While I’ve been playing both the Hearthstone expansion and the Destiny beta this week, there’s one more game that’s taken up a fair bit of my time. That would be Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a game that caught my attention not for its subject matter, but for its massive profitability.
The game has reportedly brought in $200M for developer Glu Mobile, with supposedly $85M going to Kim Kardashian directly due to her 45% stake in the game, and relatively minimal costs associated with its production. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is currently sitting at #1 on Apple’s iOS free app chart, and has a five star rating with 140K reviews. The question is…how? And that’s what I aimed to find out this week.
Rather than simply weep for our society, I figured I should actually give the game a fair shot to see how it could perform that well in just a few short months in a hugely crowded mobile space. Over the course of the last week, I’ve dedicated half of my time with my phone to climbing my way up the ladder of chaos that is Hollywood, and I’m able to file a report on what I’ve found.
First impressions of the game were…rather good, actually. The game runs well even on my ancient original iPhone 4, and has an eye catching animation style that makes it visually appealing, and drives you to want to upgrade your character with an increasingly nice wardrobe.
And while mechanically the game is similar to many in the time gate genre, with a slowly recharging energy bar to complete various jobs, it’s not a direct clone of anything else, which is more than can be said for a large number of games in the top 100 charts.
Many of the jobs do get repetitive, as I did variants of the same modeling and promotional gigs a zillion times over throughout the course of the week, but there is something resembling a grand story to it all, as you befriend Kim herself by chance, and she helps you get your foot in the door in Hollywood. I’ve helped her open a new store, gotten noticed by photographers, and thrown myself a birthday party. All of this has allowed me to crawl all the way up to being a “D” list celebrity so far.
The game is very much an monument to Kardashian’s ego, but that’s kind of what you’re signing up for when you buy a game called “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.” The actual Hollywood sign in the game reads “KARDASHIAN” instead, as does the front of the $20,000 SUV that has her name on the hood where “Range Rover” should go.
If we’re talking about the corruptive influences of gaming on young minds today, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is likely far worse than any game where you can chainsaw an alien’s head off. The central lesson is that your entire life should be dedicated to yourself, increasing your public profile, and buying clothes, cars and houses to get people to like you more.
I kept waiting for there to be at least some glimmer of selflessness or humility somewhere in the game, like an option to throw a homeless guy a couple bucks on the street, but that’s miles away from the point of the game, which is to top the A-list, climbing to get there on a pile of cash, clothes and cars.
Naturally, this is the American Dream for many people playing this game, and really most anyone who looks up to Kardashian as someone to emulate. The girl is famous for being famous, and before this game, I couldn’t tell you what she’s actually done to attract all this attention outside of being pretty, making a sex tape, and dating/marrying other famous people. While a tip in the game is actually to date famous celebrities to get more fans, there’s no mention of making a sex tape. Perhaps I’m just not a high enough level yet.
The game’s popularity is relatively self-explanatory as we live in a world of average citizens dying to become famous, and this simulates that with cute animations and pretty colors. But the game’s profitability? That’s another matter altogether, and where the real genius of the game lies.
Like many games in the mobile genre, there are two forms of currency. There’s cash, which buys most types of items in the game, and there’s Kim Coins (Koins?) which buys better versions of everything, and creates shortcuts through the game as well.
The game is incredibly sneaky when it comes to both cash and coin sinks. I thought I was making cash at a pretty decent rate from my various gigs, but the game loves to throw in little fees here and there to knock your bank account down. Traveling from one place to another within the LA area costs anywhere from $2 to $20. Flying to places like Vegas or Miami cost $15-30. And if that’s not enough, I went into my condo late in the week and found my landlord demanding $750 in rent payment, lest he throw me out of my house. Combine that with cash-purchase goals the game demands of you (buy this beach house!) and you have very little spending money at all.
Kim Koins (Coins?) are even more devious trap. In a week of solid play, I think I ended up with 25, including five I had at the start, and five more that were given to me as an apology because the game experienced an outage. You only earn coins when progressing through story mode or completing achievements which rarely bother explaining themselves. The result is a couple coins a day at the very most, yet the game is trying to pry them away from you at every turn.
As you progress through the story, you’re given options to “charm” various industry figures you come across. This can be a few coins (which still add up over time when you have so few to start with), or it can be close to twenty if someone is far above your station.
But the real moneymaker is the fact that the game hides practically all its interesting hairstyles, outfits or accessories behind the coin paywall, the point where I can barely afford a single item with 20 coins in the bank after a week of play. There are a few items that cost 20 coins, but the vast, vast majority are more than that. And I may not be a fashionista, but I recognize that the “cutest” outfits all cost coins, and range from 30 to 100+. At my current coin collecting rate, provided I didn’t sacrifice any to charming or pet adoption (seriously), I should be able to afford that one hairstyle I really want in about two months.
Now the game’s profitability becomes obvious, as it’s just so, so much easier to throw down real life cash for one of the game’s coin packs. $5 gets you 50, $100 gets you 1250, and there are many tiers in between. At this point, spending $5 to buy an item that would otherwise take you weeks to earn for yourself is a no-brainer for many avid players, I’m guessing, and I’m sure there are some that have spent hundreds on virtual wardrobes.
I’ve played a lot of games with this sort of mechanic to encourage cash shop purchases, but this is probably the most genius slash evil example I’ve seen. The game is well designed enough to make players actually want all these cosmetic items, but trying to play the game spending zero money is exhausting to the point where fans will give in and simply buy coin packs to save themselves weeks or months of effort. And that’s how you make $200M in barely two months.
But you really can’t begrudge the game its success on the back of this model. Anyone playing a game about becoming a celebrity made by a celebrity is likely going to be pretty into a culture of luxury purchases. Granted, these are just digital luxury purchases, but the principle is the same, and the game gives them an opportunity to spend $10 for a cute haircut and outfit instead of the $500 it would cost in real life. Video games may be escapism for those who wish they could be some badass, invincible soldier, but games like this provide the same outlet for those who have alternative interests that are less about killing and more about gossip and shopping.
I don’t know why exactly Kim Kardashian was famous before, but lending herself to this game was clearly a stroke of genius. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood may teach terrible life lessons and pry money out of its players’ hands, but if people enjoy it and are willing to pay, you can’t really blame it for creating a game that uses the microtransaction model more effectively than many, many others in the scene. The concept draws a fanbase willing to pay for fluff, Kardashian’s name gives it celebrity credibility, and the designers made it engaging enough where people want to stick around. It may be a perfect storm of awfulness based on vanity culture, the poster child for vanity culture, and exploitative microtransctions, but it works. It makes money. It’s killing all its competition. And that deserves a slow clap, at the very least.
Follow me on Twitter, and on Facebook, and pick up a copy of my sci-fi novel, The Last Exodus, and its sequel, The Exiled Earthborn, along with my new Forbes book, Fanboy Wars.How does Watch Dogs stack up to Grand Theft Auto? Check out my analysis below: