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Opinion: How free apps can promote branded iPhone games

THQ Wireless could be leading the way

Opinion: How free apps can promote branded iPhone games
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So far, iPhone and its App Store haven't been quite the happy hunting ground for branded games that the traditional operator decks have.

Well, not for all branded games. Console brands like Super Monkey Ball, Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart and Spore have done pretty well. But we haven't seen a glut of games based on other brands, particularly movies and TV shows.

They're probably coming. Glu boss Greg Ballard certainly thinks so, judging by his comments in a PocketGamer.biz interview this week. So it's interesting to think about how these kind of branded games might prosper on the App Store.

It's not quite the same as on carrier decks, where selling hundreds of thousands of downloads for a movie game is pretty easy – you just persuade the operator to stick it at the top of the deck, and job done. Unless the film flops.

In the App Store's more meritocratic environment, that approach won't work – which should at least mean less people will part with money for poor branded games.

But there are opportunities, too, particularly for publishers that strike out into free applications, which they then use to promote their pay games. What THQ Wireless has done with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Lightsaber Unleashed is a good example.

Having gotten the PhoneSaber app removed from the store, THQ decided to work with its developers to create an official version, ensuring that Star Wars geeks would be able to swing their iPhone like a lightsaber, for free and with official sound effects.

But the clever thing is that the free app also promotes the premium Star Wars: The Force Unleashed game, via a button on the loading screen that takes people straight back to the App Store on their iPhone.

Now picture yourself as, say, Glu, with the rights to a blockbuster movie (Transformers, to take an example from recent memory).

You make a free app based on that movie, whose function is mainly to stoke up fans' enthusiasm about the film, including a video trailer, and some content around the characters, sound effects or other aspects. But crucially, you then use that to also promote a separate iPhone game.

I'm not sure how much what THQ Wireless did with Star Wars was a strategy, and how much it was a happy accident. But it's certainly a path worth following. Mobile game publishers willing to pitch brand-owners on the merits of apps as well as games could drive demand for the latter.

Of course, the games have to be good, or we'll end up with the same cycle of consumer disappointment that's afflicted mobile. But for those publishers signing up brands, it's something to chew over.