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Virtual play, real rewards: iKEMU brings brands and users together in the name of social gaming

iKEMU, an Auckland-based online gaming platform, is merging the virtual and real, rewarding online players with real-life rewards for their efforts.

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Gamers compete for high scores that win them sponsored prizes (when was the last time Angry Birds shouted you dinner?)

iKEMU, which is now six months old, makes its money by customising games for advertisers, such as Pita Pit.

The nutritional fast food retailer was keen for iKEMU to instill its message of healthy eating into the game Pita Master, so players race against the clock to make pitas that stay within calorie restraints.

“Within the first month on our game for Pita Pit we had more than 56,000 users engaged with it," says iKEMU founding partner Tony Walden.

He says his business partner Yuta Iguchi had the 'light bulb’ moment after killing some time online.

“Yuta had been playing this online fishing game and what he really wanted was real life fish to be his prize when he won,” explains Walden.

From there the team investigated the market and found a partial international comparison to Zynga, the creator of highly successful Farmville and Cityville games.

“You’ve always got to look up and see what the big boys are doing in the States."

They were not so enthusiastic about following Zynga’s model of partnering heavily with Facebook, despite the site's mammoth amount of daily users (and given Zynga's recent stock plunge, fair play – placing all bets on an external partner is a risky move).

“Facebook takes about 30 percent and we wanted to offer our clients far more flexibility and customisation, so they can relay their unique messages to potential customers,” he says.

So, the startup, which still advertises on Facebook, chose to set up its own platform.

Walden believes the intensity of engagement with social media, particularly social gaming, is undervalued by many advertisers.

“In the digital age of MySky, is anyone really watching television ads anymore? Our games engage consumers and they keep coming back, because we focus on fun."

iKEMU now has its sights set on expanding into smartphone apps and the Japanese market by the end of the year.