The saddest little app in the world: "It's basically the next best thing to going out"

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 7, 2013

From The News Desk

Sometimes, an entrepreneur has a decent idea, but they flub up on the execution. That appears to be the case with Zhoob's "Mingling at the Gallery," an interactive movie. When I got the pitch I was intrigued. Zhoob's PR marketed it as a "choose your own dating adventure" game, a "virtual Tinder" where users could practice social skills in approaching members of the opposite sex.

I imagined it to be like "Grand Theft Auto" meets pick-up artists meets socializing classes for people with Asperger's. Given that learning through gamification is a big trend these days, it sounded promising, albeit a tad creepy.

Turns out it's neither of those things. It's just a bit sad.


Here's how it works: It's an iOS app where the user pretends to be a man at an art gallery opening. As he moves around the gallery and interacts with various characters there, brief movie clips pop up to show the interaction. The videos were filmed with actual actors, so it's not a graphic representation the way it might be in a video game.

After each interaction the player is faced with a decision tree to react to certain situations, choosing from pre-written responses. After selecting one, a follow-up video plays showing what happened as a result.

The idea is that guys can "practice" hitting on the nice girl at the gallery or the party girl, and see how they react to different pickup lines. The player can also order virtual drinks at the bar, changing the course of events the drunker they get. The game is complete with alpha males who pick fights and the "smooth" party artist who gets all the girls.

From the pitch:

Choose who to approach, what to say, what to drink and how to deal with “competition.” Every decision triggers a new experience and user progress is recorded on multiple levels of socializing and "picking up" in a game-like system.
You get the gist from watching the trailer. It's like a bad 90's sitcom meets a DMV instructional video. The acting is forced and awkward, and the set is clearly staged. The ladies look like drag queens, and the men look like the sloppy sort who would close out the divebar in the Tenderloin.

It's just not a high quality video. Given that the premise differentiating this app is that it's an "interactive movie," that's a deal breaker.

The creator of the app is man named Napoleon Rumteen -- side note: pretty much the coolest name ever -- and a few of his friends and family. This isn't their first foray into interactive video. They build a similar game called Carmind, which taught auto salespeople how to sell cars. Users would interact with the different video scenarios to learn how to deal with harassment, consumer privacy, and customer negotiations.

The company got acquired by auto software company DealerSocket three years ago. After putting in time working at DealerSocket, Rumteen and company decided to take their interactive video idea and branch out into other areas.

"It just started out as a fun little project, an itch we wanted to scratch," Rumteen says. "As we went through the journey we realized this is really cool and we can do it for gaming, education, training, and entertainment. What if we do it as a platform so anyone can make their own?"

That's Rumteen's end goal in mind, to license the Zhoob technology so that organizations or individuals can easily build their own training or entertainment movie games.

In theory, Zhoob's technology has promise. Before seeing the trailer, I was certainly intrigued to try this weird dating game simulator. And I could see how such behavioral decision tree programs would be helpful for training employees in certain industries, turning what would otherwise be rote memorization of tactics into a game.

As Rumteen pointed out, the analytics on such a program would be useful, showing data of how people chose to interact with each other, what brand of alcohol they wanted to drink, the other characters they were most drawn to.

But in today's day and age users have a high expectation of quality from the games they play, and shoddy visuals and awkward acting won't make the cut in the same industry where the makers of Grand Theft Auto V spent $137 million developing the product.

Furthermore for a behavioral engineering game to be worthwhile, it needs to have legitimate experts behind it. I assumed Rumteen and company had consulted either self-proclaimed pickup artists or perhaps psychologists to write the script for the game and determine how different people interacted. But they didn't. So the program doesn't necessarily teach you anything you'd need to know about socializing.

Rumteen admits they weren't trying to teach people how to interact. He said they built Mingling at the Gallery just to be a game. "We like to say, 'It's basically the next best thing to going out,'" Rumteen says. "Step into this world and take a break from the one you're in."

The question is, how bad does your world have to be to want to step into this one?