Video game publishers are eager to integrate ads and product placements with their titles, and marketers increasingly want to see their messages in the space. But deciding to implement ads in games, whether on the buy or sell-side, is only the first step in the process. Once that decision is made, a working relationship begins between not only media buyer and seller, but between marketer and developer. And the way that relationship plays out depends on a range of factors, including everything from the game designers’ perception of a brand to the approvals process for in-game placements.
Are Developers Receptive?
Many developers, when you ask them, are receptive to marketing messages in the games they create, though their enthusiasm is conditional. They tend to embrace advertising and recognizable products in their games only when they are contextually appropriate to the plotline. The synergy between advertising and sports titles is well recognized, for instance; as is the dissonance of contemporary ads in fantasy games.
A publisher may get final say on a game, but the development team has control over every aspect, including advertising.
“I think product development and marketing are really strong gatekeepers, product development especially,” said Sarah McIlroy, director of in-game advertising at Midway. “They’re really close to the brand and make sure the game is meaningful to the consumer.”
Several of Midway’s titles are developed by studios set up in-house, with McIlroy acting as the conduit between the development team and individual brands. The publisher has a deal with Double Fusion to handle dynamic placements, but works directly with agencies and marketers for situations with deeper integration.
While sports titles are a strong match for games, McIlroy suggests that with action-based games, developers need to judge how a product functions within the game, and how it can be meaningful to the consumer.
“This is a challenge for most developers, because it is important to ensure that the content of the game is always the first priority and advertising is used to enhance the gamer’s experience,” said Ubisoft Director of Strategic Sales and Partnershps Monika Madrid.
Ads are top of mind among developers, even those who have yet to put the practice into play. Digital Extremes, developer of games like the forthcoming Dark Sector and already released Pariah and Adventure Pinball, is aware of the trend, though ads haven’t fit into the last few games. “It’s starting to become more interesting to publishers, so there’s more talk,” President James Schmalz told ClickZ.
The game Digital Extremes is currently working on, called “Dark Sector,” takes place in a fictional, run down Russian town. It has limited opportunity for product integration or ads, according to Schmalz, who speculated that a Russian or European product might work. “It’s something we’d investigate more if it made more sense,” he said.
Other developers set out to make their games ad-supported. Acclaim develops a handful of free, massively multiplayer online games, known as MMOGs, including “Bots” and the upcoming fantasy titles “9Dragons” and “2Moons.” While the games are fantasy, a genre normally categorized as out-of-bounds for advertisers, the company works with Massive to serve ads within them.
In most cases, the ad creative will work into the game by offering resources like gold to players through interaction with non-player characters, commonly called NPCs. The ad unit is called AdRewards, and will help players level up their characters. “It’s the pursuit of the gamers to level up, and the goal of the advertisers to get the message through. We merge that,” said Acclaim CEO Howard Marks.
While Acclaim’s business model is to create ad-supported games, it hands off the sales and implementation of the advertising to Massive. “We create the game, and they create the ad units,” said Marks. “They don’t need to worry about the creative, making the game fun and addictive. Their job is to come up with the great advertising concepts and connect with the players. We’re just serving what they’re giving us.”
Working on a Timeline
Communication between the developer and the brand is continuous throughout the development cycle. “We are very careful and spend a lot of time working with our clients and our development teams to find and create placements which address the needs of the client while also respecting the quality of the game and the gamer experience,” said Ubisoft’s Madrid.
Product integration commonly requires 12 to 16 months of development lead time. “If we have an established relationship with an advertiser early on, we can try to effectively incorporate them into our storylines, scripts and early development phases,” said Madrid. Smaller placements and billboards can wait until about four to five months prior to a game’s launch.
The practice of product integration, particularly in racing games, mirrors the timeline and labor involved in licensing. Licensing can actually be more of a challenge because developers need to seek out brands for inclusion in a game. Yuke’s Co. Ltd. recently published “D1 Grand Prix,” for which it licensed the Pontiac GTO and had to reach out to the brand early in the development process.
“It is surprisingly hard to get in touch with a company’s licensing department… It’s difficult to reach people who can get the process started,” said Brian Wanamaker, project manager at Yuke’s. “The main thing to beware of is that the contract and approvals process can take a long time, and legally the developer is bound by the terms of the contract and its stipulated approvals before the game can be sent for approval, and then to retail.”
Advertisers are given similar approval rights for their hard-coded paid placements in games, though when a brand approaches a game publisher, the process tends to favor the developer. “We’ll sometimes get CAD images, sometimes product samples,” said McIlroy. “We like to have something tangible, we usually look at packaging and advertising, and [the developers] often request more information.”
As for the approvals process, Midway developers try to make sure they have enough materials to get the executions worked into the game properly. “It’s ideal to get the package right the first time,” said McIllroy. “Making sure that we’ve got strong guidelines for the brand as it passes through product development on the first go around. As long as we’re providing them with true assets it can be smooth.”
When it Works
Advertisements can add authenticity to the worlds developed in games. Without billboards or branded products integrated into the game, such as a cell phone or bottle of soda, game designers must spend resources to create fictitious products and brand messages.
“In a lot of cases, [developers] prefer to have a real brand in there and have true advertising,” said McIlroy. “And I think it lessens their workload a little bit rather than creating generic graphics.”
Even when a game’s development team tweaks the ads to fit into the setting, the extra work pays off in authenticity. For Ubisoft’s “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter,” which came out in March, the team put a Latino spin on creative for the deodorant Axe. “The game was set in Mexico City so the ad creative was in Spanish,” said Madrid. “Our client, Axe, used imagery and simple Spanish words which most people could understand, like ‘Ole.’ It worked very well and added a great level of realism to the game.”
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