Arguably, the model is already here, and its most visible portion is not doing very well. Preceding every summer weekend, a quick look at your phone deck's "What's New" section brings another crappy game tie-in with next weekend's box-office hopeful. And for the most part, the games are crappy indeed. Last summer did get the playable "War of the Worlds" mobile game, but most others (even a "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" title) were instantly forgettable.
Both developers and content brokers tell me that these titles tend to come late in the film development cycle and usually retro-fit an existing engine with the film theme. Typically, they come out of development late and get rushed through testing and approval by carriers who are becoming increasingly impatient with the process and quality.
There have also been a handful of branded driving, biking, and golf games in the European mobile market from Ford and BMW. Of course the sports media companies, ESPN, Fox, etc. already have their own mobile game lines, and there is a Calloway series of mobile golf games, and the occasional branded game from sports accessory brands.
But the next evolution in mobile games marketing (or at least an attempt at it) will be dynamically served in-game advertising. That's right sports fans, you will be biking around a race track on your phone, crash on the side of the road and receive a marketing message that perhaps you should have used Saucony shoes? Or maybe you need a break? Go see "SpiderMan 5" this weekend. In fact, just that sort of thing is already being done. MauiGames released a K-2 Bike game in Europe that included Saucony and zeal Optics ads. It is working on a Hawaii Golf Challenge game for release later this year with the Maui Visitors Bureau and Kapalua and Kaanapali golf courses as in-game sponsors. "For in-game we invented nine different types of ads," says David Fradin, MauiGames CEO. A proprietary ad serving technology can send updated ad images into these placeholders every time a gamer opens the game. "We've been getting $25 CPMs," he says.
MauiGames and new partner PerTech Group are already shopping around the in-game mobile ad network idea to agencies. They won't be alone for long, as agencies themselves tell me that the existing PC-based in-game networks are talking about extending dynamic ad serving to mobile games.
Will it work? Well, the jury is still out on dynamic in-game advertising, generally because it has been slow to ramp up. There are loads of case studies and branding studies from networks like Massive and DoubleFusion, to be sure. But in real-world use, agencies complain of limited title availability and reach on the PC platform, and it is unclear how or whether these ad networks will tap into the mother lode, connected video game consoles.
Handhelds present a host of unique problems, not the least of which is maintaining format and technical compatibility for ad insertions among the hundreds of potential handset models. Likewise, finding ways to offer genuine impact on such a small screen will be a challenge. Some developers are considering interstitial ad units that occupy space while the game downloads or loads up new levels. Others, like MauiGames, are playing with clever integrations like crash screens that have contextually relevant messaging. Finally, I have no doubt that companies like MauiGames will face the same issues with the carriers that current in-game networks like Massive and DoubleFusion are about to face with the Xbox Live and Playstation 3 networks: the owners of the pipes will demand their cut, and so we may be waiting for everyone to settle on a model.
And while I am piling on the caveats, let me add that mobile gaming is not a particularly immersive experience with a lot of integration opportunities. I am not sure that an in-game mobile ad has quite the same natural quality as in-game placements in traditional platforms. The supposed "beauty" of in-game brand placement is that many gamers feel it adds to the realism of a game to see identifiable brands in natural places like billboards or half-time event sponsorships. A mobile game ad will have to be more in-your-face just to be seen, and so it has to be more obvious about itself.
All that said, the most promising part of advergaming and in-game placements on mobile is that gamers probably will welcome sponsor underwriting if it gets them a free game. While mobile game sales are accelerating (starting from near-zero, of course), there is a lot of evidence that these are low-involvement content purchases and that most mobile players prefer not paying for games. Here is a golden opportunity for sponsors to step in with ad-supported titles or free, branded advergames. Development cost is relatively low on these titles. As the mobile networks open up, off-portal distribution will let the sponsor distribute the game via its own channels and not have to worry about the carrier insisting on carrying only fee-based goods that give the operator its cut.
This is also an opportunity for agencies to think outside their usual advergaming boxes and leverage the "look at this" quality of mobile content. Last year advergame maker Skyworks, along with Agency.com, SMG Play and Starcom IP launched the Miller Lite Beer Run game online that mimicked the TV ad campaign, and it got millions of downloads from major portals. Imagine if that had also been on our phones. "Hey, Jim, ya gotta see this!"
And there is an important lesson in the "Beer Run" success. It was a marginal gaming experience that was made enjoyable because it extended a familiar media experience in creative directions. It was more if a media remix. I would like to see the model for mobile advergaming take this sort of turn. Imagine if Hollywood started doing the right thing and gave away their bad mobile games? I'd be willing to try a "Mr and Mrs. Smith" game if it were free and if the expectations on both maker and consumer's parts were nominal. I would go to such a game not so much for a rich gaming experience, but to see an attractive media property extended in a different way.
Rather than recreate the advergaming model on mobile, maybe we should reimagine and remix it.