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Is it time for brands to take ‘advergames’ seriously again?


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

May 20, 2022 | 8 min read

If gaming is becoming more popular, why don’t more brands just make their own... it’s easier than ever right? As part of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, we explore why it isn’t quite that simple.


Is it time for brands to take 'advergames' seriously again?

Advergaming – a portmanteau of advertising and gaming, obviously – does what it says on the tin. For the avoidance of doubt in a world where marketers are misbranding video games as ’the Metaverse’ however, let us explain further. Advergaming refers to branded games that serve as ’advertising’ – and the technique is almost as old as gaming itself.

History lesson

It’s hard to imagine that Burger King’s royal mascot would ever have starred in a video game, but the world of advergaming is strange. ’The King’ headlined stealth game Sneak King, a branded game for the Xbox 360 that developed a bizarre cult following. Moreover, it did so without disguising the fact that it was a playable ad.

Sneak King was one of a long line of odd (and oddly good) interactive experiences that blurred the lines between advert and game. Early examples like Zool included Chupa-Chups lollipop branding in levels, but were first and foremost games, while Pepsiman was explicitly all about collecting cans of the soft drink.

In perhaps the most bizarre example, the Gamecube game Darkened Skye marketed itself as a dark action RPG, but just happened to have a magic system based on Skittles confectionary. In a strangest example of limitations of licensing, the inclusion of Skittles was predicated on there being no snakes in the game: the Mars company would allow ‘snake-like enemies’, just not snakes themselves.

In part because of those licensing issues, in addition to the rise of other advertising options in games, the advergame had fallen out of favor. But its spirit lived on...

So what is advergaming now?

Instead, brands like Uniqlo are inserting themselves into independent gaming franchises like Street Fighter.

MJ Widomska is founder and CEO of YrsTruly, a gaming-focused agency. She says: “In-game experiences offer far more flexibility than advergames of ages past. Partnerships with brands are often limited-time and can be quite unobtrusive, as outfits, emotes and events are optional.

“Brands have more options to choose from: they can opt for an in-game billboard, special ’skins’, a free DLC, an interactive event, or even take the partnership into the physical world with gaming-inspired clothing or makeup lines. Thanks to the greater variety of tactics brands have at their disposal, players are less likely to get partnership fatigue.”

It’s a view supported by Rafe Blandford, chief product officer at Digitas UK. He argues that while advergames are still technically possible for brands to produce, there are other avenues that aren’t interruptive or demand that gamers go out of their way to experience them: “There are absolutely brands creating their own games. That’s been around forever. Heineken with the first beer drinking app, which was one of the first things on the iPhone – was that a game? Yeah, maybe.

“And that has continued, but what I think is different is now it kind of goes back to that storytelling angle. Brands are becoming smarter about the way they do that. It’s not just an in-your-face brand being positioned like an out-of-home advertising hoarding in a game. It’s more subtle than that.”

Will advergames return?

Stephen Barnes, co-founder of Collective, believes that there is an opportunity for branded games that appeal to a gamer’s core priority – having fun. There is a non-interruptive way of creating these experiences, he argues, because players are agnostic about the reason a branded experience was created provided the game itself provides them with entertainment: ”The simple fact is gamers don’t care about brands – they care about games.”

Barnes adds: ”The rise of AAA gaming over the last few years has given them access to experiences they could barely have imagined a few years ago. The investment and development time in these blockbuster tilers has risen exponentially, driven by the cash generated from the games themselves. It all comes down to the value exchange between the player and the platform. This has forced brands to rethink their strategy and look to partnerships rather than building their own titles.”

It must be said that some of the biggest entertainment releases of the past year have been those on previously established platforms like Fortnite or Roblox. Nikeland, created in Roblox, has seen over 7 million visitors to what is effectively a playable ad since it launched, while delivering significant value back to the parent brand. It is both game and ad simultaneously.

It speaks to the broader appeal of games in 2022. Gaming has become a larger part of culture than would have been possible when home consoles were the only way to play. The modern gaming audience is incredibly broad – per research from Facebook, a third of all people on the planet count as a ‘gamer’ to some degree. It means that brands that might never have thought to splash out on creating a dedicated advergame are seeing success through partnerships on platforms like Roblox, Decentraland and Fortnite.

Widomska explains: “I believe we’re about to witness a big comeback of advergames – though they will be nothing like what we saw in the past. Making games is far more complex, involved and time-consuming than it was 15 or 20 years ago: there’s no point in creating a branded racing game from scratch when you can work with an existing game, tapping into its player base. Instead of aiming for a fully realistic open world and 40 hours of gameplay, brands should look into making their digital experiences short, sweet and clever.”

We might never see another advergame developed specifically for home consoles. The economies of game development favor smaller, branded experiences on mobile platforms. But given that the majority of gamers on home consoles are habituated to other ways of interacting with brands in games, and that mobile gamers make up an increasingly lucrative slice of the market, it makes sense the industry would turn to social platforms and partnerships for the revival of advergames.

For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.

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