In-game advertising

Medium is new home for message

England are playing Brazil in the World Cup. It’s one-all, and then in the dying minutes England surge forward and score a spectacular goal. As the players celebrate an advertising banner comes into view and the victory is suddenly synonymous with that lucky company’s product; the type of opportunity advertising executives would sell their grandmother for.

It is also an opportunity many executives are rushing out to buy up. The banners are not at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, nor are they going to be the first on display in London’s new Wembley stadium, but they are on millions of screens across the world; appearing in almost every big new video game.

If advertisers feel the game hits their profile audience then more and more are making sure their message gets in. Place an ad in a video game and you gain a transfixed audience, one that is engaged, their senses heightened and their passions aroused. Place an ad in a video game and it is not just on screen for a “one night only” appearance. It is there every time that game is played.

Fred Hassen, chief executive of Tiga, an industry association representing UK computer games developers, sees advertising as a major opportunity. “Television and films have been aware of the benefits of advertising for years. The computer games industry really needs to open its mind to the major extra revenue ads can bring in,” he says.

The birth and rapid growth of this new outlet for ads has come as traditional television advertising is being squeezed. More homes have the technology to “tune out” adverts, there are more channels and perhaps most importantly a key demographic is switching off altogether. Nielson Media Research reports that TV viewership dropped by about 12 per cent last year among 18- to 34-year-old men, while that same group spent 20 per cent more time on games.

There are three different ways advertisers are getting their message across in games. Product placement is employed as it is in television and movies: by putting actual brands into an environment with which the viewer is engaged. But some argue it can have an even greater effect in games because the product, be it a car, snowboard or clothing, can be used as part of the game play. Players can interact with the products and in so doing they can gain an added affinity with the brands.

Then there are traditional adverts such as hoardings around a football game or race track and billboards in an urban landscape; which are encoded into the game and appear as part of the permanent scenery.

Finally and probably most useful to advertisers and games companies alike, there is dynamic advertising. This is a new and rapidly growing method used in online games. The adverts in a game can be regularly updated or fine-targeted each time the player goes online.

The timing of this growth and increased diversity of delivery channels is welcome news for games developers as their costs rise for the next generation of consoles.

Matt Davies, director of business development at Codemasters, a developer and publisher of games across all platforms, says increased demand from advertisers represents a complete reversal of the industry’s previous predicament.

“Only a couple of years ago publishers used to pay the manufacturers for the licence to use their cars. Now the money is coming the other way,” he says. “I’ve done a number of deals within the last 12 months. We’ve got the driving game Racedriver 3 coming out in February and the car manufacturers are paying to have their cars featured in the game.”

However, gamers tend to be highly media aware and sensitive to anything that detracts from game play. Adverts in games therefore have to be used with discretion.

“You don’t want your ads to be intrusive in a game,” says Chris Jones, head of consumer indirect channels at BT Group; which has just signed a deal with the games company Konami to carry advertising hoardings around the pitch in the latest version of its successful football game, Pro Evolution Soccer 5.

“It’s important that it appears where it should appear and that it doesn’t detract,” says Mr Jones. “The wrong thing to do would be to have too much advertising in a game and what you certainly don’t want is adverts that are interruptions to the game play. But as advertising hoardings are part of a real football pitch they also fit in a game. We get a lot of exposure because people keep playing this game and they keep seeing our ads.”

Mr Davies at Codemasters agrees that it can be a difficult balance to get right. “I need to convince all sides that the gamers will still think a particular ad is credible. It means you have to be more careful with what you do. But it can also make it better as you have to be really tight with your targeting. Advertisers know they are targeting who they want.”

This targeting ability is even more sophisticated with dynamic advertising for online gaming. Massive Incorporated, based in New York, is at the forefront of this new technology. Its software sits inside the coding for the main game and allows advertisers to send specific adverts to specific games.

Advertisers can also choose only to show adverts in a certain location, so if a gamer starts to play an online game in France he or she may see a totally different set of ads from someone playing the same game at the same time elsewhere in the world. Not only does it allow precise targeting, but because the internet is a two-way street Massive can collate data on how many people are exposed to an advert and for how long.

Moreover, such dynamic ads are not simply about changing a billboard in a scene; where a player encounters a video screen or a television in a game, video trailers can be streamed so that real footage plays in the game. The UK’s Channel 4 is using Massive’s technology to advertise its latest major offering, Lost, by streaming in trailers of the programme into games.

Mitchell Davis, Massive’s chief executive, says that even this level of sophistication is only the start. The company is looking at other ways to change a game when a player goes online, he claims both to the benefit of the advertisers and the gamers.

“We have the ability to do many different things; change the clothing of a character, change the cars in a game, the music that is played. We can also deliver dynamic product placement, changing the products that appear as the market demands.”

Mr Davis is confident that the market will continue to grow. “Over the next four to five years video game advertising will legitimise itself alongside all the other means of advertising,” he says.

Such enthusiasm is not limited to those already at the heart of computer games advertising. “It will get bigger,” says Leigh Terry, head of UK digital, data and direct marketing at the OMD marketing and communications agency. “The effects on actual sales will be more difficult to prove, but if marketing is about reaching an audience in their media choices efficiently and effectively in-game advertising is sure to grow.”

What’s been where: Brands in the game

  • ‣Swiss watch company Certina sponsored the official timekeeping clock in the rally driving game Colin McRae 5.
  • ‣In Disney Extreme Skate, characters can stop off at a McDonald’s.
  • ‣Jeep bought into the Tony Hawk skateboard games to get its cars featured.
  • ‣McDonald’s and Intel both bought placements in The Sims online game.
  • ‣UK editions of Race Driver 3 will include ads for Autosport.
  • ‣In Grand Turismo 3 billboards for Bridgestone, Elf and Castrol GTX are among motor industry adverts along the side of the circuits.
  • ‣Pro Evolution Soccer 3 also has plenty of billboards around the pitches, Adidas and Vittel feature strongly.
  • ‣Airwaves appears in the opening scenes of a Splinter Cell title while a Coca-Cola machine can be found in the game itself.
  • ‣Even though Wipeout is a futuristic driving game Red Bull didn’t think its adverts would look out of place.

The Financial Times, 5 September 2005

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