In-Game Ads Face Debate Over Standards

NEW YORK – As the nascent medium of video game advertising begins to gain increased attention from marketers, a debate is bubbling up over the lack of standards in the space.

At yesterday’s well-attended Advertising in Games Forum in Manhattan, there was little consensus on what in-game advertising should look like or how it should be measured. Agencies, marketing vendors and game publishers even disagreed on whether standards are desirable.

“There’s still a disconnect between advertisers and the video game industry, which is a very insular world.” said Michael Downling, general manager of Nielsen Interactive Entertainment, speaking on a panel on campaign tracking.

“There’s no standard metric,” Downling said. “That’s what we’re working on. More important is [developing] standard units. Advertisers have no clue about this medium. Those are the things that need to be developed in order for us to get to a true rate card.”

The discussion over standards has heated up in part because of the arrival of new in-game ad networks and technologies from companies like Massive and IGN Entertainment. Massive, which runs a network with titles from approximately 10 game publishers, is offering the closest thing out there to a standard ad unit. The static format offers fifteen seconds of cumulative exposure within a 3D gaming environment, and most commonly takes the form of a wall poster.

Many panelists at Thursday’s conference touted the network model and its promise of standardized production and sales, but the networking sessions told a slightly different story.

Some folks on the agency side, especially those in creative strategy, believe an early push for standards could harm the medium. They said the best use of in-game advertising is product placement that facilitates game play.

Brandon Berger, senior strategist of digital innovation at OgilvyInteractive, used his Sony PSP to demonstrate a Jeep product placement on Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. He liked that players can jump off the hood of the vehicle, but he said he’d prefer to see an even more integrated version — one where they can climb inside and drive the Jeep.

Another agency head, who asked not to be named, was unenthusiastic about passive ad placements and pointed the finger at her media counterparts in the agency world. Because media planners control the budget, she said, deep product integrations are ignored in favor of large scale, but less effective, units. This results in lower effectiveness and, in turn, a smaller investment in the medium over time. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

But the problem with game play integration, versus a network model, is that it lacks scale and requires advance planning due to the long development cycle of many games. Few agencies are pitching campaign ideas 18 months in advance, but many games are in development for that long.

“If the product is coming out in November, we’re going to look for a game that’s coming out in November. It’s about timing and what’s available out there, in terms of inventory,” said Sam Huxley, chief strategy officer at Bounce Interactive Gaming. It can be hard to coordinate, he said.

For now, stakeholders hope for creative flexibility within a network model. Even Massive, which has produced what it hopes will become a standard ad unit, wants to avoid placing stringent limits on the creative palette for in-game ads.

“Standardization is a great term to use in the traditional advertising world,” said Nicholas Longano, Massive’s chief marketing officer. “In video games, I’d hate to face a situation where we go to developers and say, by the way, to have advertising in your game, you have to have it [exactly this size]. The last thing we want to do is get in the way of their vision.”

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