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The internet and the proliferation of smartphone technology has lead to a paradigm shift in how consumers engage with media. For video games, this has meant evolving from a niche hobby to becoming an international pastime. In developed nations, almost everyone plays video games. Whether they are playing a hardcore real-time strategy game, picking up the latest edition of Madden Football, or playing Candy Crush on their phones, gaming in its broadest sense is no longer an isolated subculture.

Savvy brands have taken note and have started to add video games to their product portfolio and to deepen the experience that fans have with brands. In today’s article, I explore how and why this works so that brand stewards can better understand how video games can forge stronger connections with target audiences

Paved with Good Intentions

Brand-driven video games are not a new concept. One of my earliest experiences with an IP-based game was a 7-Up platform where Spot, the then mascot for 7-Up was the hero on the Super Nintendo in the early 90s. Even before that though, the Atari saw video games based on popular movies like Indiana Jones and E.T.. Going back even further, you can find arcade boxes and pinball machines themed around movies and television.

Admittedly, the track-record for brand-based video games is really bad. Up until recently, the majority of brands looked at a video games as part of a merchandising strategy. Movie studios were the worst at this. With a movie release date set in stone, the video game version often got lumped in with the action figures and lunch boxes and was given about as much thought. The result: a rushed product that poorly reflected the experience that viewers had with the story and the characters in the theater.

That reputation exists today, and it’s well-deserved. We are, however, starting to see brands use video games in incredibly creative and well-thought-out ways. These brands work with reputable studios and recognize that while the video game must embody the character and voice of a particular brand, it must also be painstakingly designed to succeed as a video game. This takes time, resources, and a team of skilled developers.

But the rewards are significant.

With the Right Game, Anyone can be a Gamer

Love her or hate her, Kim Kardashian has built a far-reaching brand that bridges media and retail. When word began to leak that the reality television star was about to release a video game, even the most open-minded members of the video game industry scratched their heads and expected a total failure.

Instead, Kim Kardashian Hollywood has become a runaway success. In addition to topping Apple and Play store charts,Forbes reported in 2014 that the game had made $200 million in revenue at the time of the article. With only $10 million in expenses related to the development and management of the mobile game, Kardashian was expected to walk with as much as $85 million in profit. According to Forbes, Kardashian’s other businesses netted her a total of $28 million in 2013.

Early on, critics expected Kim Kardashian Hollywood to fail because her target audience, primarily young women, did not fit the traditional gamer demographic. Beyond that, no one really expected the game to be fun. The studio behind the game, Glu Mobile, found a way to expertly marry the Kardashian voice to artwork and mechanics that appealed to Kardashian’s audience. The result: an army of passionate brand advocates devouring the freemium mobile game, leaving 5-star reviews and sharing it with friends.

For-Profit or For-Good

Kim Kardashian Hollywood is not the first game to capture the spirit of a brand in video game form, but it illustrates what can result when a powerful brand takes the time to understand its audience and to work with a studio that can translate that understanding into engaging video game mechanics. The mechanics at work in Kim Kardashian Hollywood are radically different from the mechanics at work in Madden Football, but the underlying methodology is the same: understand your audience, and design a brand experience around what endears them to your brand in the first place.

This process is not new. Marketers and product developers have been designing around the needs of audiences for years, but a lack of familiarity with the depth of video game development can sometimes lead to a final product that simply misses the mark.

Its worth emphasizing here that non-profit brands have as much to gain from video game development as their for-profit counterparts. If your target audience has a philanthropic bent, that passion too can be harnessed in video game mechanics.

For example, John Breen founded Freerice in 2007. A relatively simple vocabulary game, Freerice used ad revenue to fund food donations, which is not unlike how many modern mobile games monetize player interaction. In 2009, Breen donated the game to the UN World Food Programme. To put the work of Freerice into perspective, the site donated43,942,622,700 grains of rice in 2008, which is roughly 1,515,262 pounds of rice. Currently, the site reports that it averages about 4,000,000 grains of rice a day, or roughly 150 pounds.

Breen’s initial idea was a simple one, but he took the time to pick mechanics and design elements that resonated with his target audience. Even now, Freerice is a relatively simple site when it comes to aesthetics, but they make a good job of making the game easy to play, making the gameplay addictive, visualizing the impact a player is making, and encouraging players to compete against other players to raise even more rice.

Your Brand, Your Game

At Synersteel, we see immense potential in branded video games and have seen firsthand the response that a brand-aligned video game can generate. Our two most-recent projects:

  • Super Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Dojo Storm: Championship Edition – This humorous take on martial arts culture is the brand embodiment of Artechoke Media, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu publishing house. This extremely niche audience of fighters and fight fans contributed $4,600 (exceeding the initial goal of $3,400) to get the game made. The whole of the game was designed for this audience, and they reacted in kind.
  • The Barn – The Barn is an indie horror film from Nevermore productions. This passion project has captured the imagination of the horror fanbase, and the crowdfunding campaign for film finishing funds has taken on a life of its own with nearly every major horror website and blog covering the campaign. Synersteel is developing The Barn video game, a 16-bit survival adventure that matches the 90s aesthetics of the movie. A facet of the crowdfunding campaign, the game has played a part in The Barn raising $14,140 in 33 days (still 6 days to go at the time of this article, with a final goal of $15,000).

Both of these games are geared toward small niche audiences that are rabidly passionate about the brands they support. Like Kim Kardashian Hollywood, these branded games are designed to resonate with the specific target users. Whether the audiences are big or small is irrelevant. What matters is taking the time to understand what gets fans excited and working to develop an experience that builds upon those passions.

As more brands see the potential of video games, we are likely to see a renaissance for branded gaming, which is good for everyone involved. Brands get a new vehicle for growing their businesses, and fans get a fun way to explore and express their interests.

Originally written for Synersteel Studio.