Toronto, Canada-based Moola has been operating an invite-only beta for a little over 18 months and will on Friday open their site to the public (they'll be officially launching at the TechCrunch Meetup in Boston). Moola has created a multiplayer online game network in which people compete head-to-head for real money. That's nothing new, but Moola's hook is that the site is completely free. You can't deposit money into Moola, instead you earn your starting funds by looking at ads before playing games. Moola is calling their creation a Massively Multiplayer Rewards Game (MMRG).
Here's how it works: Moola fronts users a penny to start, which puts you at the bottom rung of a thirty step ladder. Every time you win a game, you double your money, every time you lose, you fall all the way to the bottom and start over with a penny. If you win 30 times in a row, you walk away with $10.7 million (though you can cash out at any time, so risking a few thousand in an online head-to-head game at the middle levels is probably not that smart).
Moola has grown to 175,000 users since it launched the invite-only beta in 2006. Moola CEO Arlen Ritchie told me that recently the site has been getting a lot more traffic to their home page than they have registered users, which indicated that there is interest from people who don't have invites. So, now seemed like the perfect time to open the doors to the site.
Ritchie acknowledged that it is unlikely anyone will ever win the $10 million prize because most people wouldn't be crazy enough to risk $5 million to try for it -- in fact, two people would have to be that crazy. Of course, you don't have to wager it all on each game. You can play in any bracket below your account balance, and Ritchie told me that most people keep a positive balance rather than wagering all their cash at once. And even if winning the big one may never happen, a lot of real money is being made on Moola. The top player right now has over $8,000 and the highest cash out was in the $5,500 range. Users on the site have exchanged over $4 million so far (though that figure may count the same money being traded back and forth between users multiple times and doesn't represent the amount paid out).
Because it is unlikely anyone will make big money from the games, most users will either stay in a low game bracket (a few cents), which the ads will cover for Moola, or they will make money via Moola's other options -- at which Moola always makes money.
Other Ways to Make Moola
In addition to games, Moola enables users to make money by searching on their Moola Search page. Powered by Google Custom Search, Moola employs an algorithm that measures how much people search, weeds out illegitimate searches and clicks, and then shares ad revenue with searchers. You might only make a few pennies per day, but that money can be used to play Moola games and bump you into a higher playing bracket.
Moola also lets people make cash via what they call "Boosters" -- or, a cash back program based on affiliate marketing. Shopping at any of Booster's affiliated online stores results in cash deposited in your account. Moola supports a lot of major online retailers including Hotels.com, Buy.com, Travelocity, Skype, Old Navy, and NewEgg.
The final way Moola enables users to make money, is via a 4-level referral program. Refer friends, and take a cut of anything they do on the site, whether that's search payouts, Booster Zone payouts, or game winnings.
Along with opening the site to the public, Moola will be announcing a toolbar that is really centered around their shopping and search revenue streams. They've built the Moola search into the bar, which makes it more convenient for people. It is the slick shopping integration, however, that will garner more interest. Any site you visit on the Internet that is a Moola affiliate will register on the bar and allow you to log into your account so your shopping is eligible for cash back. That lets people shop on the web as normal, rather than have to first page through the site's directory of affiliates -- something Moola expects most people aren't keen on doing.
If an ecommerce site is not a Moola partner, the BoosterBar will suggest an alternative that is in their affiliate network. Ritchie tells me that initial feedback from partners on this feature is tremendous. They love being able to steal visitors away from competition right at the point of sale.
Eventually, the game playing side of Moola will be integrated into the toolbar, allowing users to set up games and then surf the web while waiting for an opponent -- which can take longer at the higher levels where competition is more thin. Ritchie told me that the plan down the line is to add social features, such as chat or messaging, to the toolbar to augment the community that has grown up around Moola. Apparently, some users have taken to organizing their own tournaments based around Moola's games (you can set up one-on-one matches with specific players on the site).
For the cornerstone of the site, the games are rather weak. Moola has created three proprietary games for the site, with a fourth currently in development. Moola's line up includes a rock, paper, scissors game (*yawn*), Hi-Lo (*yawn*), and a bidding game where you try to out smart your opponent (not the most thrilling experience, but it held my attention longer than the others). But, Moola is in the planning stages of an API that would allow third-party developers to add games to Moola. They're currently in talks with two unnamed developers to create additional content prior to the release of a public API. (And they are soliciting queries from other interested game developers at email@example.com.)
Moola developers would be able to make money from both the advertising on the games, as well as take a cut of the money that changes hands between players. Ritchie also told me that the plan is to allow developers to "Moola-ize" their games outside of the site. So, for example, Microsoft could add Moola functionality to Halo 3 on XBox Live and then Moola members could organize Halo matches and play each other for cash.
Nothing at Moola is very revolutionary. Cash back shopping? Seen it. Competitive gaming? Seen it. Revenue share on search? Seen it. Multilevel referral program? Seen it. But they appear to have packaged everything up in a tidy manner, and the coming API for games is exciting. Winning money playing online games without putting any of your own cash up makes it a lot more fun (I'm up to $0.22 -- time to retire!), and the prospect of less snooze-worthy games from third-party developers sounds great.
It took Moola members 10 months to play for the first $1 million. The last million took about 4 months. The next million is on track to cross through Moola in just 55 days. Once the site opens up, those millions will probably be flying about at a more rapid rate.