Meteor Games’ Brandenberg: Social Gaming Still in Infancy

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gamer1.jpgADOTAS – Shortly after selling Hydra, the performance advertising network he found and headed up since 2003, Zac Brandenberg found a new ship to helm in very different waters. Last month Brandenberg assumed the position of CEO at social game developer Meteor Games, maker of Facebook sensation Island Paradise.

ADOTAS: You founded performance marketing network Hydra and served as CEO until it was acquired earlier this year. What interested you in social gaming and Meteor Games in particular? How has steering Meteor Games been different than helming Hydra?

Brandenberg: Meteor Games was founded in late 2007 by close friends of mine, Adam and Donna Powell, who incidentally were responsible for one of the social gaming industry’s watershed properties, Neopets. Over the course of the last few years, I have had an opportunity to get involved in the business, first as an investor and board member, and now in an operating capacity as CEO.

Although I have always had an interest in digital media, one of the most intriguing aspects of the social gaming space is that despite how exciting and fast moving it is, a tremendous upside still exists as it continues to evolve and mature. With the popularity of Facebook and other gaming-oriented social platforms, this is an exciting time to be in the gaming business.

Equally, the creative and entrepreneurial spirit Adam and Donna have instilled in Meteor since its beginning made for a perfect fit given my own professional history and my existing relationship with them and their team.

Although Meteor Games is in a different field than Hydra, there are the same sorts of requirements and responsibilities for managing a business as it prepares to move to the next level of its development. Right now one of our main priorities is to grow our team through the addition of smart, creative, and hungry people who “get” what Meteor Games is all about and where we intend to go in the future. The better our team is, the better our games will be.

At the end of the day, I want to be surrounded by people who will not only push me, but push Meteor Games – and the industry as a whole — to all new heights.

What’s attracting brands to the social gaming and how can they get the most out of marketing in this medium?

Social games represent an opportunity for advertisers to reach large quantities of engaged consumers; it’s rather simple in that audience size and the opportunity to align with an existing consumer affinity attracts advertising dollars. In addition, the demand for advertising space is not a one-way street; as long as the games remain free to play, developers are going to look at and aggressive pursue creative means of monetizing their titles beyond virtual currency sales.

The social gaming space is in its infancy; with such a significant focus on virtual currency sales (either through direct payments or via incentivized offers/surveys). With no significant, established advertising opportunities available, you see the larger advertisers and agencies waiting on the sidelines to see how it plays out.

Meanwhile you’ll have those that do get their feet wet, testing campaigns via networks who are focused on fitting a new client into their model — molding a branded client into a direct response offer that can be incentivized or developing an engagement campaign in the same style, as one that can be featured in the same type of placement as a Netflix.

The future of in-game advertisements is much better than what we’ve seen so far; the industry is going to continue to grow, and that growth is going to drive demand from a variety of advertisers looking to access the engaged masses social gaming provides. Yet for brands looking to immediately get the most out of promotions within the social gaming world, they need to realize that it’s not going to come in the way of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Some are going to get a better bang for their buck with branded in-game items or a more traditional immersive/sponsored advertisement while others, particularly brands that represent diversified product streams like Disney, are going to see greater value in using social gaming as a unique distribution arm for their content in order to drive brand awareness and additional product sales.

Do you think brands are more likely to develop their own games or integrate themselves in established ones? What are the advantages/disadvantages of either?

We are going to see the presence of both, but the type of branding/integration is going to very much depend on the product or company and what their end goals are. Regardless of the route they choose, there is likely to be a blurring of the lines over what a company developed/branded game is vs. deep brand integration.

Take a manufacturer like Ford for example. It’s unlikely they would launch a heavy-handed “Ford” branded game, at least not with the same level of complexity that more and more of the newer games are approaching. But companies like Ford have been in the traditional product placement market for a long time, and are inevitably going to look at integration into an already established game (such as sponsoring a pick-up truck in a ranch-style game) or even a new property that they might feel would help them reach their target market.

Anything that cultivates eyeballs and social games not only has to attract the audience, but also drive engagement and retention characteristics as well. Social games appeal to advertisers as an opportunity to get their message across to key consumers. That said, certain companies will choose to embrace fully branded games, but I think that’s more likely to be those companies like Disney or other studios with unique entertainment driven intellectual properties that can be developed into relatable and engaging storylines.

Obviously, the advantage of a brand owner-developed game is that the brand has full control over its content and positioning, as well as the revenue opportunities available to it. However, a poorly executed game could damage a brand by associating it with the wrong content, alienating existing or prospective customers, etc.

Conversely, should they choose a simpler integration, the brand can benefit from all sorts of increased awareness and associated affinity with the game it is integrating with; the downsides would come into play if the game owner mishandles the promotion, the content of the game itself later changes and damages any brands associated with it, technological issues prevent the issuance of branded virtual items paid for with real dollars, and more.

As more in-game advertising appears, what effect will it have on game developers and the games themselves?

In a best case scenario, advertisements and sponsorships will only enhance the gaming experience for players and bring them a unique benefit, whether that be some real-world perk or simply the ability to engage with a brand they desire. For developers, more advertising dollars should help them grow and dedicate more resources to producing better games, which ultimately will benefit players as well.

The scenario you want to avoid is a game that is all advertisement and zero substance. Games that are developed as nothing more than marketing ploys achieve nothing other than to harm the brand’s reputation and credibility among its consumers while embarrassing the developer of the property.

What level are you on Island Paradise, Meteor’s most popular game? What’s your favorite crop and critter? How much time do you spend playing?

I actually started playing Island Paradise early on with my wife. Right now, we’re closing in on level 53. I would have to say that the new Monkey is probably one of my favorite animals in the game, but I have been partial to the rare animals you can obtain after your friends find them first. Personally, I think it’s a great way to entertain yourself, but also stay connected and compete with your friends in a casual manner.

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