Pop icons like Britney Spears or Hannah Montana inevitably grow out of being role models for young girls, and then send jolts of alarm through parents as the divas engage in more, uh, adult-like activities. Better to create a rock star who never ages or gets arrested for drunk driving.
That’s the thinking behind Spitball Entertainment‘s Miya Mackenzie, an animated character who is the star of a new celebrity role-playing massively multiplayer online game for girls. The big idea is to turn Miya into a pop star with a huge transmedia merchandising brand, but to do it with the lower cost and viral word-of-mouth marketing of an online game, rather than an expensive TV show.
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“We asked ourselves, ‘how do you create a character brand?'” said Michael Trigg, chief executive of Spitball, in an interview. “From Angry Birds to Talking Tom, we’re seeing these new branded characters take off in the new age of media. But you don’t want a real person who might be ruined as a role model in the eyes of parents.”
The character Miya plays the role of a young celebrity pop star who serves as a mentor for the gamer’s own character. The player creates a new character who will give Miya a run for her money.
“Let’s make you a superstar,” Miya says in her opening video below.
It may sound far-fetched. But so is Hatsune Miku, a Japanese pop star who is an animated character. In addition to the game, Miya will have animated cartoon episodes and a full-length original pop album, voiced by an actress who is actually in her 30s.
San Francisco-based Spitball is thinking big, but it only has six employees at the moment, including founder Trigg, a former marketing executive at the social network Hi5. He says that character-based brands are a $70 billion market, including the $1 billion empire built around Miley Cyrus’s Hannah Montana. His team includes Jenny Hansen, creative director and former creative director at kids online site SuperSecret, and Manny Marquez, former technical producer at Hi5. Three other team members are working on the technology behind the game. Most of the graphics work is farmed out to an offshore animation team.
If Hollywood agents, insiders and power brokers manufacture the careers of talented singers for public consumption, then you have to figure that you can literally manufacture a character to do the same thing. In the game, you create your own character, picking out features such as outfits and hair. You can purchase virtual goods such as furniture or instruments, and create unique abilities such as dance moves and VIP access.
The team figures that 10-year-old to 14-year-old girls are not well served by social entertainment or TV brands. Parents, meanwhile, are looking for brands that are safe for their kids to enjoy.
The company has raised $400,000 to date and has moved into Founders Den, a shared space in San Francisco for experienced entrepreneurs. If the game is a hit, Trigg figures he can generate licensing fees and revenues from selling the pop album on iTunes or Amazon. The company plans to exploit social media to attract new players. Three of Miya’s original 10 pop songs are available on her Facebook page.
In the private beta, the Miya Mackenzie game has drawn more than 10,000 sign-ups since December and is gaining more than 1,000 new unique users per day. Those players have logged in 2.2 times per day on average, and 70 percent of them invite their friends. The most engaged users are logging in more than 100 times a month.
“We think our playground virality is really strong,” Trigg said.
If Miya Mackenzie becomes a bona fide pop star, then Trigg will have an interesting problem on his hands. Will he have to hire an actress to become the real world Miya Mackenzie? Sort of like how Lara Croft: Tomb Raider eventually became a real-world star portrayed by actress Angelina Jolie?
“For now, she is only a 3D animation,” Trigg said. “Down the line, we could do fashion, a Miya movie, a concert, and turn her into a lifestyle brand.”