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Like millions of Facebook users, I’ve played a bunch of Facebook games. None of them have really grabbed me…until Insomniac’s Outernauts. As a big fan of Insomniac and someone that has played thousands of hours of Pokemon games, of course I was going to fall for the game’s blend of that distinct Insomniac charm and its Pokemon-like gameplay. Outernauts is the first Facebook game that I’ve loved.
In addition to capturing monsters, training monsters, leveling up, etc., there are several aspects of Outernauts that aren’t found in Pokemon games — cooperative levels, a deep crafting system, PVP during adventures, and more. Since it’s tied to Facebook, the social aspect is played up; you can send items to and receive items from friends, allowing you to progress your adventure or enhance your item crafting. It’s also free-to-play with premium features. You can play for free, but have to wait between sessions for your character to replenish energy and/or for your monsters to heal. In short, it marries many of the features people love about Pokemon (save for Game Freak’s stellar monster design) and Zynga’s numerous “Ville” games.
So yeah, I love Outernauts, but I’m also really worried about it. The less important problem is the hate it’s getting in some corners of the Internetz. I was appalled by some of the comments left by Insomniac “fans” on Outernauts videos posted on YouTube. There are a lot of people that are pissing on the game simply because it’s new and different…and not Ratchet & Clank. Odin forbid the company tries something new and works on multiple projects, right?!?
The bigger issue is that this is a rocky time for the social-games space. A lot of Facebook games are in decline and many pundits believe that the first round of titles has peaked. There are too many social games that look, play, and feel the same. Hell, I can’t even tell most of Zynga’s games apart. Is a Pokemon angle and Insomniac’s stellar reputation enough for Outernauts to thrive? I’m certainly not smart enough to know. Instead, I’ll defer to the much smarter and much wiser Tadhg Kelly. He recently postulated on TechCrunch that the next round of social games has to be more like HBO:
The second generation needs to be thinking like HBO, not network television. It takes research and prototyping time to develop good game dynamics, but more than that it takes the right technology, talent and faith. This last quality is perhaps most frightening because it pretty much means letting the inmates run the asylum.
Games are no different than any other creative outlet in this respect though, but it’s hard for some people (managers, investors, producers, quants) to accept that. They think that games should be much more like software: predictable, mappable and about process engineering but games and players disagree. You may wish that game design was a process, but it’s an art.
That’s why the second generation of social games is unlikely to come from any of the current big players. They think too small, just as network television executives tend to think too small and need to be shaken out of their equilibrium by an HBO. By which I mean investing in providing real value rather than only playing the equivalent-value game.
Will Insomniac be the HBO of the social-games space? Will Outernauts be Facebook’s Sopranos/Curb Your Enthusiasm/Game of Thrones? It’s quite possible. The company has the experience and talent to make great games on any platform. It’s also relatively small and independent, allowing it the luxury to move and iterate quickly, unlike a large company. It also has the luxury of not having to worry about legacy social games (one of Zynga’s several headaches). Insomniac could have the perfect storm of factors to help determine the next generation of social games, with Outernauts leading the way.
As a fan of Insomniac and Outernauts, I hope the game kills it. I’m curious to see how it performs. In the meantime, I hope some of you give Outernauts a shot and play it with me (please!).