GamesBeat

An old video game fad returns? Celebrities want to cash in on Facebook games

Zynga teamed up with recording artist Dr. Dre today to debut his new music video in its Facebook game Mafia Wars. And Facebook game publisher 6waves and TV production firm Endemol USA teamed up to produce a game around basketball icon Kobe Bryant.

These kinds of deals are old hat for video game publishers. In fact, they’re so old hat that many game companies have moved beyond celebrity endorsements to produced higher-quality fare based on original stories and characters.

But now some natural evolutionary forces are pushing the celebrities into social games. The celebrities want to cash in on the hip nature of Facebook, which can put them in much closer touch with their fans than previous video games have done. And the Facebook game companies want to differentiate themselves with brand or celebrity names that consumers can recognize. If it works, there will be piles of money in it for the game companies and the celebrities alike. It means the ante is getting higher for social game companies; if they want their games to be popular, they may have to hook up with a celebrity or brand as well to succeed. And that means higher production costs, which is an inevitability in any entertainment technology business.

The emergence of celebrities and brands in social games is coming on strong. Electronic Arts has introduced its big sports game brands, Madden NFL football and FIFA soccer, in its recent Facebook games. And Disney is sure to bring its brands into the newest games from Playdom and Tapulous, which Disney acquired. Actress Kirstie Alley made a cameo appearance in RockYou’s Zoo World game on Facebook.

The celebrity phase remains a big part of video games. But fans have a love-hate relationship with these kinds of games. They love getting closer to their favorites stars. But they hate shallow games that are horribly boring to play. Bad celebrity video games are such a cliché that game critics have built “worst ever” lists around them. One of the worst ever was Journey, a 1983 video game built around the popular rock band.

It’s funny but I couldn’t find a list of the “best ever” celebrity video games. Let’s hope that social games have better luck. The celebrity games could actually do better because their fans aren’t so hardcore and are focused more on the social element of the games than the game play itself. You could probably say the trend will hit its peak when either Britney Spears or Paris Hilton create their own Facebook games. But for now, celebrity fan pages are doing quite well on Facebook, with millions of fans signing up for pages such as the Family Guy fan page.

Zynga’s approach is more conservative because it is injecting a celebrity, Dr. Dre, into the already-successful Mafia Wars. Five-time Grammy winner Dr. Dre will debut his new Kush music video, featuring music stars Snoop Dogg and Akon. The video is the beginning of a marketing blitz around the early 2011 release of Dr. Dre’s next album, Detox, which is his first in more than a decade. His tough demeanor fits well with Mafia Wars, which is the world’s most popular crime game.

You can also buy Dr. Dre-related limited edition virtual goods within a “Hustlin’ wit Dre” portion of the game. Players can listen to a stream of Kush music while playing the game. The virtual goods include Dr. Dre-inspired headphones, a vintage car, and weapons. Players can also watch an exclusive Dr. Dre video message available only within Mafia Wars. They can enter a contest to win a signed copy of the CD and the Beats By Dr. Dre headphones. Players can purchase the song via an iTunes link within the game.

Earlier this year, Zynga partnered with rapper Snoop Dogg to blow up a 4-ton armored truck in the Nevada desert to celebrate the game reaching 10 million visitors in two weeks. Overall, Zynga has more than 200 million monthly active users and Mafia Wars has more than 19 million playing on both the iPhone and Facebook.

Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant will be the focus of a social game from Endemol USA, an entertainment production company, and social game publisher 6waves. Bryant himself will play a role in the creative development of the game, which the parties aren’t describing yet.

Endemol will secure sponsors and brand integrations for the project and co-produce the game as well. 6waves will c0-produce the game and market it to its huge base of 75 million monthly active users. 6wave’s games include Ravenwood Fair (created with LOLApps), Mall World, Resort World, Simply Hospital and My Fishbowl.

The game will give players the chance to win Kobe-autographed memorabilia or tickets to attend a Lakers game.  The social game could also involve integrations with Kobe’s Endemol-produced online video series, Dream Makers.

[photo credits: dr dre, kobe, snoop]


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