Big Fish is the Latest Company to Add an Extra Gaming Layer on Facebook

Casual gaming leader Big Fish Games unveiled a new Facebook game earlier today called Treasure Quest, that is capitalizing on a type of game design that we’ve seen more often lately: adding a new layer of gaming on top of the main game.

This meta-game could include a portal, an avatar, a universal currency and other features that can connect any game with other games. It lets game developers build persistent features for users to pay attention to, and invest in, rather than just having them play a single game and then be done.

Established social gaming companies and newer entrants alike have been testing out these cross-game tie-ins. But it’s not yet clear if the concept is just a neat idea or, or more a key new way to attract and retain users.

There are a variety of ways to approach adding a gaming layer on top of a single game. Treasure Quest is special for its attention to the mini-games. It’s a portal to a variety of different high-quality mini-games, as we reviewed in detail earlier today, designed around a “treasure quest” concept.

Although the game just launched and is in early beta, it is focusing more on the mini games rather than trying to be something grand. For now, each player has an avatar that stays with them on the app regardless of what mini-game they’re in.

You can unlock and buy new clothing and other gear for your avatar as you earn it. You need to play games to build your avatar. But you can only get the virtual currency required for clothes and gear, “Gold,” from playing the games, or playing the “Gold Spin” slot machine, which can give you more gold each time you complete a mini-game.) You can also buy the Gold directly using your credit card or PayPal, or pay by mobile account with Zong, or submit a coupon code.) Although the avatars are decorative in the early stages, later ones include power-up items that can be used in the mini-games.

Treasure Quest also includes options to share your high score from games with friends, and invite them to try out the app. The point of the extra layer is to make the whole experience more social, and help the developer make money.

The relative lack of focus on the meta game is made up for by the fact that each min-game “is about as in-depth as most Facebook games are in and of themselves,” as we noted earlier. Basically, Big Fish is pointing its firepower at building the best casual-style social games they can, as vice president of social games Will O’Brien explained to us when we caught up with him last week. This is what the company has been traditionally good at. Then, it plans to expand the variety of social features within each mini-game, and build out the additional layer as it sees how the app does.

The point, for now, is that a user can find and love even just one of the mini-games, and come back every day for that, then get hooked on others as they play around more. Over time, they might decide to buy some of the currency to get ahead a little faster. Given that many of the mini-games are reminiscent of Big Fish titles, expect it to expand to include all sorts of additional mini-games in the future. And expect the meta layer to become much more meaningful

The Rise of Games within Games on Facebook

Treasure Quest may have some of the best mini-games in place today, but there are a range of other companies that have been doing the same thing in the past months.

Perhaps the most obvious one is Treasure Madness, a loosely similar app. That game is very focused on letting you search for treasure as the main game, but it also has mini-games within it, based on simple casual game standards. Note that while Zynga recently launched its own game about treasure hunting, it opted to instead adopt the farming mechanic as a complementary part of the game — like most other Zynga games we can think of, mini-games are not present. However, the simple mini-games in Treasure Madness were overshadowed by the meta game of digging up earth looking for treasure.

MindJolt Games, which was recently bought by a group led by former MySpace executives, established itself with an even simpler take on the concept. It has been syndicating hundreds of casual gaming titles straight into a single Facebook app, with none of the customization that Big Fish has done. There are currently no avatars, no virtual currencies, etc. — just a single app. However, from the few hints we’ve gathered about the new management’s plans for the app, we expect it to serve as much more of a platform in the future. It has already said it is working on new ways for independent developers to make money through it, for example.

An even closer example to what Big Fish is doing is the new NanoVerse concept from Digital Chocolate. As we covered last month when it launched, NanoVerse isn’t just an avatar and a virtual currency but an entire cast of characters. Users can buy characters in packs of virtual cards, reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering, and receive different powers for each character in specific NanoVerse titles. Many of the game styles and characters are actually modeled on existing Digital Chocolate games from over the years on the other platforms, similar to how Big Fish has derived its mini-games from its previous hits. One of the main differences between it and Big Fish is that the latter company has a much simpler conceptualization of characters in the meta layer — the only ones are users’ avatars.

We should note that Big Fish already has a couple titles running on Facebook, including Faunasphere and My Tribe. Both of these games are currently unconnected to Treasure Quest. Given Big Fish’s ambitions here, though, it’s easy to imagine the company federating users Treasure Quest identities, letting them take their well-developed avatars and virtual currency earnings to other games. Digital Chocolate is also going in this direction, having just launched somewhat similar cross-game functionality with its first two NanoVerse-themed games, NanoStar Castles and NanoStar Siege.

It’s not just newer competitors in social gaming who are trying these concepts out. While most developers who have grown up with social games have kept their apps very straightforward, we’ve been seeing more examples of tie-ins across social games from large developers. Zynga’s FarmVille and Mafia Wars share a Hot Rod Tractor, for example, a virtual good that has functionality in both games even though they have very different themes. Playfish, Zynga and other developers have also long experimented with letting users buy universal currency for use across their respective games.

Conclusion: Some Sort of Future, But a Big One?

However, no established social game developer has given more than passing attention to adding an additional layer on to their games, to date. It’s not clear why. Are they missing something that newer competitors are seeing in the market? Or maybe they are worried about the complications of adding another layer on top of their games?

Facebook itself is a sort of meta game — or rather, the real-life connections on the service have certain game-like qualities. People don’t think about it as competition, but there are elements that are game-like, such as comparing who has more friends or who can post the funniest or most interesting link or status update, or just uploading envy-inducing photos. There are cooperative aspects, like people working together to spread the word about a Page or a group they all favor, or getting friends who aren’t on Facebook to join. With all that activity happening on Facebook itself, social game developers have opted to provide the simplest additional types of games that they can; they can’t add too many on top of the real one.

And yet, the meta titles that have been out so far suggest there is something to the concept. MindJolt’s traffic reached at 21.5 million monthly active users and 3.65 million users in the last month, according to our AppData service (although it is since seeing more of a fall). Treasure Madness has held pretty steady at 2.5 million MAU, although DAU has dipped to 618,000 recently — the impact of Zynga’s competition? Anyway, the concept of treasure hunting and mini-games does seem to have worked well enough in those cases.

Maybe it’s just that the biggest social game developers don’t need to bother with the layer concept at this point. Maybe it’s better suite to smaller companies with existing portfolios? We’ll be covering as the efforts of these latest experiments progress.