Cafe.com

InstantAction and Cafe.com: Browser-Based Games Growing Up, Becoming More Social

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I’ve recently had the chance to preview two new websites that promise to significantly advance the quality of social gaming as delivered through the browser.

The first is a project led by GarageGames and backed by IAC called InstantAction that brings straight into the browser graphically complex games that appeal to competitive gamers.

The second is a site called Cafe.com by an international company called Boonty. It is intended more for casual gamers who want to use gaming more as a way to meet people and socialize online rather than compete.

InstantAction is going live today so anyone can go and check it out (they’ll have four games available to start and more coming soon). Cafe.com will remain in private beta for awhile longer, but the company has given us 10,000 invitations – just go here and enter “techcrunch” as your invitation code. You’ll also start off with 10,000 CafeCoins, the site’s virtual currency, which are worth about $10 and can be used to buy virtual goods.

InstantAction

With InstantAction, you can play games in-browser that look more like Xbox or PC games. To fully appreciate the quality improvements, you have to see them for yourself:

What’s especially impressive is that these games are not even based in Flash or Silverlight. Rather, they run on top of a cross-browser compatible, 150k custom plugin that only has to be downloaded once. The plugin, which has been developed for two and a half years, works with games that are programmed in pretty much any language (C++, Java, Python, etc.).

Right now the following four titles are available – Marble Blast, Screw Jumper, Think Tanks, and Cyclomite. The first two are actually popular Xbox games that have been ported over to InstantAction’s platform. While these games have single player versions, the focus is on competitive multiplayer games. And inviting your friends to the service is easy; you only have to give them a URL and they can join you quite quickly, even if your game has already begun.

The site does use a good deal of Flash and Ajax to manage game lobbies, friends lists, and chat. When playing games, you’ll always see a list of the people in your party and a chat room on the right-hand side of the screen. You can use this area to communicate with others and quickly switch over to new games while keeping the same group of people participating.

The games to be included on the site will come mostly from smaller game studios run by veterans of the bigger studios who have escaped their more corporate environments. These include Wideload Studios, run by the same guy who founded Bungee and came up with Halo.

Among the advantages of running games from the browser is the ability to make updates and fixes without imposing downloads on users. Producers can also make money from new revenue sources such as the sale of virtual goods, subscriptions, and tournament fees.

I suspect that over time we’ll see even more advanced games run through InstantAction; ones that appeal even more to hardcore gamers who just don’t have the time to buy, install, and learn new games anymore. The next game to be added – Fallen Empire: Legions – is particularly impressive and will certainly take the platform in that direction (see a sneak preview of the game here).

Cafe.com

Browser-based casual gaming is nothing new (see Kongregate, the gaming networks on Facebook, and the astronomical popularity of Scrabulous in particular). But Cafe.com is the most developed social networking-gaming hybrid that I’ve seen so far, both in terms of the integration of social features and the quality of gameplay.

In contrast to InstantAction, Cafe.com will appeal to a broader audience that includes housewives and females in general (who actually make up the primary audience for online casual games). CEO Roman Nouzareth says that the target demographic is Generation X, which consists of 25-40 year olds.

The design and functionality of the site reflects that it was designed for a less “gamer” audience in mind. The tone is lighthearted and only mildly competitive. Games include pictionary, chinese checkers, Sodoku, and billiards.

As with InstantAction, the focus is on multiplayer games that can be played instantly with friends (Cafe.com bases its games primarily in Flash and HTML). But Cafe.com has also been constructed with an emphasis on member reputations and personas. Users can build out profiles with highly customizable 3D avatars (called “MiniMes”) that will be loaded into games themselves to represent characters there. As with other social networks, you can make friends with other members and message them. Nouzareth says that he wants Cafe.com to be the place where people manage their online gaming personas, while they go elsewhere to manage their more generic personas.

Virtual currency and the purchase of so-called “boosts” are particularly central to Cafe.com’s ecosystem. Members can purchase CafeCoins using real money and then use them to buy three main types of goods: attacks, defenses, and social items like virtual flowers. Gaming-specific goods can be purchased outside of gameplay and added to one’s collection for use when the time comes during gameplay. CafeCoins can also be used to buy things like new clothes for your avatar.

Two APIs are being worked on for Cafe.com: one that allows for the integration of games into the site, and one that will allow for the exporting of data elsewhere. The former is already available and being used both by the company’s own developers and by the handful of outside developers that it has worked with so far. The idea with the latter API is that users eventually will be able to export their Cafe.com profile information elsewhere, for example, to display their gaming reputations other social networking profiles.

Nouzareth says in reference to Pogo.com, one of the biggest social gaming sites in the United States: if Pogo were to have a baby with Facebook, that baby would be named Cafe.com. Grab your invitation and CafeCoins (see above) to find out yourself how that comparison holds up. This will give you a taste:

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