With its challenging click management gameplay and spunky hero Flo, the Diner Dash series is the crown jewel in PlayFirst’s game catalogue. However, after 200 million downloads, two successful sequels, portable versions for the Nintendo DS, Sony PSP and mobile phones, and a SpongeBob Squarepants-themed spin-off, the big question for PlayFirst heading into 2007 was "what next?"
Not content to rest on its laurels, PlayFirst looked closely at websites like Gaia Online, Maple Story, Pogo and Puzzle Pirates for inspiration for the next Diner Dash game. The result, Diner Dash: Hometown Hero, introduced micro-transactions, user-generated content and multiplayer modes to the series.
Speaking at a panel at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Kenny Shea Dinkin, VP and Creative Director at PlayFirst, said that the innovations behind Diner Dash: Hometown Hero were an attempt to address some alarming trends in the industry: namely, rising development costs and a more crowded market combined with the fact that only about 2% of customers download the full version of a game after finishing the demo. The key question was how to keep a game alive (and making money) once it falls out of a portal’s Top 10 list.
Multiplayer isn’t common in casual games because, as fellow panellist PlayFirst CTO Brad Edelman put it, "it makes things more complicated." PlayFirst’s first experience with online multiplayer came in a joint project with Hasbro called Connect Four Cities, which was like "playing checkers on the side of a building." The designers assumed that players would enjoy playing against other real people rather than just the computer, so they added a feature for two human players to challenge each other.
They built it, but the players didn’t come. Edelman called it a learning experience, but one that "didn’t discourage us from believing in multiplayer and social gameplay."
One of the keys to making multiplayer work in Hometown Hero was authenticity. "You can’t just shove new models into this property that everyone loves," cautioned Dinkin. "You have to be very careful."
Two players compete for the high-score in competitive multiplayer mode
The team brainstormed ways of adapting the Diner Dash click management model for two players. One early idea was putting the second player in the kitchen, so that one cooks and the other serves the food. Dinkin then realized that teamwork was present among waiters in a restaurant already; for example, if someone had to clean up a spilled drink, the other person would have to cover their tables. This also created competition, because the person who covered the tables would also get the tips.
They settled on a competitive mode where two waiters compete to serve the same customers and achieve the highest score. Conventional wisdom told them that women (Diner Dash‘s primary audience) hated competitive play, so a collaborative mode was also added with a single score that both players contribute to. As it turns out, the competitive mode seemed more fun and was slightly better received by audiences.
Avatars and micro-transactions
Since players couldn’t both be Flo in multiplayer mode, it was decided that each person would get to create their own avatar to put in the game. PlayFirst had already tested the waters for this in Diner Dash: Flo on the Go, the third game in the series, which introduced a feature called "Flo’s Closet." The story of Flo on the Go was contrived around the fact that poor Flo kept losing her suitcase as she travelled, and players had to use the money they earned in-game to buy new outfits to dress Flo up.
Diner Dash: Hometown Hero took "Flo’s Closet" a step further. Players could buy cool new outfits for their waiter and scenery pieces to create their own custom diners using real-world currency, for as low as $0.79 per item, then upload their creations to DinerDash.com for others to enjoy.
The creepy Crypt Cafe expansion was launched in time for Hallowee’en
Players could also purchase new restaurants for $4.99 each that continued the escapades of Flo and Granny while offering a new restaurant theme with new levels to play. In the Caveman Cafe expansion, for example, Grandma builds a time machine out of a microwave that accidentally transports her and Flo to the prehistoric era.
PlayFirst incorporated "Coming Soon" stars onto the game’s main map to give people the idea that parts of the game are still under construction. The map can theoretically keep expanding indefinitely, as long as there’s new content still being added.
A call to arms
Did it work? Yes. According to PlayFirst, Diner Dash: Hometown Hero was the fastest-selling game ever on PlayFirst.com. What’s more, 57% of players who bought the game were first-time buyers who had never purchased a full game before. More than half of the transactions in Hometown Hero came from items that cost less than $5. Since the game came out about five months ago, half a million multiplayer games have been played, and 70,000+ waiters and 50,000+ diners have been uploaded to the site.
Edelman pointed out that these numbers aren’t great, but notes that the stats are only from PlayFirst.com. Other than PlayFirst.com, Yahoo! was the only other portal to host Diner Dash: Hometown Hero. Edelman surmised that one of the reasons more developers aren’t doing cool things like Hometown Hero is that it’s harder to sell such a product – it makes the portals nervous.
Players can buy new clothes for their avatars and upload their creation to DinerDash.com
The game was a learning experience for PlayFirst as well. The database crashed more than once, which is more catastrophic for a game like Hometown Hero that is powered by content from the Web because not only can you not get new customers, but the existing ones can’t play either. Dinkin said another mistake was not putting a preview area in the store for people to see how items will look on their avatars before purchasing them. PlayFirst recently launched PlayGold virtual currency, which allows players to make small purchases without having to charge ther credit card every time.
In spite of the bumps along the way, Dinkin called Diner Dash: Hometown Hero a call to arms. "This category [casual games] is changing. If we want to think about ways to breathe new life into it to have a vibrant category where games aren’t just commodities … we have to innovate around the business models."