New Social Game TheBlu Debuts with a Splash, But Will It Make an Impact?

A big party in Times Square is impressive, but it's hard to beat Zynga for sheer addictiveness.

The view from the party.

Whoever planned the launch party for TheBlu,  a new social-game-cum-consciousness-raising-art-experiment, did not skimp on showmanship. On the second floor of the NASDAQ MarketSite, flat-screen televisions offered glimpses of the undersea habitats awaiting those who download the game (currently available only on Mac and PC). Down below, a t-shirt-clad squad of pamphleteers fanned across Times Square, while fish swam lazily across the screens looming above them.

Boot up TheBlu, and you’ll find yourself hovering under the sea, just above a coral reef. The game focuses on exploration, rather than accomplishing predetermined tasks. You purchase your own fish and release them into the open ocean; other users fish float through your patch of reef. Click a fish that swims by, and a little pop-up menu will provide more information about the species, as well as the user that owns that individual fish. And that, in a nutshell, is the entire experience.

As one might expect from such a description, while heavily sprinkled with ultra-professional workwear and even one rather spectacular sequined minidress, the small-but-boisterous gathering was dominated by ocean lovers. But these weren’t mere beach enthusiasts. Moving among the crowd were Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, and Andy Jones, who took home one of Avatar‘s visual effects Oscars. At one point, Betabeat turned around to find Neil Young mere inches away.

The remarks that followed only strengthened the impression that we’d been gathered for some environmental good, with nary a mention of money-making imperatives. Cofounder Neville Spiteri kicked off the festivities by explaining that, “TheBlu is really about immersing oneself in the beauty and appreciation of the ocean,” he said, as well as “having this global connectivity and collaboration.”

He also gave a shoutout to their nonprofit collaborators: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Ocean Elders (hence Mr. Young’s presence), Wild Aid, the Ocean Preservation Society, and Mission Blue.

Mr. Spiteri quickly ceded the podium to fellow Blu crew member Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, who bounded up and cried, “Well, let’s hear it for TheBlu!” Informing the audience she’d been exploring the ocean since before most of us were born, she proceeded to sound the alarm on behalf of the world’s beleagured marine ecosystems. “The biggest problem of all,” she said, “is that people do not know that the ocean matters to them.” TheBlu promises to be “an ambassador from the fish to us and from us back to the fish and the other creatures who live in the sea.”

Next up was advisory board member Mr. Psihoyos, who imparted the rather gloomy tidbit that his current project is about the Earth’s sixth major extinction–i.e., the one we’re living through–before expressing optimism about TheBlu’s potential.

“I have a lot of faith that, once people see what is going on down there in the ocean, they’ll want to save it,” he said.

With all that talk about ambassadorship, one could be forgiven for assuming TheBlu is merely a massive nonprofit consciousness-raising campaign. Not true, says cofounder Scott Yara (also a cofounder of big data analytics firm Greenplum, now a subsidiary of EMC): “It’s a total for-profit business,” he told Betabeat.

The business model is pretty simple: social gaming, monetized via virtual goods. Players can purchase their own virtual fish and release them into the deep, then when anyone else clicks that fish, they’ll get a ping. In many cases, a cut of the revenue goes to organizations like the Ocean Elders.

Mr. Yara is also firmly convinced of the model’s scalability. The cofounders self-financed the initial up-front costs, but now that TheBlu is up and running, they’ve opened the platform to artists worldwide who might want to contribute in exchange for the possibility of royalties on each virtual item sold.

He also offered a little insight into the project’s big-picture goals: “There are several billion people on the Internet today but nothing ever feels like the Olympics, when everyone is focused on one thing at the same time.” With that in mind, they set out to create this global, collaborative, connected experience. “The whole point is that your part of the ocean is connected to everybody else’s,” Mr. Yara explained.

The game’s interface is oddly mesmerizing, capturing some of the blissed-out appeal of SCUBA diving. But that very pleasant quality also inspires some doubt about TheBlu’s business model. The problem is that lacks the addictive gaming mechanics of a Farmville. Simply adding fish to an extant ecosystem lacks a certain dopamine-firing oomph.

Perhaps Mr. Psihoyos was onto something when he suggested a purchased fish might immediately be scooped, or a coral reef acidified: Save the ocean, or the virtual fish gets it.

  New Social Game TheBlu Debuts with a Splash, But Will It Make an Impact?