Claw machines—those staples of family fun centers, pizzeria lobbies, and the Toy Story movies, where you use a mechanical grabber to snare a prize—have made their way to the internet.
But they haven’t just been turned into video game simulations. Instead, an Israel-based company called Gigantic has created an app called Clawee that allows players to remotely control a real-world claw machine and even receive the prizes they collect, though they can take several weeks to arrive.
“When they catch a prize, they also get it delivered to their doorstep,” says CEO Ron Brightman. “It really closes the loop of real and digital.”
The real-world experience, where players can grab objects to win prizes like plush toys, novelty jewelry, and coloring books using digital buttons on their phone screens, is more exciting than simply playing a video game, Brightman says. The company began by using existing claw machines, then began building its own with multiple cameras so that players can see what they’re doing from different angles as they perfect their skills. Now Gigantic has hundreds of claw machines in a warehouse equipped with high-speed internet lines and employees trained to keep them running around the clock.
Like players of more traditional video games, some players also enjoy watching others play for relaxation or to learn the ropes. In fact, since the number of machines available is necessarily limited, waiting in line and watching and rooting for (or against) the player ahead of you is a normal part of Clawee gameplay.
“What we found out is that players love to watch someone in front of them play the machine if it’s not too long,” says Brightman. “They also like others to watch them play.”
The game has developed a loyal following that Brightman estimates is about 70% women. They gather on an officially sanctioned Facebook group, where players swap tips on how to snare those prizes, participate in Gigantic-sponsored giveaways, and trade things they’ve won in the game.
“I’m one of the liaisons that talk back and forth with a representative from there,” says group admin Krista Brenner, an Illinois resident who says she began playing Clawee after leaving a nursing job due to her son’s health problems. “They want to know what type of prizes we want to see.”
Facebook group members get to know each other and sometimes have more personal conversations on Messenger while also using the social network to explain to Clawee newbies how to grab some of the trickier toys.
“They’ll say they’re frustrated and they’re not winning anything, and they don’t understand,” says Brenner, who recalls excelling at in-person claw machines as a child. “There’s certain machines that [contain] blue fuzzballs, and there’s certain ways to pick those up, and if you don’t do it a certain way, they’re always going to drop.”
Players can earn virtual tokens to play the claw machines in various ways, including participating in giveaways or simply logging in regularly. As with many online freemium games, they can also buy additional tokens with real money. A VIP mode, unlocked by some in-game purchases, also enables free shipping of prizes. If you don’t take advantage of giveaways, you can buy the tokens you need for a game starting at about $3, with discounts for bulk purchases. As with many other freemium mobile games, the company has engineered its experience to encourage players to make in-app purchases, and they’re generally the easiest way to play one more round if you’ve exhausted your existing credits.
Some especially enjoy collecting the assorted prizes, of which Clawee reports delivering more than 2.8 million since its 2017 launch. “It’s almost like Christmas when the prizes arrive at the door,” says Virginia resident and Clawee fan Heather Guess, who became friends with Brenner through the Facebook group.
Others, including some of the most avid players, care more about the thrill of the game and instead trade their wins back for more gameplay tokens.
“The more players play, the more percentage of the prizes they exchange,” says Brightman, estimating that many who’ve been playing for several months exchange more than 90% of their winnings. Some, including Guess and Brenner, also donate some of the prizes to charity.
Since the game gives out only prizes, not real money, and theoretically involves skill rather than chance (although this is in practice probably most true for experienced players), it’s generally not governed by gambling laws, although Brightman says the company gets legal advice before introducing it in new countries.
Like other play-at-home entertainment companies, Gigantic has been doing well during the time of coronavirus closures: The company reports revenue is up 400% this year alone and that it sees 50,000 new installs of its app every day. Gigantic also has other games available through the app using similar mechanisms, including mini golf, basketball dunking, and soccer.
“Based on that, we plan to build a UX that will feature probably each one of these games separately,” he says.
The company also just purchased a physical bowling alley and is working on developing games to be set there, Brightman says. Another possible future game is a real-world, remotely controlled dunk tank, possibly with an actual person being deposited in the water.
Clawed is also likely to release basketball and shooting games that are focused more on competition with other players than competing for prizes, and Brightman expects those may attract more male players. Part of the appeal of all of the games, he says, is the retro factor, since many people grew up playing them at real-world arcades, stores, and amusement parks.
“They’re nostalgic in a way,” he says. “Everybody has played them at least once in their lives.”