be the last.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I've had my eye on these guys for a while now, they have promise. My biggest concern about their approach is they are still embracing this metrics-driven model that works well in super markets but has a number of limitations in the Facebook space that I am not sure they are aware of. Primarily, that metrics are potentially worse than useless in the absence of domain expertise. The Facebook domain is a very different one than the ones they are expert in.