|The Making Of A Web Game
2:00 p.m. EDT)
By Evan Schuman, TechWire
It's a few minutes past 11 a.m. as 10-year-old Cory
Briggs stares transfixed into a computer screen, trying to
manipulate virtual boulders to rip chunks out of a virtual pyramid.
Less than a foot away, staring just as intently at Cory as Cory
is at the monitor, are a pair of computer game designers, a test
administrator and a Ph.D. with the title "Director Of Human
All are being paid to test a new line of Web-based games designed
for cereal giant Kellogg and intended to pitch a message that
cereal-based breakfasts are good for you.
The animated pyramid on Cory's screen is supposed to represent
the U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutritional
pyramid, which illustrates what constitutes a solid meal and the
importance of grain in a daily diet. Unfortunately for Kellogg, many
of the young baseball-cap-wearing test subjects think it looks more
like a baseball diamond. When one 11-year-old girl is asked if she
learned anything about the nutritional pyramid after playing the
game, she says "not really," but quickly adds that the game's sound
effects are "really cool."
What Kellogg executives apparently find really cool is the
mesmerizing impact that the Web -- and especially Web games -- is
starting to have on kids. Between the Web's interactive capabilities
and a game's natural attraction, Web-based games seem to be a
marketer's dream come true.
advocates and government agencies applaud Kellogg's efforts to
promote nutrition, mostly because they don't have the money that
Kellogg does to market the messages. But some are not completely
comfortable with a messenger that has a vested interest in selling
Between the Web's
interactive capabilities and a game's natural attraction,
Web-based games seem to be a marketer's dream come true.
"The idea of learning about nutrition, that I have no objection
to," said Michael Brody, a Maryland-based child psychiatrist who
frequently testifies on child Internet issues. "But I don't trust
their slant. They shouldn't be the ones to do this."
Nutritional Benefits Of Marketing
After many false starts, 8-year-old Andre finally is able to
match three bananas in a row. When he succeeds in making his match,
a sound effect of an audience cheering plays as a little more of the
background animation becomes visible.
Although an observer just sees a jumping monkey, Andre sees it
the way Kellogg officials want him to. "It's the monkey from Cocoa
Puffs cereal!" he says, clearly excited. The testers seem to agree
that he's earned his $50 U.S. savings bond.
Even more excited are the executives at Kellogg, who hope they
have finally found an effective way to make dry marketing messages
as palatable as sugar-coated corn.
Despite a recent government stamp of approval on the benefits of
grain, cereal producers find great difficulty in growing their
markets. Kellogg, which controls more than a third of the $12
billion cereal market, estimates that 25 percent of Americans aged
12 to 18 do not eat breakfast. That figure increases to 30 percent
for those aged 18 to 35.
From an industry standpoint, a Web-based campaign to increase the
breakfast eating habits may be one of their last options for major
market growth. "There's a certain amount of uncertainty on Wall
Street as to how they are going to grow their growth rates," says
one Wall Street financial analyst who tracks the cereal industry and
asked to not be identified. "The Web may be the answer."
The Web could be that answer because it allows them to market to
children in a more direct way than other media. Games also provide
an opportunity to get the target users to find themselves rooting
for the product.
"What once was a Web presence is quickly becoming a business necessity,"
says Basel Dalloul, CEO of Magnet Interactive, the company that
Kellogg is paying more than $1 million to create these games.
The Quest For Web Gold
A game that Kellogg wants to debut in late August is dubbed "The
Quest For The Golden Cereal Bowl." As the game opens, players are
asked whether they want to have breakfast. If they decline, the
player runs out of energy shortly and therefore is unable to safely
cross an alligator-filled river. Fortunately, Kellogg's mascot,
Tony the Tiger, swoops in and saves the player. (Presumably, Tony
had eaten his breakfast.)
Some other games that are coming are more instructional and direct.
For example, one displays three plates for breakfast, lunch and
dinner. Players are then invited to use pull-down menus to put whatever
foods they want in those meals. At the end, they click "let's eat,"
and the program says whether nutritional guidelines are being met
-- or not. "Not enough from the fruit/vegetable category. Please
try again," the program might nag.
The more elaborate games all must be downloaded
to guarantee a roughly consistent performance regardless of connection
have to be very careful to not be too tough on its players.
After all, a losing player may associate the game's sponsor
with that unpleasant loss.
"I would contend that no game that is tied into the Web server
response could be engaging," says Merryanna Swartz, Magnet's director
of human factors. "The delay would break the engagement that you
want to have."
Like most forms of Web marketing, these games attract and hold
children's attention for much longer periods than would a television
commercial or even a full show. And the company logo and characters
are constantly in the background. "I think it's a little bit much,"
The balancing act for the game producers is to keep the action
and entertainment strong enough that it keeps the player interested
without overshadowing the costly marketing messages.
"The user is constantly going to be reminded of the company that
brought them that game," says Robert Wolfferd, Magnet's director
of game technologies. It works "if you can get an interesting game
without going overboard with the branding. Just so it says Kellogg's
But Wolfferd, a veteran gamemaker, says that these kinds of marketing
games have to be very careful to not be too tough on its players.
After all, a losing player may associate the game's sponsor with
that unpleasant loss.
"When we design these games, we have to put a lot of reinforcement,"
he says. Instead of a game telling a player that the player has
lost, it might ask to "Play again?"