Surveying the In-Game Horizon

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The iron is hot for in-game advertising. Just this week, two stories broke which give credence to the notion that the industry has come in to its own in the first quarter of 2006: Microsoft positioning for a buyout of Massive, Inc., and IGA Worldwide’s acquisition of Sony’s Chris Deering and Omnicom’s Bruce Nelson. Along with rival Double Fusion, Massive and IGA are riding the cutting edge of this exciting new medium for ad delivery.

But in-game advertising is still a long way from becoming a perfect science. Other ad mediums have the advantage of the consumer expecting to find their message when they turn on the TV, computer, or read an article. Game audiences lack this immediate commercial orientation; they are more likely to think of ads as an unwarranted and unprecedented intrusion into their experience. This forces advertisers, in-game agencies and game developers to be flexible and experimental in their approach.

“Gaming, like TV, is an entertainment medium—people’s emotional barriers are down when they’re playing games,” IGA Worldwide’s CEO Justin Townsend tells ADOTAS. “The combination of the effectiveness of the space and the reach makes it a very attractive proposition for advertisers.”

IGA is currently working with developer Simbin to deliver ads in the popular racing title GTR, and a new series based on the World Touring Car Championships. Sports and racing games have been one of the most accessible genres for in-game advertisers, mainly because they simulate environments which are ad-heavy in real life, such as race tracks and stadiums. Instead of being alienated by ads in these titles, many gamers embrace them as contributing to part of the overall realism of the experience.

Counting on this trust from their audience, IGA has developed an advanced philosophy of how to attract their fleeting attention within an environment as unique as a race track. “If you’re racing around an oval track in an Indie car, you’re gonna see lots of sponsorship boards flashing by at a very quick speed,” Townsend explains. “Your exposure to that is going to be minimal—not long enough of a time for somebody to be exposed to an ad and for it to be memorable. So, rather than putting it on a long straight, the ads that you want to be seen by the gamers are going to be in the sharp turns, for example, where people slow down and start braking. It’s about location and contextual relevance.”

For its racing titles, IGA is bringing in a number of advertisers in automotive, foodstuffs, and apparel categories.

Massive, Inc. is under development with another major sports franchise, 2K Sports, and is planning for their upcoming release of Major League Baseball 2K6. Rather than static billboards and other displays which cluttered the landscape of past sports games, Massive and 2K6 will work to incorporate dynamic and fresh brand messaging into the game, mirroring the evolving opportunities for sponsors in live-action sports coverage.

“We are thrilled to work with MLBAM, MLBPA and 2K Sports to leverage and fully extend the advertising potential of this great franchise,” said Mitch Davis, CEO of Massive, in a press statement. “Major League Baseball has already brought significant innovation to advertising in live sports; together, we will now do the same for their video game properties.”

One advertiser has bypassed major game brands and agencies altogether, and is taking the appeal of the medium into their own hands. Although the project is still under wraps, Burger King will soon release three Xbox games which completely revolve around their brand and mascot, the creepily surreal King character. They will sell the fighting, action, and racing titles out of their own fast-food franchises for a mere four dollars—roughly the price of a Whopper.

What is the most effective way to market to gaming audiences? There’s certainly no surefire answer right now, but all of the major players are slowly learning through a process of guess-and-check. As gamers are increasingly exposed to brand messages while they blast away aliens and speed down the racetrack, they will undoubtedly grow more responsive and welcoming to in-game advertisers.

“In-game advertising is too early to be a perfect science,” Townsend admits. “There needs to be acceptance on the advertising side, and there needs to be a common currency. How do you generate a large consumer reach within the networks, and how do you measure the CPM?”

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