Near-Game Advertising

Over the last several years, video games have truly come into their own. In 2001, I first heard widespread discussion of games as a distinct media channel rather than as yet-another application or (worse) something done by kids after they get out of class. Games today are rich, deep, fun and, often, extremely beautiful. The increased processor power of consoles, such as Xbox, PlayStation, and the enormously fun Nintendo Wii, have generated a wealth of new titles, including some truly innovative ones. The result is the rapid expansion of gaming beyond the realm of fanboys and into the (ahem) real world.

As gaming’s reach has increased, so too has advertiser interest. Who wouldn’t be attracted to a channel in which consumers spend hours upon hours each day, heavily involved? Advertising in games has exploded. We’ve seen a small flurry of interest as companies like Microsoft (buying Massive) and Google (buying Adscape) have made forays, investments, and out-right purchases that got them (‘scuse the pun) in the game.

Essentially, the logic around game advertising has followed three paths. That is, you can do one of three things, based on three broad categories of games. Simulation games (especially sport simulation games) allow you to place a relevant product within the game. Tire manufacturers can have their products featured in a NASCAR game, for example. Games with broad landscapes (such as a first-person shooter) allow for simple display advertising; you can buy a virtual billboard. Finally, there are the deep fantasy games that take place in Middle Earth, the Star Wars universe, or other virtual spaces. These games allow you to do a whole lot of nothing. Sorry. No Yoo-Hoo allowed in Middle Earth.

There’s a new category of space quietly growing, however: the passage pages manufacturers offer as consumers access directly from their consoles, such as the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Portal to the Games

The Live Marketplace is an interesting space. In a way, its like a TiVo-style interface to the gaming universe in that it’s a portal through which people can get new content or review the choices available to them. To date, there hasn’t been too much interest in this sliver of media space. Everyone’s been trying to wedge their ads into games. But this spot, while overlooked, could hold a lot of potential.

Consider the behavior around these pass-through spaces. Game consumers specifically go online to see what sorts of things are available to them, be they new games to buy, demos to try, or even video content to consume. This is a group looking for an opportunity to engage with content.

The normal set of tactics — banners and buttons — could certainly be extended to this space. But there’s also the chance to bring in branded content and even behaviorally targeted ads. Because of the space’s nature, a brand could even conduct e-commerce on the site, allowing consumers to purchase actual items via a simple interface.

More important, these middle spaces could represent real opportunities for brands to begin experimenting with that swirling world of games and advertising without having to totally understand all the delicate rules and balances of power brands need to negotiate, and still get plenty of exposure.

All advertisers who consider using video games must be cognizant of a simple rule: don’t get in the way of the play. If Lara Croft has to stop and wait while Tony the Tiger dances across the screen, there will be trouble. But if the advertiser follows the rules and puts the logo or brand into a subtle corner, the impression’s value begins to dissipate and get lost. How do you ensure you get the ad’s value while not damaging the ad vehicle’s value?

It’s certainly a tough spot to be in, but as you can see with Xbox Live Marketplace and similar opportunities, there are spaces near games where an advertiser can simply be an advertiser. Since these spaces often offer casual, fun games, there may be a way for an advertiser to poke around and experiment with the space while not having to get too deep, too quickly.

Games Are Ad Disruptors

Games are advertising disruptors. Their increasing presence means more time in front of the television is dedicated to a space where the old rules of broadcast are destroyed like a Romulan being attacked by a Borg. That means advertisers who want to get a little slice of that sitting-in-front-of-the-box time must be creative, imaginative, and unafraid.

This doesn’t mean advertisers need to be reckless. Instead, they should find the spots that allow them to engage and learn.

Meet Gary at the ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising seminar on March 19 at the San Francisco Marriott in California.

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