Simple To Learn, Hard To Master

Electronic gaming gets a massive share of our interactive media time, and yet after all of these years it still doesn’t get our respect. The time and money spent on this still new media form is staggering. Hotly anticipated releases can easily out-gross a blockbuster film’s box office take, but advertisers still struggle to figure out how to draft on that energy. Most major forms of digital gaming are now running on the same network that serves highly targeted ads into every other manner of media content. And back in the day I covered many attempts to feed brand presence dynamically into games much the way display ads are pumped into browsers. Companies like Massive and Double Fusion were supposed to revolutionize the monetization of games.

And then we get the occasional business story that reminds us just how big gaming is and how little we grasp its role in American life. The emergence of Twitch and the jockeying to buy the streaming game video service for about $1 billion seemed to befuddle a lot of people. Really? People spend hours watching live streams of other people playing video games. But it isn’t as if people in the media world don’t acknowledge the scale of the gaming industry. They just don’t know exactly what to do with it. Sure, marketers align themselves with games by sponsoring add-ons, live events, and the mountain of gaming sites out there.

But because of its unique interactive nature, gaming has eluded the more familiar advertising formats. This is not a medium that tolerates interruption. The very thing that makes gaming so attractive potentially to advertisers, the passion of its devotees, also makes advertising into it so hard. You can’t endear yourselves to people by yanking them out of the thing they love.

The mobile arena has tried to introduce rewards-based interruptive advertising in-game. And arguably, these models have some role. People like free, and so there is a willingness to trade small interruptions for continued play. In just a few short years the dominant business model for games has shifted from fee based to ad-supported freemium. A recent report from Juniper argues that the explosion in mobile game revenues comes at a cost to traditional consoles, whose market is shrinking. They predict that console games will leverage connectivity and new models to embrace mobile models like free to play.

But the transformation of gaming media at the hands of mobile experiences is indicative of a larger shift that mobile presses upon all media. As we see people interact with media formats on a much more individual and personal level via apps and devices, we also see their true need and desire for media surface more clearly. Many online publishers spent a decade building enormous, deep troves of content on the "more is more" principle. But as they watched users engaging with their sites on the go, many content providers were astonished at how little these visitors used, the narrow paths they took, the simplicity they wanted. And just as many of us predicted years ago, mobile experiences are now informing and setting the pace for all digital media. Less finally is more.

At the D.I.C.E. interactive entertainment conference in Europe this week, EA Chief Creative Officer Richard Hilleman made a candid admission about how the console gaming industry was caught off guard by gamer passion for mobile. As reported at, he said, "We've asked for too much time, too much skill, and too much money, sometimes all at once."

In the course of making his comments, Hilleman perhaps overstepped by insulting famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto by claiming he fell down on the job. And getting a bit more randomly crude. “And for the past five years that job has been taken over by a dead guy from Cupertino.” I guess he means the late Steve Jobs, who didn’t like gaming much himself and whose company never made a game. but you get the drift. Mobile taught everyone in the industry that they had over-complicated their products as they catered to a core of enthusiasts and ceded a much larger potential market to a burgeoning smartphone app community that had no choice but to design simple and direct. They didn’t have those console-grade $50 million budgets needed to really screw things up.

Mobile introduces a ruthless efficiency to media…and necessary humility. If nothing else, digital channels forced media to understand that people loved media experiences -- not the providers of them. By controlling the limited gateways to media via TV, film, magazine, and radio, media conglomerates operated under the delusion that people loved them because consumers spent so much time with them. But as soon as media consumers had a choice…or countless choices…it was clear how little brand loyalty there is to the vast majority of media brands.

Hilleman thinks big game companies can win their customers back if they embrace some of the free-to-play business models and user-gen content channels that mobile and social gaming have introduced. Well, maybe. I am not sure how media build brands in this environment. I know they all like to lean on the “content is always king” trope, but I am less confident that the signals of quality content are as visible or as valued in this environment. There is a disposability built into an app economy of a million choices. Do users even stick around most media brands long enough to discern quality? For a decade I watched traditional media companies throw effort and good design, UI chops into lovely digital sites, magazines and apps that no one used. Instead they embraced lower-quality sources and aggregators that got the jump on old media in distribution, sheer volume, or crafty link-baiting.  

It seems to me that one of the real challenges for any media company in the fragmented future is discovering what a media brand looks like in this environment. Can this new world even support media branding at all when the experience with any one provider’s content is so fleeting? 

3 comments about "Simple To Learn, Hard To Master".
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  1. Matt Collins from Simulmedia, August 27, 2014 at 9:31 a.m.

    On the issue of whether in-game advertising has a future, I do think in-game ads can work, but not as currently imagined. Logging a meaningful ad impression while not diverting a game player is tough but not unsolvable. As to whether media brands can establish loyalty in an era of millions of choices made possible by mobile's lower barriers to entry, I think the answer clearly is "yes," but not based on the brand alone. iTunes is a media brand with enviable loyalty that is a product primarily of customers having spent in some cases a small fortune on music that they are reluctant to abandon by switching. Increasing switching costs strikes me as the easiest way to establish loyalty for media companies. As with in-game advertising, this is a tough but not impossible nut to crack.

  2. Adam Hartung from spark partners, August 27, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.

    Can you provide a link to any stats or charts demonstrating the transition of gaming to mobile from console? I don't doubt your claim, but it would help to get a sense of the scale of the change and speed. Thank you.

  3. Steve Smith from Mediapost, August 27, 2014 at 3:21 p.m.

    Adam, Juniper in the same report indicates declining console sales.

    Console sales declining

    Also DFC Intelligence cited that while PC and console will grow ove rtime, mobile is the growth dirver and will eventually grab half the market.

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