NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In 2008, Hasbro became enemy No. 1 of the social-media set, thwarting "Scrabulous" players by shutting down the unauthorized Facebook-based version of its venerable 72-year-old word game. The Hasbro-hate was so great that it seemed as if the marketer would never be able to win over the public with future digital adaptations of its board games.
One year later, it's proved otherwise with "Monopoly City Streets."
Not only has Hasbro embraced technology as a means to improve, adapt and create new digitized products that work with its traditional cardboard-based brands, it's become an example to follow. Hasbro has demonstrated that it understands the internet isn't an ad channel, but a means to create online products and engage a new generation of users with older, more established ones. And along the way, it's reducing its reliance on one-time-sales revenue and gaining an ongoing subscription and media-revenue stream.
The Pawtucket, R.I.-based company owns dozens of lines of successful toys, from physical Nerf to cerebral Dungeons & Dragons and many in between, and it has been a model of success in integrating its properties into entertainment ventures. Hasbro's fourth-quarter profit in 2009 grew 77%, largely on successes in toys that have become entertainment franchises such as G.I. Joe and Transformers.
The key with "Monopoly City Streets "was to make it much more than a casual, social network-based app, which went a long way toward separating it from the Scrabulous fiasco. At its height, the digital knock-off of Hasbro's Scrabble was being played fervently by more than 2 million registered users on Facebook. When a Hasbro lawsuit against the two young Indian brothers who'd developed the game -- and were raking in ad dollars from it -- forced Scrabulous to go dark, Hasbro faced a truly irritated base of hardcore Scrabble fans.
So when Hasbro went to launch a digital version of franchise game Monopoly in 2009, it avoided the Facebook-based casual game route. Instead it introduced massive multiplayer "Monopoly City Streets," betting correctly that gamers would immerse themselves in the culture of a sprawling canvas that required dedication, savvy and strategy to succeed.
"There is far more clutter now to cut through. Advertisers are competing with everyone," said Matt Ross, head of creative at London's Tribal DDB, which came up with the concept for Hasbro. "We need to create content that is far, far superior, or provide frameworks that bring people together, or utility that helps our clients' customers."
"City Streets" was essentially a layer atop Google Earth that enabled players, starting with a default amount of money, to purchase a street and erect structures anywhere on the globe, be it Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Kodiak, Alaska. From there, they collected rent, bought and sold, made offers, declined them and generally arbitraged the heck out of a virtual world to become a property tycoon.
The game's goal, essentially, was to create the world's largest game of Monopoly. "City Streets" ran for three months until Dec. 9, 2009, and brought together more than 5 million players who purchased nearly 9 billion streets and built over 175 million structures. At its height, it was the 12th biggest online game in the world (including entrenched players like "World of Warcraft") and brought 15 billion unique page impressions per month -- all with zero dollars spent on media.
"Monopoly, in as much as it was a campaign, really it took on the form of a new product that was driven by a marketing goal," said Tribal DDB's Mr. Ross, who executed both "City Streets" and "A Trivial Pursuit Experiment: Battle of the Sexes."
"This is something that brands need to begin to understand. No longer is it about one-way broadcast, but about conversation and producing something useful and engaging, be it content or utility."
Mr. Ross, who appeared at Ad Age and Creativity's CaT London event, presented a case study of the "City Streets" campaign, including a telling quote culled from one of the user message boards, written by a "City Streets" shut-in posting as "stodgeistheman." "I haven't left my flat for four days. I'm sitting in my underpants. But I own more of New York than Trump."
Another Hasbro adaptation that's fostering fans is "Trivial Pursuit Experiment," which plays on the battle of the sexes to pit men against women in a trivia quiz. Players answer questions with the goal of adding to a running tally of points scored by men vs. those of women; at last reference, ladies led, with 3,984,027 points to 3,968,991 for men. You score a point by correctly answering a trivia question from the game, upon which you're treated with either a video of your gender screwing up or the opposite committing a blunder.
Hasbro's audience command, both online and off, continues to develop, with the company launching a TV network for children called the Hub in a joint venture with Discovery Communications. The question, as this marketer turns media brand, is how effectively it will be able to monetize massive audiences online; Scrabulous, as reported by VentureBeat, was making $25,000 a month in ad revenue. While there was no media spending to mobilize the 5 million "City Streets" players, the value of brand impressions pales in comparison to possible subscription fees or other monetization options.
Judging by the way the company improves on lessons learned, though, we don't expect a solution to be far away.
We've got the audience -- now what?Despite "Monopoly City Streets'" rampant success, it was shut down in early December after the campaign had run its three-month course, prompting the same vein of angst Hasbro had dealt with in the "Scrabulous" affair. Why, fans ask, do marketers shut off wildly successful online ventures?
The simple answer is resources. A game like "City Streets" requires server power, a running expense, as well as administrators who can act as game-masters and improve play, suggest new features to developers and take others away as players react and seek new exploits and ways to win.
A company like Blizzard, which makes "World of Warcraft," may have teams of staff ready to fill this role and server space that's expandable as game players (and revenue) increase. But even if you don't, it might be wise to keep a runaway hit running. Transitioning to a more stable self-contained product is possible, if you put thought into developing revenue streams for plus-sized content like bonus packs or virtual currencies. If you're planning on making a playable game, you'd be unwise to neglect planning for its full life cycle.