Why branded Roblox games like Walmart Land are struggling to attract players

Colin Campbell, Monday, March 6th, 2023 4:56 am

In September last year, mega-retailer Walmart launched its shiny new Roblox destination, Walmart Land. The company pointed out that the “interactive experience” was aimed at “the global Roblox community of over 52 million daily users”.

A few months on, and only a tiny number of those daily users are bothering to visit Walmart Land. In the past week or so, concurrent user numbers are in the low hundreds. The game’s player rating is just 55 percent. In comparison, Roblox’s most popular game, Adopt Me!, attracts concurrent player numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and has a player rating of 89 percent. 

Posting on LinkedIn earlier this month, Walmart’s director of brand experiences and strategic partnerships Justin Breton claimed that Walmart Land had attracted “more than 12.3M visits & 59.3K favorites to date”. But no details were about average length of stay, when the majority of those visits occurred, nor of the profiles of those users. 

According to this metrics site, average play time is less than three minutes (as of Feb. 22), which strongly suggests a lack of engagement. Downvotes are high, as a percentage of upvotes.

Similarly, other branded games, like Kellogg’s Froot Loops World and Nikeland, attract high levels of social media interest at launch, often among marketing professionals, but low interest from players on a daily basis, in comparison to Roblox’s most popular destinations. 

According to one developer of branded games, who preferred not to be named, branded games often cost seven figure development and promotional costs, raising questions about their value to the brands they represent. GameDaily spoke to three digital marketing professionals about Walmart Land, about Roblox as a marketing destination, and about the statistics currently being used to justify investing in metaverse-like marketing efforts.

Digital theme parks, or dreary museums?

Although Roblox is undoubtedly a major destination for young consumers, the platform hosts millions of games, few of which attract significant numbers of players. Citing overall Roblox engagement numbers as a metric for an individual game is “like launching an iPhone app and claiming to be hitting every App Store user in the world,” according to Phil Ranta, COO of digital marketing agency We Are Verified!. 

Ranta added: “Yes, there are millions of users on Roblox, but they have to find you, because there are a lot of games. You can convince yourself that you’ll have a huge hit if you only hit ten percent of users, and that’s true, but it’s very hard to achieve that unless you really deliver something that’s new and appealing.”

Walmart Land is a slick production. Players are invited to explore a digital theme park, complete with monorail, zipline, and destination points. Activities include sporting, fashion, and music-based mini-games, as well as collectibles, and the ability to purchase in-game items with in-game cash. It’s designed as a social, multiplayer experience. 

However, it lacks vigor and excitement. Playing Walmart Land feels like wandering around a game lobby. There are few, if any, points of genuine interest. 

“The game is the game,” says Ranta. “If it’s not a fun game then it’s not going to catch on. I don’t know that walking around a virtual environment and buying generic stuff is ever going to compete with something like Adopt Me!. Yes, it’s smooth and it looks great but that doesn’t count for much in Roblox. You have to meet the players where they are.”

Joost van Dreunen is the author of One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games. He says: “[Walmart Land] seems to be a function of a marketing department and not really focused on generating revenue. It launched with a lot of enthusiasm and it got a few headlines, but it generally fails to attract large audiences. People may visit at one time, but never come back.”

Van Dreunen compares the current fad for branded Roblox games to the Second Life marketing initiatives of an earlier era, in which companies like Adidas, Sony, and Toyota created highly publicized digital destinations that failed to attract player interest.

“It seemed like a great idea to spend marketing dollars on these online spaces where trendy young consumers are engaging,” he says. “But they turn out to be a novelty, because there’s not much to do. The novelty wears off and the world moves on. They aren’t the same as real multiplayer games where players are engaged in fun and social challenges, and so they keep coming back.”

“Walmart Land is a very well designed marketing activation,” says Jordan Baker, co-founder at digital gaming agency Moonrock Labs. “It lacks the gamification elements that might make it fun to play. It’s like the difference between going to an amusement park and going to a museum. In an amusement park, you have rides, and you’re sharing exciting moments, you are excited. Whereas when you are going to a museum, you are looking around and maybe talking about the pieces in front of you, but you can’t necessarily interact with them.”

A history of failure

Despite a lack of significant player engagement, games like Walmart Land aren’t necessarily judged entirely on their return on investment. Marketers understand that using games as advertising platforms has a long history of failure, but also that it’s likely to be crucial in the years to come, as younger people continue to abandon traditional media platforms, in favor of digital, social, and collaborative destinations. In short, it’s worth the cost, if only for the educational benefits.

“I can see an argument for this as a learning experience,” says Ranta. “There are probably less expensive ways of doing that, but these brands don’t like to start small because they think it makes them look small. Since Facebook changed its name to Meta, brands have been interested in the metaverse, and I suspect some of them are willing to pay now to learn the lessons they will need in the future. They’re also getting a big earned media hit,.”

Big brands are also alert to the danger of being seen to be ignoring emerging platforms. Investors and company-watchers are likely to react negatively to any perceived failure to embrace new opportunities, particularly when they address younger generations of potential customers. 

“It’s very much to the benefit of large organizations to constantly be spending money to figure out what the new thing is,” says van Dreunen. “They can demonstrate that they are maintaining their relevance culturally or commercially or both. And so to not do this would probably be the bigger mistake.”

As influential trade outlet AdWeek recently posted: “Creating metaverse experiences is expensive and time-consuming. But with 48.2 million users, it just may be necessary.”

“Walmart Land has won awards,” says Krishna Singh, cofounder at Moonrock Labs. “That’s something that the agency and the brand are going to celebrate publicly and it’s going to get people on LinkedIn excited. They’re going to talk about some of the positive numbers, even if the numbers that matter are tiny. But they rarely tell you the whole story. They’ll talk about the thousands of ‘likes’ they get, but they won’t mention the thousands of ‘dislikes’. So it becomes an echo chamber.”

Moonrock Labs has created branded entertainment experiences in Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite, often with an emphasis on attracting attention from influencers. Baker points out that Walmart Land’s low numbers reflect its inability to intrigue or excite streamers, who drive traffic towards games that they can use to entertain followers. 

“They need to be able to see that this [game] is great for their personal brand as an influencer and as something that is going to make their community happy,” he says. “The players need to feel that way too, because they have friends who they influence. Walmart Land looks like something that was created with a set budget and certain KPIs [Key Performance Indicators],” he says. “But it should have been created with the players in mind first, because they are always looking for experiences that are new and fun and shareable, but this isn’t it.”

(In response to our enquiries for this story, a Walmart spokesperson sent GameDaily the following comment. “Walmart Land is a fun and exciting way to engage with our customers on a new digital platform. We are continuing to test and learn from the experience and are optimizing as we go. Since launching last fall, we’ve been pleased with the interest we’ve seen from the Roblox community.” Journey, the agency that created Walmart Land, declined to be interviewed.)

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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