Video games have often featured advertisements, but what happens when the game itself becomes the ad? Increasingly, we're starting to see advertising agencies create iOS games that exist purely to strengthen the brands of their clients -- games whose sole purpose is advancing product. What does this mean for video games as a whole, and do we want this kind of intrusion in our lives?
"Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK."
Don Draper, the main character in AMC's Mad Men, said that. He also said that advertising is knowing success is dependent on something more than shoeshine. You must instil your brand in the hearts and minds of prospective customers. Your product must spring to mind when it comes time to consume. Customers must love your brand or, at worst, be aware of it. Advertising makes money make the world go round. Magazines, television websites -- almost every form of media has ad revenue to thank for its very existence.
And now video games.
Because increasingly video games have come to represent a fresh medium for advertisers to exploit. It began auspiciously -- McDonald's featuring extensively in Global Gladiators, Fight Night Round 3 using the Burger King as a coach -- clumsy first steps. Now innovative minds are opening up to the power of the games themselves, resulting in a whole new sub-economy of games as advertisement, games whose sole purpose for existence is brand engagement -- a new way to wrestle dollars from your wallet.
The nature of advertising
"Through games," begins Iain McDonald, "the nature of advertising is going to become more honest and authentic."
Iain McDonald is the founder of Amnesia, an advertising agency that was "born digital". At one point Amnesia played host to clients such as Pepsi, Xbox, Disney, IKEA and Warner before being acquired by the world's largest agency, AvenueA|Razorfish. That company is now called Amnesia-Razorfish and has a reputation for creating the most cutting edge, interactive advertising in the industry.
"We do a lot of the same things that a traditional agency would do," begins Iain, "in terms of thinking about brands -- how to reach the consumers, how to keep them engaged -- but we also build technology. We work with all these cool devices and we build hardware and software solutions. Microsoft Surface, we're very involved in that. We're building things with Kinect for interactive shop windows.
"We are kind of like the agency of the future! Our tagline is 'Invent the Digital Future'."
Iain believes that the rapid rise of mobile technology and app culture has created a massive opportunity for gaming as branding. As video games slip into the mainstream undetected, the temptation to use that expanding medium as a branding exercise inevitably follows. It makes sense: consumers are evolving, and companies must adjust to these new habits.
"There certainly has been a change overall," says Iain, "and clients have seen a fundamental change in people in terms of how they behave and what kind of content they're digesting.
“Mobile has become so important, and so have games. If you look at stats around what people are actually doing, clearly the most popular apps, and most used apps, are games. And generally advertisers tend to follow eyeballs.
“And it's not just about finding cracks in the content for advertising messages. Now most brands are thinking 'well, what can we actually do here?' If people love games so much how can we actually start to utilise this?”
Translating the goals
Utilising this new consumer habit is the job of Wil Monte. As the owner of Millipede, his role is to translate the branding goals of clients into something concrete -- something that is tangible and can be played. He develops the games that transform the hearts and minds of consumers.
“Brands are just starting to realise the potential,” claims Wil. “You can pay all this money for a friggin’ 30 second TV ad that hits millions of people, but only a fraction of people care about, or you can set up a game, target your audience and engage them for minutes at a time -- and do it with good games.”
Millipede is a company with aspirations. Wil hopes to eventually head up a company that creates its own games, like a Firemint or Halfbrick, but in the current climate developing video games for brands such as Tennis Australia pays the bills. It keeps the company afloat and his employees in work.
“We’re a pretty small development outfit; started out as Flash developers,” says Wil. “We always had a passion for games and have been really educating our clients on the benefits of using games to help sell their products. It’s really started to take off in the last year or so, especially when it comes to mobile.
“About 80 per cent of what we do now is games, and through this work for hire stuff we’re able to bankroll our own IP, which is what we’re slowly trying to get up and running. So it would be awesome to one day do our own stuff. But until then we’re just working hard to keep our doors open."
According to Wil, the process of creating a game built for advertising isn’t all that different from creating a regular mobile or Flash title -- the only difference is the parameters set by clients.
“Well I suppose the process is similar, except that you’ve got a lot of restraints thrown on you straight away,” he says. “There’s always budget restraints, time restraints -- that’s agencies for you! They always want it tomorrow! It’s insane, but just working within those parameters is good, because then you can work that discipline into your own stuff. When we’re working on our own games we get into the habit of just adding more and more features, and the budget you impose on yourself just goes completely out of the window. With all these parameters you start to get used to working like that, so when it comes to doing your own stuff you create your own parameters and you’re more able to stick to it.
“Working with agencies you quickly learn that shit costs money! That’s easier to see when you’ve got a brief and a client only willing to pay X amount of dollars for the product.”
As marketing manager at Rip Curl, Dane Sharp is one of those people setting the parameters, but he believes he has good reason. When he decided to commission the creation of The Search, a surfing game designed to promote Rip Curl's brand, priorities included making sure its new range featured heavily -- its surfboards, its gear -- another priority was budget. But mainly the game was developed because Rip Curl saw a gap in the market and decided to own that space.
"We made The Search for lots of reasons," begins Dane. "Our audience and target demographic is youth to adults, so obviously anything that takes up their attention -- music, games -- is always on our radar. Our entire marketing platform is broad and tries to cover everything. So like most companies digital is a priority for us and has been for the last couple of years."
The idea of using a surfing game to help sell surfing products may have been obvious, but no-one had made a proper surfing game since the Kelly Slater series.
"Surfing games have been popular, but are few and far between, compared to even Skateboard games," says Dane. "There has only been a couple of big surfing games like California Games and the Kelly Slater game. We were getting involved in mobile and digital devices, so with that in mind we went at it. We went to a bunch of different companies and got started."
One of the companies approached was LOMAH Studios, an independent agency run by Steve Molloy. According to Steve, while Dane was receptive to the idea of gaming as advertising, less progressive heads in Rip Curl's marketing department needed convincing.
"We were approached by Rip Curl, because they were launching a new summer range," says Steve. "We thought, instead of giving them catalogues, because we've done that for years, why don't we engage with what people do? I spend most of my time next to my iPhone -- I sleep next to my iPhone and the first thing I do when I wake up is check my iPhone. I'm not really spending my whole day looking at an ad in a mag.
"I told them that this was a way of indirectly getting your range out to a vast number of people -- and your surfboards, they're in the game. Indirectly people begin to know about your surfboards through gaming.
"We did a study of Kelly Slater's Pro Surfing, and I said wouldn't it be a great idea if we could make a game like that for mobile. We gave them a business review study that showed how the Kelly Slater game helped build his brand, and it really helped Quiksilver as well. We told the guys from Rip Curl that we would manage it -- this is how it's going to work, and we're going to have Mick Fanning in it."
"Even then they still needed convincing," continues Steve. "It was all, 'we don't have budget, we haven't done gaming before, how do we know if it's going to work'. We wrote up a huge amount of proposals and case studies, but this was in 2009. At the beginning when we started doing this sort of thing, we had to convince people, but nowadays with the sheer popularity of mobile games, more and more companies are interested."
Dane was one of the few people at Rip Curl who didn't need convincing -- to him the benefits of marketing through video games was obvious.
"The amount of times I've got a cool app and actually shown up to ten people -- my friends, my family -- that sort of thing can't really be measured," claims Dane. "What I hope has happened, and what I expect will have happened, is this: if a kid at school has the app, by the end of the day another three or four of them have played it. And that's great for our brand -- not only are they purchasing it, but they get to play it and be engaged with it. In our game you can choose different board shorts, different wet suits, different surf boards -- that's a high level of engagement."
And for brands like Rip Curl, engagement is a major keyword.
"I'm a big fan of marketing that tries to engage or involve people, or really just gives people what they want," he continues. "I've worked at Rip Curl for eight years, and I worked for magazines and newspapers before that, so I've seen how marketing and advertising has changed from all those push messages -- look at this ad or this billboard -- to this newish type of marketing with social media and video games.
"It's marketing in the same way that a magazine ad is, but if you do it right you're giving people what they want. With this game I did a lot of research, and a lot of people were asking why there weren't more surfing games. To some degree I tried to listen to that. It's better than just making a billboard that you see when you drive along -- you don't need a billboard do you? But people want games."
Blurring the lines
We're reminded of Iain McDonald's earlier point: video games have the potential to make advertising more honest. But what does that mean? Does that mean integrating brand messaging with content we care about, or does that mean being more explicit about the separation? If it's the former then, yes, a case can be made. If it's the latter, well... the line between the content we consume and the branding that pays for it is set to become increasingly blurred.
But Iain believes that pushing a brand mentality is acceptable -- if the content is well made and relevant.
"I don't think anyone is going to play a game that is going to force them to buy something," he says. "Fundamentally that's not a good approach and remember that advertisers do tend to use whatever tricks they can to get in front of people. I think that any brand that can genuinely reach out and do things that are completely awesome, without having to sell stuff, will become a brand that people love. You know it may well be that providing content that's just interesting without trying to sell stuff may actually end up selling things!
"And games are much more than just games, they're things we talk about and things we share. But you have to do something that's genuinely good, and playable -- and interesting enough to win somebody over to avoid the hard sell. It's a completely different level of thinking about how brands develop a relationship. It's less about advertising and more about experiences and having a relationship with somebody. And you don't do that by playing dirty tricks."
We get the sense that this is the kind of 'honesty' Iain is referring to: integrating a brand strategy into content isn't a problem as long as the content is well made and people want to consume it. That's the message -- whether you accept this message depends on how tolerant you are of advertising infiltrating your everyday consumption of media in a more subtle manner.
We put it to Rip Curl's Dane Sharp, does the subtle integration of branding into video games make advertising more honest, or is it a more disingenuous way of reaching audiences.
"I don't think anyone ever says that they want advertising, but they'll say they want games on their mobiles," argues Dane. "That's when we see a chance as an advertiser -- these people want a game and we can do something about this. Of course we're going to put Rip Curl products in there, because at the end of the day I'm in the marketing department. But I think it's a bit more fair, a bit more... honest? Yeah, I think that's a fair call. It's a bit cooler as well I think."
For the creatives involved in the development of the apps blurring the edge between games and advertisements is a huge priority. "The main thing is that we don’t want the game to feel like an ad, although that’s sometimes unavoidable," says Wil Monde of Millipede. "Ideally we want people to be engaging with the brand kinda not knowing they're engaging with the brand. So it's a really fine line -- we don't want to push it down people's throats but it's a bit of a tightrope. A good ad is something of an art."
Steve from Lomah believes that the line between advertising and game may become so blurred it'll cease to exist. "I would say in the next five years mobile is going to grow at a massive rate," says Steve. "There will be better apps, better agencies. A lot of these agencies are going to become game studios to a certain extent. Game studios like Halfbrick and Firemint are probably going to be used by these companies. I reckon some of these ad agencies may even buy one of these studios in the next five years.
"Ad agencies are going to have to start building up relationships with app developers and increasingly you might start to see a fine line between who's really coming up with the ideas for games. We'll all see some overlaps pretty soon."
Perhaps sooner than we think -- it was only a fortnight ago that Halfbrick released Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots, a branded reskin of Fruit Ninja prepared for the release of the Puss in Boots movie. A fine line indeed.
The revolution will be televised
According to Iain McDonald, the type of advertising we're currently seeing through mobile games is the prototype, and it won't be long until we see it infiltrate other corners of our life. First stop is the humble television.
"I think over the next five years we'll see more change than we've seen in the last 10, just in terms of technology. When we look at the next 18 months we still think that mobile is going to be phenomenally important, like we've never seen it before. And we also strongly believe that TV is set to be revolutionised -- we haven't really seen a proper 'smart' TV set yet. So in terms of where things are going, it's not just about sort of playing a game and enjoying playing games, it's more the devices themselves. We expect to see everything fundamentally alter over the next couple of years.
Iain expects gamification -- the application of game design techniques to typically non-gaming process -- to play a huge role in that fundamental change.
"Instead of just whacking products in front of people," he begins, "brands are going to attempt to create relationships with people through things like gamification, and earn the right to have a conversation instead of simply demanding it by whacking an ad in front of people. It's about gaining respect -- and gamification and gaming is a place where brands can actually do that.
"It's a huge opportunity and I think there is a long journey ahead; it'll probably be about four or five years before we actually see any form of maturity around brands before advertisers really understand what that means.
"We're really at the start of that journey, not the end."
We're ruined because we get these things
Advertising and branding has infiltrated every avenue of our lives -- that much is blatantly obvious -- but gaming, outside of a select handful of examples, has remained largely untouched. But now it's the proud vanguard of a new type of stealth marketing designed to earn your trust via a variety of different means.
And it's not just games. I click onto Facebook; I'm greeted by a horde of pics. A large number of these pics are actually of Coke cans or bottles, emblazoned with the names of those who are tagged on them. Share a Coke with Steven, share a Coke with Jessica.
It's a great marketing campaign -- put peoples names on your product then encourage people to tag friends with the name on the bottle, upload to Facebook. Share, laugh, engage with the brand without even knowing it. It plays to our narcissism in the best possible way.
Part of me takes pleasure in the sheer genius of the idea, but another resents it -- the way branding has stealthily wormed its way into my Facebook news feed, into my social life. I realise I'm angry because I'm being sold what I want, angry because I want it and it's being sold to me.
I'm reminded again of Don Draper from Mad Men, and another quote...
"He'll smile with wisdom, content that he realised the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had."