Advergaming: Playing with your customers

An article by InGame Director Stephen Knightly for the November 2010 issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

Computer games are bigger than Hollywood. It’s understandable why – games are the single most engaging medium available. Some go so far as saying they are addictive.

The potential of games is not to interrupt and grab attention, like some sort of banner ad on steroids, but to engage with a brand deeply. There are many creative opportunities to bring to life the intangible elements of brands. Games are effectively world simulations and have underlying values systems and rules that can be manipulated in your favour. If your brand philosophy celebrates good friends helping each other out, a game can subtly incentivise that behaviour. All it takes is some creativity in the game design.

That games are engaging is no secret to consumers – you need only look at the length of time we spend playing. According to a July Neilsen NetView study, online games (10.2% of time spent online) are now second only to social networking (22.7% of online time) as our most dedicated Internet activity. That’s ahead of email, videos and online auctions. This time is also focussed attention time, less prone to interruption.

The potential market: anyone

By the way, these gamers are not teenage boys hiding in their rooms. Three times more adult females play games than teenage boys. Games have diversified to embrace Facebook games, motion-controllers like the Nintendo Wii, mobile games and snack-sized casual games.

The Interactive New Zealand 2010 report found that 88.5% of households have a device for playing computer games and the average Kiwi game players is 33. They’re income earning, have families and are educated. 78% of gamers in New Zealand are over 18.

The ubiquity of games and the sophistication of game playing consumers have clear implication for brands. A disconnect will emerge and brands do themselves a disservice if their approach is to merely rippoff an existing game like Pong, PacMan or Punch the Monkey (all recent local examples). The audience, meanwhile, is comparing these ‘toe in the water’ executions with a highly-polished Facebook or a $50m Xbox game.

Here are four things I’ve learnt about making effective advergames.

Make your brand relevant to the game

The more your brand experience (not visual identity) is relevantly integrated into the gameplay experience, the greater recall and persuasiveness.

At the simplest levels, this means to merely sponsor a game, or slap a relevant theming on top. Burger King did this successfully a few years ago in the US with a series of Xbox games (bought instore, thus generating foot traffic) where you played the Burger King character from their TVCs. This approach communicates your brand personality, but what about your functional benefits and brand promise? Next you might insert products as items, abilities, powerups and obstacles (Red Bull could give you wings and Lynx could attract the girls, for example). A really creative game design infuses your brand experience and worldview, not by talking about it but by setting up a system where it is shown through the consequences of the player’s own choices. For instance, there are games out there that make statements about free will, the nature of marriage, generosity, technological progress – quite high-minded concepts.

A game does not stand alone

Many early adopters unrealistically expected their advergame to go viral by itself. Games are a great destination, but need to be part of an integrated campaign. I believe the strength of games is in brand building and relationship marketing, not grabbing attention. Social media integration is common, given the explosive success of social games (10% of all Facebook users play FarmVille). The online fantasy game EverQuest II used to allow you to place Pizza Hutt orders from inside the game.

Have an original hook

Advergames compete for audiences’ attention with high-budget entertainment games, and competing with identical games with bigger budgets doesn’t make sense. (Does the world really need another racing game?) I like the progress of V’s gaming strategy, which did some successful racing games integrated with promotions a few years ago and has moved on to introduce more original gameplay with its recent ‘eVolution’ game.

However, a budget of $50,000 to $100,000 could be enough to create a polished original game.

Make it fun

A game needs to be fun above all else, just as ads need creativity. Fun is the reason people play games, and if you sacrifice it for other objectives you lessen the impact.