Outside The Box Software - SocioTown MMO Game Profile

SocioTown MMO

SocioTown was a browser-based 3D MMO. Online for almost a decade, it was a virtual world geared toward teens and was often described as cross between Animal Crossing and The Sims. During its peak, SocioTown had thousands of players playing daily and a vibrant and active community. It also spawned the spin-off SocioTown: Uninvited Guests. SocioTown MMO was in active development for over 8 years making it by far the biggest and longest game we worked on. While the game is currently in stasis and no longer receiving updates, it's still online and can be played if you can get hold of a browser that still supports Adobe Shockwave.

While there are no immediate plans to shutdown the servers, it's possible we might close the servers later this year if it appears we need the server resources. Keep an eye on the Dev Blog or Forum for updates.

[Link to SocioTown.com]

The following Gameology Written By: Chris Evans

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After the successful Pow Pow's Mini-Golf which had a multiplayer online mode and the unreleased CityScape Battle, which was going to be a MMO shoot'em up, we felt we were ready to do a full-scale social virtual world.

However in late 2006, I had to make decision on which project to green light. Around this time I working on Pow Pow's Mini-Golf Adventures and CityScape Battle. Mini-Golf Adventure was going to be a desktop game and sequel to the browser-based Pow Pow's Mini-Golf. Earlier in the year, I had spent around 6 months working on CityScape Battle. It already had a working virtual room lobby system and basic battle mode (which can be seen in the preview trailer). CityScape Battle was definitely pretty far along and was already generating a good amount of interest from players.

But I also wanted to experiment with a hybrid business model of advertisements, subscription model, and micro/game transactions. Of course nowadays micro-transactions and subscriptions are nearly ubiquitous with video games and apps. But in the early/mid 2000s, only web games had advertisements, only the big MMORPGs had subscriptions, and micro-transactions were almost non-existent. By this point we had released Pow Pow's Great Adventure, Pow Pow's Puzzle Attack, Pow Pow's Mini-Golf and BlockHeads Clash. With all those games either we struggled to get enough exposure to achieve a good volume of sales or when we did have strong sales, they would drop off pretty quickly.

So I wanted to come up with a business model that would allow us generate income from a relatively small but loyal audience over the long-term. I would use the “Free to Play” with advertising to help cover costs with free players. At the time, only Korean MMORPGs were using the “Free to Play” model. All the US-based MMOs had subscriptions. But I still would use subscriptions to provide relatively reliable and predictable income. And finally I would use micro-transactions/game currency to help get a good return on adding new content. At the time, the only popular virtual chat world using micro-transactions was Habbo Hotel but hadn't been used much with regular games. So I was going to leverage all these revenue models with SocioTown MMO. Ultimately this was the reason why I chose to proceed with development on SocioTown over CityScape Battle. With CityScape Battle I didn't think it would be able to properly utilize micro-transactions or subscriptions in a way that would make sense or would be appealing.

So in 2007, development on SocioTown began in earnest. Originally it was actually called “SocioCity”. But after awhile, I could tell it was going to be tough dealing with size and scope of a big city virtual world, so I felt it would be better to start smaller (hence, SocioTown). Then maybe down the line perhaps with a sequel I would do “SocioCity”.

One of the big goals I had for SocioTown is that I didn't want it to feel just like a collection of disconnected chat rooms with avatars just teleporting in and out constantly. There were already dozens of those type of chat worlds. Even though I didn't have the resources to create a full featured 100-hour MMORPG, I did want SocioTown to feel closer to a Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) rather than a giant chat room. So I made the decision early on that there would be no teleportation in SocioTown. If you didn't spawn there, then you would have to walk there to get to a particular location. This way if players were walking to the store, they would see other players also walking around town and it just made the town and the world overall seem alive.

Players would also be able to own apartments. While you could spawn in an apartment after the initial login, you couldn't just teleport to people's apartments. You'd have to walk into the apartment building, take the elevator, and goto the appropriate floor. It might sound a little tedious, but again it made SocioTown feel like an actual place and not just a bunch of chat rooms. From a design perspective, it also helped make our relatively small town feel much bigger. I see a lot of big AAA video game developers spend literally millions of dollars crafting beautiful large worlds but they allow the player to teleport or fast travel almost immediately once they reach a checkpoint. This makes their big beautiful world seem much smaller and 90% of the players never interact with or experience much of the game content. The big studios can afford to throw tons and tons of unused content at players, but it really is inefficient game design. As an indie developer, I have to maximize the content I have.

After over a year of intense development, SocioTown was released in March 2008. We had done a few preview trailers and built up an email list, so SocioTown managed to gain some decent activity after just a couple of months. In terms of game progression features, the game was still pretty bare, so I would continue adding new features over the months and then years. Initially there were no jobs. Then they were jobs, but they were non-interactive jobs. Then we had actual interactive jobs and eventually multi-user jobs where players could work at a job during the same time as their friends to make it easier. We also new regions, vehicles, advanced apartment customization, and more.

SocioTown was at its peak from 2009 – 2013. Things began to slow down some in 2014 and in 2015 with Google Chrome killing support for Adobe Shockwave (which SocioTown was based on), that pretty much killed any chance for SocioTown to make a resurgence in its current form. Browser-based games that utilized 3rd party plugins like Shockwave were on death-row. The major web browsers (Google, Firefox, and etc) started pushing HTML5 and began depreciating web plugins. So in 2015 after over 8 years of active development, we stopped development on SocioTown.

SocioTown as of this writing is still up into 2018. There's not much activity anymore because now fewer than 10% of web browsers can play Adobe Shockwave content without modifying the browser. But I just don't have the heart yet to pull the plug. Sometime this year after SocioTown officially reaches 10 years old, I'll probably create a video commentary and then maybe pull the plug after that. A lot also depends if the server resources are needed for the newer games.

The “OTB” Quality

With most of our games we try to have an Outside The Box or “OTB” quality. An element within the game that's either unique or somewhat experimental.

I touched on this in the Development section, but SocioTown was one of the first games to utilize advertisements, subscriptions, and micro-transactions. It was actually ahead of its time in that regard. While micro-transactions has become a bit of a dirty word lately, I felt SocioTown handled it in an upfront and clear way. I got very few complaints from players about the micro-transactions system. The unique revenue model is what helped SocioTown achieve longevity.

SocioTown also had a ton of unique social features, too many to mention here. But one of the main ones was strangers in the game always started out with “???” for their heads. Once a player introduced themselves (by saying their username) then the “???” over the strangers head would turn into their username. This feature was a simple but fantastic way for players to quickly identify players who they haven't met and who they have. If players walked into an area with all the usernames revealed, they can have a nice feeling knowing, “Everybody knows my mine!”. Conversely if the user enters an area with all “???” above players, then they know they're among unfamiliar faces. I'm actually surprised I haven't seen other games or virtual worlds use this system.

One of the other unique social features we had as the “Inner Circle”. The Inner Circle was a chart that showed who were your friends, good friends, or just random acquaintances. Most games just have a binary “Friend” or “Non-Friend”. But SocioTown had a scalar friend system. If two players spent a lot of time together chatting and interacting, their friendship level would increase from Acquaintance, Friend, Good Friend, Best Friend, and Life Long Friend. If players didn't talk for awhile and their friendship level was still on around the Friend or Acquatance level, then the friendship level would decrease because the friendship is isn't solid yet. But once two players became Best Friends or Life Long Friends, then the friendship level would barely decrease due to inactivity because the friendship is strong. However if players spoke a lot of negative words to each other, the friendship level would decrease regardless of what level they were.

It was these unique social features that helped give SocioTown staying power and a loyal player base for so many years even if SocioTown wasn't a household name.


Over its long development, there were many challenges with SocioTown. One of the major challenges occurred in the first year of launch back in 2008. In 2006 – 2007, virtual worlds were all the rage and I was getting quite a bit of interest from potential partners and investors. But just as I prepared to launch SocioTown, virtual worlds began to lose their luster with the wider public and the media. The popular virtual world Second Life is still around doing well, but they never matched their peak from 2007. Growth stopped soon after and they've pretty much stayed frozen at 2008 levels with their userbase.

So with virtual worlds quickly going out of favor in 2008, many of my partnership opportunities dried up. Then in late 2008, the housing/bank crisis happened here in the U.S., which had a devastating effect on small businesses and startups. Most banks would no longer lend to small businesses. This just didn't last for a few months, but for several years. Even today it's still very difficult for small businesses to get bank loans. What this meant was in late 2008, early 2009, I couldn't get a cash infusion to help SocioTown grow at a more rapid rate. Due to our unique revenue model, I was able to successfully bootstrap the game for many years. It was enough to keep the game up and running with some occasional content updates, but not nearly enough to where I could develop new content quick enough to build and retain a large growing userbase. Also with a near zero marketing budget, SocioTown had to rely almost purely on word of mouth.

For 8 years, it felt like we were circling the runway with occasionally enough fuel for a quick 45 minute flight for brunch. But we never had the fuel or capacity to fly cross-country.

The other big challenge was the Adobe Shockwave 3D platform, which SocioTown was built on. In 2007, Shockwave 3D was the only web-browser plugin that could display 3D graphics and dynamically stream in real-time textures and 3D models. All the other web plugins at the time, including Unity had to have every texture or model resources preloaded with the game on startup. This simply would be impractically for a MMOG that was going to continuously have new content. But it was a tough decision. It was between Unity and Shockwave 3D. Unity was the upstart platform with great technology and motivated developers behind it. I spoke to the developers and they were great guys. But it was still a little too new and didn't meet all my project requirements. Shockwave 3D was a more mature product and did meet my project requirements. However it lacked support from Adobe and the 3D capabilities were a bit dated. At the time, it still had a fairly strong developer community, so that made me feel better about the lack of support from Adobe.

In the end, I picked the platform (Shockwave 3D) which had what I needed right then rather than putting my hopes on an unproven platform (Unity) that may or may not live up to expectations. It was a logical and sound decision, but ultimately the wrong decision. Adobe put Shockwave 3D on ice much quicker than I anticipated. By 2009-2010, SocioTown was barely 1-2 years old, yet Shockwave 3D was practically dead at that point. Adobe only did maintenance & security updates with no plans for improvements. The developer community quickly dried up. All of a sudden the pool of Shockwave 3D programmers that I could hire for SocioTown shrunk dramatically. The veterans left for Flash and Unity, and there were no longer no blood learning Shockwave. The effect this had on SocioTown is that it made implementing new game features extremely slow. Players wanted new jobs and new missions, but there just wasn't enough manpower to get them in. Also with Shockwave 3D becoming outdated, every few months I would find an existing software program I used for the asset pipeline would have compatibility issues or just stop working altogether. On top of that, Shockwave wasn't built to use modern version control systems. It became clear SocioTown was sitting on top of dinosaur technology.

As mentioned earlier, the final death blow came when just about all the major web browsers stopped supporting the Shockwave 3D plugin natively in 2015. The Unity web plugin also suffered the same fate with a bunch of browsers no longer supporting the plugin. However from 2007 to 2015, Unity grew into a power-house in the development community. The Unity platform expanded so much that the web plugin was only a very tiny part of their business. Unity projects were now capable of being on the Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, Android, iOS, and more. Most developers who had built Unity web plugin games could just easily move their game to another platform. With Shockwave 3D there wasn't that option. Once the web plugin died, there was no where else to go.

In hindsight, I wish I chose Unity as the underline technology for SocioTown. Sure the first year or two might have been tough because Unity wasn't up to spec yet, but after that period the long-term outlook would have been so much better. One of the biggest challenges with MMOs is choosing the right technology. Most games (particularly mobile apps) nowadays have maybe a 6-12 month lifespan, maybe more if the developer is aggressive with DLCs or content updates. When a game gets its majority of sales in just 6-12 months, then the technology choice isn't as critical. If something better comes along, you can weigh the pros and cons, and move to a new platform or engine with the next game if necessary. But with a MMO, you have to stay married to the original technology you chose at the beginning unless you have the resources to completely overhaul and rewrite the game and associated content. A successful MMO will typically last at least 5 years. The technology I chose for SocioTown in 2007 is what it had to live with to 2015 when development finally stopped. I actually managed to get decent mileage out of Shockwave 3D despite it being a dead platform fairly early in dev cycle. But for all you budding MMO developers out there, make sure you spend a lot of time researching and choosing the technology carefully. Developing a MMO is a marathon not a sprint. A lot of MMOs don't hit their stride until 3rd or 4th year. Also some MMOs have a slow-burn that just keep chugging along. So choosing the right technology is extremely important for longevity. Sometimes a no-name MMO or virtual world can keep chugging along being profitable for the developers if the technology is sound.

Finally, eventually fatigue got to me. The challenges of the project made me feel I could never get ahead of the curve. Also by 2015 – 2016, I was ready to start a completely new game project. SocioTown took up so much oxygen and resources that I mostly worked on SocioTown games for 8 years straight. I worked on a few unreleased projects during that time but none of them got enough velocity to get completed. So I was ready for a change even though my hand was somewhat forced by outside factors.


I have to admit, considering SocioTown was around for so many years and all the unique and groundbreaking things it introduced, it's a little bit disappointing that it never really got much recognition from the media or others in the industry. Perhaps it just flew too under the radar to make a noticeable impact on the larger gaming scene.

While SocioTown MMO never got widespread recognition, the legacy will remain with loyal players who played the game for years. I've received quite a few emails recently from former players who played SocioTown all through their middle school and high school years. Many of them are now in college and they look back fondly on the friendships and bonds they made and the good times they had in SocioTown. Some also mentioned how SocioTown provided an oasis from the difficult things they were going through in their daily life. They appreciated how the community in SocioTown was much more cordial and polite compared to other online communities which were extremely vulgar and abusive. Even with our very small staff, I'm happy we were able to create a relatively safe environment for players All those who volunteered were a big reason for this as well.

In terms of the OTBS game catalogue, the legacy of SocioTown MMO lives on through Uninvited Guests which is a series that we plan to keep going strong for the foreseeable future.