Videogames That Sell

In the burgeoning world of in-game advertising, realistm is the goal—and brands equal realism.

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EA's NBA Live '06
EA's NBA Live '06
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We play videogames to escape from our everyday lives into realities far more dangerous, extraordinary and exciting. But few of those realities can escape the long arm of advertising. As videogame technology advances at light speed, the line separating these fantasy worlds from our own world has blurred. Realism is the Holy Grail, as publishers aim for total immersion by infusing their games with as many real-world details as possible—and that includes advertising, in all its forms. The online functionality of many of today's games allows billboards, streaming video and actual products to be inserted directly into the virtual environments of many games, typically in the sports, racing and first-person action genres. But ad placements, commonly described as "dynamic" ads, are only the tip of the in-game iceberg, as marketers and game publishers alike strive to come up with innovative ways to incorporate brands more deeply into the fabric of gameplay. Unlike dynamic ads, these "static" ads aren't relegated to background detail—they're embedded into the story of the games, where players can actually interact with them.

At their core, both dynamic and static in-game ads follow the same golden rule. "Every in-game advertising opportunity is evaluated on a case-by-case basis and only offered in certain games where the incorporation of advertising will enhance the gameplay," says David Smith, VP-business development at Engage In-Game Advertising, a San Francisco-based in-game media company that focuses on market-specific ad placements. "Advertising in videogames needs to complement the game environment and not feel forced." Mitch Davis, CEO at Massive Inc., the New York-based in-game ad developer that created the first game network for in-game ad serving, further explains, "If you have a vending machine in a title like Splinter Cell from Ubisoft, it makes sense to deliver a real-life beverage brand like Diet Sprite Zero to that machine. Advertising that doesn't fit in the game environment or that negatively impacts gameplay is not an effective way to integrate a brand's messaging into a game."

EA's NBA Live '06
EA's NBA Live '06
Adds Jonathan Epstein, a member of the board of directors for Double Fusion, a San Francisco-based technology company that specializes in in-game advertising: "There's a very high standard that everyone in the in-game advertising industry must follow—namely, that advertising cannot in any way interfere with the playability or development timing of the games." That emphasis on integration over interruption is one factor that has led many top-tier game publishers like Vivendi Universal, Atari and Konami to fully embrace in-game advertising as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. "Many publishers believe it contributes to the realism of the gameplay where the advertising is contextually relevant to the environment," says Smith. And the fact that these ads provide a steady stream of additional revenue is a nifty side benefit. "The new revenue streams from in-game advertising are completely incremental to game publishers' existing game revenues," says Epstein, "which allows these publishers the ability to invest more in their core game development."

Adding to the appeal of in-game advertising—especially when it comes to dynamic ad placements—is the relative simplicity and speed with which companies like Massive, Double Fusion and Engage can insert advertising directly into games. "Our technology and integration toolset makes putting ads into a game easy for any developer, so advertising can be incorporated into games in less than a day, very close to the ship date of the title," says Epstein. And given the nonembedded nature of dynamic ads, the ads themselves can be replaced or updated within network-based PC titles or console games equipped with Xbox Live or the PS2 online network adapter, as quickly and easily as they were inserted in the first place. "The dynamic nature of our network gives advertisers the opportunity to target gamers with different messages based on geography and time of day, with little lead time," says Davis.

Drive for Life
Drive for Life
Among recent static ad efforts, Electronic Arts' basketball title NBA Live '06 features hidden codes that allow players to unlock specific sneaker brands like Air Jordan. Ubisoft's most recent CSI game for the PC incorporates Visa's fraud-monitoring capabilities into the central plot of one of its murder cases, thanks to the efforts of Visa's media-buying agency, OMD. And in perhaps the most extreme example of the synergy between gaming and advertising, an entire Xbox title—the racing game Volvo's Drive For Life—was concepted, designed and developed around a brand. "We had some success placing Volvo in a previous Xbox title, and we had been lobbying for the chance to make our own game," says Kirt Gunn of Kirt Gunn & Associates, which created the game along with agency Euro RSCG 4D and developer Climax Action. "There had never been a game of this scale built around and driven by a brand. There were many examples of a developer taking an existing game engine and dropping a vehicle into that play pattern, but there aren't equivalent examples of the brand's core principles driving the play patterns."

A quick scan of the in-game horizon reveals many such projects to come. Massive's growing roster of partners has expanded to include publishers like THQ, Acclaim, and NCSoft, whose upcoming online role-playing game Auto Assault will feature rotating logos from various motor oil companies on its automobiles. Whether the ads are dynamic or static, whether they grace soda machines or sneakers, one thing is clear: there's a permanent place for advertising in the games we play. And with the expanded capabilities of next-generation consoles like Xbox 360 and PS3, gamers will soon have the chance to interact with their favorite brands and products in ways never before imagined. "The new generation of consoles feature truly integrated online services which should boost the percentage of consoles connected to the internet significantly," says Epstein. "While the audience and time spent on online PC games is already vast, adding the console audience to the in-game advertising community through this heightened level of connectivity just blows it further open."
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