I was at a Silicon Valley IGDA meeting last night, and the topic of advertising came up, and it’s been sitting on my mind. Let’s talk about it. TV lives on advertising. Websites live on advertising. Magazines and newspapers are full of advertising. Phone books are almost entirely advertising. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that it’s the most widespread method of content monetization in the world.
It’s much rarer in games. When you do see ads, they fall into two general categories: Ad banners and video ads. Ad banners don’t really make much money. People have been trained to ignore them from years of internet usage, and they rarely click through.
Video ads pop up in plenty of mobile games, but the strange thing is, they only ever advertise other mobile games. Stranger still, they often advertise games that belong to competitors. That seems short-sighted, since you’re presenting your players with your competitors’ games. That aside, though, advertisers are missing out on an opportunity. Many mobile games are integrated with Facebook, and advertisers can get loads of information to tailor their ads to those players.
I realize that video advertisements are seen kind of annoying. Ads break the flow and pull you out of the experience. However, when it comes to TV, we put up with it. Why is that? My speculation is that this is because TV shows build the ads into their flow, pausing at dramatically appropriate moments. It’s my belief that if games want to use video ads, they need to work them into the design.
Game experiences are heavily reliant on pacing and flow management, and AdventureQuest Worlds discovered a unique method of integrated advertising into that pacing and flow. When you die in that game, players have to watch a short ad. What a clever idea! You usually want a small break after a player dies in the game, a moment to let the death sink in. That’s a moment when a player is highly engaged with the game, so their attention is at a high point. It’s prime temporal real estate for an advertisement! Not one that’s too long, but it’s a good spot nonetheless, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more games try to emulate this.
There are also games like the now-defunct Sims Social, which had events advertising real world products. This had the benefit of integrating the game into the world itself and creating a limited-time event item. Ads can’t always be tailored specifically for games like this, but it might be the ideal way of integrating advertising with a game.
With all that said, if a viable method were found to support a game entirely through advertising, in-app purchases could afford to become less central to a free game’s design. Sure, in-app purchases might still exist, but the entirety of the game would no longer have to be chained to the habits of the 1% of players who pay money. Free to play games are often accused of being exploitative and soulless, and many of those accusations are based around the in-app purchase monetization model built around this 1% of players. I think there’s certainly a place for in-app purchases in game design, but if companies could discover how to elegantly integrate advertising and monetize the 99% of players who don’t pay, then the game could be designed without the assumption that in-app purchases are its lifeblood.
Unfortunately, the situation right now is tricky. Advertisers aren’t making ads for games, and people who make games with in-app purchases are wary of experimenting with them, and rightly so: It’s hard enough to get players and convert them to paying players. Why take a huge risk, show them ads, and drive them away from the game?
Eventually, someone’s going to figure it out, but let’s not be passive about this. This isn’t just about making money. It’s about freeing designers and giving them more creative flexibility to create better games.