25 March 2015
Game On: What We Can Learn From Uber’s New Mobile Game
By Michael Parent, Executive Director and Business Development

In London, prospective cab drivers spend five years or more learning “The Knowledge,” a famously rigorous test that requires memorizing some 25,000 streets in the city.

In the U.S., we’re a bit more freewheeling. Here, if you want to drive for Uber, you can learn by playing a mobile videogame.

This month, Uber rolled out a free iOS game called UberDrive, which is designed to help Uber drivers navigate San Francisco. As Uber described in a blog post, UberDrive showcases a day in a life of an Uber driver. Players help the driver “get from A to B and earn high scores for identifying the safest and most efficient routes to their destinations.” Though San Francisco is the first city, Uber promises more are coming.

You might think that in the age of GPS such tools aren’t necessary, but, as a TechCrunch’s Sarah Buhr recalled, an Uber driver named Roger impressed the writer by using his own version of The Knowledge. “He knew the best, safest and most efficient route to take me, despite what Uber’s map told him to do,” Buhr wrote. “It was delightful.”

Uber’s own route to this app release was a bit circuitous. UberDrive began as a side project by a senior product manager at the company about a year ago. Uber clearly doesn’t plan to become a game publisher, but is using the app as both a vehicle for training drivers and as a recruiting tool.

This is a clever move on Uber’s part for four reasons:

1. It lets the brand reach people via mobile. Many consumers are now living mobile lives, but the ad industry has struggled to find ways to reach them. As Tom Goodwin, VP of product strategy and innovation at Havas, recently noted, “A billion people working for a billion years could not design a better device for marketing. And yet we’ve made do with banner ads, and increasingly put TV ads on it.” As Goodwin goes onto say, our mobile phones aren’t just display screens. They’re also wallets, cameras, maps and gaming devices. Here, Uber has seamlessly integrated its brand into a mobile activity.

2. It’s good branding for Uber. No stranger to controversy, Uber could use some positive brand association. With UberDrive, the company is not only making a public effort to try to improve its drivers’ performance, it mitigates concerns among users that Uber drivers don’t know where they’re going.

3. It’s a recruitment tool. Think about the type of person who is likely to have oodles of time to play UberDrive. Probably it’s someone who is interested in driving, but who also has some time on their hands. It’s no secret that Uber is always on the hunt for new drivers. The company even launched something called Operation SLOG (Supplying Long-Term Operations Growth), which reportedly included a program in which Uber ambassadors took Lyft rides with the intention of convincing Lyft drivers to defect to Uber. This game lets potential Uber drivers become familiar with the daily lives of drivers and see if it’s a viable option for themselves.

4. It’s true to Uber’s brand. If Uber came out with a zombie game or one that had nothing to do with its brand promise, then UberDrive would be a waste of energy. UberDrive is very much about Uber and the related brand experience.

Generally, branded games are hard to get right. Media brands like Nickelodeon and USA Network have had some success in the category, but they have a big advantage since they can use characters and situations from their shows. They have a rich backstory, in other words. You’ll have a tougher time if your brand does something mundane, like help clean kitchens or get your teeth whiter.

That means branded games don’t make sense for everyone. Before UberDrive, many probably thought it wouldn’t work for Uber, either. Once again, though, the brand has proven naysayers wrong. Ideas like this illustrate why Uber is winning.

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