The hard work behind making a game of genealogy [Interview]

Family Village interview
Family Village interview

Do you know where you come from? If not, you probably want to know. Websites like have made a killing on making a business of genealogy. But Funium, a Utah-based gaming startup, wants to make a game of it. The developer has recently released Family Village, a city-builder that allows players to access their genealogy through play. We recently sat down with Funium CEO Jeff Wells to learn more about what went behind this unique twist on the city-builder.

Why are you interested in creating a Facebook game centered around genealogy?

Obviously, social gaming is huge and a lot of people participate. But family history itself is as well. And on the Internet, people are discovering their roots, there are more documents everyday that become available as they become digitized. And I have a personal passion for family history research. I've done my own, and understanding my own legacy has helped me understand better who I am. The strengths that I can draw from the past--either good or bad events--both contribute to who I am.

And I thought that the merging of [games and genealogy would offer] the opportunity to explore family legacy and at the same time have fun doing it. Because typically, family history research is just that--it's research, or like doing taxes. And introducing people to the concept and helping them find interesting documents that bring to life what their past is is one of the key objectives of the game.

How does Funium rope in all this information to fuel these features in the game?

There are a lot more documents available on the deceased than there are on the living, and there are a lot of fun documents. You find old war records and census records and shift logs and work records--things that are available that help us understand what our people did. I mean, even what they paid for a bottle of milk back in 1880 is of interest to people.

We have a number of different sources. We have created our own documents, there are a lot of documents that we found through web crawling on our own and third is that there are a lot of public records through the government, which you can get. We have sourced and are continuing to source those, and then lastly, there are providers that have big archives and the billions of records that we have partnered with that are helping us provide these these documents.

Has Funium run into any privacy issues with Facebook in trying to work with them on Family Village, or even with some of the early players?

No, no, we haven't really. An occasional question will come up, but that happens with almost every game. When you install a game on Facebook, they ask you to allow information, and there are people that will never click through that and others do. We tend to get about the same percentage of people, but we adhere to all Facebook privacy and security provisions and, of course, we have our own in the game itself.

But in reality, what people present or provide in the game is only for their eyes, and it's nothing more than what people would input into, for example, or into their pedigree charts. So, we don't feel that we are doing anything new or unusual, and then when the people get documents or even if they provide their own documents, which is a unique feature of the game, you can actually upload your own interesting historical content into the game. This allows others, if you want them, to share a wedding photo or something.

Family Village screens
Family Village screens

That seems like a pretty massive undertaking.

We've got some pretty unique things in the game. And you're right, it was a massive undertaking. This is not a normal game when you look at the engines that are behind it. We have a city building game but we have a document sourcing engine. And we have a character editor, which is the little characters that you saw where people can dress up and put clothing and stuff on. We have a family tree builder which is a software. It's tough to build a pedigree chart and then put it together and then be able to use the data in that.

[Then there is] user-generated content, which we're actually pretty excited about. That was one of the key things that, during our testing, players wanted to be able to do. And we were very happy to work on that. But that was a huge, six-month effort to be able to get that into the game the right way and allow people to put their user generated content into the Museum of the Ancestors that's in the game.

Where do you see Family Village going in terms of other platforms or otherwise?

By far, the biggest and most impressive platform for us to get out there in a big way is on Facebook. But we definitely will migrate to other platforms. This is the kind of game where the playership will increase steadily over a long period of time versus it being one big rush and then people run to the next title. This will build. What we've done is we've released it to the public but the massive advertising behind it will probably start in around four to five weeks. Somewhere in that range. We literally have millions of dollars prepared to go out and promote the game.

In Family Village, your access to the genealogy content is time-locked, which makes sense for players to come back. But we also noticed that there's no option to pay with game's real money currency to speed that time up.

We want people to get into the game, learn the other aspects of the game. But the real benefit is that the more you get into it and the bigger your family tree becomes, it just continues to blossom and open up to you. So, you have "wow" and "aha" moments. So, in the beginning we've got interesting documents, historical stuff.

But when they start really pertaining to you, and then to your family and then obviously there's a difference in the nature of documents. You might have a social security index. When somebody filed for their social security or something. That's kind of boring and it's only one or two lines. But then when you start producing land records, for example, someone owned a plot of land or a farm in Nebraska, they owned it for 25 years. That's really interesting. People enjoy reading about that, so what we're trying to do is entice them early on and then move forward.

As you're playing the game when, for example, we might give you the newspaper of the day that you were born and that of your parents for free, but if you wanted it for your uncle or whatever, that might be 25 cents or that might be 50 cents. We'll have microtransactions with certain kinds of documents based on their scarcity or their availability. So, what happens is we're monetizing digitized content, not just virtual goods.

Family Village screen shots
Family Village screen shots

Obviously, Funium is competing on the Facebook game market, but where does it see itself among other services, like and such?

Well, a lot of companies in the family history arena have subscription models, where people have to pay $80 to $100 a year. The way that we see us is that we're a free game, freemium-based model and people can choose what documents they want. So, they can basically have the same opportunity to receive documents but pay much, much less and will not be tied into a subscription fee on an annual basis. That's the disruptive part in the genealogy industry. In the social gaming industry, the disruptive part is we're selling other types of products, in this case documents, in the game, which has not been done before.

This is not only a business, but a labor of love. I really do think that one of the problems in our society is the disintegration of the family. And games have a negative reputation for shoot 'em ups, kids playing them for too long or whatever. This is a game where the whole family gets engaged, where it brings the family together. It's a socially valuable process, or a game, that people can feel good about playing and the outcome is a stronger family.

Click here to play Family Village on Facebook Now >

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