HOUSTON — When Joel Tarver noticed workers at Baker Hughes relaxing during breaks by playing the hugely popular smartphone game Candy Crush, he figured he could put their play to work.
Tarver, senior manager for digital marketing at Baker Hughes, convinced his bosses to let him build an oilfield version of the game. That way workers could still enjoy their game break, yet also get a little on-the-job training. The games also could help spread the idea that the oil business has evolved into more of a high-technology industry that requires the kind of computer-savvy workers who might normally head off to Silicon Valley.
“We’re in a serious business, but it’s still OK to have fun,” Tarver said.
Games like Candy Crush, in which players line up matching candies in at least rows of three, have caught on massively as players find themselves hooked on the immediate gratification they provide with instant “rewards” and “bonuses.” Similarly, in Tarver’s app, players need to line up neon-colored boulders that are occasionally obliterated by massive, whirling drill bits.
Tarver named his game Bit-Tacular, available for free downloads at Apple’s App Store. The app does not raise copyright issues because it falls into a broad genre called “match 3 games,” of which there are many versions. Though the game has been downloaded only about 20,000 times since its debut, compared to 97 million users for Candy Crush, Baker Hughes sees it as a potential way to reach younger tech workers.
Companies in a wide array of industries are discovering that games can be one of the best ways to engage the digital generation, said Gaia Gallotti, a research analyst for technology consultants IDC Energy Insights. Utilities, for example, are finding games can educate consumers and make them more comfortable using technology such as smart meters.
Games leverage people’s natural affinity for competition, achievement and closure, Gallotti wrote in a Sunday research note.
That’s especially true for younger tech workers, according to Matt Johnson, executive vice president at the Dallas-based programming shop Bottle Rocket, which helped Baker Hughes develop Bit-Tacular.
“Games and competition are largely what drives them as a generation,” he said.
Baker Hughes’ game project began last year when Tarver’s team, stocked with hires from the gaming industry, was asked to design a smartphone app to help oilfield workers pick from a digital catalog of drill bits. During breaks, Tarver noticed his crew was consumed with playing Candy Crush Saga, then at the peak of its popularity.
He convinced his superiors that designing their own oilfield-themed game would serve as internal marketing for the new “BitGenie” drill bit app while teaching employees some company history through trivia snippets uncovered as players advanced.
Susannah Clark, a spokeswoman at Candy Crush’s owner, Dublin-based King Digital Entertainment, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Out on the street the game is getting mixed reaction.
Baker Hughes engineer Nathan Meehan, whose online identity is “fracmeister” — after the company’s specialty, hydraulic fracturing — introduced his grandson to Bit-Tacular a couple months ago. The 6-year-old easily zoomed through the game, unlocking all 100 levels. Meehan, 59, would like to see the games incorporate more technical aspects of the industry.
Darrious Betts, 30, an engineer at oil refiner Phillips 66 in Houston, pronounced the game as “nothing mind-blowing,” after playing a few times.
Tarver’s team also made three additional oilfield game apps designed to entertain while delivering corporate messages.
“Deliver It” is a driving game with frenzied music as gamers race to the oilfield through rough terrain without spilling all their tools. The message, said Tarver: drive safely.
In the “Wildcatter” game users drill wells as fast as they can to find oil. If they don’t work fast enough, they’re fired by the so-called “company man” that employs them. The message: embrace risk.
“Recall” is a simple matching game pairing up oilfield tools and Baker Hughes’ different service divisions. The message: know your company.
Baker Hughes plans to list the three games on the App Store by the end of the year.
So far none of Baker Hughes’ direct competitors, including Schlumberger and Halliburton, have ventured into the public gaming arena. Schlumberger declined to comment, while Stephanie Meynard, information technology director for the western hemisphere at Halliburton, said her company doesn’t “have anything on our roadmap.”
To help keep its tech buzz going, Baker Hughes plans to throw its first “Game Jam” next month. Powered on pizza and energy drinks, company programmers and game designers will hole up in the office for 24 hours over the weekend with the goal of creating a new game app. Even at an oil company, “we can be hip,” Tarver noted wryly.