The Less-Is-More Machine: Google Creates a Branded, Addictive Whatchamacallit


Veteran PC puzzle gamers may recall a legendary digital time sink entitled "The Incredible Machine" back in the 1990s. This inspired game took its cues from the great Rube Goldberg cartoons earlier in the 20th Century, which mocked the new machine age of convenience and automation with bizarre, intricate contraptions built to perform the simplest of everyday tasks. "The Incredible Machine" brilliantly leveraged digital interactivity to let the player assemble ramps, pulleys, treadmills, engines, etc. to complete a job, usually of moving a ball from Point A to Point B. For the engineering set that dominated the early adopter generation of gamers, this was crack.

Earlier this month, YouTube launched a channel that was not hosting video so much as an animated and interactive version of "Incredible Machine" focused on Google's Nexus S Android smartphone. The Nexus Contraptions channel already has more than half a million channel views, and deservedly so. The well-designed puzzler sets a goal of adding Google apps to your Nexus smarthphone by getting the icon-balls through a series of obstacle courses. The Google Search, Gmail and other apps get dropped into the scene by a robotic arm, and you have to set up platforms, fans and other objects to guide them toward a funnel. The puzzles get progressively harder, even daunting, in this branded game that clearly is designed for optimal engagement.

The interactive doohickey actually raises some interesting questions about the impact of branded entertainment. Google leads with entertainment. Unlike some branded media, it leaves the branding at first just to the icons on the falling balls. There are no pop-ups touting the specific advantages of the Google apps involved, no insistent interstitials to ensure you get the point of it all. In fact, other than having the Nexus logo ever-present atop the channel page, the user actually has to work to get to deeper messaging by accomplishing some non-trivial puzzles to get each app onto the virtual Nexus phone. Good for Google, at least insofar as the consumer's primary interest of being entertained is served. Arguably, the branding effect is even stronger because the hand is lighter here. It is easy to feel more engaged sooner in the game when its brand purpose is so softly applied. Understanding that this well-crafted and addictive puzzler is likely to keep the user tied in for quite a while, the advertiser is confident enough to apply a light branding touch and accept that less is more. In fact, it is the light branding that creates a sense of curiosity in the player. After all, you are tasked at the beginning with populating your new smartphone with Google apps, but you are told little about the phone itself. After a few levels a natural curiosity about the phone sets in and my guess is that most people will click through to the Nexus product page. Like the machines you assemble in this game, the path to moving the user through the virtual funnel is not direct or obvious - but it does work.
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