"Dad, it is a 3D avatar. You can't even kiss in this thing."
"You're flirting with him!"
"Am not! He keeps talking to me."
It is my own damned fault. I let my daughter fool around in the Playstation 3's 3D Home virtual community, and she did just that -- fool around. Running on a 60-inch HDTV, a high-res 3D world like this is pretty impressive on the face of it, but I found this world boring myself. A lot of guys seem to float around practicing bad rap slang on one another. So I let my daughter loose to see what she made of it and got in a return a 60-inch diagonal HD vision of her flirting skills.
Oddly enough, I lost track of my girl's virtual hijinks because I was more engrossed by a decidedly low-res experience, the Cellufun social entertainment community. I have written in the past about that mobile site's interesting ad campaigns for Butterball and virtual goods revenue model, but I just started spending some time there. I am struck by how involving a low-res but high-participation mobile experience can be. It is a WAP site, and so all the games, like virtual pets and a new Bernie Madoff sim, are sparsely illustrated and require a page refresh with every interaction. That may sound like a formula for more boredom than the zillion-pixel 3D world my daughter currently is boy-hunting in... Excuse me...
"Just walk away from him."
"Dad, he is a cartoon."
"The fact that you are flirting even with a cartoon does not ease my worry here."
Anyway, it is not the gaming experience in Cellufun that is captivating so much as the cooperative spirit. In most of these games you do things like build a farm or erect a Ponzi scheme by soliciting the help of others. To raise my barn I posted an ad in the jobs section and got six other players to help. Likewise I visited the job postings and volunteered for others. You gain coins in the virtual goods system by helping others, selling items you have built or grown, or even visiting the advertisers. The individual screens are simple text links with an equally simple image of your progress in the game. No moving, no flashing, no multi-touch, no sound. But I spent more time in this low-res world that I did with the three lush new iPhone games that major manufacturers sent my way this week.
The business model for Cellufun is also in its own way low-res, or at least running against the mad rush to smart-phone deployments. "We have 7,000 handsets in our database and can deliver the user experience to what the spec is and we make sure it works every time," says Cellufun CEO Neil Edwards. "We can go to an operator and say we have tens of thousands of people already on your network who do this many screens and use this much data. They find the story very compelling."
While other eyes are veering off-deck to mobile Web distribution and applications, Edwards says publishers are still trying to look around the elephant in the living room. "A lot of Internet folks don't think about the fact that every customer you acquire is going to require some type of relationship or conversation with an operator. If not, it is going to be hard to acquire customers or monetize on their network."
For buying virtual goods in Cellufun, members can use credit cards or premium SMS. They can invite other users in via messaging systems that also benefit a carrier partner. And Edwards is doing rev share on the advertising. "I think people ignore the fact that around the world more than 4 billion people with a phone can have an Internet connection. It is all about creating simple apps in languages where you can bill and have a good relationship with carriers."
He prefers the "carrier-friendly" approach because the payoff is proving enormous. Until about six months ago, Cellufun was distributing mainly through SEO and direct acquisition. After starting a relationship with Verizon and getting placement on the deck, "overnight we got 50 million additional page views," he says. About 10% of the uniques visiting the site sign up. Roughly 400,000, about 8% of the user base, is active in a given month, and they pile up 220 million page views from between seven and 30 visits. Ultimately, the carriers like the simplicity and the fact that it increases data usage and messaging.
While I think that off-deck eco-systems will emerge and current problems of discoverability and customer acquisition will ease, Edwards has a good, low-res point. There is a rich vein of opportunity still un-mined outside the smart phone and application universe. More importantly, the fundamental appeal of mobile content is not contingent on a lush canvas. Rich media does not necessarily translate into rich engagement. Low-res fueled by good ideas can create high engagement that can also reach farther.
And, as an added payoff for Dads, in low-res worlds you won't get creeped out watching your daughter pursued so graphically by a bunch of horny avatars whose pixel-count is exceeded only by their hormone levels.
"Ya, know, I don't know what button you are pushing there, but this doesn't look like dancing. Why is this guy bouncing around you like that? What command is that?" "I'm not doing ANYTHING! Jeez! I think it's your network connection. It's all screwy. You should get that fixed."
Welcome to the new face of feigned adolescent innocence.