You Don’t Know Jack… About Online Gaming

Last week, the Boston Globe addressed the popularity of advertising in video games. Drawing from a recent Nielsen Entertainment study on video game usage, the author notes the many hours the 18-34-year-old male demographic spends interacting with this medium, along with the numerous opportunities for “in-game advertising” (a.k.a., product placement) it affords.

Product placement is rampant. Countless video games incorporate third-party advertising and offer examples of how advertisers can increase brand exposure through popular games. Electronic Arts Inc.’s (EA’s)”Need for Speed Underground” allows players to modify their cars with brand-name parts. Characters who win racing challenges appear on the covers of authentic automotive magazines. In Sony’s “Gran Turismo,” players are exposed to real-life advertiser sponsorships around the racetrack.

Video game advertising is officially big business. What’s remarkable about the article is there is no mention whatsoever of advertising in online games. Presumably, the author couldn’t locate any data on this industry.

Nielsen Entertainment is said to be the first to thoroughly measure consumer interaction with video games (exposure, average play usage, and the like). Though a spokesperson confirmed the company would eventually be expanding its focus to include online and PC gaming, it’s only dealt with console gaming to date.

The failure to cite online gaming and the delay in substantiating the online game market are curious because, in many ways, it’s light-years ahead of its console counterpart. Opportunities don’t lie in offline media alone; product-placement advertising has been a reality in online games for years.

The types of online and PC games conducive to product placements are very different from those you’re likely used to seeing on the Web. Interactive, animated challenges in pop-up form and the like (which I’ve discussed) are self-branded. They therefore don’t allow for third-party integrated advertising.

There are two types of online games analogous to console games and that are able to support product-placement advertising: multi-user dungeon (MUD) and massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). The former encompasses Internet role-playing games that tend to employ fantasy themes, while the latter variety allows multiple players to participate in a game simultaneously via the Internet.

Some games can be purchased on CD-ROM and installed on user PCs, after which users can play online against or in tandem with other players. Others are a hybrid of console and online games; though they’re played on a console such as PlayStation 2, users can buy adapters to tap into their Internet connections.

One of the more familiar multiplayer Internet games is “Quake,” developed by id Software nearly 10 years ago. One early player remembers even then, the soundtrack included music from real-life industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails. Promotional logos for the band, he says, were plastered on walls throughout the game.

Online video game advertising hasn’t just come in the form of product placements. Remember the 1990s’ pop-culture trivia game “You Don’t Know Jack?” Originally a PC game available on CD-ROM, it was later adapted for the Web. Though it received marginal coverage at the time, this online game offered advertisers branded interstitials very similar to the rich media versions that plaster the Web today.

The trend toward ads in online games hasn’t ebbed. In virtual-city-based “The Sims Online,” the follow-up to the popular CD-ROM game, players can buy a Big Mac, start their own McDonald’s franchises, and use Intel PCs in their virtual homes. Both companies inked multimillion-dollar advertising deals with top game developer EA in 2002.

The opportunities for advertisers to get involved in online gaming and the resulting advantages are abundant, just as they are offline. Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) reports the number of U.S. console and PC gamers will balloon to 40 million this year alone. Young male consumers dedicate their time to video games both offline and on-, and advertisers are reacting accordingly.

Why haven’t mainstream media yet heard that online gaming is where it’s at?

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