Vivendi's blockbuster IP game, "Surviving High School," now in its third iteration, gives consumers the choice of playing jocks, nerds and other iconic high school stereotypes through a script that is expanded with weekly episodic content. According to the publisher, the game has already been downloaded more than a million times, with an additional 6.5 million episodic downloads.
"Customers can download new content each week," said Maria Pacheco, VP-marketing for Vivendi Games Mobile, "and as they do so they get entrenched deeper into the game." The game's popularity has spawned forums, Facebook groups and a slew of online communities embodying the kind of engagement that makes marketers drool. And while "Surviving High School" isn't currently being supported by advertising, its episodic format makes it an almost ideal vehicle for brand underwriting. The question is, will marketers get involved in these kinds of projects?
Mobile ads not welcome
If you attended the recent CTIA Wireless Conference in Las Vegas, your answer would probably be no: The most recent Nielsen Mobile data study indicated that 90% of mobile phone owners felt ad placements on their devices were unacceptable. Only 37% of men and 28% of women were interested if it lowered their bills, but several CTIA conference speakers indicated the costs of providing higher-end multimedia services couldn't significantly subsidize a consumer's cellphone bill, anyway.
But there are strong indications across platforms that gamers don't mind and would actually welcome content underwritten by advertising, provided it doesn't interfere or it enhances the gaming experience.
"Product placements, for example, are OK if they are relevant," Ms. Pacheco said. "Gamers don't mind them, and even enjoy the added authenticity they can bring to the gaming experience, but react very poorly if it detracts from the experience."
Dino Mytides, a director at research firm Interpret, agrees. "An important thing to remember is the relevance of the brand to the game and consumers," he said. "Gamers are relatively savvy when it comes to marketing."
Savvy and willing
Savvy and willing to participate with the right bait. Vivendi created a MySpace page for the game, and anyone who added it to their top eight friends were eligible in a sweepstake to win a Motorola Razr phone, as well as have their likeness digitally reproduced and introduced into the next episodic content as a character. The game had 10,000 friends in just a couple of days, and more than 650,000 downloads of game-related content, such as art and wallpapers.
Obstacles remain to marketer participation in mobile gaming. Monetizing mobile games can sometimes be difficult, as the product needs to be developed for 700 different handhelds with several different software technologies, and carriers take a percentage of each sale -- which, to the horror of consumers, appears on their phone bills.
"Carriers aren't so keen on advertising in mobile gaming because they don't see a clear model for it to work," Ms. Pacheco said. "They currently take about 30% to 40% of the revenues on sales. Even if that were to be underwritten by advertising, they don't feel comfortable having consumers pay for the game and be subjected to ads. Likewise, most publishers would welcome brand revenues, but are loath to share the fruits of reaching out to advertisers with carriers who feel entitled to them for serving up audiences."
As a result, many mobile-game developers would welcome brand underwriting. "The mobile gaming industry has been kicking around the ideas of in-game advertising and wrappers for years. The demographics we reach are prime real estate for marketers," Ms. Pacheco said. However, she admits presenting reliable data is hard given that many research firms scrape phone bills for demographics, which can lead to strange results: Any one of four people on a 55-year-old man's billing plan could be downloading the game, but his data is the only one culled.
Could start tracking
And although market researchers don't yet track individual mobile IPs, "Surviving High School" could change that. "If Vivendi's numbers are real, I can't think of another IP made specifically for mobile that has had this success," Mr. Mytides said.
Nevertheless, the success of "Surviving High School" may spur marketers to spend more than just testing budgets on mobile gaming. "'Surviving High School' won't open the floodgates of advertisers on mobile gaming," Mr. Mytides said, "but it's a step in the right direction, in the same way that Second Life wasn't the best thing for in-game advertising, but still opened their eyes to the possibilities."