LivePlanet Teams With Amp'd to Play Tag With Marketers

Cellphone Game's Strategy Is to Entice Brands Chasing Young Consumers

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LOS ANGELES -- Sports clips haven't worked. Music videos aren't doing the job. Neither are animated or live-action "mobisodes." So what kind of content will finally start luring advertisers onto cellphones?

Maybe a game of tag?

LivePlanet's PhoneTag could end up becoming not only a major form of entertainment but also a platform for brands looking to connect with consumers.


LivePlanet, the production company founded by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, has teamed up with Amp'd Mobile to launch PhoneTag, a game in which players track down other players using a map on their phone's screen. The object of the game is to hunt down and capture your prey, but without touching them. You send them a text message when you're within range -- a few yards or so. At the same time, you're being hunted by another player. The last player standing wins.

Players, who pay a yet-to-be disclosed monthly fee, will be able to join existing games organized by Amp'd, organize games with friends or take part in tournaments.

GPS-like technology

PhoneTag, which will launch sometime in the third quarter, will use a GPS-like technology to pinpoint players wherever their cellphones are. Amp'd will use Verizon Wireless' phone network to operate the game, renting space from the company. The game could ultimately be licensed to international carriers should it prove popular enough.

If LivePlanet gets its way, PhoneTag could end up becoming not only a major form of entertainment for cellphone users, but also becoming a platform for brands looking to connect with consumers.

Because the game uses real maps, retailers could partner with LivePlanet to be integrated into the game and serve as destinations for players to purchase products and receive perks. For example, players could run to a Starbucks and temporarily make themselves invisible to their hunter or send out a digital decoy of themselves after buying a latte.

Marketers would pay to serve as sponsors and have their stores' icons appear on the game's maps. They could also take their association with the game a step further and also host their own tournaments. Because all players will be registered, marketers will have access to an invaluable database.

"Getting people to go to places to get benefits is an amazing opportunity to integrate real brick-and-mortar stores," said LivePlanet CEO Larry Tanz. "It's a fun way to make business applications come to life through an entertainment property."

Looking for risk-taking brands

At least that's the goal. Of course, getting a brand to back an untested project might prove difficult, and Mr. Tanz said that LivePlanet and Amp'd realize they won't be able to charge huge fees to bring brands on board. They're looking for brands that are "willing to take a risk."

LivePlanet has succeeded in the past, pairing up with advertisers to produce movies and TV shows and work with those companies as marketing and promotional partners. It produced "First Descent," a snowboarding documentary that opened late last year and was funded by Mountain Dew. It also produced three seasons of the filmmaking reality series "Project Greenlight," which aired on HBO and Bravo, and featured brands such as Hewlett-Packard, Heineken, Coca-Cola Co. and Blockbuster. Toyota Motor Sales USA served as a sponsor on LivePlanet's short-lived ABC TV series "Push, Nevada."

"We've always had a focus on working with brands," Mr. Tanz said. "We're now taking the things we learned on 'Project Greenlight' into the mobile space."

LivePlanet and Amp'd are just now pitching PhoneTag to marketers. No deals have yet been signed. The game will be promoted at the upcoming E3 video-game convention in Los Angeles in May.

Based on 'The Runner'

The concept for PhoneTag is a modified version of LivePlanet's "The Runner," a reality show that the company was developing with ABC in 2000, in which contestants would have tried to track down a designated operative, known as the runner, as he travels across the country trying to elude his captors. The winners would have won millions. Ford Motor Co. was on board as an integrated sponsor.

But production issues and safety concerns plagued the project. The idea has since been revived at Yahoo, together with Mark Burnett Productions, as an online-based venture that may still find its way on TV through a series of specials. It remains stuck in development hell.

Safety won't be an issue with PhoneTag, Mr. Tanz said. Players don't have to touch their prey in order to capture them; a simple text message will do. "There is no physical altercation," he said. And because every player is identified on screen at all times, the game also eliminates the chance of stalking. "You always know where they are," Mr. Tanz said.

LivePlanet came up with the concept of PhoneTag four years ago, Mr. Tanz said. "We thought it would have been so cool to play 'gotcha' on cellphones," he said. But the technology of mobile phones at the time wouldn't have enabled the game to be played properly. "You have to be passionate and stick with it and wait for the technology to do it right."

Frustration with marketers' skittishness

PhoneTag will launch at a time when wireless companies are frustrated with marketers' hesitation in spending more of their ad dollars on mobile devices. At last week's CTIA Wireless 2006 conference in Las Vegas, executives voiced their frustration, saying that the rollout of more cutting-edge phones enables companies to produce sophisticated text messages and mobile video ads. But advertisers have stayed away from using the 150 million cellphones in the U.S. as a marketing tool.

It's not as if they're not interested. Advertisers are hungry for new opportunities to reach consumers. But as Dave Luhr, chief operating officer at Wieden & Kennedy, put it, mobile will be a powerful medium one day. But not today.

For PhoneTag to become a success, the game will have to appeal to Amp'd Mobile's young customer base of teens and 20-somethings, young professionals and early adopters that the company is targeting with its phones and service. It's a lucrative demo for any advertiser.

It's also one that has taken advantage of mobile games like basic puzzle, shooting or strategy offerings in the past. An estimated 25% of the 2 billion cellphone users worldwide use their devices to play games, according to ABI Research. They spent $1.6 billion on mobile games last year, and that number is expected to grow to $13 billion by 2011.

Failing to find an audience

However, other titles failed to strike a chord with that audience in the past. Electronic Arts spent millions to launch "Majestic" in 2001, a suspense thriller that individuals played using their phones, faxes, e-mails and instant messages. But EA ended up pulling the plug when the number of players didn't meet expectations. The company also fumbled with an online version of "The Sims," which incorporated brands, including McDonald's Corp.

The mobile games audience in the U.S. is also far smaller than in other countries, with consumers choosing to play free games, rather than pay to download titles. Mobile games collected a mere $100 million in revenue last year. That may change, however, if the game they can play is a 24-hour-a-day affair.

For now, LivePlanet and Amp'd Mobile's message to marketers is: Tag, you're it.

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Alice Cuneo contributed to this report.
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