A whole new Whirled: The future of Flash MMOs with Daniel James


Earlier this week we had the chance to speak with Mr. Daniel James, the CEO and co-founder of Three Rings. Makers of successful online titles Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy, the company is well known for the quality of its work and the quirkiness of its GDC parties. They've been working on a third project, Whirled, for the better part of 2008 and it just launched into full live service earlier this week. We spoke with Mr. James about the whys and logic behind Whirled, about the power of user-created content, and the power of offering actual compensation for hard work and talent.

Read on below the cut for our talk with Mr. James, and a thorough exploration of a brand-new Whirled.
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"Lots of kids are 'graduating' from playing Club Penguin. A lot of people think they're going to go to World of Warcraft and I'm not so sure about that."

Daniel James: The takeaway in terms of what we're trying to do is that Puzzle Pirates has been very successful at certain things. The question becomes, 'how do we generalize that?' How can we make that into something that other developers from amateurs up to professional development companies can make use of? That can use the same design patterns, the same business models, and build a business from that? That's what we're trying to do with Whirled.

The internet and flash games are a significant opportunity, obviously, and lots of kids are 'graduating' from playing Club Penguin. A lot of people think they're going to go to World of Warcraft and I'm not so sure about that. I think a lot of these kids are going to want to continue with a browser experience. Something that's more indie-created, or even created by them. I think the other element there is that there are a lot of developers in the indie scene right now that have come from big games.

They're used to long work hours, crunch time, and they're pretty sick of it. That's not a very good business model for the companies and not a great lifestyle for the individuals making the games. I've talked with a lot of people who are like "I've done that and now I want to make something for myself." There are a lot of opportunities to do that now. Whether they do iPhone, or XNA, or a flash game ... to my mind making a flash MMO or a mini-MMO experience is a really great opportunity for a couple of talented people to put together. Much more reliable than like a $20 shareware title.

You talk about kids graduating from Club Penguin; do you think that the customizability of Whirled, the ability to contribute to the environment, is what makes you competitive vs. a World of Warcraft? Certainly the prevailing notion seems to be that young people love customization but it's not always immediately apparent.

"I think there will always be a place for well-produced, professional content – like a blockbuster movie at the theater or something on Showtime ... [but] people spend just as much time watching clips on YouTube of people falling off their skateboards nowadays."

Daniel: Yeah, definitely. One of the core experiences, one of the first things you do when you enter Whirled is decorating your room. Immediately that introduces you to the shop, you can buy things and move them around ... but you can also just upload anything you like and put it in there. We're trying to make an environment that's built on the concept of self expression, but also recognizing that there are some people that are just very talented at making things. We'll give people tokens of value so that others can purchase that work, and the creators can get something out of it.

I think people these days are looking for less manicured experiences. I think there will always be a place for well-produced, professional content – like a blockbuster movie at the theater or something on Showtime. That said, there's been a giant shift in attitude. People spend just as much time watching clips on YouTube of people falling off their skateboards nowadays. There's going to be both, for sure, I'm not saying giant MMOs are going to disappear next week. But I like betting on the creativity of the wide open internets.

It certainly sounds interesting, based on the experience and success you folks have had with Puzzle Pirates.

Daniel: It's interesting to make, anyway. We'll see if it pays off!

So that sort of lays the groundwork for why we're doing this rather than Puzzle Pirates in Space. We actually have a really great game design for Puzzle Pirates in Space. Instead we decided to go this way and see if other folks would pick up and use this.

We're building something that is essentially the union of Flash and virtual world. A key component, the big news we're pushing out this week, is that there's a revenue stream where you can charge money for your content. There's a very rich platform for game developers there, a lot of things you can do with the setting.

At the shop, there is a ton of new stuff that people have made. Users are adding more content every day. We now have two currencies in the shop, coins and bars. Most things are pretty inexpensive, maybe an avatar for one bar. Bars are the new hard currency that you buy with cash. If you look at any of the items you can buy then in either currency. The arbitrage we built into Puzzle Pirates between time (for coins) and money (for bars) is completely built-in here as well.

Some folks would rather just grind away at the games to make their coin then actually pay money into the system. If something is priced at about two bars, that's a couple hours' worth of work. That's an important part of Puzzle Pirates' business model. We're hoping it translates to Whirled as well – we think that arbitrage between time and money is important.

How fast has new content been added to the service?

"Our audience is always growing, so we're working towards a tipping point. There's lots of cool stuff here, but all the heavy lifting is done. So the message is, basically: open for business."

Daniel: It's great to be able to log in every day and see new crazy content available. There's something like 154 pages of content here in the shop – many thousands of avatars, wallpapers, and games to choose from. At the low end you have just new furniture or items for your rooms, all the way up to objects with functionality and such – real scripting.

A great example is CorpseCraft, a sort of RTS game with an Edward Gorey look and zombies. We just released a level pack for it, something like 40 new levels, more multiplayer, a bunch of good stuff. It costs 40 bars, which is $4. We're starting to do experiments with this, level packs and additional contents – microtransactional game features that you can decide if you want to chip in for.

Most of the sales going on right now are about Avatars. One of our best Avatar-makers has already hit her first cash-out point, in just the week and a half we've had this available. We hope we'll start to see real money going through there so that game developers can come in and participate with this. Our audience is always growing, so we're working towards a tipping point. There's lots of cool stuff here, but all the heavy lifting is done. So the message is, basically: open for business.

This article was originally published on Massively.