Mobile games are a surefire way to become closer to the artists you love. Whether you’re hanging out with them backstage in-game or they're imparting advice to you on how you can break into the showbiz industry, interacting with superstars in these games is the closest most people will ever get to their idols. Mobile developer Netmarble has seemingly perfected the art of giving fans the closeness and intimacy they crave with the June debut of iOS and Android title BTS World.
The free-to-play adventure lets fans come face to face with the thrilling reality of not simply hanging out with the Bangtan Boys, but becoming their manager. As expected, the game has ARMYs all over the world tweeting up a storm about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day interactions with their biases before they came together as BTS. But while it's doing an excellent job of giving fans all over the globe the once-in-a-lifetime chance of meeting and working with the band with 10,000 exclusive, never-before-seen images and 100 video clips, it's important to note that these types of wish-fulfillment games have come a long way.
Musical artists have appeared in countless titles over the years, with the Spice Girls dancing along to players' directions in 1998's Spice World and Britney Spears breaking it down on the dance floor in 2002's Britney's Dance Beat.
These games often aren't created with the highest-quality craftsmanship in mind, but they're meant to serve one purpose: helping fans feel as though they're getting to know their idols just a bit better.
For the longest time, pop star appearances in video games were mostly relegated to assisting them with choreography or going on bizarre journeys with them, à la Michael Jackson's 1990 Sega Genesis platformer Moonwalker.
Over time, however, these games shifted in tone (especially over the last decade) to make fans feel more like they were living similar lives to their favorite pop stars. After developer Glu Mobile launched its massively successful hit Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, in 2014, which managed to gross over $1.6 million in just five days after its release, more fully immersive mobile experiences featuring celebrities were launched in quick succession.
All of these games, inspired by Kim Kardashian: Hollywood before them, revolved around creating your own custom character who, for some reason or another, lived some sort of ancillary life to that of the main star. You're always a lowly retail employee somewhere, a friend of a friend, or a pop star hopeful with a "chance encounter" that leads you down the path to stardom thanks to the benevolent acts of your favorite celeb.
Plenty of tapping, mundane tasks, and melodrama later, you're on your way to becoming a star, or helping your idols on the path to superstardom — if you keep up with the game long enough. Frustrating free-to-play timers that gently push you to purchase "energy" become more and more prevalent as you get further into the game, leaving you with two options: either purchase energy to keep playing regularly or wait for your energy timers to recharge.
Despite this, some fans are head over heels for the feeling of being "in the industry" these games offer them. Beneath the technicolor dreamworlds of pop stars like Katy Perry and Britney Spears is one unifying force that attracts fans: the chance to spend time with their favorite singers, or become like them in some small way — and if that means spending money, or time, to do so, then so be it. Nicki Minaj fan and self-proclaimed Barb, Elizabeth White, said that, for her, these games are about escapism.
"I'm a mom. I have three kids, and it's not this glamorous life that you see on TV," she told MTV News. "So 'writing raps' for Nicki and hanging out with her, seeing her compliment my outfits, and 'performing' is kind of like escaping my normal life for a few minutes every day. I won't pay to play, though."
The immersive factor is real, despite the somewhat predatory practices of getting players hooked and then forcing them to wait or purchase premium currency to see more of the game in a reasonable amount of time. That's not a problem localized to musical games, though — that's just mobile gaming in general.
But not every pop star looking to get into the business has followed Glu Mobile’s blueprint. When Demi Lovato turned to video games to connect with her fans, she instead turned to developer Pocket Gems for a vastly different experience.
Demi Lovato: Path to Fame is based on Episode, an interactive story app that features a variety of interactive stories that play out similarly to animated comic books with various decision points. It's a modern Choose Your Own Adventure wrought with a ridiculous amount of drama, but it does an excellent job of giving players the feeling of being in their favorite star's life.
Path to Fame focuses on your self-insert character's ascent to fame as you go from Demi superfan to spending time in the limelight on your own. Some fans find this alternative format exciting and fulfilling, like Lovatic Katherine Tharp.
"I like that the game isn't as focused on doing small tasks and primping like Katy Perry Pop, and it feels more like a cartoon or a comic book that I'd pick up and read," Tharp said. "You really feel like you're friends with Demi."
When you get right down to it, however, neither Glu Mobile nor Pocket Gems's mobile experiences offer the level of intimacy of Netmarble's latest. Perhaps those games had to walk so that BTS World could run.
BTS World is a wholly different experience than anything previous developers could muster. Instead of placing players in the shoes of a pop star hopeful, it flips the script: This time, you’re the manager in the year 2012, working to groom BTS into the international sensation they are in the year 2019 as you work to unite them, train them, and befriend each member. It's a complete 180 from what fans who typically play games like Demi Lovato: Path to Fame are used to, but for a good reason: It offers a far better user experience.
But why is it better? Beyond the multiple layers of what you can actually do in the game, BTS World has an uncanny way of making you feel like you're slowly becoming the group's confidant, caretaker, and No. 1 cheerleader.
In many ways, it feels like you're jumping into the role of "parent" to these seven young men, playing a role that demands constant interaction, social skills, and a firm but guiding hand as you help them become the global stars you know they're meant to become. And that underdog narrative is a huge part of BTS's story; after all, they defied the odds in a saturated Korean music market, crossing borders and transcending language barriers, to break continuous records — three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200, a stadium tour across the U.S., a coveted performance on Saturday Night Live, and a speech at the United Nations, to name a few.
Thus, a dizzying amount of staged intimacy is employed to allow players to feel like they're part of that history-making journey, and most importantly, that they were there from the group's humble beginnings.
"It's very accessible to the casual gamer or non-gamer," said Netmarble U.S. president Simon Sim. "Our game is more like a portal than video game, and we have 10,000 photos and videos exclusive only to our game. It's different than other artists' games. We think making you a manager and making them [the members] a more popular band throughout the story is more engaging for BTS fans."
The kind of painstaking interaction with each member, which can come in the form of phone calls, text messages, and video messages, makes for a much more captivating experience than simple animated likenesses. When you interact with Jimin via text or hear Namjun's voice after accepting his phone call, you truly feel as though you've made a connection. (Though, that connection might be lacking for some; the game defaults to she/her pronouns for the player character, despite the fact that Netmarble told MTV News the game is for "everyone.")
In one instance, Jimin's knee is injured, and in another Namjun isn't sure about making a meeting you're asking him to come to. When you succeed at getting them to finally come together, there's a rush of adrenaline that comes from having accomplished something special. There's also the visual rewards that come with it, like the video call or image that you get as a result. It feels real, and to players, that's what matters.
"We think this very new approach is the way to amass a bigger amount of success," said Sim, who also noted that the game was more "interactive" than the visual novel genre, which BTS World resembles at a glance.
By employing these new methods of interactivity — and intimacy — BTS World transcends the bounds of what pop star sims before it were trying to accomplish. It accomplishes this with near-unprecedented levels of access to one of the biggest bands in the world, and gives players the feeling of truly connecting with them. And at the end of the day, even if these feelings are manifested by a mobile fantasy, the game makes you feel as though you've had a hand in BTS's massive success, and that you've made a few important friends along the way.