Members play for social status and fortune determined by the number of profile views and the amount of money gained in "peanuts." But at XuQa.com, the virtual world overlaps reality with cash prizes, modeling shoots and music deals.
Founders Ali A. Moiz, Murtaza Hussain and Prosper Nwankpa, who put their college education on hold at Williams College to start the business, first launched the site in September 2005. The company received $1 million in funding from BV Capital in February 2006. In total, they've raised $1.3 million and are supported by four employees in San Francisco and another 15 in Karachi, Pakistan.
The site re-launched in beta on Aug. 15 as a gaming site, a full version scheduled to debut Sept. 25. The site's membership has grown 30 percent weekly to about one million members since the new launch, the founders said.
Members begin at level one with basic social network features. They move through the ten levels, gaining benefits at each. There are about 700,000 members at level one. Access to the site's top features is limited to the most popular and the most connected members on the site. "Reaching level 10 makes you a XuQa-lebrity," Moiz said.
Earning peanuts by adding friends, uploading pictures, winning in the sites' poker rooms and watching ads will advance members to the next level. The peanuts buy knowledge and benefits, the ability to know who's viewed your profile, or pay to spike the drink of a poker rival, reducing the time he has to bid on a hand or inhibit his card-playing skills.
While those who reach level 10 earn the top $1,000 cash prize, winning a virtual modeling contest on the social-network site could land a trip to San Francisco and a photo session with the company's partner Soma Management LLC, a media and entertainment company in San Francisco, or for those with music talent, Equal Vision Records, a label in New York.
There also are plans to increase the number of playing levels as membership grows. "XuQa is one of the social networks that have been around for awhile and probably realized it wouldn't gain traction in its former form, so turning it into the game made people more interested," said Debra Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer. "The game will be attractive a certain type of person, who similar to people who visit MySpace, tries to collect as many friends as possible. Only in this social network they do it for money."
Although not all details are final, plans also are in the works to introduce a virtual dating game where players enter a room with dozens of pictures and chose who they will sit down with one on one to chat.
Avatars representing members sit down in the virtual chat room to determine if they are compatible. If the two click within the one-minute chat, they signal the dating platform to automatically make the connection.
The cycle repeats with both members virtually rising from their chairs to walk around the table. They sit down again with a new person's avatar in front of them who matches their predetermined profile for age, gender and interests. The goal is to meet many people quickly.