Latest in 360idev

Image credit:

360iDev: The future of Jason Citron's OpenFeint


OpenFeint's VP of Engineering, Jakob Wilkerson, took the stage here at 360iDev in San Jose to talk about something most people might not have expected: Game Center. Ever since Apple's official social gaming network was announced last week, the question's been in the air about what will happen to all of those unofficial gaming networks, of which OpenFeint is the largest. Wilkerson took the news in stride, however. As CEO Jason Citron told us last week, OpenFeint isn't going anywhere, and as you can see from their chart above, OpenFeint still believes that they can build more social game services, in the form of OpenFeint X, on top of Apple's official offerings.

Wilkerson talked about Game Center in terms of potential; he used examples from OpenFeint to explain how implementing leaderboards and friends lists in the right ways can really open up player interest in a game. OpenFeint often talks internally about bringing, both, hardcore and casual game players into the fold, and their different online features target those various audiences.

We also got a chance to talk to Citron again regarding his thinking about OpenFeint so far, and what the company plans to do when Apple unveils its official plan. Read on for more.

Wilkerson said that OpenFeint's challenges and multiplayer modes are connecting players on the iPhone in all sorts of new ways, and that developers should start implementing online features very early. Once Game Center is out, he said, players will expect online services in games, so developers should learn as soon as possible how to implement them well.

Then, at the end of the presentation, he even said that "OpenFeint is Game Center beta." In other words, developers can use OpenFeint now to figure out how they'll implement Game Center later. We later talked with Jason Citron about what he sees as the future of the company. The full interview with Citron is below.

TUAW: We just saw Jakob speak, and from what he said, what you really want to do is be an ambassador for Game Center, which is kind of surprising. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Jason Citron of OpenFeint: Sure. Basically what we want to do is, the core of our business so far has been these online game services -- leaderboards, achievements, matchmaking, and so on. The division of my company in OpenFeint is Xbox Live meets Facebook app platform, for iPhone. So, what we've built so far is primarily the Xbox Live piece. Now, Apple has come in and said, "We like that." So they've validated the first half of my vision, which is really cool, as an entrepreneur. So, they've picked up the baton and said, now we're going to carry this forward, and Game Center is going to be the online services for iPhone.

Which is really great. We have 30 people working on Aurora Feint, and running these services costs a lot of time and money, and takes a lot of time and energy, and there's really no money to be made in it. OpenFeint is not profitable, it's not making enough money to sustain itself. The Facebook app platform part of it, however, is very much based around a business model, the free-to-play virtual goods and microtransaction games. So basically, because Apple has come in and picked up the baton for online game services, I'm now able to take my team and my energy to focus on the social game services on the Facebook side. We're going to continue to support the online game services -- we will not be shutting them down. And for developers who want to get ready for Game Center to get their game ready, make sure they're not going to be left behind when it does launch in six months or so, they can start working with OpenFeint now and get the experience of building leaderboards and achievement-based games, and we'll provide a seamless ramp between their players and their games over to Game Center.

Yeah. And if you could talk a little bit about that, too -- we don't know much about Game Center, we've only seen screenshots, but that's about it. One thing Jakob said was, there's basically the two ways that you guys are thinking about how to move these things over to OpenFeint, either through an API or with a program yourself. What's your thinking about that?

My guess is that what they'll do is, they'll have a central app that aggregates all of the game stuff together, like the OpenFeint app, or the Xbox Live dashboard, but they'll also have OpenFeint APIs used inside of the games, much like OpenFeint APIs, so that you'll have high scoreboards and leaderboards and all of that kind of stuff. So, as far as for integrating, the way that we would transition people across, it ultimately depends on what Apple provides.

You have at least ideas of what you think they'll provide.

Yeah, we know they're going to provide at least client functions so developers can obviously submit scores to leaderboards. So, at the absolute worst case, we can provide a transition process that happens on the clients, so when a player starts up a game and adds the Game Center to it, it opens up the Game Center, creates an account, and moves the scores over for your game. But in a best-case scenario, Apple would give us access via server APIs to push high score data over to your games, so you could maybe go to our website and say these are my Apple leaderboards, these are my OpenFeint leaderboards, match them up like this -- go! And then any users that we know about who have Apple live would automatically sync them up.

You've said that it's very expensive to run the OpenFeint services that you have now, and then the chart that you showed had the Apple side and the OpenFeint side, and whatever Apple doesn't take, OpenFeint will. But if Game Center is out there, why would you still continue to run leaderboards? What's the reason for keeping up that stuff if Apple is taking care of it?

We don't want to walk away from all of our partners. If you're building a game and you like OpenFeint, and you think the features we provide are better or more innovative or differentiate your game in some way, we're going to let you keep using it. Features like, in Jet Car Stunts, they have this Action Replay thing, where you go to the leaderboard and you can watch someone else race. So we plan to continue supporting that stuff. And to the extent that Apple will let us actually build it on top of their system, we'll do that. But I guess it goes down to, we don't want to abandon our partners.

Have you heard from Apple at all during any of this? I'm kind of surprised that Apple didn't just buy you all out and then expand it from there. Look at CoverFlow, Quattro, PA Semi, and all of these things. Have they talked to you? Are you surprised that they didn't buy you out?

We've talked to them in many capacities. I can't comment specifically on if we've had acquisition talks or anything. They're a really funny company. I'm honestly not surprised by the things that they do any more,as surprising as you might expect them to be. It's really hard to say.

And it's an interesting decision to make, to try to do this thing from scratch, when clearly you have companies like yours who have been working on it for so long. For your own games, in terms of Aurora Feint, are you looking to bring in Game Center right away, or are you planning to stick with OpenFeint?

I think it really depends on how Game Center launches, when it launches. But, pretty much, when it's available, we'll begin using it. One of the statements I made in my presentation was that every game will be an online game this Christmas. And I think that if Game Center launches with enough time, every game will use Game Center. It depends on if they launch it, basically, and when it comes out.

And until then, it's OpenFeint from here on out, right?

Yeah, OpenFeint is alive and we're continuing to support it, we've got some new cool stuff coming out. I think the most important thing is, looking forward at Game Center, it's going to make players expect that stuff in their games. The amount of hype that Apple is generating. So as a developer, we want to make sure that you as a developer know how to take advantage of these features. What we've seen is that most games don't, most developers actually screw it up. And it takes one or two big games, or iterations, before they get it right. So, the sooner you start experimenting with this stuff now, the more likely you are to be there when it becomes stable. If you start experimenting with OpenFeint.

I haven't seen much on OpenFeint X so far, but I presume it's something you started before Game Center was announced. Did you bump up the timetable because of Game Center?

We announced OpenFeint X in February, and we launched a pre-alpha version inside of Aurora Feint 3. And we use it for our analytics and measuring, all the stuff we have in there, and remote tuning. And we're lauching a partner game next month with it as well.

Were you planning on doing that before Game Center?

Yes, this was all before Game Center. Now, with the advent of Game Center, because Apple has now picked up the baton for this, and I expect by them launching Game Center, the amount of effort we have to put into keeping online services going will be less. I mentioned we have five million achievements submitted, it's like a few million a day. When Game Center comes out, that should drop significantly, which will lower the amount of cost I have to spend on that. And I'll be able to take those extra resources and put them on OpenFeint X, the social resources that will generate our revenue.

I have to say, I've been impressed, since Aurora Feint, at how agile the company seems. You guys seem like you are ready to jump into whatever gets thrown at you -- you're ready to work with however the company works. Thanks very much.

Cool. Thank you.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr