Advergaming has grown into a powerful, design-dependent medium, embraced by everyone from fast-food giants to Bupa and the Science Museum. Margaret Robertson wields the joystick in the lucrative terrain between advertising, gaming and design
Advertisers and their design brethren have long used a variety of means for targeting consumers. Over the decades they’ve flattered them, frightened them, bribed them and entertained them, but increasingly they’re relying on a new tactic for connecting with their customers: they’re playing with them.
Advertising with a gaming element is nothing new, but for many years it was treated as a poor relation both by advertising agencies and game design studios, thanks to its reputation for poor-quality presentation, so-so design and shoddy gameplay. Advertisers hoped they would help make their sites more sticky, but all too often they ended up with a hastily rebranded clone of old-fashioned game which did nothing to enhance their reputation or communicate their brand values. But in recent years that’s started to change. Big success stories, like Wrigley’s Candystand site, which attracts five million visitors a month, and Burger King’s Xbox titles, which sold more than three million copies in the US have proven that so-called ‘advergames’ are a powerful new medium that offer designers many opportunities.
Alongside this jump in quality has come a jump in range. Initially, advergames were assumed to be best suited to products that targeted the mainstream gaming demographic – 16- to 30-year-old males – and so the sector was dominated by games selling beer, deodorant, action movies and burgers. But as the gaming audience has widened, so has the advergaming market, bringing in projects like the Science Museum’s excellent Launchball physics game, Sun Microsystem’s identity management simulation, and the charmingly simple Bupa World personality quiz. Each is visually arresting. Launchball uses bold colours and clean lines to update a retro vibe, Sun’s Be An Identity Hero uses animation and character design to bring traditional graphics to life, and Bupa proves that the ultra-minimal approach of their identity is both welcoming to non-gamers and ripe with personality.
These more sophisticated products illustrate the scale of the design challenge advergames can present and the range of opportunities they provide. These products don’t just have to be good games, they need to co-ordinate with the overall visual identity of the brand and communicate key aspects of its marketing drive. This, in turn, is changing how campaigns are being developed. Just as advertising agencies and their design colleagues previously had to consider how campaigns could be adapted to work on-line as well as in print, display and TV, they now also have to consider how compatible their ideas are with gaming. Orange’s animal campaign is a good case – the balloon animals were designed to be playful, a theme continued when the mobile operator launched its engaging Balloonacy, which it bills as the world’s first ever on-line balloon.
This need to integrate advergames into wider campaigns has produced a perhaps surprising trend for the sector to be dominated by multidisciplinary creative agencies rather than game developers. Very few game studios have looked to incorporate advergaming into their portfolios, with many choosing instead to look at implementing advertising billboards and product placement deals within their existing games. Big players like Ubisoft use this approach, giving Splinter Cell’s hero Sam Fisher a Sony Ericsson phone and surrounding him with posters for Nivea For Men. However, for the game developers who do make the jump, like Warwickshire-based Blitz Games, the company behind all three of Burger King’s Xbox titles, advergaming can prove a lucrative and reliable source of revenue.
And, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that Blitz was one of the few game studios to spot the value of the advergaming market – the UK is leading the field in supporting the kind of designer-dependent, cross-disciplinary teams needed to produce successful advergames. Recent best-in-breed design projects like Balloonacy and Launchpad are the work of London-based Poke and Preloaded respectively. And companies such as Brighton-based Little Loud attract commissions for major film projects like Iron Man and Kung Fu Panda, which take their design lead from the films they advertise – not always easy, since the games often have to be completed while the films are in production.
But possibly the best representative of how far advergames have come is McDonald’s. Back in 1993, the burger giant was one of the early backers of advergames, with the crude, cartoony McDonald’s Adventure Land accomplishing little more than ruining the reputation of its developer, Japanese videogame legend Treasure. Fifteen years later, McDonald’s has backed the hugely ambitious alternate reality game The Lost Ring to highlight its sponsorship of the 2008 Olympics.
Designed by London-based AKQA and ARG pioneer Jane McGonigal, this sprawling, Internet-based mystery has design and production standards you’d normally associate with a blockbuster movie – glamorous actors, real-world clues and a host of fake websites impeccably designed to mimic everything from YouTube accounts to corporate homepages. This new type of gaming has proved a hit since it was first used to promote the Stephen Spielberg film AI, with companies like Penguin Books, TV shows like Lost and – ironically – videogames like Halo using its marketing potential to great effect. McDonald’s is seeing a similar impact with The Lost Ring, with more than a million people already actively engaged with the project.
However, as so often happens in the on-line world, this carefully designed corporate campaign has been followed by a guerrilla one. If you Google ‘McDonald’s game’, you’ll find not a piece of McDonald’s-sanctioned advertising, but a protest game designed by Italian ‘persuasive game’ developer Molle Industria. This satir
• www.wetellstories.co.uk (Penguin ARG)
• www.mcvideogame.com (Molle Industria’s protest game)