Wasting Away Again In Cyberspace
The musician is collaborating with game developer THQ on a free-to-play online social game, due this year on Facebook and Apple iPad, stocked with attractions custom-built for Buffett's Parrothead following.
"You can build a boat (and) you can build a bar. You gotta evade the pirates. You can have adventures," Buffett says. "You can go to Margaritaville."
Like other online games, Margaritaville Online will let players earn virtual currency to buy in-game booty and spend real money to customize their game more quickly. Buffett hopes to incorporate a feature that lets players parlay virtual goods into rewards at Margaritaville restaurants. "If you buy virtual cheeseburgers and margaritas to send to friends, that should earn you a real burger or beer at a restaurant," he says.
Over the years, the singer has been approached with all manner of online ventures. As Margaritaville grew into a multibillion-dollar business of its own with more than a dozen restaurants and hotels, as well as food, beer and liquor products, Buffett "carefully lifeguarded" it as an entertainment property.
Online social games became "the next new, new thing," Buffett says, but he waited "for the right time to come along and somebody who knows about (Margaritaville) and is a fan and who gets it. That is exactly what happened."
Among developers at Exploding Barrel Games, which is creating the game for publisher THQ, creative director Chris Parry is a lifelong Buffett fan. The Vancouver, B.C., company released the Facebook game Top Bar last year.
Characters and destinations in Buffett's game are based on his life, songs and books. There's a Captain Tony's Boats and Planes outpost, based on the late former Key West mayor — chronicled in the song Last Mango in Paris— as well as Joe Merchant's Trading Post, a nod to his 1992 book Where is Joe Merchant? "They were fans, and what they put into it was exactly what you would think," Buffett says.
Now on tour, Buffett remains involved in the development. "They come up with storyboards and lines, and I see the process. Then, I do what I do: Buffettizing. When I got the first ones and saw the characters drawn, I got to go to Margaritaville."
Social games have become natural stages for musical stars. Last week, Lady Gaga launched a limited-edition destination in FarmVille, where players got an early listen to her new album. Last year, Dr. Dre brought his music to Mafia Wars, and Kiss brought a live concert audiocast and makeup-wearing avatars to Nightclub City. "It's like in the old days, when you had a host of touring acts and you could see a lot of people out there," Buffett says.
Margaritaville Online will draw more than Parrotheads, says Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global. "Say 'Margaritaville' and it instantly paints a picture," he says. The name "stands out in a crowded field, when you can choose between Café World, Restaurant City and Treasure Isle. It may turn into the interactive equivalent of the virtual watering hole."
Buffett's music is in the game, and players can create their own band. Eventually, he hopes to let players input performances into tracks to identify the ultimate Coral Reefer cover band.
In the future, Buffett foresees Parrotheads at his concerts "in a parking lot, tailgating, having a beer, grilling a dog and playing Margaritaville on their iPhones or on their Blackberrys waiting to get into the real show."