Video game advertising

By The Drum, Administrator

January 17, 2007 | 5 min read

A lot has been written about video games being the new “evil”. Like Osama bin Laden, running with scissors or those seemingly genteel retired chaps who are exposed as Nazi war criminals, computer games have suffered the wrath of the media. However, the truth is that more people are playing more games in more ways than ever before.

A new wave of game consoles, the saturation of home PCs and mobile phones, and an expanding demographic mean the games market is on the up. Look at the evidence all around. We see people playing games on portable consoles and even laptops as they travel. Your nephew bores you with details of his latest victory over the hordes of the undead in his latest Xbox 360 purchase. Your mates down the pub brag about beating Tiger Woods in the biggest golf tournament of their lives. But if you’re still not convinced, borrow, beg or shoplift a Nintendo DS and a copy of a game called Brain Training (you may have seen the unfortunately/brilliantly timed Chris Tarrant TV campaign) and marvel at a great example of how games are redefining themselves to attract new audiences. And no one could have escaped the fuss about Nintendo’s kinetically challenging new console - the Wii. For many, this new box is redefining video games and attracting an audience that would have previously shunned the very thought of playing.

So what does this mean for us? Well, at a very basic level there have been opportunities to use games as an advertising medium for many years. Biscuit brand Penguin enjoyed product placement in 1992’s James Pond II platform game, while 1995 saw the Peperami character star in his own game, Animal. There were others but all were pretty crude examples of shoe-horning products in with no real connection to strategies being used in other media. Now, the world has changed because the world is online. In-game advertising is hot, but it’s about to get surface-of-the-sun hot – as recently evidenced by Microsoft’s acquisition of in-game advertising specialists Massive.

In-game advertising today means streaming, real-time ads dynamically delivered into a gaming environment. So you’ll be playing a football tournament with mates and the hoardings will be urging you to go and buy a case of Becks. You’ll be driving in the race of your life when a VW ad blurts out of the radio.

And these ads are live. Wherever there is a media space in the real world, it can exist in the virtual. And as virtual worlds are pretty limitless, the potential for advertising is even larger. Targeting can be done almost forensically and campaigns can be delivered globally, or locally, with precise timing. All this via the magic of the internet.

Of course, PCs have been connected to the internet for years– now most games consoles are too, and broadband access is almost universal. Anyone who has plugged an Xbox 360 into a phone line will have revelled in an online world of free content, paid-for mini games and movie trailers pumped directly into their TV in high definition. The online services Microsoft has pioneered are vital elements in new launches for Nintendo and Sony in the coming months. Even Nintendo’s Wii is online all the time and when the PlayStation 3 launches later this year, you can bet its online strategy will be more content heavy than its previous consoles.

So are games a digital Elysium for advertisers? Maybe not. The sector is only its infancy, but there are already a few problems. The main complaint from gamers is infringement of advertising into their own very personal worlds. Not only do they see it as intrusive, but it can also ruin the sheer immersion in a game, bringing the illusion of fantasy crashing down. For example, an ad for Coke Zero may look cool, but it can seem a little far-fetched in a post-apocalyptic warzone.

Another gripe is cost. The cost of creating mainstream games is enormous. The recent Xbox 360 game Gears Of War cost $10million to develop – a cost that isn’t out of the ordinary. Publishers are hoping that new revenue streams such as advertising will help offset these escalating costs – but the consumers see it differently. Many are already paying a premium price for games for the new consoles, so for them to then to be advertised ‘at’ seems ridiculous. Why shouldn’t they feel the financial benefit in the cost of the game?

More sinister were the accusations levelled at games giant Electronic Arts (EA). Players of EA’s Battlefield 2142 discovered the game was feeding back information to EA as they played. This ‘spyware’ was linked to the dynamic in-game advertising and was used to register the players’ geographic location (in order to deliver localised advertising) and ad impression counts. The PC gaming forums were alight with people accusing EA of invading their privacy and breaching their civil liberties.

Streaming ads aren’t the only option for in-game advertising though – there are other techniques. We, the punters, tolerate product placement in movies to a surprising degree. Game advertisers must learn from this, but also realise that games are a very different and many-headed beast. There are real opportunities for companies that are willing to look at the medium and to innovate within it, for companies that are prepared to contribute to the game rather than detract from it. As with the early days of online, this is something the big boys really haven’t got their heads around yet – but when they do, they’ll be lining up to insert coins.

Stephen Hey is a director of Manchester-based Head First Communications.

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