Advertising in Video Games

Gaming has changed a lot over the last few generations. Aside from the obvious (mechanics, graphics, storyline), today’s video game industry is now one of the fastest growing industries in the world, generating almost $135 billion in 2018 alone. 

Both its profit and high exposure makes the gaming industry an appealing one, and many brands are tackling the tricky tactic of in-game advertising. This is still a relatively new form of advertising and comes with its own payoffs and challenges. 

The problems…

To get an effective reaction from an advert, you need to capture the audience’s attention. First problem – people’s attention spans are, well, limited. Second problem – your ad is competing with another incredibly engrossing form of engagement, a video game.

This problem is actually backed up with an explanatory theory on cognitive processing called The limited capacity model of motivated mediated message processing (LC4MP). It shows that if people are oversaturated with stimuli their processing aptitude decreases, meaning they’re less likely to focus on more than one thing. So if someone’s playing a game, they’ll probably focus on one specific task e.g. driving, fighting monsters, rather than other factors like the in-game adverts.

On top of this, gamers are a notoriously tricky audience to please. If they feel like they’re being duped or short-changed, they’re quick to share their disappointment, and this can have a knock-on effect on the companies involved.

Developer Remedy Entertainment made this mistake in their 2010 action-adventure game Alan Wake. The game consists of players roaming through a tense and haunting landscape, interspersed with stealth and combat missions that require both skill and nerve. That’s of course until they’re faced with a billboard for Energizer batteries, complete with pink mascot bunny, and a 30-second advertisement for phone conglomerate Verizon Wireless. The whiplash of moods cuts through the otherwise immersive gameplay and, while not ruining the game, definitely disturbs its overall effect.


The right market…

Right now it’s not sounding great for in-game adverts. However, these are just the challenges marketers have to face, and there are some ways of getting around this.

For example, while some games can’t get away with overt advertising, others can quite effectively. Sports fans are used to seeing banner ads framing the field, so game series like Fifa have a ‘get out of jail free card’ when it comes to statement logos. In fact, a study on six EA sports games, all containing product placements for Gatorade, found that money spent on the brand increased by 24% from households that played the games, compared to those that didn’t.

Mixed in…

Some series manage to toe the line between openness and subtlety, using effective marketing that not only blends in with the gameplay but actually enriches it. This is definitely the case for cult classic game series, Yakuza. Set in a fictionalised version of Tokyo, a commercial city dense with advertisements, the game showcases both real and fake products, never overloading the player with too much at once. For a game that’s rooted in an exaggerated version of reality, having the protagonist order a real brand of whisky or pass an actual club in Tokyo only adds more detail, creating a more immersive experience.

This idea is backed up by yet another theory called The Excitation-transfer theory. The idea is that one stimulus will amplify the response to another, so if in-game adverts fit within the game environment, it will increase user-engagement in both the game and the ad.


All out…

There are always people, brands and games that just go too far. The ones where subtlety is simply a suggestion, and one that’s best ignored. This mindset is perfectly illustrated with the creation of the M&M games – a series by Simon & Schuster Interactive that generated 8 games across a range of consoles. With promotional imagery pasted across each frame, the series acted as an extended ad, with classic platform elements seeming more of an afterthought. While the games garnered a collection of fans, critic reviews were unanimously and unsurprisingly negative. Openly flaunting a product with no previous association to video games is rarely a good move, and the end result is more likely to be a mess of poor functioning gameplay and clunky storylines. As a Gamezone review accurately stated:

‘Your kids may love M&M’s, but there is no chance they will derive anything from this game but the urge to quit and play something else.’ 

But where M&M failed, skittles succeeded…somewhat. Simon & Schuster Interactive decided to tackle another confectionary brand with their 2002 release, Darkened Skye. This time, Skittles. Based in a medieval style fantasy landscape, the game follows protagonist Skye and her gargoyle sidekick as they fight the evil wizard Necroth. So far so standard RPG, but the inclusion of magic attacks powered by skittles created a jarring contrast.


Reviews were mixed to positive, with many criticising the lack-luster gameplay and awkward tie in while praising the script and humour. Would the game have been more successful without the Skittles association? It’s hard to tell. What’s clear is that if a game has enough positive elements a commercial collaboration can be accepted. 

Pay me…

While many hardcore gamers will despair at the thought, there’s a growing market of casual app, play on the train, gamers (think Candy Crush and its numerous spin-offs). While perhaps not respected in the same way as immersive, story-lead games, these apps come with their own unique set of advertising hurdles.

With most app games either free or just a few pounds to buy, many app developers rely heavily on in-game advertising for profit. This has fueled the emergence of pop-ups midway through gameplay, intrusive banners at the top of the screen, and suggestions to download and play another game after each completed level. Customer feedback is swift, merciless, and unsurprisingly not filled with 5-star reviews.

However, some apps are aware of these issues and use a simple tactic to get around them – rewards. Few have done it as subtlety and charmingly as the free to download Tsuki, a game that follows the day to day life of a city-stressed rabbit moving to the countryside. In-game currency allows you to buy food and items for your rabbit protagonist, and every so often you’ll be visited by an owl (who else?) who’ll offer you some in exchange for watching a 30-second advert.

According to Facebook IQ rewarded videos can actually trigger positive behaviour, with audiences feeling like they’ve received something for free. If a game gives their audience the choice to watch or ignore these reward videos, they can even gain an uplift of 10-15% in the app store ratings.

Essentially, people are more likely to tolerate ads if they feel there’s a benefit to them, and even more so if they’re given control over how often they see them.

As a treat…

Overall, ads in games aren’t really put in for the enjoyment of the player. They’re usually a necessity, especially for small game developers who rely on the payout. However, occasionally, the inclusion of an outside company can actually draw in a customer.

One of the few game series that managed to walk this fine line was the EA game series The Sims. In case you’ve missed this worldwide phenomenon, The Sims is a life simulation video game series that allows the player to take on a god-like position. Create your sim, build them a house, and run their life as you please.

Numerous expansion packs allow players to collect new clothes and house accessories, and are popular with Sims’ fans. EA made the decision to collaborate with H&M, IKEA, and most recently Moschino, for three of these packs. Digitising the brand’s real-life stock and creating new pieces not only let players match with their Sim (if they’re into that kind of thing) and boost the somewhat small collection of clothing, but made the game just that bit more lifelike – perfect for a self-proclaimed life simulation game.

Credit: EA Games

The future…

Whether you’re on board with it or not, gaming and ads is a marriage that won’t end any time soon. The more companies learn about human interaction and engagement, the more likely they are to create genuinely effective in-game adverts. Whether you’re scoring goals or powering up with Skittles, where there are video games, there will be ads. 

Source: Exploring Player Responses towards In-Game Advertising: The Impact of Interactivity by Laura Herrewijn -Ghent University, University of Antwerp