If there’s been one shining star on social network applications platforms, it’s been casual gaming: Zynga is rumored to be making an absolute killing with their games, and Mochi Media’s unified Flash payment platform has shown some very impressive early results. Now hi5, one of the world’s most popular social networks, is looking to capitalize on the trend. On Wednesday, the social network will be launching a totally revamped site that places a much stronger emphasis on games and virtual currency, along with a new avatar system. The site won’t go live for everyone for a few days, but you can check it out now at http://new.hi5.com.
The new hi5 still retains many of the same key features you’ll find on any social network — your profile consists of a photo or avatar, you can browse through your friends, and so on. But there’s clearly a much bigger emphasis on the site’s games and virtual currency (called ‘Coins’) than there was in the past. In the old design, the Games link was buried in the header, which also included links to Photos, Messages, Applications, and more. Now Games and Coins are both featured just as prominently as the link to your Profile and Friends. If it isn’t the first thing people will click on, it’s probably the second.
Alongside the new emphasis on gaming, hi5 is launching an avatar system called hi5 Stars, which features Flash-based animated 3D avatars (no download required). You’ll be able to change the appearance and movements of these to fit your current status, which anyone will see when they visit you profile. There really isn’t much you can do with them at this point, but down the line hi5 will be using these as part of its social entertainment experience, in much the same way Nintendo has done with the Wii’s Mii system, we’re told. This means that you will likely be able to use your avatar in some games, which is sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Hi5 is not especially popular in the United States compared to Facebook, but it’s quite popular abroad, with over 60 million monthly unique visitors (only 10% of which come from the US). This would normally pose a challenge to developers who would have to figure out how to engage in transactions with users around the world, but hi5 has that taken care of. The social network has set up 60 different payment systems for users worldwide, all of which convert to hi5 Coins. And aside from the benefits of making international payments relatively painless, virtual currencies tend to lead to more impulse buying (it’s much easier to toss away a few Coins than a few dollars). hi5 takes a 50/50 rev share of any money spent in a game.
Even before the redesign hi5 games section has been doing very well. It only launched in February and already accounts for around 1/3 of the site ‘s traffic, and direct user payments through the game already account for 15% of hi5′s revenue. Expect to see that number jump substantially over the next few months.