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The curiosity of brands towards in-game advertising has been proportionally increasing with the popularity of video games. Initially drawn from a necessity to monetize mainly free-to-play or freemium mobile games, the in-game advertising market now aims to diversify in order to expand its audience and thus have an increasingly convincing offer to present to advertisers.
If the concept of in-game advertising mostly remains the same, namely integrating an ad, a product, or a logo in the game’s environment, the purchasing process and execution vary depending on the degree of integration. Indeed, the process to bring a brand into a video game medium can be easy and inexpensive, just as it can be complex and unaffordable.
Unfortunately, a strong increase in popularity for a tech can be accompanied by illusions and sometimes false hopes. Video games and especially in-game ads are no exception to the rule. When someone unfamiliar with the industry pictures an advertisement in a game, they will most likely project themselves into a mainstream title that the general public is familiar with, such as Fortnite. However, being present in a game of this magnitude requires considerable efforts and resources, often nipping the project in the bud.
But no need to despair yet, as there are multiple forms of in-game ads. Advertisers can find the right fit for their marketing strategies with the help of specialized agencies. As one of them, Hurrah.media the media entity of Hurrah.group will feature in this article an overview of in-game advertising categories, sorted by degree of integration, which conveniently ranks them from cheapest to most expensive to help you make informed decisions.
Video ads or standard banners
Long integrated into the advertising landscape, the traditional banner and video formats have already made their way into video games… Ads can appear when opening an application, in a menu, or simply as an old-fashioned pop-up between two levels (“where’s the damn cross?”). The degree of integration is limited to the medium on which ads are displayed: they’re not really in the game itself but in the medium that runs the game. This is ideal for reach and click-through objectives, the purchase cost will be similar to other traditional media outlets.
Rewarded ads can be found under the same category. They offer a valuable compensation to players, usually an extra life, in exchange for viewing a video ad. More than just giving users more game time, rewarded ads are often better integrated than banners. They only appear at a decisive moment: when you can no longer play. Therefore, they’re less frequent thus less intrusive. This format is interesting for video views and completion rate objectives.
Native ads blend themselves into the game to provide a much less intrusive experience than the aforementioned formats. They are most often found in games reproducing a real environment in which we are already used to be exposed to advertising :
- Sports environments (stadiums, tennis courts, etc.)
- Motorsports environments (F1, rally, etc.)
- Urban environments (bus shelters, outdoor displays, etc.)
Thus, some fairly popular PC and console games, such as Forza or Trackmania, now have in-game advertisements. Players are very accepting of this natural integration, as it can bring even more realism to the game. The immersion can be stronger in a football stadium surrounded by billboards, as fans are used to seeing when they watch an IRL (in real life) match.
However, advertisements should never interfere with the gaming experience. Advertisers have to keep in mind that this condition must be met absolutely. If a solution offers a more aggressive type of advertising content like the one found on other types of media, there is a good chance of consumer rejection. Especially if the game has already been bought by the player. EA UFC 4 faced some serious backlash when an advertisement for The Boys, an Amazon Prime series, appeared on full screen during a replay (Source). The discontent started on Reddit then quickly escalated to the point that EA had to react with an apology and the complete removal of the ad format from the game (Source).
A Reddit user summed up how native in-game ad should work :
“Give me a free game and you can stuff any ads you want, charge me a AAA price and I ask for a full game, in perfect working order, and with no interruptions. You are free to put an ad on a poster board in the background or have the guy in the corner drink a refreshing Mountain Dew, but don’t include intrusive ads.”
Most users are well aware that everything has a price: if you don’t buy the game, you pay for it differently. That’s why there are only a few games the size of EA UFC 4 that possess an ad inventory. For now, the vast majority of available in-game ads inventories are for mobile and factually less popular games. Therefore, the concerned audience won’t be the same. For example, the demographics of Trackmania and Candy Crush are going to be wildly different: one leaning towards “hardcore” pc gamers while the latter is more casual players, only interested in mobile games and not video games as a whole. This does not mean that one audience is better than the other, but that this nuance should be taken into account when thinking strategically.
Just like the previous format, it is possible to buy these advertisements directly or through programmatic. Specialized agencies offer extensive solutions to improve and facilitate purchasing from an in-game ads inventory, in order to make it as simple as any media buying solution. Therefore, native ads will include all the advantages of regular media buying campaigns, like the possibility to adjust the targeting along other criteria such as age, country, game category, etc.
Obviously, it is recommended to activate this type of campaign for visibility purposes only. Even if it were possible, we wouldn’t want the player to accidentally exit the game with an error click!
The lack of popular games offering an ad inventory prompted certain companies to bypass the system. If we can’t have access to the players through the game, maybe we can find ways outside of it. A fair amount of players will watch extra content related to the games they’re playing on streaming platforms like YouTube Gaming or Twitch.tv. Rather than having in-game ads, the advertisement appears directly in the content of a creator’s live feed with whom the advertiser or agency works. This may be reminiscent of virtual advertising in sports. This process allows ads to be displayed on billboards, around a football field for example, which is a convenient way for broadcasters to adjust the ads according to local regulations and sponsors.
The same goes for brands working with content creators: we can have multiple points of contact by adding a logo during a sponsored stream.
Therefore, this format is very promising for the future of in-game ads. However, it is worth noting that we go from an active audience that plays the game, to a passive audience that watches the game being played. But passive doesn’t mean inactive, viewers often notice details that their favorite streamer might have missed!
So far, there are only a few games available, and the environments that can integrate an ad are still limited. For example, CS:GO has a large choice of maps yet finding a relevant location while remaining discreet but visible on the broadcast is no easy task. The same goes for Battle Royale games where you have to look for the most strategic locations on very large maps.
Another complication on this ad format is the degree of involvement needed from the brand. While the previous formats can be activated independently of other marketing actions, in-stream advertising requires in most cases a greater commitment. The presence of a logo during a CS:GO tournament cannot be activated like a Facebook ad paid campaign. You have to be a partner of said tournament during which the in-stream ad will be just one of the brand’s many activations. This approach fits better for a more holistic sponsoring approach, with in-stream advertising being just one part of a larger operation, but a poster or billboard of a new product or service on a few content creators’ streams may just be an easier option.
In-game ads… or rather in-game presence
In-stream advertising requires more involvement resources-wise than the aforementioned types of ads but we can take its implication even further. Instead of displaying an advertisement in a game or a stream, a brand can consider being in the game. We move away from the notion of advertising in a media buying point of view towards broader advertising concepts. But there’s a thin line between each format and some advertising agencies are now able to offer a range of services that include all the levers mentioned in this article. Therefore, it is interesting to see what can be done with in-game ads and compare it with the other formats we discussed. Additionally, being in the game is often seen as the figurehead of in-game advertising, while its preparation and execution are more often than not the most complex part of the process.
But often does not mean all the time. Depending on the medium and the level of integration, being in a game can be done without having to commit too many resources. There are hybrid formats between a native ad and an in-game presence. For example in Forza, it is possible to customize clothes or even personalize a car with, among other possibilities, adding branded stickers.
However, most of the examples result from larger activations where the in-game presence is not the most important activation of the campaign. We can cite partnerships like Rocket League and Hot Wheels, an almost obvious collaboration as the two universes combine perfectly. This resulted in a premium DLC that includes 3 new cars available in the game. The partnership also offered free additions like the “Hot Wheels Rivals Arena”, a rebranded version of an already existing arena (Source)
On another note, after an incredible collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Riot Games for the League of Legends 2018 Worlds Championship (Source), the activation was finalized with the cherry on top for the game’s players: the addition of Louis Vuitton branded prestige skins featuring the iconic LV logo on two champions, Senna and Qiyana (a skin designates the customized appearance of a character).
An in-game presence can also take on the appearance of product placements as we traditionally know them in movies or on TV. In Death Stranding, it was as easy as giving a Monster Energy drink to good old Sam to perk him up and increase his endurance. (Video)
More recently, HP supported the creation of the game Road 96 through its “OMEN presents” initiative. During the adventure through the fictional lands of Petria, we can find Alex hacking the world using his Hewlett-Packard mini computer, or mixing an OMEN Vitality drink to gain energy (Video), but spoiler alert if you plan on playing the game!
Finally there’s Fortnite, where a partnership represents more than add-ons or product placement since the brand must have the legitimacy to unite with the game, but also a well-established marketing strategy. Disney, through its Marvel brand, quickly understood the value to position itself on a medium as powerful as Fortnite, which tends to go beyond the limits of video games.
All these activations have a cost that is impossible to quantify as the value depends on the project but it is undeniable that being part of the game requires not only time but most importantly, financial, technical, and human resources. This is not a one-off campaign that can be activated independently, it has to be a part of a global, wide-scale strategy, in which being in the game is not the most important lever of the operation. It also requires the approval and cooperation of the editor and developers of the game. In addition, it is worth mentioning that the reach of this type of campaign will be international. There is no possibility to aim for a single local market with the addition of a geolocated targeting: all the players will be exposed to this ad.
Ultimately, there is no good or bad in-game advertising. If we had to summarize the article, it is, first of all, a question of means and objectives. Which markets will be targeted? Who do we want to communicate to? What objectives are we aiming for? Etc.
Traditional and native formats provide more flexibility and can exist by themselves. The integration will be limited and the presence will depend on the budget, just like any media buying campaign. Conversely, a heavier integration in a game will require more resources. It can sometimes be a long and tedious process but it will bring unique results.
Therefore, there is no lack of solutions to promote a brand or a product through a game. However, as a solution always meets a need, it will depend on the marketing objectives, the project, the budget, and most importantly: the advertiser. This is why it is necessary to be accompanied by experts who have solid knowledge of the gaming and esports environment, its audiences, and how to best reach them. This support can be found internally or through hiring a specialized agency like Hurrah.media.
This article was originally published in French on Level256.