Column: Targeting -- Virtual Worlds, Real Money

Entertainment is a strange affair, and gaming is downright peculiar. More than 30 million gamers immerse themselves in make-believe worlds and call themselves “residents,” and millions more engage in arcade-type action games. Both residents and arcade players project their personalities into digital characters called “avatars” and talk about going “in world.” It is, in short, a deeply immersive affair. While the business of make-believe has been around for ages, newer digital incarnations continually surprise us with richer worlds.

Most players typically have a favorite game and spend 30 hours a week “in world.” Since many of the players work full-time, this constitutes a major portion of their weekly entertainment. In a marketing world where everyone is searching for engagement, games offer an opportunity for immersive experiences with passionate, committed residents and players.

The digital gaming business is big and growing fast with these two basic media: arcade-like action games and big multiplayer online role-playing games — a.k.a.  MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games — in which hundreds of people interact and socialize in synthetic online worlds.

The global arcade medium pulled in $26.5 billion in sales in 2005 and is projected to grow to $35.7 billion by 2010, according to DFC Intelligence. The MMORPG medium saw $2 billion in 2005 sales and is projected to grow to $6.3 billion by 2010. Together, these gaming media will approach the sales of the recorded music industry by 2008. The numbers represent game sales and subscriptions, and don’t reflect the incremental potential of advertising dollars.

For a taste of just how immersive MMORPGs are, look at the secondary markets of buying and selling game money and other virtual items such as magic wands, spaceships, and armor on trading sites like eBay — using real money. Those sales reached $30 million in the United States in 2004 and $100 million worldwide, according to Edward Castronova’s book Synthetic Worlds.

Traditional advertising has existed in digital sports games for years in the form of billboards. The big question is how to incorporate further advertising without it feeling contrived, and in a way that engages intensely involved gamers. Keith Blanchard, former Maxim editor, views arcade games as the new magazine format, and he tested this theory with Kuma Reality Games. Blanchard’s first game is about time-traveling hunters with modern weapons who hunt prehistoric animals for the fictional Total Hunting Channel. The game makes the hunters responsible for filming commercials to keep their Total Hunting Channel in business.

Burger King took a more direct route, turning its iconic King into a slasher to engage arcade gamers. It seems to be a gripping game, though one wonders about image this projects. Maybe the chain’s private equity owners, who are in the process of cashing in through an Initial Public Offering, aren’t worried about the long-term effects. While the opportunity for engagement is great, marketers can’t afford to throw brand management entirely out the window.

MMORPGs offer alternative advertising opportunities. Users inhabit such worlds in the guise of video game characters. These avatars develop attributes, powers, and virtual wealth through many hours of playing. Their value is real enough, as actual dollars are spent in marketplaces like eBay to buy and sell them. If advertising is so pervasive in real life, then it’s only a matter of time before the business thrives in the alternative world of synthetic MMORPGs.

One such world is “EverQuest,” where one of the coveted items is “flying ale,” which allows the game’s digital characters to fly from place to place. Imagine if Sam Adams sponsored the flying ale: As a marketer, Sam Adams could negotiate an “in-content” deal that builds Sam Adams attributes into the game experience. Nike might sponsor shoes with special attributes or powers. The association of technology names with powers feels like a natural fit as well.

These are simple back-of-the-napkin ideas. The opportunity in virtual worlds is to invite consumers into immersive experiences where they can interact with brands.


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