When it comes to in-game advertising, how do you draw the line between ad and game if the ad is a sidequest?
Massive, Microsoft's in-game ad agency, recently hooked up with Ubisoft to place ads for Paramount's film 'Tropic Thunder' in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. As in-game ads continue to proliferate alongside increasing development budgets, this is not at all an unusual occurrence -- but when you look at what's different about this particular campaign, a few interesting wrinkles appear.
Ads As Game Design
Massive global sales VP Jay Sampson calls it a "game-within-a-game." It places a series of branded clues into the game environment that players pursue, creating a scavenger hunt sidequest. The ultimate reward is a mobile text number players input for entry into a prize drawing.
"There's kind of a uniqueness... to first-person shooters, in that they lend themselves nicely to all kinds of games-within-a-game, from an ads perspective," says Sampson.
Since FPS mechanics generally require players to observe and be engaged with their environment, a simple background billboard is a less-effective way to advertise in this kind of game, Sampson says -- but that environmental attention can be leveraged to place an ad campaign among the same sorts of clues players follow to achieve other gameplay objectives.
Gamers have grown accustomed to seeing billboard ads in racing titles, or, say, athletic wear branding in sports games -- and studies have shown that many users find that this branding enhances the realism in games that are simulations of real sports arenas.
But in this situation, advertising moves from background asset into the game design itself -- and it was Ubisoft who spearheaded the sidequest design.
Is There An Intrusion?
The 'Tropic Thunder' campaign integrated into Vegas 2 was "really the brainchild of Ubisoft," says Sampson, who calls the publisher "the most progressive publisher in the in-game ad space." It was designed, with input from Massive, to integrate into the game for the purpose of selling ads; then Paramount, who was Massive's first customer back in 2006, signed on to use the quest structure to promote its film.
But when ad becomes game, does Sampson worry gamers will find it intrusive? He says the sidequest is wholly optional, and designed not to disrupt players who don't make the initial decision to engage with its chain of events -- and with the potential prizes up for grabs for players who pursue the optional quest, he hopes players will find it rewarding.
"I guess I view this as kind of a value add for those that want to self-select into the game-within-the-game," says Sampson. "For those that don't, it's not going to bother anybody, as any consumer can avoid messaging in any other media format."
Platform Advantage, Or Disadvantage?
Also interestingly, the fact that Microsoft-owned Massive currently serves ads only on the Xbox 360 and PC has the potential to make this a platform issue.
Users of those platforms may enjoy the opportunity to "self-select," as Sampson says, into a prize giveaway driven by game mechanics, and prefer a multiplatform SKU that allows them to do just that.
On the other hand, users that may prefer to avoid the entire issue have the option of buying the same game, 'Tropic Thunder'-free, on the PlayStation 3. But Sampson says that Massive aims to work with Sony eventually, too.
"I think the PS3 is a brilliant platform," he says. "We're in talks with Sony frequently on a number of issues.. while we are a Microsoft-owned company, and I realize there's competition between consoles, we just say, 'can we provide, through advertising, value back to the publisher, perhaps to the platform, and hopefully do cool stuff for the gamer?"
"If the gamer doesn't like what we do, then it's a house of cards."
Massive's data finds that an average of 70 percent of gamers have agreed with statements that past dynamic in-game ads "contributed to realism," "fit the games" in which they appeared, and looked "cool."
Says Sampson, "If the environment is ad-relevant, they actually prefer to see real brands and real messaging that mirrors their terrestrial experience, versus fake stuff."