Games ring up mega bucks

December 31, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

In the newest version of Bravo's Top Chef, a young player finds herself standing before a sink filled with filthy dishes facing a challenge that could send her packing before she ever sets foot in front of a stove.

Will she have the savvy and grit to survive this grimy test?

Fans of the red-hot reality show starring Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi won't be able to learn the fate of the wannabe chef by tuning to Bravo on their TV sets. Instead, they'll find the answer only on their cell phones by downloading Top Chef Challenge, the most recent entry in a rapidly expanding field of mobile games based on hit TV shows such as Hannah Montana, Heroes and Desperate Housewives.

All of the networks and most of the major cable channels are trying to find the kind of big screen/little screen synergy that can result in millions of dollars in new media revenue for games based on old media shows. Top-ranked games, averaging 3.5 million downloads a year at up to $6.99 a download, can earn more than $20 million annually; even a modestly successful mobile game based on a TV show can bring in as much as $5 million a year, according to Nielsen Mobile.

With the networks and studios that own the shows getting a percentage of each download billed to a customer's cell phone, it is one of the most straightforward ways for the Hollywood giants to make fast money in the world of digital media. One more thing: People who create the games are considered developers, not writers. In light of the Hollywood writers' strike, that's not a minor point.

"The whole digital area is a place of humongous growth," says Lisa Hsia, senior vice president of new media at Bravo. "There's a revenue model and business model here with mobile games that makes tremendous sense going forward."

Overall, the mobile-game market in the United States is worth more than $675 million a year - and has grown 24 percent in the past 12 months, according to Nielsen Media Research. Some analysts expect it to double in revenue next year, thanks to shows like Top Chef Challenge that target new demographics.

The international market is also projected to double - topping $10 billion by the end of next year, with 920 million mobile users downloading games, according to a report issued last month by Jupiter Research, a global leader in high-tech communications research.

"Traditional video games have appealed to a rather narrow demographic, which has tended to be teenage or young adult males," says Windsor Holden, analyst for the London-based research firm. "So, what you need to do to achieve real growth is produce content that appeals beyond the traditional gaming demographic. This is what you see in games based on American TV shows like Desperate Housewives and Top Chef ... games that are specifically designed to leverage the enormous potential market of women with cell phones."

Few know that audience of 110 million American consumers better than Kristen McDonnell, CEO of LimeLife, a San-Francisco-based company that is the nation's only publisher of wireless content exclusively focused on the women's market. LimeLife is the developer of Top Chef Challenge (available on T Mobile and AT&T) - as well as a new game debuting next month based on the cop drama Law & Order. Three out of four viewers of the NBC series are female, according to Nielsen data.

Historically, women have been largely responsible for "bringing game-play into our lives," says McDonnell.

"If you think back to what game-playing was like before consoles and Atari, most people will remember aunts and grandmothers and female cousins and girlfriends getting together to play bridge, canasta and cribbage," she says.

But the early male-oriented technology of Atari and video games put women off game-play in those media - in a way that cell phones do not.

"The mobile phone is a new medium, a platform that 110 million women in the United State already own and carry with them up to 16 hours a day," McDonnell says. "It's a device that's very important to them, and in focus groups, they tell us what they want on these phones."

One of those desires, according to McDonnell, is for content that speaks to that historical interest in certain kinds of games - such as those found in Top Chef Challenge. To advance from lowly dishwasher to top chef, contestants must master a series of tasks ranging from keeping track of several different entrees cooking at different temperatures to remembering what goes where on various plates. They must also get along with other kitchen workers and not make enemies.

"The little mini-games inside of Top Chef Challenge are very much oriented to play patterns that women enjoy that are more puzzlelike rather than 3-D shooting," McDonnell says.

There is a similar gender orientation to Disney's Hannah Montana - In Action, based on the series that is No. 1 with tween viewers (ages 8 to 12).

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