For the longest time, we (as in, people who work in casual games) have been talking about going multiplayer, adding avatars, offering virtual goods, and the like. Everyone who is anyone is working on it behind closed doors (or so they say…) but finally, someone has actually launched a product. Last week, Boonty officially launched Cafe.com. We chatted with Co-founder and President Mathieu Nouzareth to learn more and to share with you what could be the next big thing in casual games.

With the exception of card games and other simple offerings, casual gaming has largely been a single-player activity. How does Cafe.com ease players into a social experience?

In the offline world, casual gaming has been primarily a social experience for thousands of years – the first social casual games we know of date back to 2000 B.C. More recently, people began gathering at cafes to play chess and other games. In the late 20th century, casual games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary or even poker and many other games have been played in a social context.

So Cafe.com is just bringing these very old habits of playing together into the online world. It is often a very good pretext to get together with friends, spend quality, unstressed time with them and challenge them (but I think social casual games are less about competition than challenge). That’s why we chose the name Cafe.com. In Asia, social casual game platforms are even used for dating!

Most games at Cafe.com can be played single player, 1-to-1, team-against-team or one-to-many. We wanted to have the most flexible gameplay models possible, as we reckoned that gamers have so many different ways of playing. In terms of features, you have in-game chatting, avatar customization, a lobby and table to play with others, high scores, and soon many other features. You can even go to Cafe.com just to chat and never play if you want! The only things we do not provide are espresso and café lattes.

Explain how Cafe.com’s current games, which appear to be built on tried-and-true gameplay models, integrate the new social experience.

There are different ways to play with your friends. In some games you just have the same type of experience as tried-and-true game play. Take Music Connect for example – you just play side by side with up to 5 other players. The winner is the fastest to finish.

Of course you can interact with others by chatting or sending them items (“virtual goods”). You also have your customizable 3D avatar persona, which in some games will even be displayed in the game.

For some other games, interaction is stronger and you can really interact with the gameplay of others. As time goes by, we will be taking more risks, publishing very innovative games with new models for gameplay.

Cries for innovation in casual games have been heard for quite some time. Is social interaction and multiplayer gaming the answer?

It is true that innovation in the casual game space has been abysmal in the last 5 years. Long-term, I do not think it is sustainable to sell sequel #12 of a great single-player casual game. I think consumers will want something else. Who wants another single player brickbuster game? So what’s left? We believe that interest in this space has to be driven by a good mixture of content and community and not just pure content (which is still very important).

We do think social gaming in a “free-to-play” environment offers a lot of advantages that will contribute to new advancements in the field, such as:

  • Zero barrier to entry since it is high quality games
  • Higher conversion ratios (much higher than the official 1% conversion ratios of try-before-you-buy)
  • More time spent playing because you play with others
  • Viral marketing
  • The gameplay experience is richer when played with others
  • Players will have MORE FUN!
Eventually, given those advantages, playing in a social context will entice entirely new gameplay (game developers and publishers note!). It is also up to developers and publishers to fine tune their games so that people play in a social context.

In terms of addressable market, we are focusing solely on the connected PC for now. There are a billion Internet users around the world today and there will be 2 billion 5 years from now. And I can guarantee that all those people are social casual gamers, the market is HUGE and will grow quickly in the foreseeable future.

Let’s talk about your avatars, which appear to be one of the most exciting features on Cafe.com. How much content is available for users to customize their own persona?

Since we have a downloaded application, we can have very high quality 3D rendering (we tap directly into directx). We have today 12 avatars with clothes, animations (linked to our built-in chat system) and capabilities. We will be releasing new avatars on a regular basis, so people should check back often at Cafe.com. Also we will release special edition avatars. If your readers have some ideas, they should not hesitate to send us them to us at avatar@cafe.com.

Some avatars and clothes are free, some are cost a small premium. We also have a virtual currency system (much like the Linden dollar from Second Life) that we call “Gold Coins.” Avatar customization and special avatars are quite cheap (a few cents to a few dollars). And during the beta test, you can get gold coins for free!

How are the avatars integrated into the overall experience on Cafe.com?

Avatars are usually displayed in the lobby and at the game table. No matter where you are, though, you are linked to our built in chat system. When it makes sense, you will also find your avatar in the game itself. So let’s imagine we launch a 3D tennis game: your avatar will be playing against the avatar of your opponent (much like what you have on Wii).

Also you can export your avatar as a jpeg image and use it wherever you want, in MySpace, on your blog, etc.

Player skills are an important part of the casual gaming experience. How will you respond to concerns that the opportunity to purchase gameplay abilities on Cafe.com diminishes the value of player skills?

Cafe.com games are designed in a manner that items can never be the decisive factor in winning. Items are designed to help players have more fun and add a little excitement to the game. Some items are single use, some items can only be won by playing and being better than others, some items can be permanent or dependent on a game level.

People are inundated with advertising messages throughout each day, and now ads are making their way into games. How will the marketing messages on Cafe.com be integrated into the overall experience? Will it be more subtle than, for example, a sports star holding a popular soft drink in front of the camera during a movie?

I think that if the advertisement does not interfere and is relevant, consumers don’t mind it and may welcome it due to relevance or context. We are not into “in-game’ advertising or product placement but rather “around-game” advertising. We do not want to disturb the game experience. Since most of our games are played within a windowed environment, an advertiser can offer a contextual advertising outside game play. They can also sponsor and wrap an entire game just for a specific part of the community (one that is relevant). Advertisers can also sponsor free avatar and game items thereby having players see the sponsorships as adding to the game play.

How can you do all of this for free? What’s the catch?

We think a portion of users will want to pay a very small price to enhance their game experience either by buying small performance boosts or to customize their avatar. The other source of revenue is advertising. Given the exceptional session time people play, this will yield significant revenue. Of course we will share revenues on “boosts” and advertising with our publishing/development partners

Discuss the evolution of Cafe.com from the moment of inspiration through the realization of that idea.

I had the idea of social casual games during a trip in Korea in 2004. I was amazed with games like Kart Rider, Freestyle Basketball and many other free-to-play games, not just because of how many people played these games, but socialized around them.

We started researching this market and saw that the casual game market was potentially much larger one in terms of users, as every person is already a social gamer in the offline world. Kart Rider alone has 12 million players. QQ, which few people outside of China have even heard of, is the largest online game platform in the world.

That’s when we decided to do our own solution, one where we could really focus on truly casual gamers and not just the younger generation. Along the road we found a great game studio in Beijing called Gamehub and we liked them so much we bought them.

We’re very proud of how Cafe.com has turned out. It’s the work of up to 100 people for many months. We’re equally excited about all the great things we can do with it in the future.

Why is this the right time for a site like Cafe.com to launch?

There are a lot of individual reasons, individual trends, that all point to the conclusion that this was the perfect time to launch Cafe.com. The online casual gaming market has been showing enormous growth, casual gamers are becoming more and more mature, broadband penetration is ever increasing, microtransactions are proving to be an extremely popular model (as seen with the success of Habbo Hotel, Runescape, and Second Life), advertising budgets are increasing and a larger percentage is going toward online advertising, social networks are not just for teenagers anymore…the list goes on!

To the casual gamer, Boonty is a place for downloading casual games, but behind the scenes, the company is much more than a portal. Briefly discuss the evolution of Boonty and what you feel your strengths as a company are going into 2007.

I believe we are probably one of the foremost global experts in casual gaming. We have been selling casual games for up to 6 years in certain countries and sell them in about 30 countries today. I could explain all the local differences, the influence of billing systems, the different business models, etc.

The company started in 2001 with the ambition to change the gaming industry by making it easier and more cost effective to distribute video games while creating an entire ecosystem of video games for consumers to access. We also wanted to access the vast and untapped casual market space – we saw a huge opportunity there. We started on the distribution value chain by offering digital downloads. We learned a lot very quickly, built up a first-rate management team, and in a few short years we had offices in New York, Singapore and Tokyo.

Now, we see the larger growth potential in creating a whole new social community ecosystem and gold coin economy around social casual games.

In what areas would you like to see Boonty enhance its services and performance?

We’re looking forward to adding more social networking features (such as personal home pages) and more languages, enhancing the user-experience, and of course, adding more great games.

Discuss your plans for expanding Cafe.com and the concept of social casual gaming in the near future. What new games and features can players expect?

We will certainly launch new games on a regular basis, check back by the end of the month we will announce “Same Not Same?,” a very simple yet very addictive game: you have 2 images and need to find the differences between the two images in the shortest amount of time against your competitors. We will also launch Egypt Quest but cannot talk too much about the gameplay for now. We will also announce soon some striking partnerships for second- and third-party publishing very soon. I think people will be surprised to see who we are working with on this.

We will also launch new features. At Casual Connect we demoed IM integration. We have our own chat system but we did not want to have our own IM system, because we thought it would be stupid to reinvent the wheel. So when you open Cafe.com for the first time you will be able to import your buddies from different IM systems such as Yahoo IM, Skype and many others. Cafe.com will then communicate directly with those apps.

We also plan to launch many other features. We have about 100 people working on this new service split between New York, Paris, Mumbai, Singapore and Beijing. So come back often, Cafe.com is open!

Check out Cafe.com for yourself!