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Pop Snap, Crackle, Sell: The Making Of A Web Game

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The Making Of A Web Game

(07/28/97; 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 Factors."

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.

Between the Web's interactive capabilities and a game's natural attraction, Web-based games seem to be a marketer's dream come true.
Child 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 cereal.

"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.

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.
The more elaborate games all must be downloaded to guarantee a roughly consistent performance regardless of connection speed.

"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," Brody said.

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 somewhere."

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?" end


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