If now defunct marketing firm Designers Republic had endured to this day, they might have followed the same path as Cie.  Designers Republic’s influence on the venerable racing game franchise WipEout is one of the game industry’s most well-known examples of how a marketing firm did more than just brand a game.  The way the story goes, the firm essentially helped build the WipEout IP by designing a look and feel that game maker Psygnosis adopted for much of the game universe, from UI and iconography for race teams to the game’s billboard-studded futuristic speedways.  If Designers Republic had digital chops and access to SDKs, like many marketing firms do today, they might have moved from there right into game making.

That’s what Cie has done.  The California-based ad firm turned digital playground is now also a bona fide game developer as it launches Racing Rivals, an iOS drag racing game that hits the App Store today {link no longer active}. Cie’s 15-year old legacy is working on marketing campaigns for car and auto parts brands. It made a series of successful branded racing games on Facebook for Nitto, a popular performance tire brand.  From there, Cie decided to try its hand at making its own game.  In 2010, it released Car Town on Facebook, which it published under its officially labeled game division Cie Games. Car Town became a hit, with millions of players drawn to its very Facebook-like treatment of a racing video game. It’s an isometric racer where the cars look like chubby, toy-like versions of themselves.

Part of Car Town’s success was attracting big name licenses. It wasn’t a branded game per se, but it became a playground to promote brands. No doubt leveraging the game’s impressive player base, Cie was able to secure licenses and occasional in-game promotions from auto makers, parts makers, major racing circuits, even car culture entertainment like the TV show Top Gear and the Fast and the Furious films. Cie Games leveraged Car Town’s success to make the move to iOS, releasing Car Town Streets. That paved the way for Racing Rivals.

Racing Rivals feels different than any of Cie’s previous games.  It looks and behaves like a real video game.  Visually, it draws an immediate comparison to NaturalMotion’s hit iOS drag racer, CSR Racing.  Yet there’s a lot going on in Racing Rivals that is solid from a core game standpoint. It looks as polished as a race car on race day. It’s also bringing features to an iOS drag racing game that are very much geared towards a hardcore racer fan.  Most notably, Racing Rivals has live head-to-head racing.  Matches are made in real-time in a live lobby where there can be plenty of chatter and trash talk, and where players can watch others race. The game is also introducing in-game betting.  Players can bet their in-game currency, and go all-in if they like.  If that’s not enough, they can put up their most prized in-game possession — their pink slip.

We talked with Matt Nutt, who heads up business develoment and brings serious game industry chops to Cie, coming from Blizzard and Square Enix, and Pauline Hwa, who heads up Cie Games’ marketing, to learn more about Racing Rivals and how they’re planning to promote it.

[a]list: At first blush people are going to see this game and say it’s just like CSR Racing.  What differentiates it?

Matt Nutt: We really love those games that are out right now.  They did a lot to bring console quality especially in graphics to mobile games.  We thought there are certain key features that were missing.  We’re coming from Flash and PC client games, the drag racing games that we built over 10 years ago, where we had game lobbies and chat and in-game betting.  As much as we love those games, and as much as we think they’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of bringing triple-A console quality to mobile, we thought we could add these features and bring it even close to triple-A console quality.  We’ve got live multiplayer racing.  We’re not simply doing a one-to-one match with another person on our servers on the back end, we drop you into the game lobby with up to 50 other people.  You can just hang out and watch other guys race in spectator mode.  You can chat.  There are messages that are automatically generated when people race for pink slips or go all-in with the cash that they have in their accounts.  It makes for a much livelier play experience when you feel like you’re part of an active room and there’s a lot going on.  The ability to race, put your money where your mouth is by betting in-game currency or even your pink slips.  That adds a lot of emotion and excitement to the game.

We think the live multiplayer racing part is super-important.  In other games you can race someone else, but you’re really racing their data in the cloud, so you’re racing the best possible time that they put up.  But just like in real sports, even the best athletes have off days.  The live racing component allows you to race the ballers in the room, but there is skill in playing the game.  You might not have the fastest twitch skills on that day, and you could lose.

[a]list: Cie obviously still has a strong relationship with Nitto, which is the most prominent car brand in Racing Rivals and seems to be involved with helping you launch it.  How are you leveraging your relationship with them?

Matt Nutt: We’re really fortunate.  Not only are they a sponsor, but we’re leveraging all of their marketing channels to get the word out about this game.  Their marketing plan as a company in this particular timeframe is centered around the game.  All of their media buying, all of their PR, all of their community outreach is going to be anchored around this game that we’ve developed with them. Essentially we have a dual-pronged approach to marketing this game.  We’re focused on the video game industry, obviously.  They’re focused on the auto industry.  We’re going after gamers, people who like to play racing games and the gaming industry from a B2B perspective.  They’re doing all the same going after car enthusiasts, automotive industry press, blogs and so on.

[a]list: Tell me about how you’re planning on monetizing this game.

Matt Nutt: The game is free to play, and we’ve designed it so that anyone can play without having to pay.  Our game’s fun is really anchored around live multiplayer racing, hanging out in lobbies, talking smack, challenging other racers for in-game currency and pink slips.  Community is very, very important.  We need to make sure that there are a lot of people playing this game in order for it to be fun.

In terms of monetization for us, there are always ballers who want every car that we make available in the game in their garage, they want all of the best-looking aftermarket parts, the carbon fiber hood, the really awesome looking spoiler on the back of their car, the neon-looking rims.  There are ways for us to make money through vanity items and unlocking cars.  We also make money when customers want to upgrade their cars.  Just like in the real world, where you’re sending your car to the shop and you’re having your engine tuned or upgraded, you’ve got to wait for the mechanic to finish his job.  If you want to avoid that wait, you can spend in-game currency or premium currency to bypass that.

For late stage players of the game who’ve got fully upgraded cars…they’ve got those upgraded with ‘pro parts’.  Like in the real world, if you add pro parts to you car and race, it’s going to damage your car, it’s going to damage your engine. Engine damage is a mechanic that we use in the game where if you race your fully upgraded car with pro parts a lot, it’s going to damage the engine.  There’s a cool down timer so you can just wait or choose another car out of your garage to keep playing.  But if you want to fix your engine right away and get right back into the action, you can spend money to do that as well.

[a]list: Considering engine damage is geared towards the most hardcore player, do you see this feature alone as your key moneymaker?

Matt Nutt: That’s a good question.  We’re not sure.  We’ve built a monetization mechanic in the game where in order to work your way towards the best cars in the game, you can play and earn them or you can take shortcuts and buy.  In the early and mid-stage part of the game, we can make money from people who don’t have the patience.  In the later part of the game, yeah I think we’re mostly going to make money off of engine damage.  I’m not sure from which of those two buckets we’re going to make the most money, but we’re guessing it’s going to be the latter.

Our game has an endgame that’s simply a campaign PvE experience.  [But] it’s PvE and PvP.  We think the game has a long life cycle because of the PvP.  From that perspective we think the engine damage is going to be perhaps the biggest revenue driver for us.

[a]list: You have two sizable communities under your belt between your previous games and Nitto’s community.  What are you doing to cross-pollinate, especially to get players to give up the time, cars and items they’ve racked up in the Car Town games and adopt this new one?

Pauline Hwa: We actually have built-in integration for that.  We have pop-ups already in our games to alert people that we have a new game launch.  Beyond that, for Car Town we have a feature mini-game called “Adventure,” and we built that game specifically for Racing Rivals.  In addition to that, for Car Town Streets we have  our regular racing series, one of our series is going to aimed towards Racing Rivals.  It’s not just about telling our players that this game is coming, we have ways to drive brand integration.

[a]list: What else are you planning for social?

Pauline Hwa: There are going to be contests for our community, both offline and online.  We do have leaderboard competitions as a roadmap.  We’ll be promoting this both in-game and out-of-game across our media channels.  We’ll be doing a lot of giveaways.

[a]list: Are you planning any live tournaments, is the game set up for live streaming competitions?

Matt Nutt: We definitely want to do those things.  There are technologies that you can build into the game, build SDKs that allow people to stream out, we think that’s really cool.  Those are all things that we want to definitely incorporate into the game for our fans. They’re on our product roadmap.

[a]list: You were telling me how Cie play tested Racing Rivals incognito style, releasing alpha and beta versions as Ultimate Racing in Canada and Southeast Asia.  Tell me about what you learned.

Matt Nutt: For Racing Rivals, one of the most challenging features for us to build was the live multiplayer racing where we drop a player into a game lobby with 50 other people. They can chat, watch others race in spectator mode, and challenge or be challenged in races. For something like that, latency becomes a big concern.  It was nice for us to build that functionality into the core mechanics of the game, release that in a very geo-limited capacity to collect feedback from consumers, and really refine that and make the game better.  We did that for Car Town Streets.  We did it for Racing Rivals.  It’s a great benefit.

[a]list: Tell me about the difference you noticed in player behavior in the two territories.

Matt Nutt: This is somewhat subjective, but we found that in Southeast Asia we’re getting pretty aggressive feedback from players there.  Theyre not shy about telling you that the game’s broken, or it sucks, or that they’d like to see a feature.  We beta-test in Canada because those consumers behave a lot like U.S. consumers do in terms of game play and monetization, so it’s a really nice test market for us.  I think Canadians tend to be nicer than Americans, so we may not get as aggressive feedback as we want.  Those have been good experiences for us.

[a]list: Tell me about your launch plans.

Pauline Hwa: We do have advertising that is in place. We have big reveals leading up to official launch through our social media channels as well. We have a great community manager who is actively talking to our players, so they’re starting to get excited. We’re continuing to release all sorts of information to our players.

Matt Nutt: We’re doing Facebook and Twitter and all the standard things you would expect in terms of social media.  But when we think about social media for our mobile games and our live multiplayer games with game lobbies, we’re spending disproportionate mindshare on how do we do community in the game.  We have a [feature] that won’t be built into the game at launch, but that we have on our product roadmap [to] allow our community manager to project presence not just for us as a game company and as a moderator of those communities, but ways to engage consumers in the game.  We’re going to engage consumers as much as possible outside of the game, but we really want to focus on people who are playing the game and interact with them in the game.

[a]list: Where are you advertising, is it all on mobile?

Matt Nutt: 100 percent mobile.

Pauline Hwa: We’ll be doing interstitials and banner advertising with some partners who we tested with during the beta period, like Millennium Media and PlayHaven, and we’ll continue to work with them.  We do have amazing trailers out so we’ll be running that with some partners that did very well for us previously with our other mobile title, Car Town Streets.

[a]list: So you have a bona fide press junket planned for this game, which is unusual for an iOS game.  Since we’ll be covering it (assuming we survive it), can you tease it?

Matt Nut: The game comes out on August 29 and Nitto our sponsor is holding a VIP event at Irwindale Speedway [in California].  We’re going to have up to 50 guests there, and we’re going to allow those guests to compete with each other in Racing Rivals.  We’re also going to have real drag racing cars on the track there.  So we want them to compete playing the game.  We’re also going to put them in these 11 second cars and let them race and test their reaction time on a real track, and we’ll have prizes for the best scores.

Pauline Hwa: For the grand prize, there is going to be an amazing, amazing prize for the winner.

[a]list: So you’ll just tease that amazing prize and leave it at that?

Pauline Hwa: You asked for a teaser, so the prize is the teaser.