Stellar Start-Ups: Play4Skill dominates the online domino scene
The majority of online gaming sites are operated by Israeli entrepreneurs - including sites for chess, checkers and other skill-based games.
By DAVID SHAMAH
It may be a new world online, but some things - traditional things - still hold true. While massive multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft, get most of the attention online, there is a large contingent of Web surfers who respect tradition, who prefer to do their gaming the "old-fashioned" way: playing games like - dominoes! And for them, Israel's Play4Skill (http://www.play4skill.com/) has developed the Dominoes Stars site (http://www.dominoesstars.com/), which brings the venerable pastime online, allowing users to find domino buddies to play with from around the world!
If you haven't even thought about dominoes in recent years, much less played a game, you're clearly out of the loop. Like chess and checkers, dominoes remains popular around the world. Hundreds of players went to Russia recently for the World Domino Championship (http://tinyurl.com/myvgbh), which was broadcast live around the world, including on ESPN. Last year, dominoes even made it to Hollywood (http://tinyurl.com/lsewmd), where dozens of celebs (not just C-list "Hollywood Squares" types) got into the game.
Among North Americans, dominoes is often thought of as a kids' game - but in other parts of the world, especially south and central America, dominoes is a national pastime. And with the large migration of people from those countries to the US, dominoes has now become one of the fastest growing games in the US as well, says Play4Skill co-founder Vladi Bergman.
"I was on a tour of the Americas with my partner, Elhay Granot, and everywhere we went in Spanish-speaking countries and communities in the US, we were struck by how many people were playing dominoes," he says. "With Dominoes Stars, we've enabled domino fans to find like-minded people around the world so they can participate in tournaments, contests and individual games."
Similar to other games where players of different skill levels get together, players at Dominoes Stars rate their skill level, and players of similar levels ping them to participate in a tournament. While anyone can register and play for free, it turns out that "real" domino lovers like to make things "interesting" - as in playing for money!
While this might seem like gambling, which would get the site into hot water with authorities in many jurisdictions (gambling sites have been banned in the US and many other places), Bergman says his attorneys have assured him that Dominoes Stars in on safe ground, adding: "Dominoes has been proven to be a skill-based game, meaning that matches are contests of who is better, not luckier. It's similar in concept to many other skill sites where individuals back up their challenges with cash."
For those who prefer, he says, players can earn and spend virtual money, enabling them to experience the thrill of victory - without the agony of having to pay out "real" money if they're not as good as they though they were!
Play4Skill is about two years old, says Bergman, while Dominoes Stars has been online only since last November. Meanwhile, other Web translations of popular traditional board games,including chess and backgammon, have been around for many years ("many" relative to the Internet age, of course). So why did it take someone such a long time to come up with such an obviously winning idea?
The answer is actually rather astounding. According to Bergman, the majority of online gaming sites are operated by Israeli entrepreneurs - including sites for chess, checkers and other skill-based games. "Israelis just weren't all that familiar with dominoes, so nobody had come up with the idea," he says - and apparently, no other developers in other countries had come up with the idea either!
During its first half-year of operation, Dominoes Stars has attracted more than 100,000 players, mostly from South America and the US - although there are substantial numbers from Eastern Europe, as well as from the Arab world! Dominoes, it turns out, is popular in Arab countries as well, and residents of those countries enjoy the DominoesStars along with everyone else (Play4Skill lists its Haifa R&D location prominently on its site).
In addition, the site gets a lot of "first-time gamers," individuals who, in the old days, would have had to seek out friends in the neighborhood to get a game going. While the site makes things more convenient for them - "With players around the world, there's always somebody around online looking for a game, day or night," says Bergman - Play4Skill has to do a little hand-holding to ensure that users get the most that they can out of the site, and has instituted live online help in English and Spanish to assist newbies.
The company currently has about a dozen employees and recently raised a good amount in venture-capital money.
Dominoes Stars is Bergman's first foray into Internet gaming, and the experience has given him the confidence to move ahead with other products, which are in the development stage.
"Putting together Dominoes Stars was a unique experience for me, and we have all learned a lot about the online gaming scene," he says. "We intend to continue to use our unique, patented technology to develop new games and products that will enhance the experiences of users seeking a fun, safe online gaming environment."
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