This week, Lexington video game company Frogdice will celebrate the recent launch of its third game and its first foray into the kind of casual gaming that's become popular with the advent of social networks such as Facebook.
Coin 'n Carry, in which players act as medieval shopkeepers and sell items they make, is "really what we see as the beginning of the future of the company," said CEO Michael Hartman.
Frogdice's two previous games, Threshold and Primordiax, were aimed at a niche market, a small but loyal base of gamers who prefer role-playing computer games that have text but no graphics or minimal ones.
"The things we were always best at were community and social experience," said Hartman, whose games have spawned conventions in Lexington that attract gamers from around the world. "Right now, the mass market has moved to what we're good at. Now is our time."
Coin 'n Carry, available at Coinncarry.com, includes many of the elements that make for successful social games. Gamers play mini-games to earn the resources they need to make items for their shops. Some of the mini-games include matching jewels or picking pairs of cards that contain the same image.
"We know from our own games that people love mini-games," said Hartman, who runs the company with his wife, Pang, who is vice president and creative director. "They're easy, bite-size, and you can play them when you're taking a break from other games."
The resources you earn in those mini-games are then used in another game in which you craft the items you sell in your shop.
Coin 'n Carry also allows you to customize your shop and upgrade it to attract more customers, and earn gear that lets you get advantages "like increase your crafting time," Hartman said. Various leaderboards rank you against others.
"We wanted to make this an extremely accessible game that anybody could play: kids, hard-core gamers and older people," he said. "We wanted it to be fun for everyone."
Sarah Ballard of Birmingham, Ala., was a beta tester and said she liked that the games could be played quickly.
"You can do a full cycle of 10 mini-games, crafting and selling items in your shop in about 15 to 20 minutes and then go back to work or whatever else you were doing," she said.
And the game doesn't require constant play to do well. "If you want to want to stay high on the leaderboards, then obviously you'll want to play more, but there's no real negative consequence if you didn't have time to play for a few days," Ballard said.
She said that's a nice contrast to other social games "where you fall too far behind if you don't play constantly and, after a while, the game loses its appeal because of that."
Another beta tester, Marcia Tiersky of Falls Church, Va., said the social aspect of the game was clear as "I have a group of friends and I can exchange items with them, which makes all of us more successful in the game.
"I like to try to get in the top 10 overall for each game each day. I don't always make it, but it's fun to try."
Production on Coin 'n Carry began in October, and the medieval theme was chosen so Frogdice's existing customers "would feel comfortable in our games," Hartman said. In fact, one mini-game is a trivia contest that incorporates some questions from the mythology of Threshold, which launched in the mid-1990s, and Primordiax, which debuted in 2009.
Unlike many other social Web-based games, Frogdice has opted to keep the game off Facebook for reasons including that the social network requires companies to use its monetization system.
Instead, Coin 'n Carry is available on Android mobile devices, and Frogdice is seeking to introduce it on Apple's mobile operating system soon.
Frogdice's revenue from the game will come through players purchasing medallions that can be used to unlock certain mini-games, purchase gear or increase crafting time. The game uses the same medallion system that's part of Primordiax, so players can use the money in either game. Prices start at $10 and go up to hundreds of dollars.
"The game is totally playable without spending money," Hartman said. "But if you do spend money, things can go faster and can be more efficient."
The five-person team that developed the game — both Hartmans, two programmers and an artist — set a goal to make sure the game feels free and not a ploy to get people to spend.
"Some of the big knocks on free-to-play games is they don't feel free to play," Michael Hartman said. "That's not our way. Our goal is if we make the game fun enough and give them enough value to spend money on, then they'll spend it.
"That's why Threshold has an over 95 percent monetization rate, which for free-to-play games is a ludicrous average."
Coin 'n Carry also represents the start of a major change for the company, as it will soon bring on three permanent staffers beyond the husband-and-wife team. Previously, Frogdice used free-lancers.
The first hire will be a full-time artist who is moving to Lexington from Maryland, Hartman said. The company is searching for two part-time programmers.
Their tasks will be to continue to build on the social game base started by Coin 'n Carry. In development now are five games, including a tycoon simulation and one that's a "really unique" tower defense and shooter game, Hartman said.
That's just the start, as the company has pledged to have seven employees by 2014 as part of a decision by the state government to give Frogdice an $80,000 forgivable loan to buy software and other equipment.
"The last two years have been awesome for the company," Hartman said. "We're finally getting to where we wanted to be originally."