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With new 50 Cent Blackjack game, Waltham-based GSN Digital increases emphasis on Facebook games

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 21, 2012 10:55 AM

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When you think about teams creating Facebook games in Boston, the first place that comes to mind is the Harvard Square office of Zynga, the publicly-traded games studio.

But out along Route 128, there's another group hard at work on Facebook games: the Waltham office of GSN Digital, the game development arm of TV's Game Show Network. The 105-person office divides its time between developing web-based games for GSN.com, mobile games, and Facebook games — but lately, there has been a growing emphasis on the latter, according to Peter Blacklow, who runs the operation. (That's Blacklow at right, sporting a pair of the championship rings he has won playing fantasy sports.)

GSN Digital has just launched "50 Cent's Blackjack" on Facebook, a collaboration with the rap star. It has a 25-person social games studio in San Francisco, and last year hired two social games entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C., who'd formerly been working on a Bain Capital Ventures backed start-up called Join the Company. (Blacklow said he simply hired the founders, though Bain's website describes it as an acquisition.)

GSN Digital exists in Waltham because GSN acquired a local company that developed web-based games, Worldwinner. (Worldwinner allowed users to play games of skill and, if they were good enough, win cash.) Blacklow says that GSN.com is now the #3 games portal online, after Yahoo and Pogo. On Facebook, the GSN Games app is among the top 20 apps, and it includes games like "Wheel of Fortune," "Bingo Blitz," and "Deal or No Deal."

"Last year, we launched 30 games into the Facebook app," says Christian Meyer, an SVP at GSN Digital. "This year, we'll do that many or more." (One that's in the works is an arcade-style motocross racing game.)

Attracting users through Facebook "is a little like paying rent at the mall," says Meyer, alluding to the rising cost of acquiring players. "The mall attracts lots of people, and as long as you can afford the rent, it's great." GSN generates revenues from players through advertising and the sale of virtual goods.

When I asked Meyer whether GSN Digital was thinking about developing entirely new game concepts — think "Draw Something" or "Angry Birds" — he said that wasn't the group's focus: "We're more about iterating, licensing properties, and mixing and matching things people already know than creating new games or new game mechanics."

Hence, "50 Cent's Blackjack," now live on Facebook.

In addition to running the GSN Digital office, Blacklow is also a founding partner at Boston Seed, an early-stage investment firm in Newton. That firm has invested in one local game start-up so far: Brass Monkey.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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