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Q&A:  Booyah Society 's Ambition For A New Gaming Reality

Q&A: Booyah Society's Ambition For A New Gaming Reality Exclusive

August 13, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

August 13, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The Booyah Society iPhone app hopes to overlay the thrill of gaming achievements onto real life; Gamasutra spoke with Booyah CEO and ex-Blizzard developer Keith Lee to find out about the company's success, plans, and app design.

The company launched the app a bit over two weeks ago; it has since climbed into the top 100 free apps on the iPhone. Chances are that if you use Facebook avidly, you've seen one of your friends hit the News Feed with a Booyah Society achievement.

The app features a customizable robot-like avatar which Lee says was inspired by Pixar's style. This avatar can be dressed in clothes awarded for reaching specific goals -- such as a ninja suit gained from visiting Kyoto, Japan, and getting the associated achievement, made possible by this week by the introduction of GPS tracking to the application.

In fact, Lee says that the company has the next four or five updates mapped out, to provide a consistent and appealing experience to its users.

But questions remain about the long term monetization of the project, its appeal, and how the company handles the design of achievements to make sure the meta-game it imposes on real life remains entertaining. There are also questions about spam, ideology, and more -- which Lee tackles below.

Achievements work well in games, but do people really need them in real life? Isn't real life good enough already?

Keith Lee: I think people are excited if there is an element of being -- just like Pokemon or anything else -- to be able to collect certain things. And I think, inherently, people do have a list in their mind for things that they want to do. Like, a 'bucket list' of places of go to and things like that -- and for us, our initial goal was to see if we could inspire people to do things that they could discover and try out new categories in their life.

You said that people really seem to get Booyah Society -- and I think that that's true, based on the kind of reaction that I've seen anecdotally with my friends. What kind of response have you been getting?

KL: Well, I think that for us, having grown up playing games from World of Warcraft all the way to playing on Xbox Live, as well as being on social networks, I think all of us got it; the big question for us was if people weren't exposed to that would be interested in that.

We've been getting a lot of really great feedback, and really trying to see which things we want to focus on now.

Given that you want to make a really social app, how do you handle the system-gaming, competitive behavior that often emerges from users when achievements are involved?

KL: I'm totally with you on that. That's one of the reasons why, in our current product, we don't have a leaderboard. We don't have that competitive edge. To be honest, I think that it's actually going to be a relatively small percentage of people that are going to be ultracompetitive, and that actually also creates problems in terms of creating a very robust system that doesn't get gamed.

And so for us, right now, we want to make it much more casual in the sense of being able to share it with your friends, to discover new achievements with your friends, and make it much more of a collaborative environment.

Are you worried about all of this sharing, all these notifications, creating Facebook spam?

KL: Right now we're very, very cognizant of that, and so you'll notice that for each day, we actually put a limit on the number of achievements that can get posted on Facebook, up to a maximum of three. So even if you had completed 10 or 15 achievements, you already earned them, but only three of them are posted on Facebook.

And of course we can change and throttle that however we need, but for us, what's more important is being able to share the achievements that you've done with your friends, but not making it spammy in any way -- but to make that really cool fun.

Design and Monetization

How do you design the achievements and determine what's going to be appealing to people to try to get?

KL: Well, that's a two-fold thing. One thing we did is actually hire a lot of people in our company that have very diverse interests -- I think, hiring the right people, that understand the pulse of what's going on, is critical.

At the same time, we've been approaching it from a content standpoint: what could actually be the most mainstream achievements that people would want to share with their friends?

So, in this case, being able to go to the Louvre in Paris, that's Art & Culture; or to say that they've been to the Statue of Liberty. Those are the sort of things that we've seen that people would like to at least log and say that they've done.

The things that you referred to are things that people would naturally want to talk about with their friends, and they may even share it with their Facebook friends anyway. Do you look at Booyah as an additional layer to natural socialization?

KL: Yeah, absolutely, because one of the cool things is that you might have a thousand friends, and maybe only a small percentage of people know that you went to Paris. But now, when you go there, you log in that you're in this environment, and you're building up this really great sort-of achievement that everyone else is looking at.

It's a free app, so what's the monetization route for the company?

KL: The great thing is that we have the digital, as well as we're overlaying the digital with the real world, and so that's really rare and unusual. Because we can almost make our world and all the content that's in there our playground.

And so the great thing is, there's no shortage of potential monetization opportunities. There's the opportunity to work with real-world partners that isn't possible with just, say, an alternate fantasy world. To be able to drive people to go to certain locations -- individually, as well as in a group -- so there's a lot of flash mob theory behind that.

Like if everyone goes to TGI Friday's on Friday, they get an achievement together?

KL: Yeah. Because you can link a lot of really cool real-world rewards for what you are doing. So you can imagine saying, "Go to the Apple Store with five of your friends that day, and you can get a really cool red iPod for your avatar." Or you can get something that's linked to a real-world coupon, like a code, or anything else like that, that's funneled into our system.

So there's the opportunity for integrated branding; and, of course, with an avatar and inherent gameplay, with this product, there is the notion of virtual currency, and how that fleshes out with in-App purchases. It could extend to content packs.

Now a lot of these sound a little bit elaborate. Not necessarily everybody who's out there has the money to go to Kyoto or go see U2...

KL: Of course. Right.

Obviously, there's got to be a range of achievements for your audience, right?

KL: Yeah. Besides these great landmarks that of course not a lot of people would ever do, what we want to also provide is being able to say something like, "If you go to five unique Starbucks, or you go to 20 Starbucks that month, then you earn an achievement or you get a reward, like a virtual or real reward."

We want to create... the grander sort of locations, that you can tell you friends -- but then at the same time, we have ideas for even measuring your distance with the GPS, so imagine that you can have an achievement, or you can earn currency, for like the amount of time that you've been at different locations, or the distance that you've gone. So there are a lot of really interesting ideas that we're playing around with right now.

When I saw Booyah Society achievement notifications on Facebook, I didn't know what they were -- it would be like, "You got a Booyah achievement!" with some cute, clever name, and that was it, and it was context-less. Is that a concern?

KL: We actually just changed that a few days ago, and so right now it would actually say, "You earned Passion Flower," and it will actually tell you a description of what was required to complete that particular achievement.

I forget what the average number of Twitter followers someone has, but it's something like 15. It's not a lot. So, how do you design an engaging app for the broad spectrum of the kind of users that are out there?

KL: That's why we have a tiered system of achievements, where it's like one, three, five, and eight for [things] like comments. We didn't want to make it so that the hardest one could be completed by literally everyone, so we did try to do a best guess of what works.

But that said, all those numbers are really easy to tweak. We wanted to really intersect the customer early, and then start to look at our numbers and our stats -- and those are very easy to change on the back-end for us, on the long term. Because this is really an untapped kind of area; no one really knows how those would work out.

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