In Toribash, an online fighting game populated by characters that resemble ball-and-stick rag dolls, players design their own black-belt martial arts moves. The resulting movements are hyperrealistic: Lithe fighters leap, cartwheel, and spin-kick one another, severing heads and limbs, notching points for each hit.
But Toribash's founder, Hampus Söderström, didn't want to make just another fighting game. He wanted to create an online community where users could design and share their own fighting techniques alongside the no-holds-barred brawling. So Söderström included a wide range of community building tools—including chat, wikis, and discussion boards—outside of the main game play. The developer's site also hosts an active marketplace where users can sell and buy virtual additions for the game's characters for cash or credits.
In the last two years, Toribash has become a virtual community with more than 42,000 members. Its members even flip-kick one another as they chat, exchange ideas in a public forums, and give direct feedback to the game's developers. On meticulously maintained wiki pages and discussion boards, players collaborate, designing complex fighting moves and sharing combat tips. To date, the game has received almost 30 official updates while gamers have played Toribash more than 3 million times on the official servers, with top players racking up 20,000-plus games.
Microcosm of the Big Players
In many ways, Toribash is a microcosm of what much larger game companies Microsoft (MSFT) and Sony (SNE) are trying to create with their extensive online networks, Xbox Live and Playstation Network—active player communities that generate additional revenue through the sale of digital goods. Microsoft's blockbuster Halo 3, released last fall, put an emphasis on user-generated content and the ability to trade new levels, while Sony is set to release a much-anticipated title, Little Big Planet, that allows players to create objects, levels, and characters and trade them online.
Söderström is a gaming newbie. After 10 years in his native Sweden as a Unix programmer at IBM (IBM) and Swedish telecom companies, he moved to Singapore in 2004. In his spare time, he worked on designing a game that combined simple animation, physics, and user-generated martial arts. Eight months later, he had created Toribash (tori is the Japanese martial arts term for "the defender"). After completing the beta version, Söderström sensed he had come up with something that was both popular and potentially profitable.
But without game industry experience, Söderström also knew he needed help. In 2006, he brought in a community manager, a graphics designer, and a developer to form Nabi Studios. And he quickly adopted the business model of letting users play for free and encouraging them to pay for character enhancements that could fund the company. In Toribash, players win credits with each victory, but they can also buy additional credits with real cash. The average Toribash accessory sells for about $35 (or 35,000 Tori Credits), though Söderström says he recently sold special, limited-edition blood color (the game is often gruesome) for $500. This, says Söderström, is the company's only source of revenue.
The Players Who Pay
It's lucrative, too. So far, Söderström has made enough money to hire four more staffers in Singapore as well as three part-timers around the world. His current challenge is managing the game's virtual economy: So many users are playing games and winning credits—or converting their cash into more Tori Credits—that it's created a glut of credits, driving down their value. "This definitely was not something we initially thought would be part of the game," he says.
Nabi's next project, due in May, is a racing game that lets users "build, race, and crash" their own cars. Like Toribash, the focus will be on innovation and community rather than achieving typical video game goals. "I think it is definitely an advantage for us that we have first-hand interaction with our customers," he said. "Throughout the day, we're constantly interacting. Right now, I'm in our chat network server talking to about 50 people. If we went through publishers we would have no direct feedback." And this open attitude has attracted hard-core players whose creativity has outshined the designers' imaginations. "The game ended up having a lot more depth and humor than I first envisioned," he says.