Welcome to the World of Aggressively Viral Advergames

Expect Bad Social Games to Get Pushier as Marketers Look for ROI

By Published on .

Tom Hespos
Tom Hespos
Driven by the wildfire success of Zynga, the creator of popular social network games like "Farmville" and "Mafia Wars," game developers are increasingly relying on advertising as a viable revenue stream -- and making the cost of advertiser entry quite low.

If you've noticed "Farmville" updates from your Facebook friends, you're aware of how addictive Zynga's games can get, and how quickly they can spread. They also create large opportunities for advertisers. Those opportunities can take the form of simple ads or of virtual product placement, where an avatar of an advertiser's product is built right into the game.

You'll see another revenue stream at your friendly neighborhood 7-Eleven, which sells prepaid game currency cards that gamers can use within Zynga games. Zynga also gives gamers in-game currency in exchange for participating in free offers from promotional partners.

Zynga has built a massive promotional and advertising platform. Too bad the games suck. "Farmville" players get land and seeds. They grow crops, sell them, and buy more stuff to grow more crops. That's about it. But if you let it, "Farmville" will brag constantly to your Facebook friends about your growing farm.

Are these games that happen to offer ad opportunities? Or are they ad opportunities masquerading as games?

Social-network-driven games leverage something that appeals to the easily addicted: The bestowal of a reward for performing a simple task. This is what makes games like "World of Warcraft" successful, and what made gamers refer to EverQuest as "EverCrack." I first noticed it in a game called "Diablo II." When my in-game character killed a monster, it got a little reward. Sometimes it was a small cache of gold, sometimes a magic sword. The pull of those little rewards was strong, and I frequently lost track of time.

The difference is that there was a point to "Diablo II." Defeat enough monsters, and you win. "Farmville" has no point, and no end. I'm surprised that more people don't simply abandon it.

Gamers bothered by pointlessness should avoid games that derive their growth from social networks. Two weeks ago, I found the next evolution of "Farmville." On the recommendation of this site, I downloaded a game for my iPad called "Godfinger All-Stars." The same author also recommended "Plants vs. Zombies," a runaway hit. So I gave "Godfinger" a try.

The game wanted access to my Facebook profile. I put the kibosh on that, but played on. I discovered an immensely addictive experience that was as pointless as "Farmville," but more insidious.

"Godfinger" players can zoom away from their planet of hard-working farm folk and tap a neighboring planet to view ads from sponsors. Clicking the ad gets them game currency.

This is a big no-no. Most advertisers run screaming from any sort of incentivized ad-clicking. The taboo dates back to the late '90s, when outfits like Freeride incentivized users to click by giving them online currency that could be applied toward, for instance, paying an ISP bill. Advertisers quickly learned that users were clicking on their ads not because they were interested in the product, but because they wanted the currency.

Incentivized ad clicks, though, were just the tip of the iceberg. In the middle of gameplay, text banners would splash across the top of the screen, nagging me to connect with my friends via social networks. Every time I progressed through a game level, a pop-up window asked me if I wanted to post my progress to my Facebook wall. If I was using a different app on my iPad and something happened within the game, pop-up windows would remind me to come back to "Godfinger." This game wanted to spread, and it was prepared to ruin the game experience for me if I tried to stop it.

This breed of aggressively viral advergames is the product of several market forces coming together. The first is the desire of advertisers to test their way into gaming -- particularly mobile gaming -- without making multimillion-dollar commitments.

The second is the desire for advertisers to do something -- anything -- within mobile and gaming channels. VPs of marketing want to be able to tell their CEOs that they've at least tested these channels. So game developers use ad-serving technology that enables advertisers to move in and out of the games, even as they make a large number of ad impressions available in case an advertiser wants to scale its commitment up.

The third is the rising cost of game development. It's not getting any cheaper to make quality games, even on non-console platforms like iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android. Anything that can offset investments in development, particularly if it produces an ongoing revenue stream, becomes attractive.

The highly aggressive "Godfinger" is just a product of its time.

Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing. He blogs at hespos.com.
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