One of the more interesting factoids about Facebook’s new $19 billion pet, WhatsApp, is that it has adamantly refused to push games onto its 450 million-plus active users.

Interesting, because messaging apps are already a hugely important distribution channel for mobile games in Asia. And some smart industry folks have predicted that 2014 is the year the trend goes global.

Here comes a test for that thesis, sure to be one of many this year: A partnership between carrier-billing company PlayPhone and messaging app Tango, which already distributes games. Tango will add a PlayPhone plugin to its app so that users will be able to bill gaming purchases directly to carriers in PlayPhone’s network.

Games advertised on Tango through its separate partnership with Twitter-owned MoPub will not be eligible for direct carrier billing, a PlayPhone spokesperson said via email.

It’s a nifty workaround to the messaging app’s current dependence on OS-native app stores. The companies say Tango users will also benefit, over time, from the app recommendation engine PlayPhone has built inside its network.

PlayPhone’s carrier partners include Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, SingTel (in Singapore), Telkomsel (in Indonesia), Claro and Vivo (both in Brazil). When Tango users try to download a game, they’ll be taken to carrier-branded app stores so long as they’re on one of those carriers; otherwise, they will be taken to a generic PlayPhone store.

“If you are a Tango customer, but you’re on the Sprint network, we will direct you to the Sprint store,” PlayPhone CMO Anders Evju said in a phone interview. “And the same thing with all the other carriers where we have direct billing.”

PlayPhone’s main business, direct billing, means avoiding the native app stores’ credit card requirements by putting gaming purchases directly on your phone bill. The upshot for carriers: A cut of monetization revenue that would’ve otherwise gone to Cupertino or Mountain View.

Meanwhile, Tango tries to attract developers onto its app by promising them better odds of being discovered than they would get in the ever-more-crowded native app stores. The question is whether those stores are too powerful in the Western app ecosystem to be taken down a peg.

Messaging apps like Tango want the next big viral game to chase after their users, rather than Apple’s and Google’s influential app store curators. The hope is that direct billing may bring in new money from users who don’t have credit cards or who don’t feel comfortable handing their numbers over to an app store.

Tango has 190 million registered users, 60 million of whom are active every month. Evju said the partnership is not exclusive, and that similar deals with other messaging apps could be in the offing.




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