Take a look at modern video games and you’ll see they’re heading in one very distinct direction, virtual reality. Now sure, that’s an obnoxious term thrown mostly because it sounds cool. “Virtual reality… wow… edgy.” But the fact remains that video games are more or less striving to give their audience an ever more realistic (even if fantastic) world to play in. Why does this matter to us in Viral Marketing? Simple. The real world has ads. So to accurately portray the real world many games now need ads too. We’re not talking splash screens when the game boots up, we’re talking virtual billboards hovering over virtual buildings in a virtual world.
There’s one other uncanny aspect of advertising (and this goes for movies and TV too). Fake ads obnoxiously draw the eye. Two character’s drinking “Coca-Cola”? Big deal. Now I’m thirsty for a coke. Two characters drinking “Koo-Koo Cola”, though? Koo-Koo Cola? What the hell is that? Fake products break the immersion storytellers strive for. So yes, we’re actually in a position where even the storytellers themselves need our advertising to accomplish their goals. Some advertisers are already ahead of the game.
Barrack Obama, Burnout Paradise – In early October of 2008, rumors began to fly that presidential nominee Barrack Obama was advertising in a video game. People had known for some time that Obama’s campaign was courting the youth vote, but a move like this would be unprecedented. Finally it was confirmed. In the XBOX 360 game “Burnout Paradise” Barrack Obama was indeed advertising his campaign on billboards throughout the game’s race tracks. To many in the coveted youth demographic, this marked Barrack Obama as a true 21st century candidate embracing the newest technologies for reaching the voters. To heck with YouTube, THIS was the bleeding edge. Beyond that, it also sounded a wake up call for anyone who refused to accept that video games weren’t just for kids anymore. Obviously, we know the outcome. Barrack Obama won the presidency and scored huge with the youth vote.
Red Bull, Worms 3D – Virtual billboards are fine and all, but what’s even more impressive is when the advertising is built into the game itself. In 2003, Sega Europe signed a deal with Red Bull for their energy drink to actually be a power-up within the game Worms 3D. Obviously for this to be fully organic, the product and game must match, and fortunately for Red Bull, the Worms franchise was the exact kind of off-the-wall game series that could pull this off. The drawback of something like this for advertisers is it requires them to get in on the ground floor, and at that point in development there really is no indicator as to whether or not the game will be successful. Red Bull was smart enough in that they chose an already tried and true franchise to slap their brand onto. Too bad there wasn’t a company in the early 80’s who sold red and green mushrooms that could slide across the floor.
Jeep, Tony Hawk’s Project 8 – Probably one of the most clever uses of hard-coded video game advertising would be Jeep’s participation in the successful Tony Hawk skateboarding franchise. As an advertiser, it’s obvious Jeep sat down and asked, “What can we offer our target demographic for free that they would actually enjoy and use?” The answer turned out to be quite original. They had a virtual Jeep factory created that gamers could skateboard around in to their heart’s desire. Even better, Jeep obviously knew when to step aside and let the game designers do their job, as the Jeep factory is one of the best areas in the entire game. You know you’ve hit a bulls-eye when the audience you’re advertising to are actually glad you came to the party. The game would have been less without you, and you actually contributed to the fun (an area, where as we’ll see, other advertisers tend to detract).
Puma, Wipeout Pure – So is that it? Are video games the end-all cure-all for all of our advertising needs? Oh gosh no. You can definitely get it wrong… Very, very wrong. There’s a line that can be crossed. Don’t know what it is? Well you can probably go ask the nearest teenager or twenty-something year old, but here’s an easy credo to follow: “Don’t be disruptive.” The gamers will hate you for it. Coming across an ad for Nike while traversing the world of Hyboria as Conan the Barbarian is not going to endear the gamer to the Nike brand. There’s also the issue of saturation. Yes, the world is covered with billboards, but those billboards aren’t all advertising the exact SAME thing. In games, staring at the same billboard wherever one looks has the effect of making one want to rip their own eyes out. This mistake was made by Puma when they sponsored the European edition of the downloadable bonus pack for the game, “Wipeout Pure”. It’s a racing game in which every possible billboard surface, the loading screens, and even your own vehicle are covered with the Puma brand. The effect leaves you hating Puma for ruining what could have been a great bonus pack. When advertising in video games, remember that the desire of the gamer is a semblance of realism, even in a fantasy game. Don’t disrupt that. And even better, try to come up with an idea so clever and fun that the gamers don’t even mind they’re being advertised to in the first place.
Games are not the entertainment medium of the future. If it is, then the future is already here. Among the uber-consuming yet hard to reach 18-34 year old male demographic, games have already been supplanting movies and TV as their entertainment of choice for quite some time. Sure, there are those in the advertising industry who may still scream, “Video games are for kids!” and they can keep screaming until they’re extinct with all of the other dinosaurs. Video games are here to stay, the gamer culture lives, and it’s where your hard earned advertising dollars should be aimed.