Figuring out the secret to the runaway success of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood isn't exactly brain science. A mobile role-playing game where you navigate the reality star's world and get advice from her on how to become a celebrity. Hmmm, the casual simplicity and crossover appeal of mobile gaming, plus the media and self-promotional tsunami that is Kim Kardashian. Just open the door and make room for the money truck, right?
Depending on whom you talk to, this game is either the the greatest thing to happen to smartphones since the selfie or the gaming equivalent to mind rabies. But as with all seemingly obvious things that become insanely popular—like garishly branded headphones or cronuts—someone had to think of it first.
Released at the end of June on iOS and Android, the game is a Top 5 grossing title in Apple's App Store and some analysts predict it could boost game maker Glu's revenues north of $200 million. While the game is free to play at a basic level, keep in mind, fans are spending plenty of real world dollars in Kim's Hollywood for extra energy, enhanced wardrobe choices, and a faster track to the A-list. In an update earlier this month, Glu reported that the game had set single-day revenue records for 16 of the past 18 days.
Just 18 months ago, it was simply one of many meetings Glu Mobile CEO Niccolo De Masi had in Los Angeles in the hopes of combining his company's mobile gaming prowess with the marketing and name recognition power of Hollywood. The company is known for hits like Deer Hunter, Contract Killer, Stardom, and Eternity Warriors, and now wanted to test those skills with established entertainment brands.
De Masi signed a number of deals to use Glu's existing game engines and proven monetization systems to create games for Robocop and Hercules, as well as the first 007 James Bond game and the next Terminator game for that new movie coming out next summer.
Glu had given Kardashian a copy of its game Stardom to convey an idea of what the company had in mind for a branded partnership. The tagline for that game is "Start a new life as an aspiring actor in Stardom: Hollywood, and go from nobody to A-list celebrity!" Sound familiar?
"The whole point of this partnership is to take the best of her and the best of Glu and marry them to produce something that has an outsized popular appeal," says De Masi. "We had a game engine that we knew would monetize and retain players but we didn’t have her intellectual property or promotional power. The fit between her fanbase, what they want to do and interact with, and our own gameplay and engine has been incredible."
If the company would've just taken Stardom and slapped Kardashian's name on it, chances are it would still have sold pretty well. But De Masi says Kardashian's input, combined with constant updates has kept fans coming back for more and more and more. "This game has got everything—story, casual RPG dynamics, a huge amount of content as very few users make it to the end," he says. "What makes it compelling is that her fans can interact with her world five or six times a day. They don’t have to wait until the show is on TV, they can experience Kim’s world whenever they want."
Obviously bringing in Kim's more than 22.4 million Twitter followers, and untold more TV fans to mobile gaming sounds like a goldmine, but the game has to deliver.
The game's (relative) staying power and success suggest that there is something beyond the Kim Konnection. In a Quora forum on the merits of the title, game designer James Liu contributed a lengthy explanation of why, in fact, KK:H was a well-designed mobile game. Aside from Kardashian's drawing power and Glu's track record at this sort of thing, Liu gave the game mechanics a high rating. In a nutshell, he said, "it's actually put together quite well. The simplest way to say this is 'the mechanics do not break emergence'" (game mechanics that change with player actions—allowing more complex situations to spring from a simple game setup). Liu pointed to scenarios within the game to illustrate:
"You're a newbie model trying to get famous, so you need to do small things like a side jobs or helping out at a photo studio. Because the player is able to choose which jobs they would like, it's a completely self-paced game. Jobs are time based tasks that last for some period of time. While the job is active, the player spends energy performing tap-to-collect mechanics. What Hollywood does well is implement a sense of "choice" for what jobs you want to take on. You're not stuck in a single screen "collecting milk" or "harvesting carrots". You can be working a day shift folding clothes and straightening mannequins, or you can be on set helping people with their coffee while joining the photo shoot itself. In these settings, the energy system makes sense and doesn't break emergence;"
"..Real social viral mechanics are integrated nicely. It's simply well themed. To be a good Hollywood model, you need to tweet and do some self-promotion. Which means users can actually use their real Twitter/Facebook/etc. platforms as a way to promote themselves within the game. Again, a mechanic that's not emergence breaking."
As for monetization, Liu and many other observers have summarized the big reason so many presumably sane people are spending their hard earned dollars on this: frustration. The game gives you a taste of that Hollywood life but players are quickly frustrated in their quest for big rewards if they don't pony up for extras. As Alex Pappademas notes on Grantland, "what you find out pretty quickly is that if you try to play using only your natural game-granted supply of lightning bolts, the Kardashian game is no fun at all."
De Masi says the success of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is also a product of the company's work to refine Stardom's game engine since its release in 2011. "This game enjoys the benefit of those years of refinement," says De Masi. "It’s a special skillset—it’s a narrative game but has RPG elements, so it’s a magical, experiential game that really captures the zeitgeist of what it’s like to live in her Hollywood. There are a lot of Kim fans playing their first mobile game right now."
Another key to the game's success, believe it or not (and if you're a huge Kim fan, of course you do), is Kardashian's input on the game's design, content and promotion. De Masi says he and the reality star email two or three times a day about the game and its promotion, and talk every week or two about how each update can better reflect her world. "She's been deeply involved with every aspect of the game, from the look and feel to new items for sale and new locations to travel, all of it is something she’s had a hand in," says De Masi. "She’s a delightful partner. She’s also her own brand licensor and game consultant, so it’s very easy to work with her because she’s doing her own approvals for ideas."
The power of the Kardashian brand combined with Glu's gaming know-how is a model De Masi plans to keep using. Glu Mobile is exploring other celebrity tie-in titles in the realms of music and sports, and De Masi says real-life Hollywood should be paying serious attention to Kardashian's virtual version of it. "I expect this to be an unparalleled opportunity for Hollywood brands to make inroads into the gaming ecosystem," he says.
Please, oh please, someone make LeBron James: Cleveland happen immediately.