In March 2009, independent games developer Aurora Feint released the OpenFeint social gaming network to a waiting world of iPhone users. Intended to provide a similar sense of community to those found in other social gaming projects like Xbox Live and Steam, OpenFeint offers a cohesive network for iPhone gamers to chat, compare scores, and share the love of their favorite games.

Despite fierce competition from major players like ngmoco, OpenFeint has become something of an industry powerhouse, claiming more than 700 games and 8 million players in a little over eight months. Recently, Aurora Feint has kicked off a number of new initiatives to entice gamers towards their platform. We spent some time with Aurora Feint CEO Jason Citron to discuss everything on the company’s agenda, from the recent release of OpenFeint 2.4 and the OpenFeint Gold program to the announcement of an independent iPhone app.

The upcoming release of the OpenFeint iPhone app marks the first time iPhone gamers will be able to access their accounts directly rather than through a network-enabled game. What prompted the decision? And whyhaven’t we seen this before?

We’ve been kicking around the idea of launching a standalone app for a while.With the new community and discovery features in OpenFeint 2.4, it just made sense to create a destination for players. The ongoing free game of the day promotion & social app recommendations along with instant messaging and forums gives people a reason to come back and launch the app every day.

You mention that the iPhone app will include a free game of the day promotion. Will this be a showcase for different free games using the OpenFeint platform, or will this be an opportunity for users to get their hands on paid games at zero cost?

Initially, we’ll be showcasing free games using OpenFeint, but I expect the daily promotions to evolve. We’ve had a few suggestions for getting developers to make their games free — kind of like how the Appvent Calendar worked before the holidays. Definitely an interesting idea. Maybe we’ll call it Feint Friday 😉

Speaking of zero cost, will the iPhone app be available free of charge?

Yep. The OpenFeint app will free.

In a recent conversation with Gamezebo over Twitter, an OpenFeint representative confirmed that a web-based account solution was also in the works. Can you tell us a little about that?

I can’t comment too much on this specifically, but I will tell you that we have big plans for our website. I expect it to play an increasing role in how players interact with their friends, games, and the broader OpenFeint community.

You’ve recently upgraded the OpenFeint platform to version 2.4 and made some pretty dramatic changes, many of which will be showcased in the upcoming iPhone app. What can gamers expect to see when they log into 2.4 for the first time?

We’ve taken the best of Xbox Live’s community features and mashed them together with what you might expect from an online community like Steam or Pogo.com. So you’ll see things like forums, IM, avatar photos, favorite game lists, game recommendations, etc. My favorite feature is knowing when my friends are online and being able to instant message them without quitting the game. Oh, and of course the newlook and feel of the user interface. I really hope players enjoy it!

Aurora Feint has also recently launched the OpenFeint Gold program to showcase great games. Tell us about it.

OpenFeint Gold is kind of like an award that means a game isawesome.Each month we will announce one game that has joined the ranks of Gold and the developer will “relaunch” the title. It’s not a program that can be bought into or anything else funny. It’s strictly merit based. It’s not a publishing program and we don’t take any revenue from a developer.For developers, getting a game to go Gold means massive exposure to our 8 million players (and growing) as well as access to free marketing from OpenFeint’s budget for display ads on popular websites, among other things.

Lots of people ask me, “How do you pick Gold games?” The answer isn’t so cut and dry and is actually very subjective.90% of the decision boils down to one question “Is this game incredible?” The other 10% of the decision is based on great usage of OpenFeint. And for games that don’t meet the criteria — we’ll help them out with suggestions on how to improve their game and really utilize social features. Simple as that.

The immensely popular tower defense game Fieldrunners was selected as the first OpenFeint Gold title. Along with gold certification came a long-awaited update featuring new maps, enemies and tower types. Will Gold certification always be accompanied by a significant update, or was this simply good timing on everyone’s part?

I’d love to launch Gold titles with significant new content, but ultimately the program is designed to tell players about great games. If you already have the game then you can take pride in knowing you’ve played an amazing one. And this is subject to change of course. If players tell us they want new content then maybe we’ll require it, but not right now. Anyway, it was great timing with Fieldunners.

Geocadealso works on Google Android, making it the first portable gaming network to go cross-platform. Are there similar plans in OpenFeint’s future?

OpenFeint will be going cross platform to Google Android. It’s just a question of when.

OpenFeint is currently boasting stats of more than 700 games and 8 million users, more than any of your competitors. What is OpenFeint doing right that everyone else is doing wrong?

Being more awesome? lol. In all seriousness, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things many of which I don’t even realize. I can say with certainty thatfirst mover advantage and our intimate connection with iPhone game development from building Aurora Feint gave us an incredible lead. Most importantly, perhaps, is staying humble.

Chillingo is working on their yet-to-be-launched competitor CrystalSDK. Despite this, both Defender Chronicles and Minigore, two of Chillingo’s biggest games, have opted to use the OpenFeint platform. Is this a bad sign for Chillingo?

We’ll have to wait and see what they do, but having some of their biggest games on OpenFeint is probably not a good way to launch a competing platform.

Is there any concern that Apple might introduce their own platform-wide social gaming platform, eliminating the need for third-party solutions?

Not particularly. I’m not going to say more than that. A proper answer to this question and all the rebuttals it would get is a four page essay. Perhaps another time!

It’s been a little over 6 months since we’ve seen an update in your popular Aurora Feint puzzle series. Any chance we’ll be seeing an Aurora Feint III?

Definitely. When? Not sure. Oh those elusive game designers! 😉