I have three children under the age of five, so I should know better than this, but this past weekend I made the most rookie of mistakes: I went into a Toys "R" Us in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Needless to say, the Christmas chaos had begun,and I found myself edging my way around strollers and toddlers, searching for something we could send to my nephew. As I was scanning the aisles I did a double take when I looked up and saw something I didn't expect: a set of child-size Angry Birds backpacks.
Okay, I shouldn't have been that surprised. Over the past year or two I've seen Angry Birds T-shirts, Angry Birds stress balls, Angry Birds pillows, Angry Birds posters and probably a lot of other things I've since forgotten. The point is that Rovio's popular characters are everywhere, in almost every form factor you could imagine, and there is no doubt in my mind that somewhere along the line someone is buying a piece of Angry Birds merchandise without having a clue that it has anything to do with a mobile app. That's when you know you've got a brand with legs.
Do developers think this way? I doubt it. The fun of creating a game is in creating the rules, the challenges, the user experience, and, in some cases, the story and characters. In the case of Angry Birds, it's a pretty simple story, but there is conflict, resolution (depending on how well you do) and a link to timeless and universal human emotion: the desire for revenge. No wonder Rovio is able to license the game's image all over the place.
As a recent research report from Canalys shows, most of the top paid apps are games, but it's about more than a choice of category. The developers who are succeeding are creating fun smartphone experiences with elements that can live in our minds independent of the game itself. That's the essence of branding--it's a representation of something that can be adapted across various kinds of media. That's why there are always so many merchandising tie-ins for popular movies, TV shows, boy bands and even cars.
Developers are always encouraged to start thinking about monetization and discoverability before they even begin to code, but maybe they should throw in something else. Try this exercise: As you think about your game, its characters and its story, ask whether it could find an extended life in other kinds of products. Is there any element that could be as iconic as the Nike swoosh or the Apple logo? What would the limit of the merchandising opportunities be, and why? If you can realistically imagine people including products tied into your game among their Christmas stocking stuffers, you've got the makings not only of a good game but a good brand. Maybe not every app is going to end up on a T-shirt, but if it can be, your odds of success are lot higher.--Shane