The challenge of giving away $100,000

This week, I’m going to tell you about a surprisingly interesting work-for-hire project and about how we failed with it. It’s surprisingly hard to market a competition with big prize money.

Every now and then, someone contacts us and wants us to make a mobile game for them. Usually, they back down after we explain to them how the mobile games market works – it will cost you more than $15,000 to make a game, and chances are that the end result is neither Angry Birds, nor Candy Crush Saga.

This time, however, we found a good fit with a game we wanted to do and the brand that wanted us to do it. We had an idea for a twist on the endless runner genre that we wanted to try out. The idea was to put the game under water, and then use ever-increasing currents as the main challenge. You swim up and down a river with a simple control mechanic, but the currents always affect you. They keep growing stronger and will eventually force you to make a mistake. A few years ago, I had sketched out the mechanic with the concept name “Sammy the Salmon”.

Endless runners are some of the most popular games out there on mobile – most likely due to their approachability. They are popular, but very hard to make any money on – in other words, they don’t monetise. If, however, the main point is to get visibility, we thought an endless runner was a perfect fit. Even more so when the client was called Mad-Croc (an energy drinks brand). With the same main idea, but Sammy the Salmon switched to a Croc, we set to work.

We first released the game at Gamescom in Cologne in August. We were curious to see if ads for the game printed on the energy drinks cans would drive traffic to the game. I can now confidently tell you that they do not, regardless of how many millions of cans that are sold worldwide. The really interesting part was, however, when the owner of the Mad-Croc brand wanted to make a huge competition around the new game. The basic idea was to say: whoever is the best player of this will win a hundred thousand dollars! Actually, he started off wanting to have a million dollar main prize – but we convinced him to try it out with just a hundred thousand.

Most of you have likely heard about e-sports being a really big and quickly growing thing these days. On the PC, there are huge tournaments and matching prize money. Some companies have also planned to bring e-sports to mobile, but it has not yet broken through for real.

Looking through the mobile competitions we could find, there were hardly any with prizes exceeding $5,000. Surely a $100,000 main prize would be newsworthy?

Let’s go just a bit into what we can call e-sports before answering that question. Most of the big tournaments on PC are played in teams. Is this a requirement for being a e-sport? I can’t really see why it should be. Among regular non-e-sports, there are, after all, some individual sports and some team sports. Why not try to make a humble endless runner into a sport on mobile devices?

We set to work building the required infrastructure to keep track of high-scores, writing rules and weeding out cheaters. We built this together with some partners. Our initial target was to launch during October, but we had to delay the launch until early December. A few weeks ago, we finally had everything set up and started running the tournament for four weeks (until January 2016). Here’s the game:

To make sure that this is really fair to players, we turned off all In-App Purchases for the competition mode. Now we cannot earn any money on the game, but it’s main purpose was anyway to get visibility.

The set-up and the level is always exactly the same for all players, and you cannot pay to get an advantage. What you can do is learn the level by playing it a lot as it does not change.

For added suspense, and to further discourage cheaters, we decided to name the best player of each week as a finalist. Then, by early next year, we will have four finalists that get to compete head to head at an event. This way, even if you could cheat your way into a finalist position, you would then have to compete for real, live, against the best players there are – likely a humiliating proposition. We have had some clumsy attempts at hacking our high score server, but, so far, we’re pretty confident in our anti-cheat technology.

When the competition went live, it was supported by an additional promotional campaign. While it was modest sums compared to the mobile marketing big spenders (we’re not talking millions per day here), it was still significant sums and partnering with some of the best marketing people in the industry. We messed around with a lot of crazy marketing material. This one probably being the silliest of the bunch:


So… what happens if you give a huge part of your marketing budget to your game’s superfans in a tournament like this? That’s how we think about the idea: give a large part of the ad budget to the players, instead of to the marketing agencies.

Actually, surprisingly little happens. Most people seem to think it is spam, and that it isn’t for real. Some of our silly short videos often get such responses. Perhaps it’s because no one has done such a thing before – people seem to associate it with the web pop-ups promising you that you are really THIS close to winning a million if you just click here, here and here. That means, that the competition was not deemed newsworthy by most media or by most people, and did not start rising up the download charts on its own or even when gently pushed by a marketing campaign.

The competition is still going on. We now have the first two finalists from the first and second weeks of December. Their high scores were within 0.2% of each other. There seems to be a max distance you can reach in the competition version of the game, and if you’re really good, you’ll get there in less than a week of playing. I wouldn’t have known that before we started as I’m not really good enough at endless runners myself. If you have some spare time over the holidays, and could use an extra $100,000, there’s really a fair chance of getting to the top of this.

And if you’re building a mobile e-sport with significant prize money, try to think about how to work around the problem of people associating you with spam. Maybe team sports are a better idea, after all. That way, players would at least have to spread the game to some friends in order to win the prize, which would give the game some virality that an individual game lacks.

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