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How Mobile Games Leapt From Cult to Cultural Phenomenon
Although they’re played on small devices, mobile games are becoming a huge deal — and they’re not just confined to smartphones anymore.
Games like Doodle Jump and Pocket God were some of the first to expand into multimedia and merchandise markets. And Angry Birds has become ubiquitous enough that retailer Barnes & Noble celebrated National Angry Birds Day at stores in December 2011, hosting scavenger hunts and merchandise sales.
How is it that these games, which sell for less than a cup of coffee, and in some instances are even free, can reach so far? Primarily, it’s because they’re cheap, and therefore, are able to more easily hook players. A console game that costs 60 times as much will have a higher barrier of entry, and therefore, won’t be as likely to achieve mainstream success.
A game like Temple Run, which will expand to Android in February, earns 7 million players on a daily basis. This exceeds most any other major console or PC title; only an extremely popular franchise like Call of Duty can even come close to that kind of user base. That lower barrier of entry is precisely why more people get hooked, and how games can start to reach mainstream acceptance.
Furthermore, people are able to carry smartphone-friendly games in their pockets, purses and backpacks. Often these games accompany people’s spare time and commutes. Players develop a positive attachment to mobile games, and are more likely to purchase associated t-shirts, plush toys and even media spinoffs.
So what else contributes to a mobile game’s success? One of the earliest titles to reach mainstream acceptance, Doodle Jump, was referenced on The Big Bang Theory, one of the most-watched shows in the U.S. Pocket God achieved popularity through its frequent updates — weekly, at its peak — and has introduced an accompanying comic book series and figurines. FarmVille, a game that started on Facebook before going mobile, has talked about a movie based on the game.
But the poster child for mobile games achieving broad cultural reach is Angry Birds. It’s the game that celebrities tweet about being addicted to, and the game that continues to top the iOS charts two years after its original release. You’ll commonly find Angry Birds merchandise in retail stores — Rovio even opened up an Angry Birds retail store in Finland that immediately turned a profit.
Although many of these games get started on the iPhone, they are quickly spreading to other platforms, like Android. Angry Birds is also available on computers, and has been used by Google to promote its Chrome web browser. The game is also available on the PSP and PS3, where it has topped sales charts for multiple months. Cut the Rope also expanded to Android, and has been developed in HTML5 to help promote Internet Explorer. Fruit Ninja made its way to Kinect, and has sold over 739,000 copies to-date.
Not surprisingly, becoming involved in the mobile gaming industry can pay off big time. Chillingo, the company that published the original Angry Birds under their Clickgamer label, and later published Cut the Rope, was later bought out by EA for $20 million.
These games are even moving into non-interactive media. Pocket God and Cut The Rope have each introduced a comic book series with Ape Entertainment. Animation may be the next step for some of these properties. Rovio has mentioned creating an Angry Birds cartoon movie; its recent partnership with Dreamworks may be a step toward producing said film. Halfbrick acquired an Australian animation studio in 2011, which it used to create an animated trailer for its game, Jetpack Joyride. Gaming studios that wish to expand their franchises are considering these peripheral markets more and more.
What’s next for these superstar mobile games? While they continue to dominate the charts, other games are emerging as contenders. Disney’s Where’s My Water? has earned a solid spot in the top iPhone and Android charts. Disney’s established global presence and retail chains are an existing springboard for merchandise sales.
Temple Run, developed by the husband-and-wife team at Imangi Studios, could be on the road to app megastardom as well. The game’s already massive player base will likely expand in the next few months as the game releases on Android — and the merchandising possibilities are already there. Evil monkey plush toys? No-brainer.
Where would you like to see mobile gaming expand in the future? Do you think some games and developers have a better chance than others? Sound off in the comments below.
What could be more romantic than playing Angry Birds on Facebook with your sweetheart or with a social network of relative strangers? The highly anticipated Facebook version of Angry Birds will officially be landing in a browser near you on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
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