In the latest video game sensation, the player encounters an attractive stranger at a bar and must make a difficult choice: flirt or network.
The goal: climb the Hollywood food chain and transform from a starving no-name to a rich-and-famous A-lister.
The game, based on the life of Kim Kardashian West, has turned into a surprise summer hit, stirring buzz in Hollywood and raising expectations about possible payoffs from injecting stars, blockbusters and hit series into video games, particularly those developed for smartphones and tablets.
Launched less than two months ago, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” is already among the top five moneymakers in the iPhone app store and top 10 in the Google Play store, according to tracking firm AppAnnie. It’s on pace to gross $200 million by next summer, according to one estimate, which would place it among the top mobile game apps.
Blockbuster Hollywood TV shows and movies have long inspired console or computer video games. But Kardashian’s success is opening a new front for mobile games.
“In Hollywood, when they are losing the predictability of things like the DVD business, there’s an unparalleled opportunity to get into the gaming business,” said Niccolo de Masi, chief executive of Glu Games Inc., which made the Kardashian game app.
Underscoring the shift, market research firm IDC estimates U.S. spending on video games could rise to $30 billion by 2020, matching the flat-lining spending on movies.
“It’s inexorable that more entertainment-oriented companies are going to have to develop transmedia,” IDC gaming analyst Lewis Ward said, referring to the industry’s buzzword for movie-gaming collaborations.
Top Hollywood-based games “The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth” and “The Simpsons: Tapped Out” have each made more than $100 million in a year. The top-grossing overall mobile game, “Candy Crush Saga,” booked nearly $1.5 billion in sales in 2013 and is on pace to exceed that this year.
“Kardashian” is the first breakout app based on an individual, though apps inspired by public figures including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and singer Jennifer Lopez saw limited success when smartphone ownership wasn’t as widespread.
Smartphones and tablets have made it as simple as a tap on a screen for anyone to become a “gamer.” There are no bulky consoles, confusing controllers or upfront costs to purchase a game.
That may be one reason why “Kardashian” and mobile app games are gaining popularity: Ease of use is drawing new people to gaming, including women. Mobile analytics and advertising firm Flurry recently found that women spent 35% more time than men in mobile games and made 31% more in-app purchases.
De Masi told analysts that Kardashian’s game probably turned many of her social media fans, who he said skew wealthy and young, into “first-time gamers.”
In “Kardashian” players must lead their character through shopping malls, photo shoots, dating and other celebrity escapades. Users tap on a door, for example, to enter a bar. There, they decide whether to flirt or network with a fellow patron. Such decisions send cash and rewards into the air, and the user taps on them to collect.
The key is balancing expenses — clothes and bus trips — with income from the tasks. Along the way, there are reminders like, “Getting new clothing, cars, and homes can increase your star power for love and work.”
Kardashian West, whose family stars on the reality TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” which airs in more than 100 countries, regularly appears in the game. It’s free to play, but real money buys more glamorous virtual clothing and energy boosts. Pop-up ads for other games also generate revenue.
“Kardashian” evolved from a game app franchise called “Stardom,” which had been generating consistent revenue for San Francisco-based Glu. But it wasn’t soaring. De Masi sought out Kardashian to add cachet, and now they chat via email daily about how to improve and update the game. Analysts expect Glu to capitalize on its success with sequels that feature more of the large Kardashian clan.
During a trip to Los Angeles last year, De Masi also struck deals with studios. Glu plans to make games based on the Terminator for Skydance Productions and James Bond for EON Productions and MGM Interactive, which invested in Glu. Games for “RoboCop” from MGM and for “Hercules” from Paramount Pictures and MGM have already launched.
Merging a solid game with global star power is catching on as studios and talent agencies increasingly partner with app makers searching for the next viral hit.
Creative Artists Agency, for example, invested in game publisher Moonshark, a three-person start-up that now operates out of the talent agency’s Century City headquarters.
With CAA’s help, Moonshark reached a deal with a Chicago Blackhawks star to create the mobile game, “Patrick Kane’s Hockey Classic.” Using Kane’s name attracts new users and it’s cheaper to split profits with him than to market the game through advertising, said Andrew Chan, Moonshark’s chief executive.
For stars, apps allow them to make money off their online followers without the hassle of negotiating Twitter or Facebook endorsement deals. The money can be significant, said Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz. He estimated that Kardashian, 33, receives 50% of her game’s profit, meaning the app could pay her more than the $28 million a year that Forbes estimates she earns from other sources.
The larger challenge for studios is making game apps a bigger chunk of their profits. Of the six major studios, only Walt Disney Co. details the finances of its games-related division. That unit accounted for 2% of Disney’s $12.47 billion in revenue in the most recent completed quarter, the company said last week. But the interactive division has strung four straight quarters of profitability, with mobile games “Tsum Tsum” and “Frozen Free Fall” providing a “nice uplift” in the last quarter, according to Disney.
“Movies and DVDs and TV syndication are temporal events,” said Chris Petrovic, head of corporate development at mobile game developer Kabam Inc. Warner Bros. is an investor in the company. “Games are a persistent, connective tissue. It’s clear the industry is finding success and taking their entire catalog to market to find homes for them.”