YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Brands playing with iPhone apps are still trying to get game -- video game, that is.
|Nissan launched its 'Cube Party Roundup' app last week, but will a game convert sales?||Also see: Tips for branded iPhone games|
Because while branded utility apps, such as store locators and bank-account managers, and established video-game brands, such as the Sims and Bejeweled, took off early in the iTunes App Store, branded game apps, or advergame apps, are off to a much slower start.
In fact, there are only a few handfuls of branded games in the App Store. Those include Coca-Cola's "Happiness Factory," released last month; Miller Lite's "Round Runner," launched in May; Ford Motor Co.'s "Flex Photo Lab," out last October; Audi "A4 Driving Challenge," released last August; and Pizza Hut's ordering and game app and Nissan's "Cube Party Roundup," both introduced last week.
If video games and iPhone apps are both hot right now, shouldn't that mean a video-game app featuring your brand should be doubly hot? Not necessarily.
Heavy competition, consumer skepticism about advergames, potentially steep development costs and as-yet-unproven return on investment all have brands tiptoeing into the space.
But that's a good thing, industry experts said.
"I'm worried about brands doing these kinds of games with limited budgets -- one developer working on it for five days and just cranking something out and seeing what sticks. Junk doesn't do so well on the App Store," said Raven Zachary, president of Small Society, an iPhone agency. "I know a lot of people who download a game, play it for 20 minutes and delete it forever. That doesn't help anyone."
He added, "If I were a brand, I'd go to an established game developer and see if I could sponsor a game under development or have them create custom version of a game already out."
Quality is key
Others agreed that creating a quality game is key to advergame-app success, particularly considering the competition: A third of all iPhone apps are games, and developers range from focused mom-and-pop shops to console- and handheld-game publishers with revenue in the millions.
"There was an expectation that brands would come in and crush all the smaller developers," said Dean Takahashi, lead digital-media writer at VentureBeat. "But there aren't that many big brands on the [paid or free] top-app lists. That means iPhone gamers really are going for games that are just good, and don't care so much about the brand."
The iPhone-app experts interviewed for this story generally agreed that the Audi, Nissan and Coca-Cola are mostly good efforts but not great.
"The Audi game is a good application, but the expectations are high. And it's a driving game from the top view?" said Armen Papshev, editor of iPhone blog iSmashPhone. "A car company making a driving game really has to push the limit. It really has to wow people. ... 'Cube Party' is a great concept, but is it for people who already own the car or new customers? Is a game going to convert sales?"
Nissan's senior manager of marketing communications, Robert Brown, said the game is one piece of the Cube brand's "ecosystem" of marketing, not just a one-off gimmick. Nissan created the game to reach the Cube's target 18-to-24-year-old demographic; 25% of iPhone users fall in that age range, he said. But Nissan also has apps for customizing the car, viewing detailed graphics and free downloads of songs used in the marketing all available at Cube's online mobile hub.
'Not a marketing platform'
"If you build it, they won't necessarily come. The App Store is really a distribution platform, not a marketing platform," Mr. Brown said. To that end, Nissan and agency TBWA cross-market mobile content and access in traditional and online advertising, and vice versa. For instance, the same marquee from the TV and online ads is used in the iPhone game. In less than a week, the game has been downloaded, "tens of thousands" of times, Mr. Brown said.
Pizza Hut's ordering app that includes a game was tapped for its combination of utility and fun, although criticized for overlooking details. The app has three stars out of five on iTunes, but many of the reviewers who gave it one star complained that they couldn't place special orders (such as no cheese) or order items such as breadsticks or drinks.
Not many experts or reviewers were fond of Ford's photo-altering software -- too off-brand or just not a high-quality tool.
"There was no tie-in to the product. Why would Ford release a photo-manipulation app? It makes no sense," Mr. Zachary said. "Why not tie it together somehow? Like a contest with the photo app, where people could edit a photo, upload it to Ford and they'll give away a free car to the best one."
Still, most agreed that branded iPhone games will continue to grow. And that the brands that create compelling games will attract consumer attention.
"You'll see many more coming. ... The iPhone audience is tremendously appealing," said Jon Epstein, president and CEO of Double Fusion, which worked with Nissan on "Cube Party." "Branded games on the iPhone, if done correctly, can have a great impact."
Tips for branded iPhone games
Don't do it just to do it. Ask: Is this truly a good fit for the brand? Are the consumers in our target demographic iPhone users? Does a game fit into our overall marketing strategy? Brands that already are involved in gaming on their websites or via advergames should be able to make the transition more naturally and easily, said Bryon Morrison, president of Omnicom mobile agency Ipsh.
Quality, quality, quality. Of the 65,000 apps in the App Store, about one-third are games, so consumers have lots of great options for both free and cheap games. Make sure your branded game is high-quality -- and it wouldn't hurt if it was also innovative, update-able and addictive.
Watch who's playing in your backyard. Even if your brand isn't ready for an iPhone game or can't justify the cost, pay attention to who in your industry is in the App Store. Dean Takahashi, lead digital-media writer at VentureBeat, pointed out that tiny Tapulous, with its hit iPhone music-game franchise 'Tap Tap Revenge,' is moving right into the territory of 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band.' "To them the cost just doesn't make financial sense, maybe, but they're letting someone take the market from them," he said. "Whenever it does become a bigger medium, it will be hard to take it back."
If you do it, tell people about it. The App Store is only a distribution platform, so do your own marketing. And don't forget the influential online community. Armen Papshev, editor of iPhone blog iSmashPhone, estimated that there are 30 to 50 core iPhone-dedicated blogs. "We get requests from small developers all the time to review their apps, but we never hear from the big brands. ... They rely on ad agencies, and that's fine, but in turn, the ad agencies don't reach out to the blogs that just do iPhone stuff."