Gaming Isn’t Child’s Play

In late January, I met with Mitch Davis, CEO of Massive Incorporated, a startup ad network focused on serving and measuring ad units in video games. Massive is about to officially launch with the debut of the game “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.”

Companies have been placing products in video games for some time in one-off deals, so initially I wondered if an ad network would add value. How would ads affect the gaming experience? Would there be enough placement opportunities? Where does it fit in the media mix? What about measurability? Can marketers optimize performance?

For the market to scale from the estimated $10 million spent last year, there would have to be an abundance of ad opportunities, not just product placements. I wondered if ads would interrupt the action, distract gamers, and, therefore, negatively affect the experience. If so, placement opportunities will be limited.

Davis explained the ad units are very contextual. They appear as billboards, street posters, JumboTrons, and so on, just as you’d see them in the real world. He said gamers want realistic games, and real ads make for realistic games. Tearing down a city street in “Grand Theft Auto,” the game feels more real if players screech past a Tommy Jeans billboard.

Some advertisers experienced with the medium believe it provides an excellent branding opportunity to the 18-34 year old market, the hard-core gaming target.

DaimlerChrysler placed products and ads in video games early on. Terminal Reality was its first major initiative, four years ago. We’ve been working on its behalf in this space for a long time.

“Gaming is a very compelling advertising medium,” says Julie Roehm, DaimlerChrysler’s director of brand communications. “The concept of an organized network is great if the advertising is integrated into the game itself and part of the play experience.”

She believes in this medium, users expect control. Trust is broken if ads interrupt play or are out of context. Advertising must be organic and appropriate for the setting, or it will cause problems.

“We work with two of our gaming partners, WildTangent and Terminal Reality, to get our vehicles into the games as an integral part of the play. It’s exciting,” she said. “But advertising in this medium needs to be monitored, and managed, or we will find ourselves facing the dilemma TV advertisers face, where audiences have turned to TiVo to control clutter. Any action taken by advertisers to control the medium or interrupt play causes a revolt. As long as we can learn from our collective mistakes in other media, like TV and film — avoid clutter, make sure the content is branded and aligned, organically integrate the advertising into the play, be subtle and smart — then we will create something relevant and compelling for players that also works for advertisers.”

Not only is there an opportunity for advertisers to advertise in games, they can also create games built around their products. We recently worked with DaimlerChrysler’s engineers to create an online game called the Jeep Trail Rated Challenge. It’s a favorite with players because it offers an authentic Jeep experience. The engineers ensured the game reflects what a Jeep can really do.

Another example is EA’s new NASCAR SimRacing game, which features the Dodge Charger. Players can choose a driver and race the new 2006 Dodge Charger on three different tracks. It provides players with a compelling brand experience.

I asked Roehm for her advice to newbies considering this medium. “Start with a clear set of objectives, an understanding of the landscape, and develop a strategy based on what you need to deliver. We have a specific strategy for gaming that starts with the players and segments them into four groups based on age and gender. We segment games into three types: action, lifestyle, and learning. We look at the thickness or size of games as well, because that affects adoption (due to download times). We then mix and match segments and game types to come up with different strategies that allow us to accomplish our objectives.”

She continued, “For instance, one of the biggest opportunities we are looking at is women over 40 — the fastest growing gaming market category. Thin puzzle games that are easily downloaded are a good bet for this segment. Gaming might seem like child’s play from an advertising perspective, but it’s not easy to get the formula right. Be very specific on strategy, the target audience, media choices, and game type. Create some fun and compelling content. Don’t violate the trust with the player. That’s the winning formula.”

Many gamers are wired, and games can be regularly updated online. So many of the things we like about Internet advertising (easy optimization as the campaign progresses) are possible within the online gaming environment. This also allows for closer integration with other media in time-based campaigns.

More money is spent on video games than in movie theaters, so clearly there’s opportunity. A highly attractive 18-34-year-old audience and a network with expected reach of 3 million this year is in place. That will organize and facilitate the buying and selling of ad placement and provide measurement, the gaming market is poised for real growth. Savvy consumer marketers targeting the gaming demographic should consider adding video games to their marketing mix.

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