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Experiences need more play

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In the relatively short history of video gaming, we’ve seen the industry evolve from a derivative medium, imitating other media, to the medium others look to for innovative inspiration.

And innovate it has. The business of video gaming is now worth more than movies and music combined, generating an estimated $160bn in revenue for 2020, globally. This number is expected to swell to well over $200bn by 2023. To put that in perspective, this is more than four times the box office receipts of the movie industry, in a normal year. The largest ever box office buster so far is Avengers: Endgame, taking in around $2.8bn globally. For comparison, Fortnite brought in an estimated $4.3bn between 2018 and 2019. Long-standing games are even more eye-wateringly successful, with lifetime revenues in the tens-of-billions for franchises like Mario, Call of Duty, Pokémon and League of Legends.

In 2020, we saw the largest ever expansion of what the medium of video gaming encompasses. To be clear, the term ‘video gaming’ doesn’t really capture the sheer breadth of the community, the diversity of experience and the net impact on culture – which is, and will continue to be, huge.

Today, it’s not completely ridiculous to say that games are culture. For example, recently, to debut its summer 2021 collection, fashion house Balenciaga debuted a video game as an immersive way to show its collection. With high production value and a dystopian story line, the game is a way for consumers to experience the brand in a fun and thought-provoking environment that sticks with you, even after you’re finished playing.

Into the metaverse

What is clear, that was perhaps less clear just 12 months ago, is that “video games” have already eclipsed our ability to call them games, or video, for that matter. Yes, we have action games, adventure games, role-playing games, sports games and strategy games. But there is also a huge market for social simulations, sandboxes (games without any specific goals), and other forms of interactive entertainment. Experiences built with game development technologies, but toward very different outcomes: being creative, connecting with people, and socializing.

During the peak of the Covid-19 lockdowns, games were just about the only place to be. People flocked to their favorite titles and effectively hijacked them as hang-out spots. Fortnite responded by adding a no-violence “Party Royale” mode, hosting big name artists like Travis Scott and others in platform events. Similar things happened on Minecraft, where some of its 130 million creators built digital replicas of their favorite local haunts and university campuses, hosting parties and concerts. It was not unlike the ad-hoc, warehouse party scenes in cities around the world in the 90s. Brimming with creative energy, youth and freshness – a scene hidden below the surface, one you had to discover.

Just as with every exciting, fringy, provocative cultural movement, if it has staying power, it tends to migrate from the edges toward the center – and it becomes mainstreamed. And this is what is happening with the gaming culture today. Evidenced by the size of the industry, the rise of esports, and the proliferation of video game-like interactivity into everyday apps, tools and experiences (gamification). And it’s not just about entertainment and recreation. Politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew an audience of 700,000 to the gaming platform Twitch to watch her play the hit game, Among Us, while urging players to get out the vote. Twitch also emerged as a place for brands and influencers to get their message out and do things such as sell beauty products to millions of followers.

Work is now play

You’d be forgiven for missing it, but game tropes and mechanics are making their way into our professional lives, too. Look closely and you’ll find them in apps from Outlook to Zoom – focus time, chat, backgrounds, theatre mode, emojis. In the business of delivering virtual experiences, client conversations and our innovation focus is shifting from principally broadcast driven delivery to immersive, interactive delivery. Marketers, having stumbled across the chasm into the virtual world, are hungry to facilitate true, multi-dimensional engagement with audiences. What better model is our there for this type of thing than Animal Crossing?

2020 was an accelerator, giving a massive kick to the convergence of forms and formats. 2021 will see it go into overdrive. We’re seeing avatars in Zoom meetings, 3D open worlds, extended reality sets, A.I. driven networking and matchmaking, highly personalized content, playful interfaces and tons and tons of experimentation as marketers embrace new forms and formats to attract and engage with online audiences through shared experiences. Among all the digital media available to consumers, video games are the competition. Your next brand experience is competing directly with Fortnite.

Fields of green… pixels

The exciting part is that this is just the beginning. We get to invent, and pilot, this new, ‘hybrid online/offline, work/play, digital/physical experience. If this sounds daunting, the good news is that we’re not starting from scratch. We’re benefiting from 40 years of hard work done by game studios and developers. The new release of PS5 and Xbox Series X reminds us that these mega platforms for interactive entertainment are already becoming a mainstream destination for gathering, socializing, learning, creating, and soon, for productivity and business.

So, as you explore what’s next for brand experiences, whether virtual and hybrid, the single best window into the future is probably already on your home entertainment shelf. And if you want to know what the next few years of experiential marketing looks like, go talk to the gamer in your household.

Scott Varland, senior vice-president, head of Jack X, North America