In-Game Ads: Too Distracting, Or Worth The Bother?

This month, casual games took a drubbing from industry skeptics, and now it seems next on the firing line is in-game ads. Speaking at a recent conference, Wild Tangent founder Alex St. John said that in-game ads, although they're generating a lot of excitement in the market, are not especially effective ways of communicating with gamers. "And in-game advertising -- Wild Tangent has patents on it, we did it very early on... is not a very effective way because you've got to plumb the game, you've got an unproven method of measuring the value of that ad, that unit is not trackable," he said. "I came to the opinion that a lot of the in-game and some of these variations you've heard of out there -- they're a lot of work, they take too much explanation, they actually don't make sense."

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of venerable game developer Atari, made similar comments to MTV's gaming blog, Multiplayer, in April. "In-game advertising is much, much more [in your face] advertising and is more like a billboard," said Bushnell. "I don't believe those kinds of ads are very effective. In a game, if you're not riveted on the objectives, you're going to lose."

Given that both of these gentlemen now are running companies that bank on sponsored play session-style business models, where advertisers foot the bill for free casual gameplay in exchange for a brief ad during game load screens, their candid criticism of the competing in-game ad model isn't totally surprising. That said, there's definitely some legitimacy in their claims. As St. John says, in-game ads ain't easy: the groundwork for the ads must be laid during the development process, and the methods of tracking the ads are still relatively new. And as Bushnell says, in-game ads are served into fairly distracting environments, where players might be driving at 150 mph or dodging bullets, rather than standing still and looking at an in-game billboard.

But the real question is, are these challenges surmountable? Of course they are: It's only natural that, over time, the process for placing and tracking in-game ads will become more refined. The technology is still very new, and there are huge businesses like Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Sony that are committing their resources to ensuring that in-game ads are viable.

The more challenging issues to confront are the ones raised by Bushnell. Game environments are very distracting, and in-game ads must seek to overcome that challenge by becoming a part of the game environment, and not something that competes for player attention. It's absolutely essential that in-game ad creative be designed to mesh seamlessly with the in-game environment in some way, incorporating the game's characters or concepts into the brand's messaging. By working with game developers to create an ad that lives within the game world -- for instance, a Coca-Cola ad in Halo 3 that proclaims that the company honors the soldiers of the UNSC that fought in the Human-Covenant War -- rather than slapping some standard messaging on a poster or a billboard in the game world, marketers can become part of the overall gameplay experience, rather than a distraction from it.

Despite the attention and the investment the in-game ad space is receiving, there are still quite a few skeptics of the model. What's your take? Are in-game ads a good way to reach gamers, or are they too distracting from the game experience to be worthwhile?

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