Playing Rough With The Franchise

I tried to be a good entertainment consumer this week and play the mobile marketing game as Hollywood intends. ""Wall-E"" and ""Wanted"" are two of the more enticing film releases tomorrow, and like clockwork, licensed mobile game versions of both films appeared on my phone by mid-week. In a perfect mobile marketing world, these games would serve a promotional function in generating pre-release interest and then extend the brand by letting filmgoers relive the experience (maybe even prompt a second go). Of course, in a perfect mobile marketing world, the game versions of media properties would be good.

To be fair to both THQ Wireless's "Wall-E" and i-Play's "Wanted," I am still in the early stages of both titles and in versions for a mid-level feature phone. They may get better in the third or fourth hours of play. But I am having a hard time imagining either game as a strong promotional vehicle for the studios or as a value for any consumer. "Wall-E" is a fair puzzle/platformer. The soft-hearted robot has jump, toss and zapping abilities that help him move through levels that recall the film and obtain necessary objects. The game play is not bad, but more time was spent trying to stuff Pixar-like detail into "Wall-E" than to keep the frame rates tolerable. Coleco-vision was snappier than this. Worse, as promotion the game does nothing to advance the character of the protagonist or even foreshadow the film plot. THQ made a name for itself years ago in turning "Finding Nemo" into a credible game. They seemed to crack the code of licensed cartoon games: blend decent game play with real assets from the property, like clips and images. In the "Wall-E" mobile title, someone forgot to use the familiar theme of the film or even toss in a close-up of the emotive character.



The "Wanted" game is closer to a total travesty. This is an action platformer where the plot advances in cursory text pop-ups. Even more so than "Wall-E," "Wanted" feels like a boilerplate title wrapped ever so loosely in a film property. Five or six other films this summer probably could get the same game. The game play itself is achingly tedious (flip, hang, shoot) and again there is no flavor of the film. When a ubiquitous 30-second free spot tells you more about a film than a game you just paid $8 to dislike, there is something broken with the model.

For several years now, the mobile marketing and mobile games industries have been pumping out mediocre and poor movie tie-ins during film release weeks. Last I checked, no one in the value chain seemed to like this system. Developers got signed on late in the cycle and had to churn out games in short order. The carriers had to juggle their release schedule to get the games on decks in time for the film release. And worse, decks were cluttered with poor titles that undermined the legitimacy of mobile gaming in consumers' eyes. When crappy games get pushed to the top of the deck because of co-marketing arrangements, consumers have to get jaded about the whole purpose of the games section on a deck. What are they there for, fun or promotion?

I would ask the same question of the value chain creating these titles. What are these games here for? As games, generally, they suck or they are inferior to similarly priced product they replaced as featured items on the deck. As promotions, they really suck. Either because of licensing limitations and rights restrictions from the actors, the games do not offer real assets the film-lover might like.

The mobile platform invites game developers and film studios to rethink the model. Game developers love to promote the line that "game play" is the core of the game regardless of the license, but there is little evidence anyone follows this principle in licensed mobile games. I am sure there are exceptions, but how could these better titles hope to stand out from a genre that has such a poor reputation overall? Maybe a better route is to make these titles wholly promotional. Remove the price tag, minimize the game itself, and focus instead or real film assets (ringtones, wallpapers, clips). After all, it is the assets, not the game that really extend the brand. I think the "Wall-E" game should give you the goofy theme song or the now-ubiquitous "Wall-E" as ring tones. Links to film clips should be a given.

Do poor games damage a media brand's identity? Probably not. Again, everyone in the licensed games value chain claims they worry about brand equity in games, but it would be hard to tell that from the final product. If a consumer thinks about it, perhaps he sees a movie company trying to soak him of a few more dollars rather than enhancing the film's fiction and entertainment value.

But I don't know if consumers really think that way. Ultimately, what we have is a missed opportunity to leverage interactivity more effectively and engage entertainment consumers in the product. The payoff is subtler and more long-sighted than an incremental return on a license. It may come in deepening our relationship to a franchise, sparking DVD sales, or maintaining interest in a sequel. Who knows? What ever comes from smarter mobile movie tie-ins, it has to be better than the mid-week drops of crappy games.

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