By Guest Author Cindy Weng
There is no doubt that the Internet today is all about social, social, social. And with so many different ways to connect to others online (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.), there must be something out there for everyone, right? However, contrary to popular belief, the still-expanding social gaming sector is not yet completely saturated, and innovators are looking to fill existing gaps in the industry. See how Cellufun and Animax Entertainment have provided their audiences with unique games and services, and how they have managed to take advantage of the viral advertising to market their products.
Cellufun is a virtual community where users can interact with each other by playing award-winning games, shopping for virtual goods, and essentially living a virtual life. Features include full-body avatars, houses, coordinated events, and even live status updates. Cellufun can be accessed using any phone with a data plan. Because this virtual community is not limited to smartphone access, its games reaches a wider audience, many of whom use more basic cell phones. CEO Neil Edwards sheds some light on the company, revealing that Cellufun is not just a world of games, but also a social grid. “You never just stay within the game. You go from the game to the mall, to another person’s profile, and on and on,” he says. He describes it as a living social community.
Edwards explains his insights on the connection between virality and gaming: “Virality is the reason why social media took off on the Internet, using one-to-many broadcasting. And while profiles are interesting, so are games. When you find something on the Internet, virality is the result of something called the good value proposition. This is where you say ‘Come play this great new game with me. Come see the latest changes.’”
However, virality changes drastically when you make the switch from the computer to cell phones. Email has no barriers—anyone can send an email from one account to another without restrictions. Also, emails can be written and sent from almost any computer with no communication limitations. Phones are much more restrictive due to the sheer number of phone models and carriers. They are also less social in the sense that users regard the cellular network as much more private than the Internet. Edwards elaborates on some obstacles and solutions.
“Will the mobile operator allow my social media site to broadcast the message from my user ID to my friend’s ID if we have different carriers? Does my friend even have a data plan? Virality transforms from the Internet to phones. You have to think of all possible ways of communication and provide several mechanisms (SMS, email, etc). Virality techniques in concept are the same but implementation is different. Programs or user interfaces need to be designed to fit every type of phone. Both email and SMS need to be supported. If you’re 100% off deck, meaning that your are working independently of carriers, the mobile operator may not let you contact their clients for privacy reasons. The key is working with mobile companies to promote your product. Convince them that it’s good for the carrier.”
Expanding the social gaming industry to cell phones is much more complicated than it might seem. There are many areas of incongruency among the more than 7,000 cell phones that Cellufun supports, and the task of making sure that each one of them can access the virtual world is quite a feat. After seeing how availability issues have been conquered, it is understandable why Cellufun has over two million unique users internationally. Its games focus on social aspects such as community and teamwork, while giving each user individual player profiles. Call of the Pharaoh is the epitome of a game built on group participation. Success is based on viral exposure, with friends inviting friends to help construct a pyramid. To advance, cooperation between all players is necessary. Cellufun users also earn virtual currency used to buy clothes, accessories, and even home décor by playing these games. This creates a sense of accumulated worth associated with time spent on the site, resulting in sustained user loyalty. Live events give the game dimension and help it feel like real life. Furthermore, the company recently instilled a mentor program that pairs veterans with newbies, creating even more connections between players.
Cellufun is certainly a pioneer in the mobile gaming industry. By not restricting its games to only smartphones, the company has really tapped into a market that has yet to be fully explored. We should definitely expect cell phones to join the fervor that is social gaming in a new and massive way over these next few years.
Animax Entertainment is an animation company that has worked on many projects for corporations such as Disney, Warner Brothers, MTV, and ESPN. It was founded in 2001 by Dave Thomas, a writer-producer, and Andy Bain, a serial entrepreneur. Both wanted to create original branded content through animation. The company has had quite a bit of experience with virality, including a video series for Kodak, NASCAR spoofs on www.funnyordie.com
With videos, virality is much more short-lived. Emmy-winning CEO Michael Bellavia explains, “The Internet works very quickly. Take movies for example. People talk about things in viral terms and support bubbles up for a film prior to its release, but once the movie is released, you only really have one week to make it a hit. Then people forget about it.”
With social games, the process is slower. It takes time for a user to start playing, become engrossed in the game, make new friends, expand his network, and then recommend it to friends. Games spread much slower and users are usually entertained much longer than with a single minute-long viral clip. Bellavia explains the miracle of social features within games—once you see other players, there is incentive to either beat them or work together. Building multiplayer connections is crucial to both keeping current users interested and recruiting new ones. Gamers tend to move in packs—traveling from one hit game to the next. Nevertheless, a game’s design is just as important. A company must look at what the brand stands for, what the audience is looking for, and how to maintain consistency. “If it’s supposed to be fun and youthful, it’s supposed to be from the instruction screen to the game itself.”
Animax is also working on games inside of existing MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games), games for communities where a social network of millions of players has already been established. Bellavia also sees a future in social gaming for charity and the health sector. Instead restricting charities to big $10,000-a-plate events, games can open up philanthropy to anybody. Proceeds resulting from in-game advertisements or donations go to benefactors, and the games rely on players to spread the word through online communities. Bellavia spoke about democratizing the gaming industry as well, where through the use of peer-to-peer marketing, smaller game-makers will have a chance to penetrate the market.
Bellavia touches on viral marketing and explains the impact people have on businesses: “Consumers are very active in the advertising industry. Even when they are hurting you, they are helping you reshape your company. You still have some degree of control over your advertisements in a push kind of way, but how they spread is often beyond your control. How can we leverage peer-to-peer networks? It is ideally inspiring. The future of gaming and marketing is in these kind of social spaces. How can gaming be extrapolated through these networks?” In this case, although there is a deeper experience through Facebook’s network, Twitter is more fitted towards marketing because it is less private.
Animax is working hard to stay ahead of the curve as it tries to anticipate the future. The company strives to remain receptive to the flow of new innovations and providing new ideas to clients. But right now, it’s all about social networks, the iPhone, and other social technology.