Activision Blizzard, owner of Candy Crush, Call of Duty, Overwatch and World of Warcraft, is developing ways to "sensitively" introduce brands into its console, PC and in esports portfolio, unable to replicate the ad model of its mobile studio King without irking gamers.
Marketing agency, Activision Blizzard Media (ABM), serves as the “interconnected tissue” of the three multibillion-dollar gaming companies, Activision, Blizzard and King. Greg Carroll, its EMEA commercial director, is tasked with delivering “meaningful growth” in ad revenue across beyond King's properties into platforms that haven't traditionally served ads.
So ABM can connect brands with more of the world’s 2.4bn gamers, its R&D team (which boasts about 15 marketers) is developing ways to introduce brands into premium Activision and Blizzard titles, having used free-to-play mobile a testbed for ads. Aware that gamers are more forgiving to ads in free, mobile games over £60 console titles, ABM is “doing the due diligence on how to sensitively introduce advertising".
Expanding the King-dom
35% of mobile gamers play King's Candy Crush Saga at least once a month, said ABM research - which makes it almost twice as popular as nearest rivals Pokemon Go, Fortnite or Angry Birds.
Some 258 million monthly active King users play an average of 37 minutes a day, with sessions lasting around eight and a half minutes. The fact that these sessions are three times longer than Facebook and Instagram stints makes it the perfect place to deliver 20 to 30-second ad performs better during a 10-minute gaming session.
"Social media is between one and two minutes per session, and a 30-second ad in that environment just doesn't make sense, he says even urging marketers to stop comparing AMB to other games platforms.
"There's no point. Our dwell time means you should compare us to broadcasters or social media. People spend huge amounts of time within our games."
The context of the ads in the King ecosystem is significant. Mobile gaming ads usually interrupt gameplay. King has made them completely opt-in.
Players can choose to view a mobile-optimised, vertical video ad in exchange for a power-up or a life - handy if stuck on a difficult level. ‘Rewarded Video’ alters the power dynamic and psychology of the ad. With player choice, the reward incentive, and correctly targeted and optimised creative, AMB is reporting "dramatically higher" ad and message recall than other formats.
"This is because you are pairing your brand with a positive outcome rather than interrupting social media, or a YouTube video, which is not a positive experience,” says Carroll.
On the surface, the model increases consumer choice - there is the ad-free, free-to-play experience (minus increasingly-necessary power-ups). Players can never pay but view ads. Or they can establish it as a habit, invest in power-ups and never view an ad.
Under this model, studios could ramp up game difficulty to incentivise engagement with ‘Rewarded Videos’ or microtransactions - in a move reminiscent of the coin-chomping arcades of the 80s.
Carroll disputes this. "The ads were introduced as a relief so players could complete an incredibly difficult level and progress." It also serves to keep players in the ecosystem. "Many players have completed around 5,400 levels of Candy Crush without paying a penny or seeing any ads.”
While Carroll is tasked with maximising ad income, he believes that unfair or exploitative models will get rooted out.
“Gamers are so savvy, we have a very sensitive balance to strike - after all, we are a gaming company first. We need to integrate ads in a sensitive way so we focus on ensuring there's a fair value exchange between the user, the brand and the game.”
King is in an enviable position, however, with its huge player base and the long-life of the Candy Crush series. It has not had to overly-saturate with ads.
“Most mobile games are fleeting and require immediate advertising revenue. They likely have a higher advertising load. We don't need or want that.”
Redefining Gaming (and gamers)
Historically, brands have looked reluctantly upon gaming. This complex and misunderstood market is yet to enjoy recognition as an essential marketing channel.
King’s audience is 60% female, and the average age of a user is 34. Many marketers are surprised by these statistics - gaming is not the sole domain of young men (if it ever was). And they seem relatively open to brands too.
According to ABM research, mobile gamers are 34% more likely than non-gamers to have positive associations about brands and ads, they are 11% more likely to buy brands with likable ads, and they are 18% more likely to have a favourable attitude towards global brands.
This emphasis on advertising comes as the wider games industry has been aggressively diversifying revenue; away from one-and-done transactions for physical packages towards always-on, software-as-a-service titles that are updated for years after launch. In these ecosystems, advertising capabilities multiply.
On the other side of this coin are lootboxes (or as EA calls them ‘surprise mechanics’ like Kinder Eggs). Players have been enticed with packets of random power-ups, benefits and cosmetics. These are being probed by governments, the jury is out whether or not they are unregulated gambling mechanics targeted at children.
Amid these opportunties, ABM must remain focused on its north star.
“We are a gaming company first, with a marketing platform attached. Not the other way around. That's what differs us from other publishers.
“We're 100% focused on the player and are now softly introducing the marketing platform. It is taking more time than we'd like but we'd rather get it right than send players packing.”
The next step will be integrating brands into the broader portfolio “in a very sensitive way”.
Carroll hints that movie characters could make a good natural fit in King titles, or integrating with power-ups as “very soft brand placements”. “We're investigating it. We haven't launched it yet. That will be the next step in evolution.”
Push back from gamers will dictate the nature of this relationship. Street Fighter V inserted (and removed) branding from fighter skins after a backlash.
The opportunity seems to be in injecting beloved brands and IP into games. A recent example of this is the Terminator's appearance in Gears of War 5 to promote the release of Terminator: Dark Fate. Elsewhere, the inclusion of a Mercedes in Mario Kart 8 and the Batmobile in Rocket League, and a live set from DJ Marshmello in Fortnite indicates it can work.
But it is likely esports that levies the greatest opportunity for brands. Instead of inserting ads into a product that never used to contain them, brands can help bring competitions to life for large audiences. Here they are not interrupting games, they are improving them.
“Activision Blizzard has hired a number of key personnel from traditional American sports like the NBA, the NFL and are really investing in building the infrastructure like sports," says Carroll, hinting at a goldrush for sponsorship and media rights opportunities. The group is chasing TV ad budgets in this journey.
Carroll concludes: "Esports is growing at a phenomenal pace and we're getting very excited. Now we have to make sure that it delivers because the popularity is huge and most clients are asking how get on board and invest.”
The Drum previously explored the commercial powerhouse that is EA's Fifa franchise, and how it melds product placement, sponsorship and more to offset the extortionate price of football's most hallowed licence.