The mobile gaming tie-in to Universal’s Fast & Furious 6 launched on the iTunes App Store last week and is #1 among free apps in 45 countries. Created with SF-based studio Kabam, it’s also the #1 overall game in 69 countries, the top racing game in 112 countries, and the #1 action game in 85 countries. Its iPad app version runs comparable if even wider in saturation as the top free app in 81 countries. By contrast, Paramount‘s Star Trek: The Game — tied to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness — stayed in-house and it’s doing lousy since it came out last month. According to VG Chartz, unit sales in its first three weeks are only 140K to date across PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 consoles. It’s also considered a failure because it’s very buggy despite years of development. Critics and users alike gave it poor reviews. So what happened?

Back in 1998 Paramount struck a lucrative 10-year deal with Activision to produce their Star Trek games. Five years later the game developer sued to get out of that contract after 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis flopped and Paramount let the brand stagnate. Then came J.J. Abrams’ franchise reboot. Insiders say the new Star Trek game originated under Paramount Digital Entertainment president Tom Lesinski who made the decision to develop and produce it in-house vs licensing the intellectual property to a major third-party publisher like Electronic Arts, Activision, or Ubisoft. (Paramount teamed with Digital Extremes on development and co-published with Namco Bandai, Bad Robot, K/O Paper Products, and CBS Studios.) When Lesinski was fired in September 2011, his domain was absorbed by the studio. The Star Trek gaming project was picked up by Paramount Promotions’ Brian Miller, SVP Worldwide Marketing Partnerships and Consumer Products. Insiders attribute the flop to “ego and failure” by both executives who “insisted this hallowed and cherished franchise was a key brand extension in the gaming vertical only to be compromised by disastrous results and reviews”. The shakeup also gave Miller 18 months to deliver, on the short side of standard production windows. Certainly Miller gave a poorly timed interview to Forbes (before the game came out). “This was the only way that we could get a Star Trek game out — to do something that we controlled, something that we owned, something we could pool our resources behind to make sure that all the people who were involved from our filmmakers to our studio to our developers were happy with the end product. It could only have been done the way we did it.”

By contrast to the Star Trek game’s glut of glitches, Kabam’s Fast 6 game boasts advanced visuals and movie-themed gameplay, allowing players to drag and drift race customizable cars set within the world of the film. Its audience is males aged 13-to-34 with an appetite for tentpole properties. Before the Fast 6 app hit digital shelves, Kabam’s The Hobbit: Armies Of The Third Age browser-based game was its fastest-growing game, nabbing 250K users in its first day.

The potential for major movie properties in mobile gaming is so great that MGM and WB invested in Kabam last year, with Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara sitting on the board and MGM topper Gary Barber acting as board observer. Mobile gaming has skyrocketed as users of all demos thumb away on their smartphones with increasing frequency and engagement. Free-to-play mobile games could be the next no-brainer film tie-in opportunity for digital brand building. “Console gaming is on the decline while mobile free-to-play games are on the rise,” said a Kabam source. “They’re the future.” Movie gaming products in the digital age aren’t just franchise tie-ins anymore. Universal’s aggressive Fast 6 social media campaign built a plugged in community around the web and mobile primed to drive word of mouth and ticket/ancillary sales. Kabam’s app is strategically seeded with cross-marketing links to drive gaming traffic to Fast & Furious 6 ticketing vendors as well as to the Fast & Furious YouTube channel and an iTunes Movies link. It also features in-app links to buy the Apple Store soundtrack or single from Ludacris via Island/Def Jam.