Cinematic video game trailers were once the staple of YouTube pre-roll but poxy mobile gaming ads have seized this space on the (wrong) assumption that my gaming love would convince me to download a smartphone title that (probably) requires the alignment and destruction of randomised gems with paid-for power ups and that I'd do this while trapped on the loo or the tube.
Some experienced gamers steer clear of pay-to-play mobile games (after all, it can be argued that they share more DNA with online casinos than they do the titles gracing Xbox and PlayStation) but that's not the focal point of today's feature...
It was a single ad that soured me to mobile games. Marketing put me off the median creative designed to promote Game of War: Fire Age and instead made me shake a fist at an entire industry.
Young people are sitting around a campfire pawing incessantly at their smartphones. A gently spoken woman dawdles from a dark forest, asking: "What are you guys playing?"
A despondent yet inexplicably smug man retorts: “I’m supposed to be playing Game of War but this one player keeps kicking my ass.”
A third party asks: “Is it TheLegend27?”
YouTube’s five second ad skip countdown now concludes that there are 55 seconds left. I will enact the next three seconds.
"Yeah, TheLegend27," he answers.
"Who is the Legend27?" another asks, opening a can of worms best left shut.
"Some say TheLegend27 is the first Game of War player ever," it continues to continue... but let’s put a pin in the script here and get to the brass tacks.
This ad was the sole reference point for a particularly dark period of my life – a period that was particularly dark solely because of this ad. As a digital addict, Game of War: Fire Age stalked my YouTube videos patiently waiting to waste them like a gang of bullies occupying the front drive of my house ready to give me a wedgie every time I left.
I finished the ad once after stubbing my toe traversing the living room in the dark. After a minute of debate about the origins of TheLegend27, it concludes with a Shyamalan twist revealing that our lady from the forest is in fact TheLegend27, a deity who demolishes her friends’ armies – a real unfriending offence.
I’ve forgotten the faces and names of people I once loved, yet that tyrannical ad remains etched into my hypothalamus and other cranial apparatus. Now is your turn to watch it.
To this day I don’t know what Game of War is. There’s empire building and siege activity reminiscent of a poor Age of Empires clone from 2004 but that doesn't seem to matter.
Game of War: Fire Age is very popular
The ad has accumulated 165m views on YouTube; more than 100 times more than Barack Obama’s historical inauguration, 57m more views than Rebecca Black’s hit Friday, four times more than David Bowie’s deathbed single Lazarus.
But most tellingly TheLegend27’s YouTube likes and, more relevantly, dislikes have been obscured by the company for a glaringly obvious reason made more apparent in the knowledge TheLegend27 climbed under the skin of the gaming community and birthed a meme.
It is one of the top five earning mobile games and draws around $578k from the US alone on a daily basis. In 2015 it was earning an average of $550 per paying player.
This is merely a single negative experience worth outlining, and there are many more bad ads out there generated by the almighty biblical flood of homogenised titles spamming app stores with shouty-men avatars and three-word titles like ‘[Something] of [Something]’ evoking superior media properties like Call of Duty, Gears of War and Game of Thrones, all without the charm or cultural gravitas.
Mobile Strike is another mobile game that crosses my path often on YouTube. I am thankful it was there to sparsely rain on TheLegend27 parade. In these ads, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in scenes of flashy military action. Typically, the actual gameplay is exhibited at the end in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style. Vice’s Motherboard recently compared the action-packed trailer against the menu-laden gameplay in a damning takedown of the genre.
George Osborn, the games journalist and content marketer with a working knowledge of top ad networks, analysed the Game of War slot for The Drum. He thinks it is the constant repetition of TheLegend27 that made it ripe for parody, although he thinks it may be a nod to Liam Neeson’s Taken skit in this Clash of Clans SuperBowl ad (below).
Osborn outlines that the TheLegend27 ad would likely be targeted to males aged between 18 and 35. He blames a lack of network inventory and frequency cap for the game’s invasion of my life.
A successful marketing campaign is measured by the download rates and user acquisition it drives, unlike console games which “take a more typical product marketing approach” where gameplay is previewed, pre-orders used to judge upcoming marketing spend which reaches critical mass upon launch. Game sales are used to levy further activity.
Osborn states that the market is dominated by a few companies who “monetised effectively and successfully in the earlier days of mobile free to play”. They became services focused on lengthening user engagement and spend. “This success allowed the top players to consolidate in the market. As the cost of user acquisition increased, these companies were either able to afford the cost of campaigns necessary to hold their position or use analytics to identify key users and retain them at all costs,” he adds. Game of War is very much one of these games.
Osborne concludes that “most of the top grossing free to play mobile games look rubbish. Game of War, for example, has a pretty uninspiring art style and the majority of its mechanics revolve around menus, making it a hard sell for a visually appealing TV slot.”
Simon Spaull, the EMEA managing director of AppLovin, a leading mobile ad network which helps to monetise mobile titles marks a shift in the marketing, explains: “We’ve noticed a massive shift from trailer ads to game footage, gamers want to see exactly why they should download that game, something that will entice them.”
Was TheLegend27 rhetoric about friends destroying each other’s armies a keen driver of downloads? Developer Machine Zone has kept pushing TheLegend27 campaign, hamstringing any sentiment that the ad was ineffective.
Companies like AppLovin look to show the right people ads at the right time using programmatic buying and machine learning. If a web user clicks one of its gaming ads, AppLovin learns more about that person’s tastes and can refine future ads. Furthermore, once it is established that a player is willing to part with money they can be baited with promotional offers on in-game items. If you're a lecherous adblocker like myself, these guys have less data than they would like to work with.
Recent research from Soomla discovered that 20% of mobile users account for 80% of ad revenue. These high value individuals are sometimes called 'whales', dubbed so by gambling and casino circles. However, Spaull asserts that many of the top mobile games chase casual gamers who can typically deliver a 100% return on ad spend within 60-80 days.
That’s all fine and well for casual gamers, but hardcore gamers – those intense Counter-Strike Go or fanatical World of Warcraft users – are surely unimpressed by parting with their cash to make games either easier (with power-ups) or more accessible (with lives). Spaull disagrees: “Hardcore users want to game 24/7, so there is a place on mobile.”
Developers just need to hit them with the right game and the right creative – maybe a mobile extension of a game they already love.
Will there ever be another TheLegend27?
Looking to the future, Spaull underlines that the state of play is improving. The proliferation of video ads more transparently shows what players are buying in to. It accounts for 77% of mobile ad spend in the network. Also on the horizon are playable ads, facsimiles or trials for the games which the devs hope you’ll download.
Maybe one day I will have to play my way through three minutes of Game of War before accessing the content I’m intent on watching. That is the dark timeline. It may not come to be.
It is a relief to hear the networks are pushing machine learning techniques and making better use of the data they may already be processing. At the end of the day, they want you to engage with the ads they are serving you.
But out there somewhere there’s a devious marketer twixt a desk and a three-monitor PC tenting his fingers into a Cheeto-dusted, evil finger pyramid of contemplation as he says: ‘Send him one more Game of War ad, he’s had a few* already, what’s one more?’
*Probably a few hundred