Eric Johnson

Recent Posts by Eric Johnson

One of the Year’s Most Addictive Mobile Games Doesn’t Seem Like a Game at All

ninjaWhen I tell people I write about videogames, someone almost always asks, “What should I play?”

I’m not a reviewer, and there are plenty of games I haven’t played, but I always have at least one game on my phone ready to be shown off. Recently, that game has been an unusual one. Clumsy Ninja, which game studio NaturalMotion first demoed at Apple’s iPhone 5 event in September 2012, finally made it to Apple’s U.S. App Store a few weeks ago, and since then, it has been on a tear.

“This is not designed to be a hardcore monetizing game,” NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil told me in a pre-launch interview. Well, oops. It is monetizing well — so well, in fact, that it broke into the Top 25 of the iOS apps chart within three days of its launch. At the time of this writing, it peaked at No. 14 overall on Tuesday, and has been hovering between the high teens and low 30s since then, according to App Annie (registration required).

As for what that means in real-money terms: According to one report from Distimo, the 10 top-grossing apps make at least $47,000 per day. Even if the app never crosses the magical Top-10 barrier, that’s still a lot of dough.

Why does Clumsy Ninja monetize so well? It’s more of a toy with game elements than a game in the typical sense. Like a virtual pet, the titular ninja does whatever you tell him to do, whether it’s jumping on a trampoline, holding onto balloons or attacking thrown watermelons.

The more you play with him, the more he gains experience points and collects virtual currency, but players can buy packs of that currency, which lets them more quickly access new activities, clothes and the like.

That all sounds like Free-to-Play Economics 101, but what really sells it is the animation. Reil said that before it got into mobile apps, NaturalMotion’s only focus was realistically simulating humans’ and animals’ bones, joints and muscles. The company has licensed its motion-simulating technology to Rockstar for Grand Theft Auto IV and V, as well as Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne.

And that animation, along with Clumsy Ninja’s wealth of cute visual gags, is a huge differentiating factor between it and other virtual pet/toy apps like the Talking Friends. Reil said the “magical” believability of the ninja makes players feel connected to him; maybe it’s that connection that has helped this supposedly-not-hardcore game earn its black belt of monetization.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work