Take A Break
Which is a good job because the number of them is set to grow over the next few years. In many ways, you could say the impact of in-game ads will be huge. Or you could go out on a limb and say it will be Massive – especially since the company which Microsoft snapped up in 2006 is now a key player in dynamic advertising and is feeling particularly buoyant at the moment.
This is because Massive has seen the results of research which looked at the effects of in-game ads on us gamers. Now, while research and surveys can show whatever you want them to show, given the right approach, this particular work was intriguing. It suggested that a third of gamers would be “highly likely” to buy advertised products, that 28 per cent believe their perception of an advertised product is affected during gameplay and that 64 per cent of those believers say the change is positive.
And reading on, 86 per cent of gamers would like to see more in-game ads in the hope it would lead to lower prices for games. Even if an increase in advertising doesn’t help to alleviate the credit crunch, a third of gamers reckon in-game ads are cool anyway because they give titles a real-world feel. Puma is better than Pumo, Adidas preferable to Adios, that kind of thing.
So while we’re on the subject of bombarding you, dear readers, with stats, more stats, and, hey, a few more stats for good measure, let us look at why in-game advertising is not only here, but is going to hang around for quite some time like a stripyjumpered chav outside an off-licence.
Massive is, as we’ve established, Microsoft’s in-game advertising subsidiary and it recently commissioned the research firm Interpret to look at Xbox 360 gamers and their habits in relation to gaming ads. The findings were startling, so let’s put our interpretation on them.
Finding number one: advertising brainwashes gamers. Gamers were asked to play NASCAR 08 containing a branding campaign backed by a sweet company – and 72 per cent agreed that the advertised candy bar was “a great snack to eat while playing videogames”, an increase of 29 per cent from the control group. Not only that but the proportion agreeing that the candy bar “gives you energy” and “is cool” rose 24 per cent and 21 per cent from control group to test group, respectively.
There’s more. Finding number two: gamers believe in-game ads provide realism. We’ve already touched on this but when gamers played Major League Baseball 2K7, 73 per cent agreed that “the ads enhanced the realism of the game”.
Finding number three: gamers end up sucking in their mates. When a restaurant brand popped ads in Need For Speed: Carbon, the number of gamers saying they would recommend it to others rose by 39 per cent compared with the control group.
Finding number four: gamers start thinking films are better than they might otherwise be. A DVD movie campaign was run in Rainbow Six Vegas and 80 per cent of those who saw it in the game agreed with the statement that “they would probably or definitely purchase the DVD”.
All of which has led Massive to one whopping, influential, stating-the-bleeding-obvious conclusion: advertising in games does indeed work. Very well. Exceptionally well. Hell – absolu-bloody-lutely well.
To the point where we could be about to see a stampede of advertisers rushing to pop their names into pretty much every single game they can get their branded hands on. “Gamers are open to advertising if it’s done tastefully,” said Grant Johnson, chief client officer and founding partner of Interpret. And that’s going to do nothing else but encourage the situation.
A day after Massive announced the findings, Sony spoke about its deal with Massive competitor IGA Worldwide with a view to selling in-game ads on the PlayStation 3 in Europe and North America. Sony is doing things a little differently to Microsoft. Whereas Massive brokers all the advertising that appears in Xbox 360 games, Sony’s approach is more open – independent in-game ad companies can broker their own deals with third-party game publishers.
The result is the same, however. More ads in more games. It’s little wonder that in two years time and in North America alone, in-game advertising is set to top $1.8 billion. Take into account the rest of the world, and it’s plain to see that the moolah generated from the placement of products in games is set to be overwhelming. Even Google has been getting in on the act – it snapped up Adscape Media, a small company that delivers advertising to netbased games, for £10 million.
But do developers welcome it? There appears to be some reservation, as Jonathan Smith, head of production at TT Games – makers of the Lego series of games – explains. “We make games for players of all ages, and a greater level of sensitivity is appropriate for a younger audience,” he says. “You could argue that games based on licensed properties are intrinsically coded with advertising – but the issue is then one of tone. Young players should feel in control of the messages they receive and take on, rather than being at their mercy.”
But some developers believe in-game ads to be a brilliant alternative to television commercials. Jon Hare, the man behind Sensible World Of Soccer, a game currently getting a wonderful second airing on Xbox Live Arcade, told us: “There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use advertising in games. I am working on a project currently drenched in in-game advertising but it works because buying and selling products is what the game is about. It also works in appropriate real-world places in sports games and cityscapes in all sorts of games.” Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil, of Revolution Studios, agrees with Hare: “I absolutely agree with the findings by Massive Incoporated, although I do understand why gamers should then expect the cost of games to drop.”
Yet, in the beginning the people who were trying to push in-game ads were having a hard time of it. Maryam Bazargan, a director at in-game advertising agency New Street Media, said: “When I first got into the business of selling in-game advertising, most brands and agencies we met with initially said they didn’t target kids and didn’t feel the need to advertise in games.
“It was obvious they weren’t tuned in to the actual market, that they didn’t understand that gamers were not 12-year-old boys but affluent 20 and 30- somethings who were spending more of their time and money playing games. The advertising spend was being directed towards television and other media but their audience wasn’t tuning it. After a bit of education, though, they soon got it.”
Massive is currently at the forefront of in-game ads. In March this year, it extended a deal with Electronic Arts for two years, expanding the roster of titles available for in-game adverts fed from Massive’s dynamic, constantly updated, streaming server. The games affected include Madden NFL, NBA Live, NHL, Need For Speed and NASCAR. “EA strongly believes that dynamic in-game advertising is an important growth area for our business,” says EA Casual president Kathy Vrabeck.
In-game advertising is still in its infancy, however. Just three per cent of total media spending is splashed out on games but over the coming years that will change. And the fear is that publishers will eventually start to pressurise developers into producing games that lend themselves better to advertising. Can’t have a medieval knight supping cans of Coca-Cola now, can we?
“Going back 12 years, you could reach 50 per cent of the American audience with three TV spots, and today, it takes 70,” says Chuck Porter, a founder of Miami-based advertising powerhouse Crispin, Porter + Bogusky. The firm worked with British-based Blitz Games on producing the ultimate in advertising-game tie-ups – the advergame.
An advergame is different to in-game advertising in that the game is created solely as a vehicle for a product. Blitz worked on developing three games for Burger King that were sold exclusively on the 360 throughout Burger King restaurants in North America. Costing $3.99 and having burger-related gameplay, they shifted around 3.5 million copies and were so successful, Burger King said the game promotion was responsible for increasing its quarter profits by 40 per cent. “Media fragmentation has absolutely forced advertisers to rethink the way to build brands,” adds Porter.
John Jarvis, advergames manager of Blitz Arcade agrees. “Over the last 20 years, mass marketing has gone the way of the dodo,” he says. “Television advertising has become far less effective as the medium has fragmented and ads just don’t get exposure to as many people as they used to. What’s your favourite TV ad of the Noughties, for example? With so many satellite, cable and freeview channels to choose from, not to mention the internet, it’s really difficult for advertisers to get their message across in traditional ways.”
He says games offer an ideal medium to reach the hard-to-target group of 18 to 34-year-old males. “In-game advertising has begun to make in-roads but having a brand fully interpreted in a fun, compelling gaming environment is a much more powerful, longer-living and creative option,” he adds. “We have a situation where we’re attracting a large and expanding demographic and that’s proving very compelling for advertisers.”
So how are deals struck? In the case of Blitz’s advergames, the company had been talking to Ross Erickson, the former worldwide games portfolio manager for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade. Ross had been impressed by Fuzion Frenzy on the original Xbox and thought titles such as that would be great for Xbox Live Arcade. At the same time Microsoft had also been dealing with Burger King. Microsoft put Blitz and the burger boys in touch and the BK games were devised as an advertising tool. But while in-game advertising is different to advergames, the principle is the same. Massive, as we’ve said, brokers deals between the publishers and advertisers and the terms depend on a number of factors including how long a gamer is likely to play the title, the hours of exposure of a client’s brand, how integrated it will be and how many times people will replay the game. A multiplayer game is likely to attract a premium since more than one person will be exposed to a brand.
Companies are typically charged per 1,000 impressions. An impression is registered when an in-game ad is seen at a specified angle and size for ten seconds, although this can be broken down (so, for instance, if an ad is spotted ten times for one second each time, that would count as a single impression. Currently there is no auditing system in place and these tallies are sorted out by the likes of Massive. For Massive to discover what gamers are doing, though, it is sent information from gamers’ consoles. This has, understandably, been compared to spyware although no personal details are divulged, just viewing habits of the gamers.
So exactly who is playing these games? In Britain, research on the subject is not greatly advanced and so many of the facts and figures are coming from America where in-game advertising is catching on faster than anywhere else. The company BIGresearch has shown that 34 per cent of gamers are women which means the 18 to 34 male demographic may need a rethink, especially as it’s said the age groups are broken into roughly equal thirds between under 18s, 18 to 49 and 50+.
But it’s the 18 to 34 group that has the disposable income and willingness to spend it rather frivolously. And it’s this age range that is most likely to snap up pointless-but-fun commercial items such as branded digital T-shirts for their in-game characters to wear– something the industry is becoming increasingly tuned in to. The possibilities are just being explored – you may like an outfit worn by a protagonist in a future game and wish to buy it. Advertising boffins are looking at the possibility of offering them for sale with just a few clicks of the controller.
The same can be said for music. You may see these tunes as background atmosphere but, as we have seen in Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s possible to find the title of the song and the artist behind it, then purchase it on iTunes. It is envisaged that such in-game advertising of musical products will one day break out of the current trend to license particular music to certain games and instead have music streamed via a subscription service instead, filtered to your tastes.
Over the next few years we’re going to see more of this and will witness fresh ways of exploiting the games we play. That may or may not lower the actual price of games but it should mean more cash to pump into the development of titles in the first place. The stark danger, however, is that they may become overly influenced by the advertisers. Yet all of this combines to seemlessly integrate gaming into the mass media – with all of the commercial positives and negatives that go with it. Whether or not it changes the way games are made has yet to be seen but we watch this (advertising) space with bated breath.