I am not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in that equation. Did we undervalue mobile gaming because the medium trained us to expect a poor result, or was playing games on a phone just so ephemeral that we made do with poor play? Aside from a handful of titles over the years, some of which I have written about here, few mobile games rise above the level of ho-hum-I'll-play-it-because-I'm-bored. People played on their handsets, but most of us got by with whatever title was pre-loaded on the device. Traditional game companies kept over-shooting the mark by delivering more game than most people wanted to play or buy. Even hard-core gamers preferred the simplest mobile games. The platform and situation commanded a different experience from console, PC or even dedicated handhelds like the Nintendo DS. In theory, the mobile game situation was perfect for advertising: low-priority content that people still wanted. We like it (sort of), but don't want to pay for it. Let the advertising commence.
In my early use of ad-supported mobile games, usually Java downloads, the experience was only so-so. Generally Java downloads across multiple handsets are hit or miss. I had many games that just wouldn't load. The ad networks involved, most notably the pioneering Greystripe, would insert a full page ad or two before the game loaded and often on exit. Once you got over the technical hurdles of getting the Java game to work, the ads were relatively polite. A pop-up menu asked whether you wanted to skip or see more. Ultimately, you were opting into a highly interruptive experience.
In some versions of the model I recall getting kicked out of the game you expected to start, to go to the phone's crappy mobile Web browser to see an even crappier landing page. To make matters worse, the caliber of games in the ad-supported libraries was subprime. There were a lot of cast-offs and three-year-old retirees from the deck, along with many wannabes. As much as the theory of ad-supported gaming made sense to me, the actual execution left me cold and unhopeful.
But with the rise of open-like platforms, namely iPhone and Android, I am seeing reason for hope. Mobile game developers have been heralding the iPhone App Store as the technology and distribution bump gaming needed. The persistent success of Vivendi's Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D and indie wunderkind iShoot have become case studies for the benefits of marrying the smartphone's power with direct-to-consumer distribution and revenue models. The platform also allows for something that the standard deck rarely permitted, free demo versions. The try-before-you-buy model that built several casual PC game businesses finally comes to the handset. We may be seeing the necessary gears for a mobile gaming ecosystem (this time with the consumer included) moving together.
The greater flexibility in technology, distribution and pricing models also re-introduces the ad-supported game model in a new light. I have most of the major hot iPhone game titles on my deck, but most of them are technology showpieces for my friends or to occupy my daughter on road trips. The only game I play consistently now is an unattractive little Boggle knock-off called Word Warp that runs ads from Greystripe's app network. You form words out of six random letters in a timed session. Every ten rounds or so, the engine pops me into a full-screen ad for a range of Greystripe advertisers. Greystripe tells me that over 50% of its ad impressions are served to the iPhone now. That number alone tells you how much this Apple platform could turn around this model.
The experience is much less intrusive than on previous platforms. First, the ads do not delay the gaming experience at the start. Since mobile gaming is such a low-value, spur-of-the-moment activity to begin with, I never quite understood why an ad model would roadblock it. I guess this is where having the flexibility of a mobile application kicks in. The advertiser isn't demanding his ounce of attention span up front. Instead, he lets the user enjoy the sponsored experience before hitting her up for a cup of grey matter. This may seem like a simple thing, but other mobile marketers might take note. The halo of sponsorship expands if users are first allowed to enjoy the content they are getting for free, before their benefactor enters the picture.
And I cannot say enough about the importance of keeping the sponsor's landing page within the content experience. The game has its own mobile Web browser built in, so I am much more willing to click into an ad unit to see more. I know that I am not ending the game experience or kicking up a separate process. I think that it makes perfect sense for mobile advertising to follow the model of magazine ads rather than TV or Web spots. Being able to back out of the ad and drop right back into the game not only makes me feel friendlier about the ad model in the game, but makes it more likely for me to click at all. Now I can experiment with an ad.
Ad-supported games are getting my attention because I think the technology and the ad models are more respectful of users. But I think we should use the flexibility of the mobile app to go a step further. I would like to see in this model an ad history. What was the GoDaddy offer again?
In many ways the digital ad network model devalues advertising from the user's perspective just as it tends to commoditize it for marketers. By automatically feeding ads into the empty spaces of content, aren't marketers admitting that their own messages are disposable, probably unwelcome? Wouldn't the entire mobile ecosystem benefit if we move from an "ad-supported" model to a "sponsor-supported" model? Why not have a link to "Our sponsors" that would be a history of recently served ads into an app like this? Doesn't that arrangement better ratify the model we say we follow, that sponsors underwrite the content experiences we love? If advertising learns to respect not only users but even itself, imagine the creative executions that might follow.