On October 14, the hi5 social network (the third largest worldwide after Facebook and MySpace) will have a new look and feel, with emphasis on games, virtual currency and most notably a new 3-D avatar system called hi5 Stars.
hi5 Stars will allow users to create a virtual representation of themselves, customizing a body type, facial features and clothing. Once the avatar is ready to go, it can be customized to reflect a user's mood -- happy, anxious, bored, et al.
Outside of depicting a mood, avatars are mostly for decoration -- for now. hi5 Executive Producer Andrew Sheppard says that they're working on something he calls "social verbs," i.e. avatar actions such as giving a hug to friends or a playful punch on the shoulder. He also says they're working on some "super secret" avatar projects that will most likely be some form of game. "We're certainly talking to third party [developers] about them," he says.
The game portion of the new hi5 isn't new, just more prominent. The social network launched its gaming portal in February which has since grown to make up 1/3 of the site's traffic. Some of the more popular games on the service include Barn Buddy, a farming game similar to FarmVille, a Mafia Wars style game called Organized Crime and a virtual pet game titled RockYou Pets.
hi5 has also been finding a degree of success with virtual currency or "coins" which can be used to buy premium items, such as a bouquet of virtual flowers to a friend on their birthday. Coins are also used to add-on elements to a game, such as additional armor etc. These revenues are split 50/50 with the game makers, and reports say these purchases make up 15% of the company's total revenue, which -- if we look at our own willingness to spend small sums on virtual goods -- sounds about right by our standards.
Marketing and Business Development VP Michael Trigg also says he thinks the site's bigger emphasis on gaming will help the social network attract a larger U.S. audience (currently most of the site's users are based in Latin America). Trigg says the hi5 is geared for the younger social network junkie, who's out to have some fun whether through games or using the site's 'Flirt' application to find friends (and more). We'll see if these new features will deliver when they launch on Wednesday.